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:

Book review: “100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species” by Jeff Corwin

Last updated on February 11, 2024.

“Every year, more than 20,000 species tragically disappear from our planet.”-Jeff CorwinBook cover of "100 Heartbeats" by Jeff Corwin, with Corwin's profile facing a rhinoceros nose.

Jeff Corwin has hosted many television shows about animals. But he’s so much more than a  popular television show host. He’s a biologist, wildlife conservationist, educator, advocate, and voice for endangered species across the planet.

This book caught my eye at the local used bookstore and I had to buy it. This is a very intelligible book meant for all audiences. Corwin did not write it academically but he does cite an immense amount of research and scientific studies. I honestly had a hard time putting it down even though it deals with a depressing subject matter. But Corwin countered much of the sorrowful information with stories of progressive movements and hope. And all of it is so important for us to know.

The Title

The title comes from the most critically endangered species we are about to lose which has fewer than 100 individual living members left. All are direct consequences of the actions and behaviors of humans. Here, Jeff Corwin talks about the film and book:

I have not been able to find the companion documentary they referred to yet, but if I do I will update this post.

The Contents

Corwin explained the story of each species delicately yet methodically. I read one review where Corwin was criticized for jumping around from one species to the next in different regions of the world. But one glance at the table of contents reveals that he was clearly dividing his book into thematic sections about the major human causes of endangered species. The sections were:

    • Global warming and habitat loss
    • The introduction of non-native species, pollution, and disease
    • The exploitation of animals for products and economy

I will say that that same review applauded Corwin for his genuineness and for highlighting how we can motivate people around the world to change.

“If you’ve ever doubted that a small group of people can make a big difference in the face of a tide that seems inexorable, organizations like the WWF and the IRF are proof that such a change is possible.” -Jeff Corwin

The Endangered Species list is vast

At the time this book was written, there were 16,928 endangered species in the world. I was hoping that that number had decreased since 2009, but I figured it probably increased at least slightly.
But I was devastated to discover that as of 2024, there are 44,000 endangered species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are the global authority on endangered species. Corwin cited the IUCN heavily in this book. If you’re not familiar with the IUCN, please check out this 3-minute video that will help you learn about them:

Corwin explained that there were 3,246 critically endangered species (the highest risk category for endangerment of extinction by the IUCN) in 2009. He wrote: “Whether we realize it or not, we need them…We’re inextricably bound with nature. When we put the survival of the natural world in jeopardy, we simultaneously put our survival in jeopardy.” We’ve harmed landscapes and habitats and entire ecosystems, and it’s going to hurt every species, ourselves included.

“We can’t fall back on letting nature take its course when we’ve changed the land and its inhabitants in ways that nature never intended.” -Jeff Corwin

Habitat Destruction

Habitat destruction is the number one cause of species extinction worldwide. It makes sense – as the human population increases, human activities spread and drive the land to a state in which the land can no longer support the indigenous species. Urban sprawl, logging, mining, and commercial fishing are all culprits, but agriculture is the main source of habitat destruction.
An orange digger clearing a forested area.
Deforestation and habitat destruction is the number one cause of species endangerment. Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay.

Oil & Drilling

We all know oil spills are bad. When animals try to lick off oil from their fur or feathers, “the effect is toxic and can induce kidney failure.” They also rely on their fur or feathers for warmth, but when they’re coated in oil, the animal can freeze to death. “Unless they’re rescued – a monumental feat in remote regions – animals affected by oil spills typically die of hypothermia.” This makes me want to stop driving immediately. How do we stop supporting this global need and greed for oil?

Close up of Gas pumps. Image by David ROUMANET from Pixabay.
Image by David ROUMANET from Pixabay.

Poaching, Slaughter & the Exotic Pet trade

Poaching is another major cause of species endangerment and extinction, although it is not always defined as just the slaughter of wild animals. It often includes animals captured for the exotic pets trade, for which there is a huge demand on the black market. Humans remove those animals from their habitats, affecting the ecosystem. This reduces the populations in more ways than one – since they do not reproduce in that ecosystem, their numbers obviously decline further.

Slaughter for commercial profit is most visible from the slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses. Humans kill these large animals for only one body part, the tusks or the horns. They leave the rest of the animal to rot. My family and I recently visited the Nashville Zoo and I was impressed with their exhibits about critically endangered species. I took a photo of one about the rhinos because the image so shocked me that it moved me to tears:

Exhibit of a slaughtered rhino from the Nashville Zoo. Photo by me.
Exhibit from the Nashville Zoo. Photo by me.

We must do better.

“While the dinosaurs disappeared as the result of a natural but catastrophic event, the current causes of extinction are largely the result of human behavior.” -Jeff Corwin

Sepia toned photograph African elephant walking with the sky in the background. Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.
African elephant. Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.

Inspiration

Even though the book made me quite depressed about the state of species across the Earth, the book was very inspiring. It inspired me to feature this review of the book, to read more on the topics, and to write future posts on the subject. Corwin offered hope at every turn.

“We’re not powerless, though. As demonstrated by the success story of the American bald eagle, great strides can be made through compassion and dedication.” -Jeff Corwin

Bald eagle feeding a baby eagle in a large nest. Image by skeeze from Pixabay.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay.

I found the dedication Corwin wrote to his daughters particularly inspiring. Here’s part of it:

“To my daughters…you are both so very precious to your mother and me; your optimism and trust, reflected through a lovely lens of innocence, inspires us…While at present the creatures who share Earth with us are in jeopardy, I have faith that my generation will make things right so you and your children will have the opportunity to thrive upon a rich, healthy, and diverse planet. We will not fail you.

That’s beautiful, and it’s exactly how I feel about my own child. My son is precious to me and I do not want to leave a devastated planet behind for him to deal with. I want to be part of the change!

I will not fail him.