From our Executive Director, Dr. Todd Kincaid
July 2015, on the working deck of the r/v Baseline Explorer. Divers are coming back aboard from a survey of algae on the coral reefs off the coast of Hollywood, Florida adjacent to one of five sewage outfalls where nutrient-loaded wastewater is dumped a mile or less offshore in southeast Florida – out of sight, out of mind. Most of the crew is busy retrieving submersibles that have carried a journalist from Slate Magazine and Dr. Brian Lapointe from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute down to the reef and the outfall to observe and report on the devastating consequences of eutrophication – more on this in our next newsletter. While all this is happening, my 7-year old daughter Ginnie and my wife Kristie are observing from the upper deck where they can be mostly out of the way. Kristie recalls Ginnie giving her a serious look and saying, “Mommy, I’m not going to see the beautiful coral reefs like daddy did when he was young, am I?”
Kristie had to tell her “probably not” and that even if people decide to stop the pollution and allow the reef to recover, it may not come back in her lifetime. A little while later, in the midst of the ongoing action on the back deck, Kristie was preparing to depart the ship and describing her sad conversation with Ginnie to me. While filming the action unfolding on the deck, Doug Brandon, our Rockstar volunteer journalist/social media reporter, overheard our discussion and interrupted to say we should get that on film. With little time to think it over, we decided to go for it but without Kristie because she had to leave.
After Ginnie and I waved goodbye to Kristie, 6-foot 4-inch “Big Doug” pointed the camera in Ginnie’s face for a close up and asked her to repeat the story she told her mom about the reef. See the result for yourself if you like on YouTube. Kristie assures me that it was far more moving the first time around.
This story and Ginnie’s interview came to mind while watching 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s impassioned and moving speech to the United Nations on September 23 about the failure of my generation to take action on climate change and our culpability for the mess her generation, Ginnie’s generation more or less, will be left to clean up or live within. Seeing Greta’s speech at the UN compelled me to follow a thread through some of her other speeches and interviews, and ultimately to focus this 1st installment of our newsletter on the history and reasons for starting Project Baseline.
Thinking back to 2015, I remember that Kristie and I struggled with the decision to use Ginnie’s video. We didn’t – and don’t – want to exploit our child to further our cause, no matter how earnest we believe our goals and intentions to be. Turns out, both the regular and social media feeds are replete with all manners of voices accusing Greta’s parents of manipulating and exploiting her to further their own agendas. Maybe so, but my experiences with Ginnie suggest otherwise.
On that very hot afternoon in July 2015, Ginnie’s speech, her 1st one anyway, was entirely unsolicited. She spoke spontaneously and from her own experience. Experience she gained by diving herself, with me of course, on what’s left of Florida’s coral reef in Ft. Lauderdale earlier that year. Experiences she gained quietly, mostly quiet anyway, by my side in countless scientific labs, meetings, and public events over most of her life, as well as the fewer but probably more impactful times she worked alongside exceptionally patient and generous scientists as they parsed, cataloged, and described countless coral and algae samples we’d retrieved on previous Project Baseline missions. Experiences she gained by nearly memorizing countless books, at least the pictures and names, about corals and sharks, whales and dolphins, and the oceans of our world.
In the end, Kristie and I chose to share Ginnie’s video for the same reasons that I believe Greta’s message has been so impactful and moving. It’s simple and honest and undeniable. We are passing along to the next generations, to our children, a world that is vastly less healthy and less populated with the wonderous life that I and so many other scuba divers like me have been fortunate enough to see and experience and be inspired by. Greta’s message and Ginnie’s message underscore the purpose for Project Baseline’s mission – to leave the world as close to how we found it as possible, hopefully even better.
My passion for Project Baseline was born of my personal confrontation with a collapsing environment, which occurred on an unexpectedly emotional level one day in 2003 or 2004. I had been away from north-central Florida springs for nearly 10 years during which time, I’d been telling my girlfriend, who became my wife, about the deep beauty of Florida’s springs. I’d painted a picture for her of one in particular, Troy Spring on the Suwannee River, which I considered potentially my favorite natural place on Earth. That day, we visited Troy Spring by boat having come up river from the confluence with the Santa Fe River. After tying up to one of the iconic cypress tree knees that line most of Florida’s rivers, we slid over the side of the boat and swam up the run to the spring basin with mask, fins, and snorkel.
As we crossed the threshold of the spring run into the deeper basin, I expected to see a nearly cylindrical shaft punching 80+ feet (24+ meters) into Ocala Limestone filled with water so transparent that its presence is nearly imperceptible; a giant iridescent blue gem glowing in the surrounding woodlands created by sunlight refracting through the water column off of clean white rock walls; the picture I’d painted for Kristie countless times over the previous years. Instead, I encountered a foreign landscape; a dark green pool surrounded by rock walls covered with thick green and black algae, filled with towers of the same algae rising from an imperceptible depth; mats of dead or dying algae floating with us on the surface emitting a wretched stench of decay.
After staring in confusion and disbelief for what seemed like an eternity, I looked up to see Kristie struggling to find the words to tell me she wanted to leave my favorite place on Earth before too much of it stuck to her skin. This place that I’d swam and dived in too many times to count as a boy and young adult had so completely changed that it was essentially unrecognizable; it had transformed from diamond to dung in less than the 10 years I’d been away. As an environmental scientist, I was intimately familiar with contaminated waters, but nothing I’d seen or studied prepared me for the way I felt that day as the reality of this new era we live in invaded my mind.
As if to add insult to injury, I overheard an older couple apparently traveling to Florida from up north, comment about how beautiful the green water appeared. At that moment, I realized that the environmental problems I’d decided to dedicate my career to confronting were vastly different than I’d previously conceived. I knew that the algae and bacteria we were swimming in stemmed from nutrient pollution most likely from the new dairies and other feedlots that were moving into that region of Florida. Until that moment though, I had taken for granted the ability to discern clean from dirty, healthy from polluted, beautiful from disgusting.
Listening to those people as I swam in between tiny islands of rotting algae made me realize that the biggest problem we must confront would not be the technical issues of nutrient loading and management. Instead, the it would be the dwindling political will to fight. It became clear that there will be more and more people like the couple at the overlook developing their own interpretation of “beautiful” and “healthy” in the absence of fixed baselines; and fewer and fewer people like me who have the personal historical experience to create some reasonably accurate definition of those abstract conditions.
My memories of that day have stayed with me, in vivid clarity for the ~15 years since and were ever present during the 10+ years that my friends and I were engaged in the effort at Wakulla Springs to map the caves and sources of the water feeding that magnificent spring, truly one of the wonders of the natural world. The work we did at Wakulla, though mostly triggered by its own distressing problems with algae and hydrilla, like but not as bad as the transformation of Troy spring, has been some of the most rewarding of my career.
From 2002 to 2007, we were engaged in what seemed like a chain reaction of extraordinary diving and scientific feats. While my team and I used fluorescent dyes to define flow paths and groundwater travel times across progressively longer distances and from points of increasing significance to Wakulla’s problems, my friends in the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP) were exploring the caves at Wakulla and Leon Sinks to greater and greater distances. Together, we were literally mapping all the routes water takes on its journey from rain to spring flow in the Big Bend region of north Florida, and evolving our collective understanding of hydrogeology along the way. The work during this period involved too many people to count: divers, scientists, environmentalists, park rangers, regulators, businesses, and regular people who volunteered to help collect samples and make observations over countless days and nights in between their regular obligations and activities.
The culmination of this effort came in the form of two nearly simultaneous monumental achievements. One occurred in 2007 when Jarrod Jablonski and Casey McKinlay swam between Turner Sink and Wakulla Spring, traversing some 7 miles (>11 km) of underwater cave at depths of between 280 and 300 feet (85 and 90 meters), and forever changing the way people in Tallahassee think about their water in the process. The other occurred only a little before when fluorescent dye that my team and I injected into wells at the City of Tallahassee’s wastewater spray field arrived at Wakulla Spring some 55 days later definitively ending all debate as to the source of the nutrient loading that was killing the spring.
While all of the exploration, mapping, and tracing were taking place, we were also undertaking a persistent effort to engage the public, show them what lies beneath the ground they walk every day, and where the water they drink and recreate in comes from. Those endeavors occurred largely at the bequest of two friends and colleagues, Jim Stevenson founder of the Florida Springs Task Force and Sandy Cook supervising ranger at Wakulla Springs State Park. What started as presentations at the yearly Wakulla Wildlife Festival, evolved into repeated engagements at churches, schools, government agencies, and county commission and city planning meetings, and ultimately standing room only public events. The public response was quite literally overwhelming. Our work was covered in all forms of print, TV and radio media across the State.
It is tempting and would be very easy to describe the many forms of work that took place at Wakulla during that period as parts of a larger plan with clear goals and objectives laid out from the beginning. Though it would certainly make the story easier to tell, telling it that way would be disingenuous, and worse, undermine the most valuable lesson I learned from the experience. In reality, we were all following what seemed at the time to be erratic and disconnected paths. My team and I joked privately that our work would persist right up to the end of our first failed trace. My friends in the WKPP fought against persistent disappointments created by dead-end tunnels and others that kept leading them in the wrong directions. At the State, my colleagues fought to build and keep the budgets and political allies needed to keep the work we were doing advancing in the right direction. And, especially at the beginning, meager attendance at public events, for which many people invested heavily, hardly inspired repeat performances.
I’m confident that everyone involved would, at this point in time, say that their investments and sacrifices were worth every penny and every minute. I know I do. At a cost of nearly a quarter billion dollars, the City of Tallahassee has constructed and operates one of the most efficient wastewater treatment systems on the planet. The City, surrounding counties, and the State have all enacted revised land use ordinances and programs aimed solely at restoring and protecting the water quality at Wakulla Spring. And, spring water quality has improved. Nutrient loads have fallen. There is less algae. Native species that had not been seen in years, the Apple Snail and the Limpkin long considered iconic symbols of Wakulla Spring, have returned. The spring is far from safe but Wakulla is unarguably a prettier and healthier place today than it was when the collective effort to protect it began.
With the gift of hindsight, I’ve come to believe that the most important component of that protection effort was public engagement. As attendance grew, we all drew energy from the public’s response, good and bad. I firmly believe that it was also the public response that fostered and sustained the fiscal and political commitment to continue the work. Publicity and public response validated personal investments of time and money, both of which were tremendous for many people in the WKPP. They also opened the doors to more ambitious scientific objectives, bigger, longer and more risky but consequential tracer tests, as well as an expansive network of hydrologic meters ultimately deployed across the Woodville Karst Plain in caves, rivers, springs, and sinkholes. Finally, the public’s response and interest made it increasingly hard for the ever-present naysayers to stop our work before it reached its ultimate success.
A couple years later, my memories of Troy Spring juxtaposed against our successes at Wakulla Spring inspired a conversation between Jarrod Jablonski and I about Global Underwater Explorer’s conservation pillar and what we could do better to foster the protection of underwater environments. As we lamented the changes we’d seen in the places we grew up diving some 30 years earlier, we realized that ours was the same conversation we’d heard so many years earlier from older divers we were so eager to follow and surpass. It became clear that, without some fundamental change, our memories would likely be no more meaningful to younger divers than our predecessor’s memories were to us.
Perhaps, we contemplated, the needed change could follow, hopefully more directly, the path that led us and our friends and colleagues to success at Wakulla Spring. As we dissected our work, it became increasingly clear that success at Wakulla stemmed ultimately from divers’ passion to explore the underwater world and share what they saw with the broader public. Replicating the outcomes from Wakulla and the way in which those outcomes were inspired by divers would surely, we thought, be a worthy contribution to conservation. It wasn’t long after that conversation that we launched Project Baseline. It’s only taken me 10 years to tell the story of where and why it started…
In the broadest sense, success at Wakulla grew from five steps taken by one or more divers over the course of the effort; five steps that have become the core components of Project Baseline.
- They chose to get involved – to pursue more than just the dive regardless of how rewarding the dive itself would be.
- They chose to contribute – to return something tangible from each dive rather that be a revision to the cave map, video and photos of otherwise unseen places, or samples collected for scientists.
- They chose to engage the community – to share their unique perspectives on the spring environment that only divers and cave explorers could provide.
- They chose to collaborate – to use their unique skills and access to help me or other scientists achieve their goals; to subjugate, in effect, some of their diving objectives to other people.
- They chose to speak out – to become advocates for the protection of Wakulla Spring.
Some ten years later, though the Project Baseline endeavor has grown to include hundreds of divers across the globe, 43 countries and counting, and many of our teams have had great success in their areas, I know that we haven’t yet reached our potential. I fear that many of us struggle to remain inspired and to keep trying. I know I do. It’s in those times that I try to remember the difficulties we faced at Wakulla, the valleys between the peaks, and that none of the successes could have been achieved without also having to endure the hardships and uncertainties and overcome the self-doubt.
I can imagine, but cannot know of course, that young Greta Thunberg must struggle, or at least have struggled, with the same types of problems. It must have been difficult for her to imagine that skipping school to protest government inaction on climate change could have catapulted her into such international attention as she is currently receiving. At a much smaller level, I know that in 1999 or 2000, when Casey McKinlay and I began making presentations at the yearly Wakulla Wildlife Festival, I didn’t imagine that our love for the caves and the spring would lead to all that we and so many that joined us were able to achieve. Looking forward though, I can and do imagine how each and every Project Baseline team can, by following the five steps we stumbled through during our work in the Woodville Karst Plain, achieve as much or more for their underwater backyards as we did for Wakulla, perhaps even as much as Greta is achieving for climate change.
I am encouraged by what seems to be a swelling public concern for and focus on environmental quality. I hope its genuine and lasting. I am concerned however by an emerging meme that marginalizes the value of personal contributions in favor of sweeping policy changes intended to fix our problems from the top down. Though I’m as excited by the concept of a new green economy as any of my friends and colleagues, I’m also convinced that no policy, program, proclamation, or regulation, no matter how well intended and expertly designed, can survive without the public’s support. I am convinced that our successes at Wakulla were only possible because of the public support garnered by connecting people with the underwater world of which they were totally blind but on which they were, and are, critically dependent. I am also convinced that no marine protected area, conservation land, state or national park can survive in the absence of public support, likely local public support, for its existence.
Thomas Edison once said that “vision without execution is merely hallucination.” If restoring and protecting the underwater world is our shared “vision,” then the five components of Project Baseline certainly constitutes one form of “execution” that we can all achieve. Famous naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough has said that “no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” If he’s right, consider how difficult it will be to substantively protect the underwater world when so very few people have ever, or will ever have any personal experience in it. Consider then, how critically important divers’ passion and observations can be if their shared with those of us who will never see beneath the waves in a manner than inspires compassion for a world they will never see for themselves.
Facilitating this type of sharing is Project Baseline’s reason for being. Recording what we see underwater such that we help to fix “baselines” to underwater environments that are more meaningful and lasting than memories is the first step. Engaging the public and sharing our passion and observations of the underwater world we love must be our ultimate objective. We must believe that restoring and protecting that world will be the outcome.
As a parting thought, I’ll share one more inspiration I’ve gleaned from reading about the good works of others. In a biography about Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, regarded as the father of the US nuclear navy, there is a passage that describes President Jimmy Carter’s interview with the Admiral during his application for the nuclear submarine program as a young lieutenant fresh from the Naval Academy. Carter was asked if “he had always done his best” in finishing an impressive 59th in his class of 820. When, after some hesitation, Carter responded “No Sir,” Rickover, after some pause, asked “Why not?” Carter has apparently never been able to answer that question.
As divers, we may not be able to render the key data or observations no matter how profound and unique that saves the underwater world we love so dearly. In the end, we can only do our best to make a difference. If we consistently do our best and do it collectively, speaking as a global force with a common voice, our “best” can very well be what’s needed to restore and protect the type of world we want to live in.
- 2015. YouTube, Project Baseline. Interview with Ginnie Kincaid aboard the r/v Baseline Explorer.
- 2019. YouTube, Vice News, United Nations. Greta Thunberg speech to the United Nations.
- 2019. Global News. Greta Thunberg wins “Alternative Nobel” prize.
- 2019. GUE-Quest, vol. 20, no. 3. The Power of Connection: The WKPP’s Exploration of the Wakulla-Leon Sinks Cave System.
- 2011. Research Gate, FGS. Demonstrating interconnection between a wastewater application facility and a first magnitude spring in a karstic watershed: Tracer study of the Southeast Farm Wastewater Reuse Facility Tallahassee, Florida.