Stony Brook’s Safina witnesses trash, bears in Alaska

Stony Brook’s Safina witnesses trash, bears in Alaska

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While tourists cruised along the Alaska coastline in June to see whales, sled dogs and glaciers, Carl Safina journeyed by boat through some of the state’s less-traveled regions in search of garbage.

The acclaimed author, ecologist and Stony Brook research professor joined a crew for a project called Gyre. The trip enabled participants to witness the trash that litters the shoreline, threatening wildlife.

The Gyre project, named for the rotating ocean currents, also included artists who collected trash they will use as part of a traveling art exhibition.

“It’s mainly a visibility raising effort,” said Safina, a MacArthur “genius” fellowship recipient. “It’s a way of showing people that, not only is garbage a problem where people live, but it is also a problem where animals live and where people go for natural beauty.”

While the waste in Alaska included consumer items like plastics that he sees near his Amagansett home, it also had more industrial pieces, including commercial fishing and shipping gear.

“There appears to be little concerted effort to find and track down the origin of this stuff,” Safina said. “Is it an accident or is it being dumped? A larger portion of the effort should go towards eliminating the problem.”

The Gyre team removed about four tons of trash.

Still, as he tends to do in his books, which include “Song for the Blue Ocean” and “Eye of the Albatross,” Safina didn’t fixate on the negative during his Alaska trip.

There was less and different trash than he was expecting, he said. The trash also seemed to collect in protected, calmer areas, unable to cling to the faster moving water near more dynamic cliffs.

He reveled in the opportunity to observe a grizzly bear with her three cubs for over an hour. The bear came within 20 yards of the group.

“I have enough experience with wildlife to have a sense that she was completely relaxed,” he said. “I love the proximity of it.”

Safina said the trip didn’t come at a particularly good time for him, because he is researching and writing his latest book, which is about the cognitive experiences of animals.

“This project was important enough to be worth that interruption,” he said.

While Safina has lobbied to protect the environment, helping to pass a United Nations Global Fisheries Treaty, he has transitioned to being more of a writer and witness.

“I was a plaintiff” on lawsuits in the 1990s, he said. “I hope what I do [now] inspires other people to do the kinds of things I was doing.”

Hope is an important part of his passion.

“He points out all the things that are wrong with what we do, but his final take on everything, his final philosophy, is a positive one,” said Jean Naggar, Safina’s literary agent at her eponymous agency.

A co-chair for the steering committee for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Safina teaches a course for graduate students.

“He’s a great example of a person who can interweave factual material with an ability to tell memorable stories,” Elizabeth Bass, the director of the center. He is a “very inspirational figure” for his students.

Safina blends science with art, Bass said. A percussionist who worked his way through the State University of New York at Purchase playing drums, Safina mixes an appreciation for nature and the environment with disappointment, frustration and a call to action.

“Not many scientists are comfortable talking about beauty in the way that [he] is,” said Bass.

In a class they teach together, Safina and Bass challenge students to think about their audience, asking them to define gravity in a lecture or by telling a story.

Safina, who hosts a PBS series, “Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina,” lives with his partner Patricia Paladines, who works as a program officer at Centre ValBio, a Stony Brook research facility. An avid fisherman, Safina rarely orders anything from a restaurant if he has to worry about its origin.

“The last time I had clams,” he said, “I dug them myself.”

Naggar, who admires his “lyrical” writing and calls him a “scientist with a heart,” said she has become more careful about restaurant fish, too.

As for his work, Safina said most people look at a bird or a deer and think of those animals as not other than people. “I see them really quite a lot like I see other people.”