I love Common Murres. Those plucky little diving birds sporting smart black and white tuxedos. The delightful little Alcids that help fill the same ecological niche penguins do in the southern hemisphere. You can have your puffins, the darlings of the Alaskan traveler. I’ll take the understated Murre. When you paddle near them you hear adorable little grunts and growls. A mob of muttering Murres is a delightful conversation to eavesdrop on. Like a group of well dressed attendants at a posh dinner party. Until they scream. An outrageous warbling, an exasperated yell completely out of character with their dignified attire and dialect. Last August hundreds of Murres filled Bartlett Cove. At times it seemed impossible to paddle through without disturbing them. I gave their presence little thought as I paddled past. Enjoying their quiet talks and unexpected yelps.
But this winter was not an easy one for them. As Brittney and I traveled south, a mass of warm water moved north into the Gulf of Alaska. Scientists watched it with skepticism and interest, unsure of what to call it or how to diagnose its presence. “The Blob,” everyone called it until an intrepid blogger coined the term “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR).” While it still didn’t sound scientific, at least the word “blob” wasn’t in there anymore.
The Murres didn’t care what it was called. Murres are divers. Able to swim hundreds of feet below the surface to feed on herring, capelin, and juvenile pollock. The warm waters of the RRR sent their food sources deep beneath the waves, seeking the colder water. But as the fish dove, they left the Murres behind, devoid of their winter food source. Murres spend most of the winter offshore, so when they appeared by the thousands in Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, everyone noticed.
Murres lack storage space. They don’t put on layers of fat to help sustain them for the lean times. They need to eat, and just a few days of fasting can rob them of their strength. Last winter, there was no food to be had. And Murres showed up in the most bizarre places. They were sighted in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, blown north and inland in their weakened condition. Thousands of them landed on frozen Lake Illiamna in western Alaska.
Throughout southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Aleutian chain, dead Murres washed ashore by the thousands. Malnourished and lost, betrayed by a belt of warm water that had no business being there. With thousands of miles of unmonitored coastline, it’s impossible to know how many of these darling birds perished this winter. Estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.
“Are you worried?”
I take my time before answering. Measuring what sort of response I may get. I try really hard not to assume people’s political or environmental views based on where they’re from. I hesitate and admonish myself. Who cares where they’re from? They’re here, in Glacier Bay. They’re kayaking, they clearly care enough to hear what I really think.
The question was not about Murres, but climate change and if I was concerned. But my tuxedo clad friends swim in my mind as I answer.
“Yes,” I respond. And I’m off. Talking about J.B. McKibbon’s sliding scale. How one generation perceives nature as “normal,” slides the scale some, and the next generation perceives this new environment as the new normal. It’s a slippery slope that we’re on.
What if in a hundred years Miami has more canals than Venice and we just consider that normal? What about a world without whales or Murres or wolves or national parks? We scoff but brown bears in California used to be normal. Wolves in Arizona was a given. So many cod off Cape Cod we thought the harvest would never end. This is nothing new. Homo sapiens have been shaping the world around them since forever. Does that justify what we’re doing today?
“It’s not just climate change.” I say, “that gets most of the attention, but it’s so much more. It’s ocean acidity, mercury in the fish. The deck is stacked.”
Hell, we can’t stop killing each other. How can we be expected to care about the rest of the world when we treat our fellow man the way we do? If we’re going to fight, let’s fight for the protection of what the earth still has, not who knows where we go when we die.
The two of them look at me with concern. Nothing like a light conversation about the end of the natural world on a gorgeous day in Glacier Bay. I think about the Murres again. How hard it was to watch, learn, and read about their struggles all winter. How I could have just closed my computer, looked away, pretended like it wasn’t happening. As if that would change anything.
If we can’t talk about it, how will we ever begin to repair the damage?
“I think the natural world will survive,” I continue. “Maybe not the way we see it now, but it’ll recover one way or the other. But that could be hundreds of years from now. It’s not the end of the world, but it could be the end of what makes this a world we love.” I don’t want to live in a world without whales, Murres, wolves, or national parks.
“What do we do?” Their faces are anxious, and I wish I had the magic words. The snappy one liner of the salesmen and TV commercial. The thirty minute sitcom, everything tied together and back to normal before the evening news.
What do I say?
I remember Kim Heacox’s answer to a lady last summer. A mama grizzly, a mighty matriarch, asking what they were supposed to do. Daring him to answer, to tell her she was living wrong.
“Change everything.” He answered simply.
“So do we stop flying? Driving?”
I parrot his line, with a small modification. “Change everything you can.” I answer. “Make sacrifices. They should hurt, they should be hard. Or they wouldn’t be sacrifices. Walk to work, eat meat once every other day instead of with every meal. Vote in politicians that put the environment at the top of their to do list.”
70% of Americans say they support more conservation policies. Yet we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed such a bill in years. That’s on us. We want to save the world as long as it’s convenient. As long as it comes with a tax break. As long as it doesn’t tread on us.
“Thank you for asking about this.” I tell them. “It’s hard to hear, and difficult to discuss and think about. But it’s the only way that we can change and put the pieces back together.”
A bird comes to the surface. I’d know that silhouette anywhere. Know that dark bill, that white underbelly. I break into a smile. It’s so good to see them. A reminder that many of them made it. They’re not called Common Murres for nothing. There’s boatloads of them. May there always be. In its bill is a little wriggling fish. Probably herring. It’s impossible to tell from here. The Murre gulps it down in two swallows, floats at the surface half a second more, and dives back beneath the waves. Looking for more. Happy hunting little friend.
Cover Photo Credit: wsl.ch