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Journeying Oregon’s New Marine Reserves by Bike: Otter Rock

By Chris Rurik and Helen Helfand

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We walk on the ocean floor in Otter Rock Marine Reserve, and we may as well be underwater, the air is so thick with mist. The low tide has exposed a glinting stage of seaweed full of clefts and holes. The ocean churns powerfully just beyond us, nipping at our shoes as we slip around.

Photo: A misty morning at Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: A misty morning at Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

This morning, our bikes are off locked to a signpost. We explore free of our gear, crouching next to tide pools one by one to gaze at the creatures tucked into their corners — hermit crabs behind scraps of kelp, gorgeous green anemones, camouflaged sculpins shaped like small battering rams, purple urchins in rock alcoves. Some tide pools are barren of anything but pebbles and snails, some are clogged with algae, some are living murals more colorful than any art museum’s collection. Movement is as subtle as a barnacle’s tiny cirri waving in the water for nutrients, and the longer we look in a pool, the more we discover. We record shaky videos and laugh at the results.

On a patch of sand we find something so strange we cannot put a name to it. It is a large, red-lipped slab of flesh lying upturned, vulgar and molluskan. The grotesque ‘thing’ leaves us in stitches. Baffled, we take a picture.

Hours pass. There are others out here in the mist, couples in rain slickers and fathers with sons. Otter Rock earned its reputation as a premier tide-pooling site long before it became a marine reserve. One group tells us they have come to find sea stars. So far they have seen none. They look happy anyway as they move away.

A few hundred yards to the south is Devil’s Punchbowl, a pair of collapsed sea caves that storm surge has hollowed into a circular chamber. To the north the rock shelves give way to eelgrass and sand. To sea, waves buck around the fog-obscured humps of Whaleback Rock and Otter Rock, where the last sea otter in Oregon was killed around 1906.

It is a landscape in which we feel exposed, even vulnerable: a single sneaker wave could roil us away like mosquitos in the wind. But the tide pools inspire a curiosity that trounces any fear. They are fascinating ecosystems in miniature, beautiful to observe, each with a unique set of creatures. We think about what will happen when the tide rises, ending these hours of tranquility. Some creatures will ride the chaos of waves into new territory. Some will batten down and cling to the rock.

As for us and the other tide pool tourists, we will be pushed back up onto terra firma.

Video: A montage of the tide pools at Otter Rock Marine Reserve. Video by Helen Helfand and Chris Rurik

This afternoon we strike out for Newport, hub of Oregon’s fascination with marine life, beloved throughout the state for its aquarium, science center, whale watching excursions, scientific laboratories, and seafood restaurants. If any town on this coast can show us how people might engage with these new marine reserves, it will be Newport.

We stop high on the narrow concrete sidewalk of the Yaquina Bay Bridge for our first look. The town rings the gray bay like a crowd around a bonfire. Newport is a cultural hodgepodge. It has one of Oregon’s largest fishing fleets. It has renowned research institutions. It has motels and rental bungalows — more of the no-worries ocean vacation mentality we have been seeing since Manzanita. It has more than its share of poverty, swaths of peeling clapboard houses. It has the typical strip malls and gas stations. It is a diverse place, yes, and looks it from our perch on the bridge. But one thing dominates the scene: water. Everyone’s lives somehow touch the ocean.

How then can the masses participate in the marine reserves? How will a place like Newport capitalize on them?

The marine reserves are built on the idea that public participation makes for stronger conservation, yet so far on our journey we have uncovered few schemes for getting the average person interested. Here, in Oregon’s capital of marine tourism, we will face the question head on.

Photo: Looking south at the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, Oregon. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Looking south at the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, Oregon. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

Our first stop is the renowned Oregon Coast Aquarium, where we resist the temptation to follow the crowds to the sea otter enclosure and go instead into a portal-like concrete building that houses Passages of the Deep, an exhibit boasting three massive tanks that replicate habitats found in Oregon’s ocean: Orford Reef, Halibut Flats, and Open Sea. Glass tunnels pass through the tanks. Inside the Orford Reef tank, we are surrounded by blue-green water, rock crags, and kelp. Fish drift through the habitat, some at eye level close enough to touch: lingcod, cabezon, kelp greenling, and of course rockfish, just about every species that the fishermen have told us about. Yelloweye rockfish, China rockfish, canary rockfish, black rockfish. With their unblinking eyes, downturned mouths, and dorsal fins swept back into a row of spikes, the rockfish look like proud old warriors who survive by moving slow.

The fish seem unbothered by the action in the tunnel. Children shriek and point. Parents herd their families. Teens swing through the crowded passageway, dragging their friends to more things that must be seen. Two young women in aquarium polos approach us and strike up a conversation. They are interns, and they invite us to follow them for an above-the-scenes look at the exhibit. We are being treated to a magic moment, they say.

The warehouse space above the tanks is awash with rippling light. We tiptoe along catwalks between the open tanks, which are deep enough to cause vertigo. Beyond the fish in their habitat we can see the muted crowds, faces pressed to the glass.

After the interns give their spiel about the aquarium — one of Oregon’s best-loved institutions, with over 400 volunteers and 150 volunteer divers — we ask what they know about the new marine reserves. They give the answer we have heard most: they are aware of the marine reserves in a general way, but don’t know many specifics. They can’t say how the aquarium benefits. We change tacks and ask if anyone comes to the aquarium specifically to admire rockfish. They grin and say they don’t think so. Sea otters and sea lions are the main attractions, entertaining with gregarious personalities. Sharks and octopuses also draw crowds. Rockfish, on the other hand, are viewed more as a part of the general oceanscape in the Passages of the Deep than as an attraction in their own right.

Walking back through the aquarium, watching people and visiting the rest of the exhibits, we can see that aquarium’s power lies in the way it puts people in front of animals. It does not flood visitors with facts. Instead, it lets the animals do the talking. The people around us are engrossed with the animals. They laugh at the animals’ antics. They narrate stories about what the animals are up to, give them personalities, interact with them on a creature-to-creature level.

Exhaustive information about the marine reserves would be out of place in the aquarium, we realize. It would distract from the connections being made through the exhibits’ glass. When we were exploring the tide pools, we did not want panels of information. We wanted to see ocean creatures, to gaze at them in person and marvel at their antics, just like the people in the aquarium.

It is hard to imagine the marine reserves competing with the aquarium as a forum for connecting visitors with the ocean’s often-inaccessible life. After all, there are no glass tunnels or “magic moments” in the ocean.

Video: A Rockfish in the Passages of the Deep exhibit at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Video by Chris Rurik

On we go to Hatfield Marine Science Center, blocks away. Its visitor center is the outgrowth of a 49-acre campus of scientific laboratories — the brain center of ocean research in Oregon — and it takes a different approach to showing visitors the ocean.

Information abounds. The octopus tank and tide pool touch basins are mere appetizers for an extensive main course of scientific research. Displays show the questions scientists are trying to answer. We learn about debris dislodged in the Japanese tsunami and how it has circulated through the Pacific, some of it washing up on Oregon’s shores. We read hypotheses for what causes hypoxic events, plumes of low-oxygen seawater that have killed thousands of fish along the coast. The place is dynamic because the stories it tells are unresolved.

While we wait for a docent-led discussion of sea star wasting syndrome to begin, we strike up a conversation with the volunteer at the front desk, who introduces us to the woman who manages the visitor center. She tells us that the marine reserves and ODFW’s human and scientific monitoring efforts are just the kind of story the center exists to tell, but her team does not yet have plans for an exhibit. A few years ago they put up a small display about the designation process. Unexpectedly, it enraged a handful of visitors, and they took it down to keep the peace. But her lack of plans for an exhibit now don’t seem to be due to a fear of visitor reactions. Something else is keeping Hatfield away from the marine reserves.

Instead of answering when we ask how an exhibit on the marine reserves might be designed, she leads us down a back hallway and deposits us in the office of Dr. Bill Hanshumaker, a man who is that rare combination of scientist and communicator, affable and thorough. Hanshumaker lights up as we explain what we want to know.

Like good research, Hanshumaker raises more questions than he answers. We start by asking generally about marine reserves. The conversation quickly turns to their environmental potential. Will they grow into robust ecosystems, as promised, boosting fisheries and protecting the ocean? He says it is much too early to know. Though he thinks the community-driven marine reserve process is the correct one, he says, “I also am not as naive to think that this process is addressing all the questions that marine reserves are going to cause in the future.” Everything from the size of the reserves to the changing chemistry of seawater to the amount of public participation have unknown impacts and interactions, and he says that it is impossible to foresee their effectiveness.

“You do a study for two years,” he says, “then two years later the El Niño event happens. Or hypoxia. Or ocean acidification. Your research doesn’t tell you all the answers. It just tells you your answers during that time, during those conditions.”

Regardless of their scientific ambiguity, he agrees that marine reserves should serve as a tool for educating the public, even drive tourism. But Hatfield is not responsible for the marine reserves; at best it can partner with those who are. Hatfield might help the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife develop interpretive signs for places like the Otter Rock tide pools — Hanshumaker studies how people read and learn from displays — telling people what ‘marine reserve’ means and where they lie.

But going past definitions and regulations would get tricky. Hanshumaker tells us that Hatfield wanted to do an exhibit relating the science of larval dispersal to the spacing of Oregon’s marine reserves. It would have explained the idea of connectivity between marine reserves. But scientists vetoed the exhibit because they do not yet have the scientific evidence to show that the marine reserves are in any way connected by larval dispersal. Scientific monitoring efforts at the marine reserves are only beginning, so few claims can be made about the marine reserves’ effect. Hatfield cut the marine reserves from its exhibit and focused just on larval biology.

Though it makes sense that it is hard to interpret data that does not exist, Hanshumaker’s attitude toward the marine reserves leaves us a little baffled. Hatfield’s visitor center exists to empower a more scientifically literate public, and the marine reserves exist in part as research reserves and loci of ocean awareness.

But maybe an exhibit would be premature, even counterproductive. Maybe the masses need a compelling story, not just a passel of questions. Offering hopeful hypotheses before they have been tested is foolhardy. Maybe Hanshumaker’s willingness to quietly say he doesn’t yet know is a merit.

Photo: Dr. Bill Hanshumaker in his office at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: Dr. Bill Hanshumaker in his office at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

Along Bay Boulevard, the working waterfront of Newport, we pass fish-processing warehouses, seafood restaurants, gift stores, a worn bait and tackle shop, and weedy lots behind fences. Gulls and sea lions loaf around. There are several charter fishing outfits, their windows collaged with snapshots of trophy catches. Many incongruous things hunch together on this bayfront.

A wooden deck between buildings takes us to a railing overlooking the bay. Below us to our left, a charter fishing boat is moored having just returned from a day at sea. Behind it floats a low platform with fish-cleaning stations. The guests, a three-generation family ranging from elementary schoolers to grandparents in camouflage hunting coats, watch as the boat’s crew expertly cleans the day’s haul of black rockfish. Fillets go into plastic bags; carcasses go into red bins. It’s an industrious yet calm scene, the end of a family’s long day at sea.

Video: A charter fishing boat’s crew cleans the day’s catch in Newport. Video by Chris Rurik.

A bit farther down Bay Boulevard we enter the storefront for Marine Discovery Tours and meet owner Fran Matthews.

Matthews and her husband founded Marine Discovery Tours two decades ago. It complements the indoor aquarium by giving ocean-lovers a chance to get out on the ocean itself. It is no mere whale-watching trip. Expert naturalists guide the 2-hour voyage, filling it with hands-on learning opportunities. The experience has become one of the main attractions in Newport. Of course, many visitors take the tour just to see whales, so the company strives to get them interested in the ocean on a deeper level. Even in Oregon, where people treat steamed Dungeness crab legs with a near-religious reverence, most have never held a live crab.

Marine Discovery Tours gives them the opportunity not just to hold a crab, but to learn about its life cycle and the sustainability of its fishery. The naturalists are masters at making the explorations personally meaningful for those on board. They give facts, offer experiences, and ask open-ended questions. If there are engineers on board, they may get into a discussion on wave energy. If there are farmers, they may talk about how excess fertilizer ends up in the ocean, causing cancerous growth.

“People love learning,” says Matthews, “if it’s presented right.”

Matthews was once a fisheries journalist, then a halibut fisherwoman. Though she tells us amazing stories of catching tens of thousands of pounds of halibut in 24 hours and perilously stacking the huge fish like cordwood in the hold, we can see that she is a teacher at heart, full of experience and gentle in manner.

Once again, like a PR team for a B-list celebrity, we ask if anyone comes on her tours interested in rockfish.

“No,” she says, then grins cheekily. “Until you make them interested.”

School groups often charter the boat. Crabbing is a favorite activity. After teaching the students how a crab pot works, the naturalists ask for a volunteer to help bait the trap. After choosing the most eager child, the naturalist produces a slimy fish head or whole filleted carcass — a rockfish, more often than not — and explains, as the child recoils, that local tradition demands that they kiss the bait for good luck. The whole class shrieks.

Using a visceral, memorable moment like that, the naturalists can then talk about rockfish recycling: the fish lived happily on the reef, the ecosystem benefited from its presence, a fisherman caught it for sport, a chef turned the fillets into food, and now the students can return the rest of its body to the sea, where all kinds of creatures will reuse its nutrients. Marine Discovery Tours thrives on stories that tie together pure natural history and the impact of human activity.

Right now, Matthews has no plans to create a program focused on the marine reserves. The boat’s two-hour excursions have a finely tuned, variable route calibrated to weather conditions, the timing of tour groups, and the strength of guest’s stomachs. Going to Otter Rock would require a long, often rough run. It is too far, and there is plenty to see close by.

Nonetheless, she begins to spout ideas for how she might educate guests about marine reserves: laminated species keys, 3-D models, videos with underwater footage. “This is not rocket science,” she says.

But little of what she suggests is unique to marine reserves. In talking with her, we come to understand that most tourists need more basic information than the marine reserves’ complex story of diverse stakeholder perceptions and uncertain science. If as an educator you must start with basics like healthy ecosystems and food webs, the marine reserves do not offer much of a special advantage. Most any stretch of the ocean will get people engaged. Most tourists have a limited attention span and need to learn in a way relevant to where they are from, so you must be able to give them hands-on experiences, easily understood cause-and-effect stories, and a somewhat customized experience.

Needless to say, the Oregon marine reserve story we are uncovering is too nuanced for the average tourist — not everyone has the time to take a three-week bike trip to tease out its complexities — and will be until the actual ecological effectiveness of the marine reserves is better understood. In the meantime, the story will remain the province of those whom it directly affects.

Photo: The ocean from Highway 1 at dusk. Photograph by Helen Helfand.
Photo: The ocean from Highway 1 at dusk. Photograph by Helen Helfand.

We have met many people along the coast. When we explain our journey, most of them have to ask what exactly a marine reserve is. Our default answer: it’s basically like a national park, but underwater.

Is that accurate? Newport leaves us wondering.

National parks are iconic, inextricably linked with tourism. They are figureheads for conservation in America because so many people have made pilgrimages to see their wonders.

Are tourists what the marine reserves need? Must they become iconic? Newport does not lack for ocean-loving tourists, but the marine reserves are not well situated to receive them. There are better places for people to connect with the ocean, clearer stories to tell about conservation along the coast.

We realize that we have been assuming that the more people engaged with the marine reserves, the better. That had us thinking about tourists coming in masses. But maybe the marine reserves don’t need the masses at this stage in their development. Maybe the masses would distract from what they really need: the attention of the dedicated group of scientists, community leaders, fishermen, and conservationists who will be able to shepherd them along until their story becomes clear.

People can learn from the marine reserve story as it stands, incomplete as it is — that is why we are telling it. But for the average coastal visitor, for now, Oregon’s marine reserves will remain as murky as most of the rest of the ocean. And that’s okay.