Coast Stories

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
 
As summer internships go, combing the beaches of Cape Cod is not a bad gig. That’s why Crystal Bradley, a 19-year-old from Kentucky, jumped at the opportunity to serve at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA. 
 
There was just one problem.
 
“I was terrified of seals!” she says before bursting into laughter.
 
The waters around Monomoy Refuge’s namesake island and mainland waterfront are home to some 50,000 gray and harbor seals, making Crystal’s phobia somewhat less than ideal for the Cape (she says the issue was their size – grays can stretch over 10 feet). But the more she learned about seals, the less she feared them, and now the SCA visitor services intern is helping others better appreciate Monomoy’s rich ecosystems and history.
 
Seals eat fish. A lot of fish. So many, Crystal notes, that fishermen almost hunted the local seal population to extinction until the animals were protected by the federal government in 1972. As the seal numbers grew, so did the presence of great white sharks – and they have been a growing topic of concern and controversy. Last summer, a swimmer was killed by a great white off Wellfleet, MA, and this year shark sightings have prompted recurring beach closures over the past few weeks.
 
Crystal understands the apprehension over great whites but states, statistically, “things like domestic dogs, riptides, and boating accidents” pose a far greater risk than sharks.
 
“I was watching a news report the other day, and they said great whites are ‘lurking’ offshore,” she says, shaking her head. “They live there! Do you ‘lurk’ around your house?”
 
 
To impart information you first have to gather it, so upon arrival at Monomoy, Crystal immersed herself in the refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan, which details a 15-year vision covering process, policy, and compliance; the physical, biological, cultural, and socioeconomic environments of the refuge; and objectives, strategies, and targeted outcomes, among many other topics. “I also took a boat out to the island,” she adds, “and saw the seals, birds, tiger beetles, the lighthouse – first-hand experience that I now relay to other people.”
 
From there, she created a series of new exhibits and activities, including a food web that explains the importance of apex predators, and she began to liaison with local constituent groups. 
 
“I recently met with the seal consortium, the shark conservancy, and the fishermen’s alliance,” Crytal says, “and tried to share facts and enlightened them with science. They said ‘oh, I never knew that before. I’m going to think differently now.’
 
“I love those ‘aha moments.’ Informed decisions are so much better than relying on old wives tales.”
 
Crystal notes that she, too, has learned a lot this summer. While she hopes to pursue a career in conservation, “I’ve discovered that field work is not for me in the long term. It’s too solitary. I really thrive with people and the interaction and education.”
 
As for her seaside neighbors, Crystal smiles. “I’m still personally grossed out by seals,” she admits, but she’s no longer afraid of them. “Educated rather than scared makes a world of difference.” 
 
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
 
Another species making a comeback is the piping plover. Development up and down the East Coast exacted a massive toll on this tiny shorebird but, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, there are encouraging signs. Seven hundred breeding pairs of plovers are now nesting in the Bay State, including one that just hatched four chicks in Boston – the first time the city has seen plover hatchlings in more than 30 years.
 
After taking an ornithology course as part of his studies at Binghamton University, SCA intern Jesse Lofaso packed up for Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, on the state’s North Shore. “I thought I’d only be working with piping plovers,” Jesse states, “but I’ve been monitoring Oystercatchers, doing night jar surveys, tern surveys – I got all this incredible bird experience, which is what I really wanted.”
 
Still, plovers are his Number One assignment. “On any given day,” Jesse says, “I could be placing exclosures, or monitoring to see when they hatch, of if the chicks are still there after a few days, if they’ve been depredated, when they fledge, things like that.”
 
Exclosures – circular metal cages placed over the nests – have proven extremely effective in protecting plover eggs from coyotes, crows, and other predators, as well as inattentive beach-goers. The process, however, must be conducted expertly and swiftly.
 
“When you’re installing exclosures,” Jesse notes, “you disrupt the sand around the nest. But plovers like a flat sand habitat, so our team has to position the enclosure and flatten the sand in less than 15 minutes or the plovers might abandon the nest. 
 
“I like to say we’re the SEAL Team Six of enclosure installations.”
 
 
Jesse also spends time in visitor services, where he’s convinced his supervisor to let him explore a creative approach to engaging patrons. 
 
“When you’re giving group talks about birds — to people who already like birds — you’re not really changing anything,” he reasons. So, after a brief presentation, Jesse will ask his audience questions to spur more meaningful connections. “Interviewing people is better than talking at them,” he insists. “When you speak one-on-one, people are more open to new ideas.”
 
Jesse says one of the things that drew him to Parker River Refuge is the agency’s mission. “I do really like it that, here, we protect wildlife,” he states. “That’s the goal.
 
“I believe it’s wrong to impose what humans want on animals and the environment. No species on this planet is better than any other. All species have a right to exist, and to impede on another species’ existence just philosophically doesn’t make sense to me.”
 
Not everyone will agree may that statement. Philosopher Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” more than 150 years ago while commenting on Charles Darwin’s rule of “natural selection.”
 
Yet like hundreds of other SCA interns in similar roles this summer, Jesse and Crystal are encouraging site visitors to develop their own informed perspectives on our natural world, the many who share it, and what each of us can do to sustain our planet going forward. 
 
In the process, they are turning ordinary days at the beach into extraordinary days of discovery.