Truly Down Under

Let me introduce Shea Megale. Shea is a remarkable young woman and her love of life and pursuit of dreams make for an extraordinary story. She is an adventurer, writer and soon to be author of her 10th young-adult novel. Shea has been featured on the Today Show, written up in national news publications, and her books are available on Amazon. To learn more, check out her site at: Shea was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an extremely rare genetic condition. SMA is a genetic neuromuscular disease characterized by muscle atrophy and weakness. Although Shea is confined to a wheelchair much of the time, it certainly doesn’t define her. Her optimism and sense of adventure have taken her to some remarkable places including a recent trip to Australia, New Zealand, and a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. At the reef, Shea had the opportunity to get out of her wheelchair and explore a whole new world. This is Shea’s story, told in her own words, in a recent post.


I remember, when I was younger, I used to lie in bed in total darkness and watch the green light on my smoke detector blink. All night. Even that young I remember thinking how fascinating it was that in a room of pitch darkness, that tiny light seemed to suck me right out of the dark. I was only drawn to it.

Isn’t that how the world works? We live surrounded by constant pain and wrongfulness and yet are sustained by mere seconds of redeeming beauty.

That’s what I realized today underwater 60 miles from the shore. We’ll get to that bit.

First we should cover my first two days in Cairns.

Cairns is the rainforest. We stayed in stilted bungalows in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest. It showered hard all night long and drummed against the skylight. Insects and lizards were some of the many species we found camping at the bungalow.

But in order to get to the bungalow, we had to catch the ferry before it closed. Our flight was an hour delayed. The luggage was held up. The car we rented was an unanticipated stick shift. Nothing was going our way for making this ferry.

Dad raced around winding streets in the rain and jacked the lever to and fro. We zoomed into the ferry dock to see the booth closed. All of us sighed in despair. Dad twisted the engine off in defeat.

Then, across the crocodile infested river, a light flashed. The ferry came back for us.

A man named Wallaby, literally the most Australian person you can imagine, opened the gate for us and waved us in. His accent was nearly indecipherable, his glasses were thick, and he wore a floppy brown hat over yellow hair. Thank goodness for Wallaby.

The following day was spent sampling exotic fruit, cruising the Daintree River in search of crocodiles (we saw a huge one), and walking the forest paths. With black silt, running water, and deep armies of mangrove, I felt like an explorer. I daydreamed it was true.

And then we boarded the ship to the Great Barrier Reef.

I need to admit that I have been dreading this experience the whole trip. Dad, who is never seasick, became green on the bouncy ride over. He didn’t let me know how nervous he was for me until after.

The main instructor’s name was Beau. He’s 49 with a long brown mane, light hair puffing out of the collar of his red shirt, and these beautiful teal eyes that were amazingly caring and human.

He gave the introductory divers a demo, but kept looking over at me with a mixture of gentleness and measurement, as if trying to figure out how this would be possible.

Finally he sat down at my level with a touch of sadness and said that their referring doctor had left it up to him whether or not to take me diving. He asked lots of questions and watched me steadily.

And he could not bring himself to deny my spirit.

great-barrier-reef-beautiful-coral-australiaThree hours later, I was dressed in my wetsuit. Dad carried me down to the water but he had to leave me alone there. He would be a pupil himself. So down there, on a grated ledge next to the point, Beau and two other instructors loaded my gear. One was a big giant grey-bearded teddy bear named David. David loved to laugh. The other was an ex army, young diver named Des. As Beau attached my mask, he said “You like all this attention from three Australian guys don’t ya?”

I love how Australians can see right through me.

Des carried me to the ledge and held me. Beau jumped in the water.

I was given the oxygen. I became Darth Shea.

Haaaa-hooo. Haaaaa – hooo.

Now Beau began to talk to me real calm and kept his eyes firm on me. He wanted to see that I could independently clear my mask and reinsert my oxygen.

I couldn’t. My head was flailing. The weight just barely had my face smacking the water. But I could breathe.

Beau, by policy, should have pulled me out right there. But he looked at me as the waves lapped, just me and him, and said “Do you want to just go down?”

With literally all my strength, I nodded.

And he tore me into the water.

I rocketed down diagonally. The world transformed into coral and ocean and I breathed hard and fast into the oxygen.

I’m scared. I’m scared. God, I’m scared. I’m scared, God.

I had no control.

I had to learn to let it go.

And then I was there. I was underwater in the Great Barrier Reef. I was doing what half the ABLED population would never do.

Huge fish ribboned around my face. Little ones scattered as my hand reached out.

Several times Beau’s weathered hand reached in front of my face and made the okay sign. A question. I answered identically. Sometimes he would turn me so I could gaze into his teal eyes through the mask. Reading me. I was okay.

sp_three_green_turtles_great_barrier_reefHe took me everywhere. I felt no fear being held by him. The most beautiful, fascinating creature in the water that day were the humans.

Finally Beau turned me towards open water. Vast turquoise blue. I puffed. And puffed. Above was the grate of the pontoon. Already it was over.

He popped me out of the water. David reeled me up into his massive arms.

I took out the oxygen and laughed. “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever done in my life. Pretty brave, huh?”

“Yeh did great, dahlin!” came Beau’s reedy voice somewhere.

David and Beau lifted me up and then David carried me alone all the way to my chair.

I did it. I dove.

Dr. Crawford said that I have a sixteenth of the muscle regular people have, but what I do have works ten times harder than any regular person’s muscle; every second of my existence. I felt it. Everything was exhausted.

I feel it now.

My muscles work hard to compensate for everything against me. But the greatest muscle I own is the one that Beau saw through my mask in my eyes before he decided to plunge me under.

That’s the one that makes my life worth living. That, like the little green button, is my little green light.

I love you all. I’m okay. More than okay.
And I’m truly Down Under.


Barbados Turtles

With up to 500 females nesting per year, Barbados is home to the second-largest hawksbill turtle nesting population in the Caribbean. The Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP) was established over 25 years ago and is working to find a sustainable balance between restoring the local marine turtle populations to healthy levels while still providing opportunities for sustainable use by the people and guests of Barbados. By incorporating monitoring, training, education, and public awareness programs, this dynamic organization is working to turn the turtle’s greatest threat, humans, into their biggest ally.


Green Sea Turtle

The primary nesting season for the hawksbill turtle runs from mid-May through mid to late October, a busy time in Barbados’ active tourist season. By partnering with the tourism industry, the Barbados Sea Turtle Project is turning a challenge into an opportunity. Sea Turtles have become a major attraction in Barbados and the BSTP is embracing this to help locals and visitors learn about the turtles and what they can do to help keep these magnificent creatures.

In addition to offering a 24-hour “Sea Turtle Hotline” to monitor sea turtle sightings and address sea turtle “emergencies,” the organization is involved in sea turtle conservation at all levels. Below is a list of some of the projects in which the Barbados Sea Turtle Project carries out:

  • Education – During the school year, BSTP volunteers make presentations to students throughout the island. Additional programs are offered to children attending various camps during the summer break.
  • Public Outreach – They offer presentations to hotel staff and visitors to help ensure that people are interacting safely with the sea turtles and can react appropriately if they find hatchlings or a turtle in distress.
  • Monitoring – The BSTP monitors the nesting beaches nightly for four months during the nesting season. The record whether the turtles attempted to nest, if there was anything that prevented nesting, if eggs were laid in a safe and secure location, and how many of the hatchlings emerge from the nest.
  • Research – Volunteers document all of the sea turtle nesting activities. They measure and weigh the females when possible, tag the animals for tracking purposes, and keep a running history of remigration intervals and results.
  • Rescue & Rehabilitation – When needed, the BSTP will step into rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles that have run into trouble by falling into swimming pools, getting caught in nets or other unfortunate circumstances.

greenseaturtlesAlthough the populations are not as high, Barbados is also home to leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley, Kemp’s ridley, flatback, and green sea turtles. By collaborating and partnering with the government, tourism industry, and fellow NGOs like itself, the Barbados Sea Turtle Project has made great strides in successfully finding a balance between protecting it’s turtle population and meeting the needs of the local economy.

Watch People swim with the turtles in Barbados



Oyster Reclamation

oyster growing on peirLast year, we kicked off our summer with a Memorial Day party at a friend’s house. His home sits on the scenic South River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, just south of Annapolis, Maryland. Little did we know, that day would turn into so much more than just a fun day with old friends.

After the all the kids, and some of the adults, wrapped up their adventures out on the river in our friend’s 14-foot sailboat, we relaxed on his pier and enjoyed the view. At one point, our friend mentioned that his baby oysters, aka “spat,” were grown and almost ready to go to their new home in the bay. He pulled up one of the eight cages he was caring for and explained his role as a volunteer in the South River Federation’s oyster restoration program.

Oyster Spat

Oyster Spat

In partnership with Marylanders Grow Oysters, the South River Federation gives hundreds of waterfront property owners the opportunity to participate in hands on oyster restoration. Volunteers with access to community piers or have their own, grow millions of young oysters in cages suspended from private piers each year. The volunteers are tasked with protecting the young oysters during their vulnerable first year of life, so they may be planted on local sanctuaries where the oysters enrich the ecosystem and our oyster population.

After attending an oyster husbandry workshop, volunteers pick up their spat in the late summer or early fall. Throughout the growing season, the volunteers measure the length of spat, track mortality, and measure dissolved oxygen levels throughout the growing season. In early June, the volunteers deposit their oysters in the Glebe Bay sanctuary during the South River Days Oyster Flotilla.

Why are oysters so important? Oysters are filter feeders. This means that they feed by pumping large volumes of water through their gills and filtering out plankton and other particles. As they filter water to get food, oysters also remove nutrients, suspended sediments andbay oyster sanctuary chemical contaminants, helping to keep the water clear and clean for bay grasses and other underwater life. One oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water per day.

The spat fascinated the kids and adults alike and we all learned so much about their importance in the bay’s ecosystem. Having grown up near the ocean, I have always been enamored with our oceans and marine habitats. In 2000, I married an avid scuba diver on the beach and our now 12-year-old son might as well have been born with gills. That Memorial Day party changed our lives; we decided that it was time to apply our skills to make a positive difference and do something we love. The Marine & Oceanic Sustainability Foundation was sparked that weekend and has continued to grow with the support of friends, fellow ocean lovers, marine conservation organizations, and educators.

South River Federation - Kids Getting Spat

South River Federation – Kids Getting Spat

Humpback Dolphins

wp humpback dolphin locationLast month, scientists announced the discovery a new species of dolphin living off the coast of Northern Australia. While most people are familiar humpback whales, few know about humpback dolphins. Scientists have known about Atlantic and Indo-Pacific species of humpback dolphins for some time, but recent physical and genetic tests by researchers have revealed that there are actually four distinct species of this beautiful creature. Humpback dolphins are distinguishable by a peculiar hump just below the dorsal fin and are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

Humpback dolphins grow up to 8 feet in length and their coloring ranges from dark gray to pink and/or white. The species generally inhabits coastal waters, deltas, estuaries, and occurs throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans to the coasts of Australia. According to Guido Parra of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, this particular species of dolphin are very shy and keep their distance, unlike their curious and friendly cousins that most people are used to.

The scientists, who were working for the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, and a number of other organizations contributed to the study. The researchers arrived at their conclusions after examining 235 tissue samples and 180 skulls from mostly beached humpback dolphins around the globe to define genetic and morphological distinctions among the species. These findings were published in the November 2013 issue of Molecular Ecology.

Close up of a Humpback Dolphins hump“New information about distinct species across the entire range of humpback dolphins will increase the number of recognized species, and provides the needed scientific evidence for management decisions aimed at protecting their unique genetic diversity and associated important habitats,” said Howard Rosenbaum, director of WCS’s Ocean Giants program and senior author of the paper. The Atlantic humpback dolphin is considered “Vulnerable” according to the IUCN Red List, whereas the Indo-Pacific dolphin species Sousa chinensis is listed as “Near Threatened.” Humpback dolphins are threatened by habitat loss and fishing activity.

The major threat to this newly identified species habitat degradation due to coastal development, mining, and resource exploitation. Although the new species have not been named yet, the scientists are now preparing their formal proposal for the recognition of the new species. Once the International Whaling Commission and the Society for Marine Mammalogy have accepted their proposal, this newly identified species of dolphin will be officially recognized.

Seeing Positive Impacts First Hand

students learning marine scienceThe Marine & Oceanic Sustainability Foundation (MOSF) is raising funds to acquire its first ocean-going research vessel. The acquisition of this vessel is a critical step in the success of MOSF, enabling the movement of our staff of educators, researchers, scientists, journalists, and videographers. This new vessel will allow MOSF and its guests to visit both remote and developed coastal areas worldwide.

An important element of our education mission is a program in which we will sponsor K-12 teachers and college-level marine science students to join us on expeditions. By getting out in the field, our guests will expand their understanding of marine habitats and conservation work going on throughout the world. Our goal is to give teachers and future marine scientists hands-on experience that they can take back to their students and colleagues at home.

By traveling and working with locals across the globe, MOSF can dig deeper into what is working, and what isn’t, in their marine communities.

Research VesselMOSF is committed to working with local teachers, students, and community groups. Through outreach programs like this, people will gain a better understanding of how they are affecting their marine habitats and how they can get involved to assure their long-term health and sustainability.

In our search for a vessel, we are focusing on safety, functionality, fuel and environmental efficiency, and range. The vessel will ideally be between 65 to 85 feet in length and able to accommodate 6 to 15 full-time crew. A range of 3,000 to 6,000 nautical miles is desired along with the ability to reach remote locations under its own power.

It is very important to consider the safety of crew members both in transit and upon arrival at any port of harbor. video research workFunctionality of the areas aboard the vessels for research, living, gear, and diving are paramount. In order minimize costs and impact to the environment, we are carefully considering fuel efficiency and the ability to minimize waste. While no vessel can meet 100% of any need defined, it is important to find vessels that meet as many criteria as possible.

Getting out and meeting with individuals, organizations, and businesses that are engaged in successful marine conservation projects is a fundamental goal. A second is providing educational outreach programs and working with teachers and students globally to share the wonders of our oceans and inspire future generations to be good stewards of our oceans. We sincerely hope that this vessel will be the first of many that we will bring into our organization.