Saturday, January 27, 2018

Protecting History: The Rough Road and Resolve of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum

Since 1996, the Palm Beach Maritime Museum has provided ambassadors to our nation’s past with truly one of a kind exhibits and content.  The PBMM is – well, was – located on Peanut Island in Palm Beach County. This location proves to be both urban and remote simultaneously as thousands cruise by on ships, small boats, kayaks, bridges and roadways. The Island is not accessible by land; one must take a personal vessel or one of the local ferries on a 15-20-minute ride across the waterway. This seemingly trivial matter was perhaps one of the greatest obstacles for the Museum to deal with on a regular basis – it is most certainly something that kept me off the Island for over 15 years.

The Palm Beach Maritime Museum consisted of three different buildings: the Museum proper (gift shop, lobby, and beginning of the tour), a retired United States Coast Guard Station, and a fallout shelter created specifically for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. To join a tour, all one had to do was walk up during operating hours and pay a modest fee to the non-profit.

US Coast Guard Station, active from 1936-1996
So, what prompted me after so long to take my 8-yr old son and also invite my history loving in-laws to join us? Closure. The chance at catching a glimpse of something truly special before it changed forever. I learned through my network of friends and colleagues that the PBMM was going to shut its doors, potentially forever. The partnership with the local county government had dissolved and the Museum would have to move. The buildings would remain, but be closed up for an unknown length of time and all of the artifacts would be gone regardless. I am embarrassed to say it was the inevitable closing that truly lit the fire under my backside to finally get over to the Island on one of the weekends before it closed on October 22, 2017. I hate visiting busy places on the weekends, and worked during the week, but I was not disciplined enough to make the time before – now I had to do it. My in-laws had lived in South Florida for over 30 years and had never been. They were surprised to hear of the Museum’s existence (WHAT??!) and wanted to join me one Sunday morning before the facility shut down.

Then, nature kicked in and I realized I may not get the chance after all. Hurricane Irma visited our shores during the second week of September with what could have been a much greater force than realized. Schools were shut down for over a week. Streets were flooded. The docks in front of the Museum were wrecked and boats strewn along Peanut Island’s shoreline. With the contract ending, would the Museum even bother to open? What beautiful opportunity had I squandered?!

The staff at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, passionate about what they do, decided to stay open until the last possible moment. They led tours on the weekends and during off hours packed up exhibits. They had no dock, but chose to run the ferry despite the now lengthy walk each way that visitors would need to take because they knew there must be procrastinating munches like myself who would jump at the last chance to see history frozen in situ. Stalling was no longer an option and we were going on a backyard trip through time. 

Broken docks that won't be repaired.

Upon arrival to Peanut Island on a typical hot Florida day in October, we began our walk to the Museum. This was very hard on my mother-in-law, who has difficulty walking for any length of time, and we were quite moved when the staff immediately offered her a wheelchair for the walk to and through the USCG Station and to the shelter. The fallout shelter itself is not wheelchair accessible, but she was still able to walk inside and enjoy the underground portal back in time.

Since those of you reading this will never have the same experience we did, I chose to smatter you with photos in a pathetic effort to show what we enjoyed that morning. The history of the Island came first, with a special treat since the Curator, Ruth Pelletier was our guide on that busy day (she told me later that the last two weekends of the Museum were perhaps the busiest they had every witnessed with hundreds and hundreds of people coming through; and if in fact, there had been that type of support from the public beforehand, the Museum might have gone down a different path). The groups were kept small to allow for everyone to see and hear without crowding in some of the tighter areas of the tour.

With about 20 people ranging in age from small children to those who lived in Florida long before the Island was accessible to the public at all, we set out on our adventure to the US Coast Guard Station. The station was fully operational from 1936 to 1996 and was also the home to three very cool cats – literally. “Jack”, “Jackie” and “Marilyn” lived on the island and were quite friendly to visitors and staff alike. The old photographs, nautical artifacts and depth of history living in the walls was fascinating.

The wooden floors did not creak as expected, and the group was respectfully quiet as our guide gave more information than I could ever keep in short-term memory. I wish I had brought a notebook and not just a camera, but with an 8-yr old that can be a little tricky to juggle without incident. The smell of the Station was salty and old but comforting. The displays commanded respect while remaining welcoming, and throughout the building were signs bearing information that again, far surpassed my ability to process in only one short visit.

Yes, that is a real cannonball!

After leaving the Station house, we took a lovely and rather short walk to the Kennedy Bunker. This fallout shelter was nothing like I had ever experienced, nor might ever again. Designed as a shelter post-bomb drop for use by the President and staff whenever he was at his winter home, the Bunker begins with a rather imposing door. Once opened, the group walked down a dark declining ramp into the pit. The air was different – thicker and warm. I had no idea that going back in time would be so foreboding.

The shelter itself is precisely that – a sparsely furnished, reinforced hole in the ground. Perhaps the most intense feature is the giant presidential seal in the middle of the space. It is the only official Presidential Seal in the State of Florida. The bunker was also kept true to its originality, save for the emergency exit added into the main room – this is the only way the Museum could gain authorization to have public tours (visible in the background).

The original exit from the bunker was an old ladder going straight up. The cubby leading to this exit was at least 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the shelter, and looking up the shaft is daunting. The walls of the entire were corrugated metal and gave a distinct military feel to a non-service civilian like myself. Voices echoed in the chamber. Walking through a giant metal time capsule, wondering if the world would look the same upon exiting, I could not help but be consumed by self-reflection. One feels small in a place of such astounding preparation. Knowing technology must have affected any modern-day fallout shelters I can only speculate on what they may look like now.

But you may never know, never experience it for yourself. After the fact, I began thinking about other iconic buildings and places and activities available that may some day be lost. Will we always be able to walk to the crown of the Statue of Liberty? Will the Mona Lisa always be on display at the Louvre in Paris? How many animals will go extinct or ecosystems change until they are unrecognizable? Will the rocky edges of the Grand Canyon someday become unstable and the public no longer able to raft that section of the Colorado River or stand on the edge and shout – waiting for an echo that will not come? (Seriously, the Canyon is waaayyyy too vast to hear your echo, sorry for the spoiler. For what is it worth, I still yelled while on the cliff’s edge anyway)

Fortunately, those dedicated to the history protected by the Palm Beach Maritime Museum found another way to share the stories. They found a new partner in the City of West Palm Beach and are currently working on new exhibits – a new museum essentially – located in Currie Park. The Museum may not have the same structure, but the artifacts and passionate staff will be there to guide visitors back in time. No longer locked by a barrier of saltwater, I cannot wait to experience the new Maritime Museum when it opens – expectedly in 2018.

Here are some great places to learn a bit more and watch for progress on the Palm Beach Maritime Museum:

I challenge everyone, myself included, to take the time and enjoy the local treasures. Don’t wait for family or friends to visit from out of town. Don’t assume these wonderful places will always be there, idly waiting for you to drop by when convenient. Anything worth keeping requires education and support. Whether it be protecting history or waterways, reefs or forests, honey bees or family bonds – do not allow the self-disappointment found only by a lack of participation.
Who knows when, if ever, the bunker will re-open to the public

Swim often.

Laugh more.

Hug your family and fur-babies too.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

App Review: Clean Swell

Recently,  my 8-yr old and I participated in the International Coastal Clean Up - an annual worldwide event hosted by the Ocean Conservancy. I have been on different sides of this event over the years: as a site coordinator, as the breakdown/clean up after the clean up crew, as a participant with friends and alone. But this was a new experience as I shared it with my son and the Ocean Conservancy added a new tool too, the Clean Swell App. 

Every year, in addition to just picking up trash and debris, the Ocean Conservancy has quested participants to record their findings. This data is important when creating jaw dropping graphics like this one:

I have unfathomable respect for organizations that include data and research with their good deeds. We, as consumers, must wade through countless fountains of strange and random facts only to wonder “where on earth did they get that information?”. As a scientist, I understand how any opportunity to incorporate citizens into the gathering of data is priceless. Just like this App!

Clean Swell is a free application for your phone, available for your Apple people or Droiders. This is a great option for those who have no desire to carry around the clipboard and pen to record their collection data – however, this DOES require you to have your phone out and on the beach during a cleanup which is maybe not the best option for chronic phone destructors like myself.

Signing up is easy, only requiring very basic information such as your e-mail. Incidentally, I abhor getting junk mail and I have found only summary e-mails from what I have reported appear in my inbox. I can absolutely live with that. The intro page for the app is self explanatory and user friendly. The purpose of installing this app is to motivate those participating in a structured clean up to consider doing more cleanups on their own and still report the data. This is an efficient and waste-free option and to be honest not particularly time consuming. I'm sure most people, like myself, keep their phone on them anyway so sending in the data was even less trouble than sending an e-mail. The "History" tab is a very cool function that provides the use an opportunity to track what they have done and where. The profile is simplified, with only your zip code and e-mail kept so you don’t have to fret about too much personal information being on file.

I have always found recording data during a clean up to be bulky and sometimes difficult. Add in weather such as wind or a light rain, and getting data down was a mess. I imagine trying to sort through sandy, torn and wet pages was not particularly fun for those charged with reporting the data either. Flipping through pages on a clipboard while holding trash bags and picking up trash is impossible to do alone without getting frustrated. My favorite part of the app is the data tracking grid. A sample is pictured here, but there are so many options that you don’t have to think about anything while collecting except to tap the items being picked up. Every time you snag a plastic bag, or lid, or even just a fragment – they all have their own separate icon that can simply be tapped. Having said that, deleting an item accidently tapped is tricky and much easier to do on the back-end right before you submit the final data. Stopping everything to tab backwards to delete an extra balloon isn’t really worth the effort when you are out in the elements or on a time crunch (or trying to chase down an 8-yr old with a pair of trash pickers who is really excited and hauling down the beach at speeds I am not capable of without copious amounts of coffee in advance).
As a motivational perk, the app has 'badges' you can earn for participating. For instance, completing our first clean up yielded the "Ahoy Matey" and apparently, I am the queen of beverage related items such as bottle caps and straws with my "Beverage Buster" badge earned in only 3 outings.

Here is an easy pro / con list:

  • Less to carry vs a clipboard, paper and pencils
  • Easy to report data
  • Data is quickly available to the Ocean Conservancy
  • The ability to track your own data and look at what you (or your team) have collected. This type of data can really help a program measure the direct impact in a community.

  • The phone must be out and used every 10 seconds or so. Otherwise it will time out and your cleanup data is lost. I am not aware of this being fixed via update since my last clean up. I did not find a way to change the timeout settings.
  • Clumsy users might want to have someone else handle the phone while they pick up trash.
  • In the Florida heat, your phone may get hot being out in the elements. I put mine in a dry bag, and was able to touch the screen through the plastic, but my phone became very hot since it was on constantly. (I have a GalaxyS7)
NOTE:  not necessarily a “CON”, but it is important to understand this is designed to collect data on marine debris - meaning shoreline and aquatic debris. If you are cleaning up a park, the app should not apply and the data collected could be skewing the overall project results. When cleaning up in a park, and not a reef, beach or along a freshwater system, do not report your data via this app.

Have fun reclaiming the water and consider adding the Clean Swell App to help keep that New Year's Resolution to be a citizen scientist in 2018!

Friday, November 3, 2017

International Coastal Cleanup

For years I was an avid participant in the International Coastal Clean Up, and had many sequential years of promotional t-shirts to prove it. Over time, as my career progressed, I was on the front line and out in the field far less, which led to me being tied up with other responsibilities and I was no longer able to attend this iconic event as it took place all over the world. This time around, I was all set to miss it – again. Then Hurricane Irma swept our coastlines and filled our streets with water and debris.
The hurricane, along with the ensuing damage and loss of power throughout the region, led to a huge number of facilities with live animals having to delay their events. I would not have made the September event, but I was able to join the beautiful and unique Sandoway Discovery Center in Delray Beach.
The International Coastal Cleanup is an annual event put on by the Ocean Conservancy and they have a great site to help you find one close to home check out the Ocean Conservancy's Coastal Cleanup page.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers band together for an amazing joint effort to tackle the trauma caused by marine debris – a problem that is directly related to human interactions and therefore a problem that can be directly addressed and the results are quite measurable. But despite the well-meaning outpour of individuals who make a shining appearance once a year, I have found that too many show up for this with very specific and limited intentions:
  • Many of the teens show up for the community service hours for school.
  • Many of the adults to show up for free beach parking and a t-shirt.
  • Many of kids don’t even know why they are there, but hey – it’s the ocean, let’s go!
I wanted to be different. I wanted to do more, but also understood the pressures of life would allow only a limited amount of time. Dedication aside, I wanted to share this experience and make it something special. So, I recruited my 8-yr old son to join me. We spent well over a week discussing the importance of trash in the ocean, and what the significance of the cleanup meant. We looked up photos and shared videos of various marine animal rescues, like the poor Olive Ridley sea turtle with a straw up its nostril that went viral (in case you missed it: Sea Turtle Straw video  WARNING, there is strong language in this 8-min video).

On October 7, we trucked down to the Sandoway Discovery Center. They had a rough time post-Irma and I know some of the staff there. Part of my son’s reward, unbeknownst to him, was a trip to Sandoway immediately after our contribution to the cleanup concluded. He was excited and we arrived before 8:30am ready to work. We checked in, and geared up with a recycling bag, trash bag, grabber and a new tool to track our trash – the Clean Swell app downloaded quickly to my smart phone. Jace commandeered the trash picker and we were ready to rock!

We dropped off some items in the car, and while there my son must have credit for a great idea – he suggested we start our cleanup in the parking lot and on the walk to the beach itself. Nearly half our trash bag was filled before we ever even saw the ocean.
Once our toes hit the sand, the beach was crawling with volunteers and Jace commented on how he hoped we would still find trash to gather. This is when I received a true wake up – the wrack line was dense and the beachcombers were not yet out. People wandered around aimlessly looking from only a standing position, and were missing copious amounts of tiny trash. Bits of plastic that crumbled into exponentially more pieces were scattered within the weeds.
Somebody was taking it all in with a smile!
But we persevered from the waterline to the dune and back down again for half a mile, taking short breaks now and again to enjoy the sunshine, wind, waves and let mommy add the data to our list. Bottle caps and bits of plastic or foam dominated our search. Our trash bag filled while the blue recycling bag stayed light and near empty. We decided to walk along Ocean Blvd on the way back to the Discovery Center, and pick up trash along the road as well. By the time we dropped off the bags of anti-treasure, it was hot and sticky. I can easily admit disappointment at seeing so many bags left near empty, knowing so many tiny pieces of plastic remained out in the sand.

What appeared to be 'clean' was far from it
A simple suggestion to rehydrate and visit the inside of the Center turned the next hour and a half into a new chapter of exploration. I know we made a real effort during the cleanup and most certainly earned our shirts, but above all else it felt good to be on the front lines again.
Most coastal communities have regular beach cleanups, and local organizations can usually get you to the right place. Our local resource is Keep Palm Beach County Beautiful: a non-profit organization that is a great way to find which organizations are working together when and where. For those who just need a few hours of volunteer service, projects like cleanups are easy and rarely require confusing paperwork or time-consuming waits for approval.
It is important to keep it fun and interesting. Playing games like trash bingo or having planned rewards post-collection can really help and introducing younger ones to the significance of what happens to trash left outside is what not only changes habits but has a lasting impact. Every tiny bit adds up to huge gains, and keep challenging yourself to make a difference!

Okay, sometimes he can be a little dramatic...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Trash Talk turned Trash Walk

Kael + Thor = 115lbs of doggie-ness
While I love many different types of animals, our current pet capacity involves the retention and care of two large dogs. Both rescues, one is a pure-bred Alaskan malamute and the other a standard mutt. Kael, whose name means ‘mighty warrior’, was born in the heat of Florida when his mother was dumped from a puppy mill. The average litter size for a malamute is only six, and Kael is one of ten. Having a dog bred for cold weather living so close to the equator is a challenge, and walking the dog takes on a whole new meaning when A) he looks like a wolf and either scares or intrigues people at first sight, B) he weighs 115 lbs. and C) is prone to overheating due to a thick double coat.

Living in the Florida suburbs, we have a wonderful and dog-friendly neighborhood – perhaps this is because very few residents actually have a yard, ourselves included. Whenever the heat takes a step back we jump on the opportunity to get outside for a real walk and not just a business trip. Often one of the side effects of hurricanes is a break in the heat, and with hurricane Irma this past month Kael enjoyed time in the wind and rain – me, not so much. Watching him outside being a normal dog and not panting heavily within 90 seconds is always a treat for me too, and I decided while getting whipped by the storm (and, no, we did not go out during the height of the inclement weather) that I needed to get out there and really let my dogs have some quality time on the leash.

It was only while regularly walking my dogs post-Irma that I really began to see all the trash that had piled up in our sweet little neighborhood. Not just the piles of downed trees and fencing, but all sorts of flotsam and bits of trash had even blocked the sewer drains. Yards were covered in litter and rotting filth. People didn’t have power, and windows remained shuttered. It didn’t look or feel like the nice little blocks I was used to and found myself getting annoyed at how people could just let these things pile up in their own space. After all, I had picked up the trash that blew into my yard within two days…

I'm not talking about the hurricane-induced debris piles, of which there are still so many even weeks later.
The hurricane had caused many facilities to reschedule events, one of which was the International Coastal Cleanup. When power returned, I decided to sign up myself and my 8-yr old for a cleanup in Delray Beach in October. I was feeling quite smug and accomplished as I announced to my son that were going to help clean up the beach – and then it really hit me - like a plastic bag blowing onto the front windshield of my car on the way to school (which of course has NEVER happened). Plastic is destroying our oceans. Countless cleanups and many wonderful organizations dedicate themselves to ridding the largest biome on this planet of plastic and trash. It takes no time whatsoever to go online, search the words ‘wildlife’ and ‘trash’ and be inundated with horrifying photos, videos of poor sea turtles with straws stuck up their nasal passages, and the ever-present soda can rings of death and destruction. I know the trash doesn’t necessarily come from boaters or even beach goers. It can travel by wind and storms, by drainage canals and highways, and I was walking right past trash every day and doing nothing.

Hello there, bottle cap
It started with a bottle cap.
Caps cannot be recycled here in Florida by simply tossing them into the blue bin and it is best to remove them from bottles before they are put in the bins. Between our two dogs, I walk ~165 lbs of pup each day. The cute little doggie bags are no match for the boys, so I put the plastic bags from the grocer or other stores to use. Despite typically having reusable bags on hand, I have friends and family who give me their plastic bags specifically for doggie-doo duty. As I went to pick up after one of the dogs, there was a bottle cap in the grass nearby. It had obviously been there for a few days, and I picked it up with a plastic garbed hand while doing my neighborly assignment of picking up after Thor (he’s the little dog at 50 lbs). And being the unique person I am, I took a photo for future contemplation.

I stared at the photo that evening and the next day took an extra bag with me specifically for trash. I didn’t go into any bushes or climb trees; I didn’t walk any closer to a house that the sidewalk, and yet I was shocked in the amount of trash collected during a short walk with a panting malamute. Walking the second dog, I decided to take a different street and found a whole new array of trashy treasures. I felt so good! No letters to the HOA complaining, no dirty looks at neighbors (nor from any neighbors either), and my dogs are getting much better on the leash. Stopping frequently has led them to be better at heeling and let’s face it, dogs are really good at finding bits of trash so they are even helping the cause when walking after dark. Success! I have made the world better!
Day 1 haul - thanks for the help, Thor!
And then, we went for walk the next day – same route, more trash. But wait, I was just here yesterday?! This makes no sense. So now, we are about two weeks in to the “trash walk” and the amount being collected is about the same each time. We rotate our routes, which means I have met more neighbors and my dogs receive new enrichment of smells, contact with humans, and so many squirrels eventually they will stop lunging at them (right?). I don’t take photos anymore, but I do talk to the dogs about what we are doing and why it is important.

I look forward to showing my son next month that cleaning the beach once a year is great, but that we can and will do better. Every bit of refuse that ends up in the right receptacle and out of the environment is a good thing, and I am reminded again how small decisions can lead to big results over time. Who, knows - maybe even a few neighbors here us chatting.

I am not so sure, however, about how much trash will be around the neighborhood on November 1st – the day after Halloween. That should be an interesting walk.