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  • Writer's pictureMadison Churchill

We are the eyes below the water, and the voices above it. We freedive for conservation.

When we dip into the icy Salish Sea, we become part of the ecosystem. We interact and connect in a way that’s unimaginable from land. We see the towering kelp strands, the shimmers of baby herring, and the murky fog of phytoplankton. It connects us. The feeling of the ice cool water grips one and brings forth a profound sense of place. We are inspired to protect this ecosystem because we know what’s down there. We see it, and we are in awe of it.

Everything is connected in such an intricate web. By getting in the water, we are better able to understand this web, and we can learn from a first-hand view. The ecosystem is fragile, but resilient. Now that may sound contradictory, but it really isn’t if you think about it. Left to its own devices, the ecosystem will regulate itself like a finely tuned machine. But this creates vulnerability, like a puzzle requiring each piece. Every single element to the web, every creature no matter how minute, needs the others to live. Everything eats something else, and in turn provides benefits to yet another species. It’s almost unfathomable how perfectly the flora and fauna of the Salish Sea cooperate and interact to create a flourishing ecosystem.

However, when you take something away, this all changes. We saw this with the Sea Star Wasting Disease. We see it with flourishing urchins, breeding faster than they are being eaten, and in turn eating kelp forests at an alarming rate. We see fierce algae blooms that create dead zones. We have seen countless instances where the removal of one or more species from a web may be detrimental. Now, we are seeing it with our Southern Resident Orcas. In theory, this would create a much larger rift, and much more noticeable difference. But we begin to observe it at ground-level, witnessing minute changes and variations over time in the water. This inspires us to fight harder to protect the sea we love so much.

This type of exploration allows us to open up other avenues of discourse. Having our unique perspective, we are better able to communicate our findings with policymakers and scientists. When we witness the topography and ecosystem connections underwater, we are then able to translate and communicate this information with important research groups such as Sea Doc Society, Friday Harbor Labs, and WDFW Urchin Division. By working together and strengthening these interdisciplinary connections, we are better able to put our specific, localized knowledge towards a broader variety of solutions.

By photographing and writing about our experiences, we can introduce the world to this place we love so much. Seeing is believing, and witnessing the wonders of the underwater world promotes the agency and willingness to protect. By freediving and sharing this experience with others, we hope to inspire wonder, strike passion, create community, and develop avenues for involvement in conservation.

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