Joel Sartore at the Tennessee Aquarium

Exterior of the Tennessee Aquairum, River Journey, entrance, with a Joel Sartore photograph of a slider (turtle) at the entrance, people going in.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently opened an exhibit featuring the work of award-winning photographer and National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark project. They launched the exhibit with an event featuring Joel Sartore and his son Cole Sartore, who presented their story. I was lucky to purchase a ticket to it before they sold out.

National Geographic Photo Ark Logo in black, gray, and yellow on white background.

Orange spotted filefish - aqua and orange spotted - against a white background.
Orange spotted filefish, Oxymonacanthus longirostris, at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska, 2013. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.
Close up of an octopus, viewpoint looking underneath the creature, viewing its red tentacles and white suckers.
An octopus, Octopoda, at Dallas World Aquarium, Texas, 2013. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.

What is the National Geographic Photo Ark?

“The Photo Ark uses the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.

“The interaction between animals and their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all.

“The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multiyear effort to raise awareness of and find solutions to some of the most pressing issues affecting wildlife and their habitats. The Photo Ark’s three-pronged approach harnesses the power of National Geographic photography and the bold ideas of our explorers. Led by National Geographic Explorer and photographer Joel Sartore, the project aims to document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts.”1

“I want to get people to care, to fall in love, and to take action.” -Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore with frill necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, Joel facing the camera, holding his camera, lizard in white photo box.
Joel Sartore with frill-necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, at a high school in Victoria, Australia, 2017 during a shoot for the National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org. Photo by Douglas Gimesy.

The Photo Ark is the world’s largest collection of animal portraits, documenting species before they disappear. The goal is to get the public to care, while there’s still time. Sartore knows we can save species from extinction. He’s photographed over 15,000 species so far. His goal is to photograph all 25,000 species in captivity in zoos, aquariums, and wildlife sanctuaries around the world. Here’s a short video about his work:

And here’s another video regarding the Photo Ark and the Extinction Crisis:

Lucky Me

I’ve been a big fan of Sartore’s for many years, not just because of his photography but his call for conservation and love for the species we are losing. A few years ago, my spouse even gifted me an autographed copy of Sartore’s National Geographic Photo Basics: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Great Photography. I wrote about Sartore in 2019 when The Photo Ark Vanishing: The World’s Most Vulnerable Animals was first published. I watched a three-episode documentarian PBS series titled Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark with my son when he was 6.

When I heard about this event, I knew the tickets would be limited and sell out quickly. That’s why I say I’m lucky that I got a ticket!

From the emails about the event, I expected to attend a 30-minute talk with Joel Sartore and his son, Cole, and then be able to tour the Aquarium. But the talk lasted for an hour, and it was inspiring! They told funny family stories and the journey of the Photo Ark.

Joel Sartore speaking at bottom right, with a large screen projection featuring a bison.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
Joel and Cole Sartore looking out at an audience, wood paneled background.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

The Tennessee Aquarium Exhibit

After, I got to tour the Aquarium and eat fancy hors d’oeuvres. They served beverages in real glasses and used paper plates and bamboo forks for food. I appreciated this since most places in the Southeast still serve everything in plastic and styrofoam.

Today we are losing species at rates 1,000 times greater than ever before.” -Joel Sartore

I’ve been to the Tennessee Aquarium many times, often with my young son who often flies through exhibits (though this seems to be improving with age). I appreciated the Aquarium more that night, not just because I could linger at my leisure this time, but also because of Sartore’s inspiring words. He called the audience to action in his talk and said that we should find something we are passionate about and do something about it. He said to consider what we can do to help and inspire others to help. I thought I am already doing that! and felt good that I use my website to highlight environmental issues, promote solutions, and inspire others.

There are about two dozen of these large banners of Joel Sartore Photo Ark photography throughout both buildings at the Tennessee Aquarium, and it will run through the end of 2024. You should go see them if you have the opportunity! Here are just a few:

Close up of a southern flying squirrel on a black background.
Southern Flying Squirrel, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Spotted Salamander, black with yellow spots, on white background.
Spotted Salamander, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Close up of a Nashville crayfish, showing head and claws only, on a black background.
Nashville Crayfish, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Macaroni penguin, back facing camera with wings out, white background.
Macaroni Penguin, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.

Other Exhibits

I’m not a professional photographer, but I captured a couple of cool photographs of my own that evening.

Large blue fish, close up of its face.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
Electric eel staring through an aquarium, red with small eyes.
Electric eel. Photo by Marie Cullis

My favorite exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium are the ones that teach about plastic, pollution, and saving turtles.

Metal bin with plastic trash collected from the Tennessee River. Exhibit text on lime green background.
Exhibit showing plastic trash collected from the Tennessee River at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Exhibit showing human objects in a river basin, includes a car battery, a tire, a cell phone, and other plastic objects.
Exhibit showing human objects in a river basin at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Exhibit on saving turtles, includes exhibit panels, graphics, and interactive monitor.
Exhibit on saving turtles at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also took photos of a plastic art piece at the Aquarium and added it to my Plastic Art Projects page.

The best part, for me, was that I got to personally meet Joel Sartore just before I left. I shook his hand and told him how much I loved his work. Our conversation was brief but meaningful, and something I’ll always remember.

“This is the best time ever to save species because so many need our help.” -Joel Sartore

Visit the Tennessee Aquarium when you have the chance! Also, please support The Photo Ark! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

red eyed tree frog, bright green skin, orange feet, red eyes, black background.
Red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, photographed in Seattle, Washington, 2011. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.

 

Links:

National Geographic Photo Ark

Joel Sartore

Tennessee Aquarium

Footnote:

Tokitae Died at the Miami Seaquarium

Lolita/Tokitae the orca with her head just above the pool's surface at the Miami Seaquarium.
Photo by Leonardo Dasilva on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Tokitae has died.

This is the second captive orca to die in captivity in the US this year, as we lost Kiska at Marineland Ontario/Niagara Falls in March.

She was so close to being back in the ocean, where she belonged. Scientists even believe her mother is still living in the Pacific Northwest and that they could’ve possibly been reunited someday.

Tokitae, formerly known as Lolita, lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 50 years. The marine amusement park recently signed an agreement to release her back to the Pacific Northwest, and you can read the updates here. This effort took many years and involved scientists, marine biologists, activists, documentarians, writers, etc. The owner of the Indianapolis Colts offered to pay for her transport from Miami to the west coast. The Lummi Nation was going to monitor and care for Tokitae in her new home. The wheels were set in motion and the plans were established.

But it was too late, the Miami Seaquarium should’ve let her go years ago.

Lolita/Tokitae the orca jumping out of the pool straight up at the Miami Seaquarium, trainers and audience in background.
Photo by Rick Webb on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

I cried pretty hard when I saw the press release from the Whale Sanctuary Project. I really believed Tokitae was going home.

The Friends of Toki and the Whale Sanctuary Project were the two organizations actively working to get her back to the ocean. But there were other individuals and organizations that helped raise awareness and money for over a decade. Thank you to everyone who ever advocated for Tokitae, whether you wrote about her, filmed her, protested for her release, raised money, or raised awareness about her. So many of us loved her and cared about her. She will always be in our hearts.

Kiska Died Alone

Kiska swimming in her tank, blue water surrounding her.
Kiska at MarineLand in 2017. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Kiska is dead.

I cried when I saw the announcement from The Whale Sanctuary Project. Though I never met this orca, she was in my heart. I had hoped that she’d be one of the first orcas to be relocated to the sanctuary.

“The news is devastating to all of us who have been working toward the time when she could be retired to sanctuary.” -Lori Marino, President of The Whale Sanctuary Project1

Kiska at Marineland Canada in 2011 in her tank, with silhouetted people looking through the glass.
Kiska, the orca that lived alone at Marineland until her death in 2023. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media.

Kiska’s Sad Life

MarineLand Canada announced that Kiska, the loneliest orca, died of a bacterial infection on March 9, 2023. She had been there since 1979, captured as a calf near Iceland (along with Keiko, the star of Free Willy) and taken from her family. She suffered the loss of all 5 of her own babies under MarineLand’s care. “One of them didn’t even survive long enough to be named. Orcas feel deep, complex emotions, and the bond between mother and child is so profound that it is hard to imagine the grief and trauma that Kiska would have suffered in each of her bereavements.”2

Worse, Kiska had been living alone in her small tank since 2011. Read this article about her life.

The video below shows how lonely, bored, and unstimulated she was in 2021.

The marine amusement park has been under investigation for animal cruelty for several years. Animal Justice, an animal advocacy and legal group in Canada, worked to help Kiska by filing legal complaints on her behalf, including when “disturbing videos were shared showing the orca floating listlessly and slamming her body against the side of her tank.”3

Animal Justice says they are devastated by her death. They are calling for renewed interest in charges against MarineLand “over the cruel and illegal living conditions that the facility forced Kiska to endure. Orcas are incredibly social animals, but Kiska had no one by her side since 2011, and suffered from agonizing loneliness as well as a lack of space and mental stimulation in her small barren tank. Under federal and provincial laws, it’s illegal to cause animals suffering and distress, which includes psychological distress stemming from boredom and isolation.”4

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland. Canada, 2011
Kiska, a lone orca at MarineLand Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

We Must Learn and Take Action

We have to keep trying, keep learning, and keep calling for action. We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go.

Kiska was the last orca living in captivity in Canada since the 2019 passing of Bill S-203. This law made it illegal to breed or import marine mammals into captivity. However, the whales and dolphins currently in captivity at Marineland were exempted from these laws. “Her death marks the end of legal orca captivity in the country.”5

“No other orcas [in Canada] will endure the heartbreaking suffering she faced.” -Camille Labchuk, Animal Justice6

Animal Justice plans to continue investigating MarineLand Canada and urges support for other projects. “It is heartbreaking to know that Kiska will never get to experience freedom, but we hope this tragedy spurs support for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and that other whales at MarineLand will be able to live out of the rest of their lives in a safe environment with hundreds of times more space than the tiny tanks they currently endure.”7

The Whale Sanctuary Project agrees. “The loss of Kiska will only intensify the urgency of our team to help Marineland relocate the approximately 34 belugas and five dolphins who remain there.”8 They ended their statement with this:

“Meanwhile, we can only ask that Marineland be fully transparent about the circumstances surrounding Kiska’s passing. But in the end, we know that no words can explain away a lifetime of pain and misery as experienced by a deeply intelligent, social, family-centered being who had the terrible misfortune to become known as the loneliest whale in the world.”9

Don’t give up. We can save the others.

Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Footnotes:

Trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina

All photos in this article were taken by me. All Rights Reserved.

The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.
The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.

This year, we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’d only ever been there once, in 2003, just before Hurricane Isabel altered parts of the barrier islands. We enjoyed the landscapes, the nature reserves, the wildlife, the quaint towns, and of course, the beaches.

Natural Beauty

The Outer Banks are a string of barrier islands that span and protect nearly the entire coast of North Carolina. As an Outer Banks Guide explained, “They are made entirely of sand, without the keel of rock that anchors most islands firmly to the earth. It is a fascinat­ingly evanescent phenomenon in geological terms, a landform so transient that changes are visible from year to year.”1 Though there is a lot of development, there are vast natural areas, preserves, dunes, and beaches. We saw inspiring sun rises on the ocean side and gorgeous sunsets on the sound side.

Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk with a dock at center.
Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk, Duck, NC.

Wildlife

There were more birds and crabs than I can list, as well as deer and other animals. Pelicans seemed to enjoy showing off their graceful glide just inches above the sea. Sandpipers and terns poked into the sand seeking food. A few times, I sat really still on the beach when there weren’t a lot of people around, and I became surrounded by ghost crabs! The Outer Banks have laws and protected areas for wildlife throughout the islands. They restricted humans from some places to protect bird nests:

We even saw sea turtle tracks!

Sea turtle tracks on the sand.
Sea turtle tracks at Oregon Inlet, NC.

But sadly, we also found a dead sea turtle. We visited an area called Oregon Inlet and had a picnic snack on the beach. Then we walked along the beach and picked up trash.

The beach along Oregon Inlet, seaweed and shells dot the edge of the water.
The beach along Oregon Inlet, NC.

In the distance, I could see something big with orange stripes and wasn’t sure what it was until we got right up to it. Once I realized that it was a deceased sea turtle, I cried. I don’t know what caused its death, but I was sorry that it had lost its life. When I went to report the turtle, I discovered that spray paint markings like these indicate that this turtle had already been reported. Scientists document the animal’s species, sex, and age, and also extract genetic material to study and to better understand those species.

Dead sea turtle with orange spray paint lines on the sand.
Deceased sea turtle with orange spray paint markings.

The National Park Service has many sites in the Outer Banks, including several lighthouses and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and they had one on Ocracoke Island that offered sea turtle education. My son learned a lot from the rangers and their exhibit.

My son listened to the National Park Service employees and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks.
My son listened to the National Park Service rangers and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks. National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island. Turtle shells, figurines, a skull, and signage on a table.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.

Trash

As usual for my family, we picked up litter and beachcombed. Following are three of the piles we accumulated, containing a range of items – bottles of sunscreen, pieces of toys, Styrofoam/polystyrene, pieces of nylon rope, fireworks debris, food wrappers, plastic bags and film, and many, many small pieces of plastic. I uploaded images of each individual item into the Litterati app.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

As you can see, we found quite a variety of items, some recognizable and some not! Some of these items likely washed up on the beach from other places or fell off of boats, but others were obviously left behind. It’s so important to remember to leave the beach cleaner than you found it! Plastic pollution exponentially increases annually and is harming everything in the food chain, including humans.

Below are a few of my favorite finds – a broken green-haired plastic mermaid, a fishermen’s glove, and two missile-shaped diving weights that we ended up using and keeping!

I also found these goggles, which at first I thought someone had dropped. But upon closer examination, I noticed that these had been in the ocean long enough to grow barnacles:

Jennette’s Pier

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Located in Nags Head, NC, and used for sightseeing and fishing, this pier is unique. It was originally built in 1939 by the Jennette family, hence the name. The North Carolina Aquarium Society bought it in 2003 with the intention of building an educational outpost for the Aquarium, but Hurricane Isabel severely damaged the pier later that same year. The Aquarium rebuilt the 1000-foot-long, concrete pier with educational panels throughout and it reopened in 2011.2 It is LEED certified and has 3 wind turbines:

""Harnessing

Wind turbine, looking from the bottom, almost straight up. Sky in background.
Wind turbine at Jennette’s Pier.

They had exhibit panels on birds and marine mammals and shorebirds, such as this one:

"Sea Turtle Rescue" sign explaining how sea turtles are rescued.
“Sea Turtle Rescue” sign at Jennette’s Pier.

They had others on many topics, including surfing, ocean processes, fishing, and trash. In fact, they had sponsored recycling stations for items like cigarette butts and fishing line:

PVC tube recycling station for fishing line.
Recycling station for fishing line.
PVC tube recycling station for cigarette butts.
Recycling station for cigarette butts, to be recycled by TerraCycle.

The Pier House features a small, free series of North Carolina Aquariums interactive exhibits. I highly recommend visiting this pier if you’re ever on the Outer Banks!

My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks, with fish at top.
My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks.

Other Cool Finds

Outer Banks Brewing Station

We ate at this brewery and restaurant, which was once featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. While we went to several good restaurants, I’m featuring this one because it uses wind energy! It was the first wind-powered brewery in the United States, and the first business to produce wind power on the Outer Banks. They use 100% of the turbine’s energy to supplement their electricity. Over the course of its operating life (at least 30 years), this 10 kW Bergey GridTek system will offset approximately 1.2 tons of air pollutants and 250 tons of greenhouse gases.3 Oh, and we enjoyed the food and brew!

My husband inside of the Outer Banks Brewing Station, with a flight of beer in front of him on a table.
My husband at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, preparing for his flight (of beer)!
Wind turbine against blue sky, at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.
Wind turbine at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.

The Surfin’ Spoon

This frozen yogurt shop in Nags Head was my son’s absolute favorite, and they also offered dairy-free ice cream treats that were delicious! This shop, owned by a former professional surfer, collects and donates money to Surfers for Autism, a non-profit that provides free surf sessions to children and adults with autism and other related developmental delays and disabilities.4

My son peeking through the Surfin' Spoon's sign.
My son peeking through the Surfin’ Spoon’s sign.

Dog friendly

Almost everywhere on the Outer Banks is super dog friendly! I found this pleasantly surprising and hope to bring our dog there someday.

Dog prints in the sand.

Overall, A Lovely Place to Travel

We saved up for this trip and felt privileged to be able to travel the Outer Banks, taking in many sights from Corolla all the way down to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We saw several lighthouses, National Park Service sites, and other places that I didn’t have time to mention above. I highly recommend the Outer Banks for its beauty, dedication to conservation, and relaxed atmosphere. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.
My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.

 

Footnotes: