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Book Review: A year at Lazy Point

I adored Song for the Blue Ocean. The first time I read it was a formative moment in my development as a young marine biologist and conservationist. When I picked up Eye of the Albatross and, later, Voyage of the Turtle, I expected that same magic, but could not find it. Safina’s subsequent books were not bad. Both were evocative, beautifully written, and stirring tributes to the natural world. But their stories felt too familiar, like listening to a contemporary symphony built around a Bach fugue or watching a remake of a classic movie. So I approached The View from Lazy Point with the same expectations, as yet another supplement to Song for the Blue Ocean. I was mistaken.

The View from Lazy Point is a dramatic departure from Carl Safina’s early work. The book follows one year in Safina’s life, centered around a small house on Long Island. Safina takes us through each month at Lazy Point, tracking the migration of birds and sea life. We join him on beach walks, fishing expeditions, and visits with friends and neighbors, during which he reveals his personal philosophy on the state of our world. His time in Lazy Point is punctuated with trips abroad, exploring the arctic and antarctic, central America, and Pacific islands. On these trips he meets with locals, scientists, and indigenous peoples. Those conversations are filled with compassion and empathy, connecting the reader with those most affected by our changing world.

A few moments in this vast and comprehensive journey have stuck with me days after finishing this book. I am neither jaded nor cynical, but after reading hundreds of books about ocean conservation and environmentalism over the last decade and a half, I am rarely surprised by their content or conclusions. When I encounter an idea that forces me to stop in my tracks and spend a few hours or, in this case, days chewing over a new nugget, I know I’m holding a rare and important addition to the growing body of conservation literature.

Safina describes the stranding and eventual death of a dolphin. Dolphin strandings are not, in themselves, new, and I’ve participated in several. What makes this one different is the way in which it was handled. Long after it was clear to rescue workers that the dolphin could not survive, they kept it alive, not out of compassion or the belief that there was still a chance that it might make it, but because the public was there, and no one wanted to euthanize a marine mammal in front of the public and risk being branded a dolphin killer. The animal was made to suffer needlessly because we weren’t comfortable with the idea of killing it. When the transport vehicle arrive, they loaded the dolphin on, causing more stress, and quietly euthanized it as they drove away. We’ve talked about misplaced outrage in the marine mammal community (see this ancient post on the cult of dolphin worship – Getting a Sense of Porpoise) but never have I seen it laid out so clearly, with such depth and compassion.

Safina’s final adventure, to King George Island to meet with biologists studying penguin colonies, is heartbreaking, not for what it contains, but for what it leaves out. During his stay, Safina describes a day applying flipper tags to five hundred Adélie penguin chicks. His description of the process and the importance of this long term monitoring study is earnest and naïve. As he discusses the decline in penguin populations, attributing it to many effects associated with climate change, I am forced to depart from this captivating narrative and take a moment to reflect upon the grim reality.

It is sad to think that Safina was writing these words perhaps only months or weeks before a study was published in Nature, linking increased penguin mortality and declining health to the very flipper tags that were being applied to these chicks. As my co-blogger discussed before, tagging animals can have very unfortunate consequences. This is part of the process of science. We cannot observe a system without altering it, and we cannot always anticipate negative consequences. This is not a reason to halt scientific research, but rather a reminder that we must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate our methods, replacing those that are found wanting and strive to minimize the damage we cause even as we discover the true extent of human impact upon our world. [UPDATE: Please see Carl Safina’s response in the comments thread and this report from BBC News regarding the penguin declines]

The structure of The View from Lazy Point lends itself to an enduring place in conservation literature. It is a snapshot in time, one year in the history of a world on the verge of rapid and dramatic change. Today it feels familiar, but what will readers a decade away see when they visit Carl Safina’s cabin at Lazy Point?

Safina, Carl (2011) The View from Lazy Point. Henry Colt and Company, LLC. New York, New York, USA, 401 pgs.

Saraux C, Le Bohec C, Durant JM, Viblanc VA, Gauthier-Clerc M, Beaune D, Park YH, Yoccoz NG, Stenseth NC, & Le Maho Y (2011). Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change. Nature, 469 (7329), 203-6 PMID: 21228875

Marine science and conservation. Deep-sea ecology. Population genetics. Underwater robots. Open-source instrumentation. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.

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