Living A Dream and Making A Difference!
Every day Is Earth Day!
Article and Photos By Jeff Pantukhoff
Earth Day . . . a day that comes just once a year in April. A day when we focus on how we can take better care of the Earth, our home, which is also home to all other living things with which we share this beautiful blue planet. But as you look around, it becomes obvious that we are not taking care of our home, our Earth. We are polluting her air. There is a huge hole in the ozone layer. We are polluting her rivers and oceans. The polar icecaps are melting. We are clear-cutting her forests and over fishing her seas. The extinction rate is at an all-time high. We are methodically and ruthlessly consuming all her natural resources while poisoning the very things we all require to live: our air, water, land, and food.
All of which brings us to one simple conclusion. We are systematically poisoning and killing ourselves, yet we continue to go on with our everyday lives like it's no big deal, like somehow we are above it all, and that is the very core of our problem here on Earth. We have forgotten that all things are connected and believe instead that we have dominion over all things on Earth. This has led us to become takers instead of being the caretakers of our planet and our "so-called" dominion is literally killing us along with every other living thing on our planet.
How can we prevent this? I believe the answer is simple. We need to remember we are not above it all, but that we are a part of it all. We are part of the animal kingdom, we are part of the food chain, we are an integral part in the web of life. The sooner we remember this, the better it will be for all of us. I believe the key to remembering is for each and everyone of us to find something we are truly passionate about and as the Nike ad says, Just do it! Just do something you love and you will remember. Just do something you are truly passionate about and every day will become Earth Day for you.
I know what you’re thinking, it’s too simple. That’s the beauty of it, it is really simple. Finding out what you are truly passionate about can seem difficult —— actually doing it can bring up all sorts of fears and doubts. But if you will just do it, you will begin to care more about yourself and everything around you. The world will start to look different, and will become a better place, not only for you, but for all those around you, and everything to which you are connected. I haven’t always lived my life this way, spending every day as Earth Day, so I would like to share with you how I finally got there, some thirty years later. I hope it will inspire you to remember, if like me, you have forgotten.
I can remember the first time I saw dolphins and whales like it was yesterday. When I was six years old, my parents took me from our St. Louis, Missouri home to vacation in Laguna Beach, California. My Dad took me on a fishing trip to Catalina Island and on the way I heard the captain yell "Dolphins on the bow!" So I ran and looked over . . . and there they were, the most beautiful and graceful creatures I had ever seen, playing on the bow wave. I was so excited I wanted to jump right in with them. Later that day, a pod of gray whales surfaced near us, and I was taken in by their great size and beauty. It wasn't too long after this that I saw Jacques Cousteau on TV. His films and his passion for the sea had a very profound impact on me. So much so, that I hoped someday I could be like him: traveling and diving the oceans of the world, swimming with dolphins, whales, and the sea's other wondrous inhabitants, taking pictures, making films, getting paid for it, while making a difference in our world!
By the time I was twelve, I was a certified scuba diver and my parents had continued to take me to Laguna, to Florida, to the Bahamas, and on Caribbean cruises. Even though we lived about as far away as one could get from the ocean, for a couple of weeks every year I was able to literally immerse myself into the ocean. At home, my room had been transformed as well. The walls were covered with posters of sharks, dolphins and whales. My bookcase was full of books on the ocean and its wondrous creatures including the complete collection of "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau". My shark's jaw collection lay across its top. I had a huge puffer fish with a light bulb in the center of it, which hung precariously over my bed, serving as my main source of light. It was here that I read, studied, and dreamt about my future. I had it all figured out. I'd go to college in Southern California to study marine biology, either UCLA or UCSD, then go on to Scripps Institute or Woods Hole for the graduate study of whales, dolphins, and sharks.
But by the time I was seventeen, things had begun to change. People around me started questioning the "reality" of my dreams. Statements like "There's no money in marine biology", "You know there's only one Jacques Cousteau", "Why don't you do something more practical with your life?", and "You're such a dreamer" began to replay over and over in my mind. Doubt and fear began to rear their ugly heads and I listened intently to them. After all, are we not brought up believing that it is the pursuit and accumulation of money and materialistic things that will ultimately leave us fulfilled, not the pursuit of one's dreams. So in 1977, I stopped diving, graduated high school, attended engineering school at the University of Missouri, started drinking and smoking, graduated in 1981 with my "practical" degree, stopped smoking and drinking, took a "real job" selling phone systems with Southwestern Bell, while completely burying my dreams.
After a couple of years, I was promoted to National Accounts and by 1985 I was spending about half of my time in Southern California. I began diving in the ocean again and luckily for me, the ocean continued her seductive call. I found renewed inspiration in the continuing efforts of Jacques Cousteau along with the amazing images of dolphins and whales produced by photographers Bob Talbot, Howard Hall, Flip Nicklin, and the marine life artist, Wyland. Just seeing life-sized gray whales cruising with dolphins through the kelp forest on the side of a building in Laguna Beach, California had a profound impact on me. I remember thinking what an amazing gift Wyland was sharing with the world and wondering if I too had anything to share.
In 1989, I was promoted and had to move back to St.
Louis. This time, the call of the ocean was too great. I remember thinking "I'm 30 years old. Do I want to be remembered for selling the
most phone systems in the world? Is this the purpose of my
existence?" It didn't seem a very profound way to spend my life,
so after a few months I quit my job, moved back to Southern California, and took
a job selling yachts. Now I know what
you are thinking, this doesn't seem very profound either, but it did get me back to California and out on the ocean, boating and diving.
By 1993, with the passing of the "Luxury Tax" and a slumping California economy, the company I was working for was forced out of business so I moved to San Diego and took a job in telecommunications again. I felt I had come full circle and even though I was good at what I was doing, I was miserable inside, but at least I was living near the ocean. I started having crazy thoughts: "I'm almost 35. What am I doing with my life? Maybe it isn't too late. Maybe I can still be like Jacques Cousteau. Maybe I can live the life I've always dreamed. So what if I know nothing about underwater photography or filmmaking. Have faith. Take a leap!" So I did.
Now, up to this point, I had never really thought about or paid attention to the "so-called" coincidences in my life, but as luck would have it, I found out that award-winning underwater photographers and filmmakers Howard and Michelle Hall lived near me. I phoned Howard and he invited me, a complete stranger, into his home to hear my story. No one has had a greater influence on my life than these two. Here I was, 35 years old, wanting to be like Jacques Cousteau, and I knew nothing about underwater photography. Howard and Michelle not only took the time to listen to my dreams and aspirations, they gave me sound, honest, and direct advice. They told me what camera, lens and film to use. Howard told me that if I wanted to photograph dolphins, whales, and sharks, I should get a Nikonos V camera with a 15mm lens, load it with Kodachrome 64 film, use ambient light, a shutter speed of 125, an average aperture of F4 and go out and start taking pictures.
After spending a few months in fear worrying about whether or not I could take a good picture, I bought the camera, gave it to myself for Christmas, and was given the opportunity to photograph humpback whales as a research volunteer for 6 weeks in Hawaii starting in late February. I accepted the offer before even taking a single underwater photograph with my new camera.
On a sunny, brisk January morning in 1994, my friend Dave Stark and I headed out of San Diego Bay on his 22' Mako toward the Coronado Islands with the hope of finding dolphins to photograph. After a couple of hours, a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins were playing on our bow wave and as we turned circles and figure eights, the dolphins were all around the boat. It was time! Dave slowed the boat and I slipped into the clear blue-green water.
At 35, I was finally plunging into the dream I had since I was 6 years old and there, coming right towards me, were three dolphins. They were beautiful; their dark blue-gray and stark white markings glistened as the rays of the sun played off their sleek bodies. Two swam right past me but one came in close, just a couple of feet away, as if to inspect me. The dolphin and I began to swim around each other in tight circles. I noticed a bullet shaped scar just below his dorsal fin and this dolphin had his name, Bullet. I broke the surface screaming in ecstasy! Of all the dolphins in the pod, Bullet showed the most interest in me, engaging me in swimming circles, twisting, and playing. When he looked directly into my eyes, I was filled with awe, as though I could sense his wisdom and intelligence and would burst from all the joy he was giving me.
At one point I ran out of film and headed for the boat. Dave stopped the boat and waited for me to swim over. Once the boat had stopped, most of the dolphins started to swim off. I dove down to a pair about thirty feet below the surface. As they started to swim away, I made the best clicks and dolphin sounds I could. The dolphins turned and swam back towards me and we surfaced together. As we dove together again, they started to swim away. I made more sounds and again they came back. I was communicating! What I was saying, I didn't know, but the dolphins seemed curious and were vocalizing a lot themselves.
Suddenly, the rest of the pod returned. As I surfaced, I was flanked by six dolphins on each side. I was in the center of their pod! We dove together, swam together, surfaced together, and breathed together in perfect symmetry, until I could keep up no longer. Slowly and effortlessly they disappeared into the blue abyss. I felt as though I had been reborn. I yelled back to Dave hoping he had witnessed what had just happened! He had! To me it felt as if I were actually a member of their pod, if only for a few moments.
There are no words to describe how I felt —— ecstasy, joy, don't even come close, but I can tell you that I felt all of the wonder and excitement that I felt when I was 6 and to this day I still do. Every time I see dolphins and whales, it's like the first time. Through all the excitement, I even managed to shoot a couple of rolls of film and was anxious to share my experience with Howard and Michelle.
After developing my film, I called Howard and told him that I had been swimming with dolphins and asked if he wanted to see my pictures. "What kind of dolphins?" he asked. "White-sided" I replied. "Are you sure? Bring them right over!" I was nervous about showing my pictures to them but when I saw Howard and Michelle's reaction, my nervousness turned to excitement. Howard told me that white-sided dolphins are usually shy of divers and that he and Michelle had never gotten very close to them. He told me that I was off to a great start and that is exactly what I needed to hear.
The next day I asked my boss for a six week leave of absence explaining that I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime. My request was forwarded to the corporate headquarters where it was turned down. I resigned immediately, quitting my "real job" to pursue my true passion and I have never looked back.
After spending six weeks with humpback whales and spinner dolphins in Hawaii, I traveled to Alaska, Vancouver Island, and the San Juans to photograph Orcas. In June, I was hired by Howard and Michelle to work on their Imax 3D film "Into the Deep". The following winter I again returned to Hawaii to continue my work with the humpbacks, this time for two months.
In early March, 1995, I traveled to San Ignacio Lagoon to experience gray whales in their mating and birthing grounds. It was here that I discovered the true nature of these gentle giants and it was also here that I discovered a grave threat against them. Mitsubishi Corporation, in a joint venture with the Mexican Government, planned to build the world's largest salt plant right in the heart of this internationally-protected whale sanctuary. I knew that I could not just stand by and watch as we destroyed yet another natural gem, so I founded The Whaleman Foundation with the hope of saving this magical place.
Each year pods of gray whales navigate their way along the Pacific Coast, migrating from the frigid waters of the Bering Sea to mate and give birth to their young in the protected lagoons of Baja California. About halfway down the Mexican Baja Peninsula's Pacific coastline, a massive lagoon cuts its way into this land, allowing mountains and desert to meet the sea. It is here in San Ignacio Lagoon, that for four months a year, her warm, shallow, protected waters become home to the gray whale . . . and it is here that magic can be found.
San Ignacio Lagoon is a breathtakingly beautiful place that is virtually pristine and has seen very little impact from our modern societies. There are no paved roads, no electricity, no plumbing, no TV, no man- made developments of any kind with the exception of a few small fishing and eco-tourism camps . . . just nature in all her majesty.
San Ignacio Lagoon hosts a diverse, unique, and fragile ecosystem which is home to North America's southernmost mangrove forests. The mangroves, the surrounding land, and the lagoon host a variety of wildlife that have coexisted in a delicate balance over the span of time. Due to its diversity, uniqueness, and unspoiled splendor, San Ignacio Lagoon was declared a United Nation's World Heritage Site and Whale Sanctuary in 1993 by 159 nations including Mexico and Japan. This gives the area the same international protection as the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Egyptian Pyramids. San Ignacio Lagoon has also been declared a bird sanctuary and is also part of the El Viscaino Biosphere Reserve, the largest biosphere reserve in Latin America, giving San Ignacio lagoon quadruple international protection.
The local residents have learned to live in harmony with the lagoon and its wildlife through fishing, aquaculture, and eco-tourism, and its major attraction during the winter months are the whales. It is here that gray whales, on their own behalf, began approaching boats so closely that one could reach out and touch them. Trying to describe this magical interaction is nearly impossible. You have to be there.
When you touch these whales, they touch you. And when you find yourself eye to eye with them, you are somehow drawn inside, sensing a wisdom, an intelligence, that is familiar but at the same time has been forgotten. A simple touch or glance stirs within you feelings and emotions you have always had but were locked away in some distant corner of yourself, collecting dust. Suddenly, they come rushing up, overwhelming your entire being. It seems so unbelievable, yet you know that this is how it should be: two beings coming together to share a moment bound by that which connects all things. It's simple, but our mind has a hard time accepting such simple things so we strive to explain it. And when we cannot, we call it... magic.
Having these leviathans actually seeking us out to interact with, to be touched, is amazing, especially because it was not too long ago that when these whales were close to small boats like these, they were full of whalers with harpoons. Twice in the last century, we have brought the gray whale to the verge of extinction. Yet, after being put under international protection, the gray whale has made a mighty comeback, being removed from the endangered species list in 1994, a victory for its protectors, yet it may be bittersweet. It seems that as the ink was still drying, Exportador del Sal, known as ESSA, jointly owned by the Mexican government and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation, announced plans to build the world's largest salt plant right in the heart of San Ignacio Lagoon. ESSA maintains that since it already has an existing salt plant within the boundaries of the El Viscaino Biosphere Reserve, the building of another plant is justified. There is a fatal flaw in this argument —— when the existing plant was built, there was no biosphere reserve or United Nations treaty. Had there been, this plant would never have been allowed to be built. Also, the Mexican Government has cited the existing plant for 296 violations of its environmental laws including toxic brine spills which have killed 94 endangered black sea turtles and thousands of fish. Even with all this, ESSA claims that the proposed plant would have no effect on the now pristine San Ignacio Lagoon.
Yet by ESSA's own admission, the proposed plant would sacrifice over 100,000 acres of internationally protected land for the network of roads and buildings. Fourteen loud, giant diesel engines would pump over 6000 gallons of water out of the lagoon every second, altering the lagoons temperature and salinity, while flooding over 100 square miles of the surrounding land. This would destroy much of the natural habitat, including mangrove forests, turning them into massive evaporation ponds.
A pier, more than one mile long, would be built to accommodate the super sized diesel tankers and cargo ships that would now be coming to the lagoon. At least six of these huge ships would dock here each month bringing with them the potential danger of collisions with whales, bilge water contamination, and diesel fuel spills. Toxic by-products, along with wastewater from cleaning the salt would be dumped directly back into the lagoon. The exhausts alone from diesel pumps, heavy machinery, huge trucks, and ships, would have an adverse impact on this fragile ecosystem. In short, this pristine wilderness, this United Nation's World Heritage Site and Whale Sanctuary, would be transformed into yet another ugly, polluting, man-made industrial site.
Presently, the construction of the salt plant has been delayed as Mitsubishi Corporation prepares a new Environmental Impact Study, so we still have a window of opportunity to ensure that this salt plant is not built. We ask each and every one of you to take action now by joining our international coalition to save this beautiful place. We must continue to preserve and protect this United Nations World Heritage Site and Whale Sanctuary so that the hand of man does not touch this wilderness except for the occasional caress of a friendly whale.
It is my hope that after reading this article, you will be moved to help us in our campaign to save San Ignacio Lagoon and also to start living your life more fully and passionately. If your are unsure of your true passions, you can begin to find them by asking yourself these questions: "What would I be doing if I knew I could not fail? And "What is it that I love to do so much that I would do it for free?" By taking the time to answer these questions, you will be on the way to making every day an Earth Day!
Jeff Pantukhoff is an award-winning marine life photographer and filmmaker and is also the founder of The Whaleman Foundation, a non-profit oceanic research, education, and conservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting dolphins, whales, and their habitats. The Whaleman Foundation takes its camera team into the field to produce videos on the important issues it’s working on in order to educate, raise awareness, and foster international cooperation. Joining Jeff on this quest are some of the world’s leading image-makers, including actor Pierce Brosnan, marine life photographer Bob Talbot, underwater filmmakers Howard and Michelle Hall, and marine life artist Wyland.
To find out how you can join our team, get copies of our videos, or for more information on The Whaleman Foundation and the issues on which we are working, please visit our website at www.-whaleman.org or write us at The Whaleman Foundation, P.O. Box 1670, Lahaina HI, 96767, or give us a call us at (808) 661-8859.
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