Category Archives: Animals and Wildlife

Benefits of the Unexpected

Volunteering at Gallop NYC

Howard Beach, NY is nestled cozily into the Southwest portion of Queens. Across its Northern and Western borders runs the very busy Belt Parkway, a major thoroughfare transporting thousands of travelers to points between Staten Island and Long Island every day.

JFK Airport – the busiest of the 7 airports that serve NYC – juts up against the Eastern border. And Jamaica Bay and its estuary curl up along the South.

The neighborhoods within Howard Beach reflect its history. Each area showcases the housing style typical at the time of development.

One neighborhood, built directly after WWII, spans street after street of quaint cape-cod and raised-ranch homes on 50 x 100 lots, with tiny, neatly maintained, front yards.

A few streets over you’ll find larger two-story homes with Dutch-angled roofs, built in the 1950s. Each with street-level entries jutting out from the main house like a chin. These homes have bigger front yards – – almost every one delineated by ornate gates and fences.

The newest neighborhoods have 6-story red-brick apartment buildings and shared condos.

Some of the housing styles in Howard Beach

More than 26,000 people live in this busy, vibrant, urban 2.3 square mile area that is Howard Beach.

This is a fact I find almost impossible to believe as I stand looking out across a large, outdoor, riding arena surrounded by trees and listening to the cluck-cluck-cluck of a few chickens and the neighing of horses and ponies.

Two white geese are splashing in a small plastic kiddie pool off to the side.

Behind me, a long red stable barn runs out towards two fields where horses are stretching their legs and enjoying the morning sun.

A few more horses and ponies are grazing on fresh hay in a gated paddock attached to the side of the barn.

It’s hard to believe I disembarked from the busy NYC Subway’s A-Train less than a mile from here!

I am at Sunrise Stables in Howard Beach, Queens, one of Gallop NYC’s three locations.

I am here to volunteer for the morning – – helping work in the barn and lend a hand wherever needed.

Gallop NYC provides therapeutic horsemanship to veterans and people with developmental, emotional, social, and physical disabilities.

Their goal is to help individuals with physical, verbal, and learning skills… inspiring them to live their lives as fully and independently as possible.

Weekly Therapeutic Riding Sessions are led by PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructors. Trained volunteers are on hand to assist each rider.

The lessons provide the opportunity for students to learn how to ride while setting individual goals.

These goals translate to the world beyond the stable.

Learning how to build a bond with a horse, how to care for a horse, how to lead a horse, understanding how horses perceive the world – each these develop skills useful in daily life, such as: balance, control, muscle use and strength, patience, focus, empathy, emotional perception, and confidence.

In addition to the therapeutic riding lessons, Gallop NYC also has two unique programs for Veterans:

  • Riding for Veterans trains participants how to bond with and ride a horse and includes special breathing and physical techniques. Participants report decreased anxiety and depression, more focus in the workplace, more overall confidence, and the strengthening of leadership skills.
  • Groundwork for Veterans focuses participants on how to care for horses. Through this program they learn important verbal and non-verbal communication skills, patience, confidence, and leadership skills as they actively take on horse care responsibilities such as grooming, tackling, lead walking, lunging and other activities.

Gallop NYC also provides Hippotherapy sessions, which use the horse’s movement as a therapeutic rehabilitative treatment. The program is designed to improve coordination, balance, core stability, muscle tone, sensorimotor function, and overall strength. Sessions are conducted by a physical or occupational therapist. The therapist adds motor tasks to the horse’s movements to address the specific needs of the patient such as sitting, standing, walking, changing the horse’s direction or gait, and working with props.

Sweating my way through barn cleaning

I started the day helping muck the stables. The horses were out in pasture or already in the middle of lessons, so our team had time to clean out the stables and then provide fresh hay and water.

It was a super-hot day (Accuweather’s “real feel” listed at 99 degrees and humid), so frequent water breaks for all the volunteers, workers, and animals kept our energies up.

The volunteer coordinator who ran the barn staff and one of the head volunteers (who volunteers several times a week) were very helpful in showing me the ropes and allowing me to help in a wide variety of tasks. They also provided me with a lot of information about the horses and the programs.

In addition to mucking the stalls, I helped clean the water buckets and food buckets, as well as a variety of other equipment for the barn and horses.

Prior to coming for the day I was asked to watch a few videos provided by the organization which detailed how to behave around, and interact with, the horses.

The videos also explained in detail how volunteers help during the lessons by walking alongside the horse and supporting the rider for safety. I found the videos very helpful and useful. They definitely prepared me for the day!

Later that morning I had the opportunity to be a support volunteer walking alongside a horse during a rider’s session. The therapist in charge of the lesson gave me very specific and detailed instructions to ensure everyone was safe and the rider had any support they needed.

The student had been taking ongoing lessons so was experienced in riding. My job was to walk alongside the horse and hold my arm across the rider’s thigh while holding the edge of the saddle with my hand.

There was another volunteer on the other side of the horse and a third volunteer leading the horse with the reins. The instructor gave very specific directions to the rider to have them practice a variety of motor skills, posture setting, verbal communication, and more.

After the first time around the arena, the volunteers walking next to the horse were asked to let the rider’s legs go so that they had more independence and control. We continued to walk alongside to ensure rider safety. At this point the front-walker leading the horse helped the rider respond to the instructor’s directions to weave between cones, stop walking, start walking and more. The instructor also kept the rider focused on correct posture, proper body movement to direct the horse, and proper arm, leg and foot positions so all the correct muscles were engaged. The instructor’s passion for their work was inspiring.

The rider was very focused and seemed to be greatly enjoying the lesson!

At the end of the lesson the instructor and one of the aides helped the rider dismount. Myself and the other side walker volunteer stayed close by in case an extra set of hands were needed. It was very safe and the rider was very confident in their actions! They dismounted like a champ!

I was able to assist with a second lesson as well. I felt very lucky to participate in the training.

In between lessons I was able to help with other barn chores. It was clear the barn managers and volunteers truly enjoy caring for the horses. I found that very motivating.

I did have a favorite horse by end of day – Sadie. She was so gentle and loved scratches on her forehead.

Throughout my time that day I was continually surprised by the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. I kept thinking about how unexpected this was – a magical place within the densely-populated, hustle and bustle of Queens.

I was energized by the excitement and happiness of the students. They were working hard and learning lots. And they were making very special memories. I am positive they each had happy stories to tell their families about their lessons.

It was a joyful day!

Transitioning back to the city atmosphere as I walked the .8 mile back to the A-Train, I thought about the unexpected moments of the day – looking into the curious eye of a horse a few inches away, finding a beautiful rural farm in the middle of a busy city, seeing the joy on the faces of the students, meeting wonderful people who devote their time regularly to the organization….

Experiencing the unexpected affects how we see the world. It shines a light on something new, shifts perspectives, and inspires. It opens us up to thinking creatively. It is a chance to break away from life’s usual script, and a reminder that doing so is good for you!

I greatly enjoyed the day. The staff, the instructor, and the other volunteers were wonderful!

And I could tell through my interactions with the students that they were inspired by and felt joy from their experience. A chance to break away from their daily script to enjoy something special!

It helped me remember positive surprises and unexpected moments are important.

How can you bring more of the unexpected into your life and create small positive surprises?

It starts with curiosity. Pick a topic that sounds interesting and dig into it, search for a nearby organization you can volunteer with, or try shaking up your routine with a random walk (focusing on searching for unique beauty around you). Even looking at things you see every day with a new perspective can be a happy unexpected surprise.

If you remain curious as you do these things, you will be surprised at what opens up for you and within you. You can shake up your life with joy! And sharing those moments with others through story is part of the fun! Pulling others along with you into moments of curiosity and wonder spreads the benefits of the unexpected.

If you are interested in learning more about Gallop NYC, in volunteering with the organizaiton, or in donating to support their programs, please click this link:  GallopNYC

In addition to the Howard Beach, Queens, location, Gallop NYC has locations in Forest Hills, Queens, (a 30-horse stable and indoor riding arena and an outdoor bridle path) and Prospect Park, Brooklyn (they transport horses into the park, near the Parade Grounds, for lessons). If you live near any of those areas and would like more information about their programs, you can check out this link: programs — GallopNYC

Thank you for journeying with me this week!


Touching life 400 million years ago

Spending a Night NYC Horseshoe Crab Monitoring

Here are things you may not know about Atlantic horseshoe crabs:

  • They are one of the world’s oldest species. Scientists have discovered fossils of horseshoe crab ancestors that lived over 445 million years ago (dinosaurs appeared 200 million years ago).
  • Horseshoe crab blood is blue. Their blood is copper-based, not iron-based like ours.
  • One mamma horseshoe crab will lay up to 120,000 eggs during a single spawning season.
  • Horseshoe crabs, and their eggs, glow under UV light/blacklight. The younger the crab, the brighter they glow.
  • Certain endangered migrating shore birds depend on horseshoe crab eggs to survive, including the Red Knot

High tide hit Big Egg Marsh in Queens at 10:52 p.m. on Tuesday June 20th. The incoming tidewater lapped against my knees… a good 3 or 4 inches above the tops of my rainboots… as I carefully and slowly walked along the shoreline trying not to step on the hundreds of horseshoe crabs who had migrated in this night to mate and spawn their eggs.

The only light coming from my headlamp and with the wind pushing the incoming tide, it was a bit disorienting to determine where to put my next step.

The bodies of female adult horseshoe crabs are the size of dinner plates. If you include their tails, they could easily be two feet long. Males are smaller, faster. Tails quickly moving back and forth as they skitter through the water. They use their tails for stability, not for protection, a fact for which I was grateful as dozens of them swarmed around my feet.

The mosquitoes were intense and unforgiving. Any new skin exposed to the air without a layer of bug spray would quickly be covered in mosquitoes looking for a late-nite dinner. In the time it took me to push my long sleeves back from my wrist up to my elbows and spray a good dose of bug repellent, I counted no less than a dozen mosquitoes landing on my arm for a feast.

I was part of a small team of volunteers with the NYC Audubon Society, there to monitor the horseshoe crabs by counting them, checking for (and recording) pre-tagged crabs, and then tagging a few of our own after catching them, measuring them and checking for a few specific characteristics before releasing them back into the bay.

If you’ve never caught a live horseshoe crab it is like picking up a piece of ancient earth. Shells hard and dark, sometimes covered in barnacles, they’re faster than you think. They can weigh up to 11 pounds. All of which makes catching them in the water in the complete dark, under a new moon, using only your headlamp to track them, a challenge.

Picking them up means placing your hands on either side of the center edges of their body shells and quickly flipping them up and over so their 10 pairs of legs are flailing about in the air. From here, upside down, you can see their claws, their gills, and their jawless mouths, which, if you touch it, feels a bit like you’re running your finger along extra sturdy toothbrush bristles.

Their tail – while not a weapon – does whip up and down when you pick up a crab, as if it is doing violent sit ups. It’s an effort to thrust the tail up and down in hopes you drop them back into the water so they can escape. It is a bit unnerving if you have never done it. The tail may not be a weapon but it still pinches when it whaps you in the face.

One thing you should never do is catch them or hold them by their tail. It may look sturdy, but it is very fragile and easily damaged and if injured means it cannot properly navigate the waters. The tail also has photoreceptors that allow it to sense light, helping it understand where the shore is.

Our group had arrived at the site in the dark around 9:30. We took some initial shoreline measurements and set up our equipment. Dottie – our leader from the Audubon Society – took us through the process of what was to come and gave us tons of information about the crabs. Horseshoe crabs are not really crabs at all. They’re actually closely related to scorpions. A fact that also made me grateful they do not use their tails as weapons or for defense.

The crabs only come to shore in May and June during new and full moons – leaving the safety of the deep water to make their way up the Atlantic coast to breeding grounds where they mate and spawn eggs. Lots of eggs. They arrive by the hundreds of thousands along the shallow waters along the beaches.

Male clutching onto the back of a female as she makes her way to the shore to lay her eggs

Mating is unique. Males migrate to the inshore waters first and wait for the females to arrive. The females are much larger than the males. In the shallow waters, as the females begin to make their way towards the beach, the males battle to attach their front legs to a female’s shell.

There could be a dozen males vying for one female. When the female moves onto the very edge of the water, just at the very edge of the beach, she digs a small hole (a nest) where she deposits strands and strands of eggs, sometimes thousands at a time. At the same time the male releases his sperm over the eggs to fertilize them. It is not unusual for another male to come charging in and also release his sperm over the eggs too.

You can see the tiny eggs glowing in the blacklight

Females lay as many as 4,000 eggs in one nest and will create 5 to 7 nests in one visit to the beach. Each female returns to the shore many times during spawning season.

The eggs are the size of pearl couscous, almost indistinguishable from the sand except they glow under blacklight/UV light. We saw several nests of eggs during our time on the beach.

They will hatch in 2-4 weeks, during a high tide where the eggs are covered by the water. They use the waves to carry them out to sea.

We came across a nest of early eggs who were hatching. If you were to scoop some up in your hands you would see they are shaped exactly like their parents. Tiny, miniature versions of their earlier generations.  

It’s hard to believe something so tiny will hatch and make its way to the enormous ocean to one day become a full-grown adult.

NYC Audubon has dozens of teams spread out across several sites in Queens and Brooklyn tonight and for 12 – 15 nights in total (depending on migration pattern and moon phase). These beaches have the highest densities of horseshoe crabs on the East Coast.

Our monitoring of the population is part of a statewide project to survey spawning populations. The NYC Audubon is partnering with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine program and Stony Brook University as well as the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation. The information is used to create conservation and management plans.

11 species of migrating birds, including several endangered and threatened ones, rely on the eggs to replenish their fat supplies as they migrate to northern breeding grounds. The horseshoe crabs and birds have developed an interesting symbiosis. Female horseshoe crabs will often dig up existing nests where all or some of the eggs did not hatch. This makes the eggs available to the birds – making it easy for the birds to get nourishment that way instead of needing to dig up fresh nests.

The crabs are threatened in many ways, all of which are human:

  • Biomedical use – Because horseshoe crab blood is copper-based and contains a special clotting component, an extract of it is used to test pharmaceuticals and medical devices for bacteria (to insure there is none). Vaccines and implants are primary areas where horseshoe crab blood is used for such testing. Pharmaceutical companies typically harvest the crabs by hand during spawning season. They transport them to labs where they are cleaned and then 1/3 of their blood is removed. After a bit of care to be sure the crab is healing, they return them about a week later to the ocean. This interferes with spawning. It is not uncommon for the crabs to die during the process.
  • Climate change is changing the temperature of the ocean, the patterns of ocean circulations, changing the temperature, height and depth of the water along the coastlines. This affects the migration and breeding of the crabs. Additionally, as humans build sea walls and other interventions to fight sea level rise, it often negatively affects their breeding grounds
  • Pollution of the water and beaches
  • Bait fisheries often harvest horseshoe crabs and cut them up to use as bait for eel. More breeding areas have been set aside as protected areas where such harvesting is not permitted, but the activity still exists.

During our count tonight we came across several crabs that had been tagged in previous years. The goal with these was to catch them to measure and inspect them, get a photograph of the tag, and then record it so it can be tracked throughout its life. One horseshoe crab we found was over 10 years old. Each of us in the group found at least one tagged specimen.

Tagging a female

After completing the counting, it was time for each of us to pick up a sample crab for measuring and tagging. I picked up a female. She was about 2 feet long and very dark, meaning old (the shells of the older crabs are darker than the younger ones). She had barnacles on her back section.

I tagged her with a tracking number and released her wondering where her journey would take her.

Making my long journey back from the beach in Queens to Manhattan NYC on the A train Subway at 1:30 in the morning, wet clothes and smelling like sea water, I was feeling exhausted, excited and amazed.

It was humbling to be able to hold and examine one of the Earth’s oldest living species – unchanged for 400 million years.

I could not help but wonder….. Horseshoe crabs have survived the prior 5 mass extinctions of Earth’s history. Even outliving the dinosaurs. Would they survive this current man-made one?

I am eager to learn more about the population pattern (increasing/decreasing) and I am already looking forward to helping out again next year!

Thank you for joining my journey this week,


If you’d like to learn more about NYC Audubon, get involved, or support their programs, please check out: Who We Are | NYC Audubon

To learn more about the New York Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Network, check out: New York Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Network (

Aw Shucks! Don’t Be Shy… How the Little Oyster Can Help Save NY from the Impact of Climate Change

Volunteering with the Billion Oyster Project

When you think of oysters, what comes to mind? Fresh oysters on the half shell served with horseradish or lemon or sriracha sauce?  Broiled Rockefeller style oysters, topped with herbs, butter and breadcrumbs? YUM!

What about as a keystone species that plays both an essential role in the ecosystems of shorelines, and can help solve the challenges of the impact of climate change?

The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is focused on this unassuming, yet very powerful, resource, by pledging to restore 1 billion oysters to the NY harbor by 2035.

Since 2014 BOP has worked with various NYC communities, schools, scientists, and volunteers, to restore oysters at 18 active restoration sites across the 5 NYC boroughs.

They have developed a K-12 STEM curriculum and work with over 100 schools across NYC with hands-on activities to help students become citizen-scientists working to solve local environmental challenges.

They work with the Urban Assembly NY Harbor School, helping prepare students of the HS on Governors Island for maritime careers. And they also have involved almost 15,000 volunteers at various projects to help be part of the restoration process. Building a community focused on helping the community!

Why Oysters?

Top 3 key environmental roles the oyster plays:

  1. One single adult oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day! They absorb nitrates, ammonia, phosphates, plankton, and bacteria, and reduce excess algae and sediment. Oysters help keep the water clean and full of oxygen.
  2. The reefs oysters create together are natural barriers that protect shorelines from erosion, tides, and storm surge (reducing flooding, softening the blow of large waves, and preventing erosion).
  3. Like coral reefs, oyster reefs foster biodiversity by providing a 3-D living. clean, oxygen-filled habitat for hundreds of species of marine wildlife.

Back before Henry Hudson traveled up the New York river that was to eventually be given his name, oysters were everywhere and had long been a staple food of the local Lenape peoples. Archeological evidence of mounds of shells (called middens) up to 4 feet high date back to 6950 BCE (1) and reveal that oysters were not only plentiful, but were much larger than the kind we see today – up to a foot long on average and many much longer! (2) 

Oysters, Oysters Everywhere!

In the early 1600’s, with the arrival of Henry Hudson and the Europeans, the New York harbor was home to over 350 sq. miles(3) of oyster beds.

It is said, from writings at that time, it was easy to reach into the water and pluck out large oysters like fruit from a tree.

Through the late 1700s, nearly half the world’s oysters were produced in the NY Harbor.(2)

In fact, Oysters were the original street vendor food. In the mid to late 1700s and early 1800s (long before the hot dog), street cart vendors selling oysters along with hot corn, peanuts and buns, were ubiquitous throughout the streets of New York.

By 1927, however, oysters in the New York harbor were all but extinct due to:

  • Over-farming/over-consumption,
  • The expansion of NY – the dredging of the harbor and extension of the tip of NY was built over oyster beds,
  • Pollution – The drastic increase in shipping and boat traffic in the harbor along with (up until 1972, with the passage of the Clean Water Act) the dumping of millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage in the harbor every day, killed oyster beds in droves. Note here – unfortunately NYC’s combined sewer system still ejects sewage with storm water during peak flow – once it hits 1/4 inch high – continuing to damage beds and pollute the waterways).(4) EWWW!


As a volunteer, I was signed up to help a group build oyster reef structures, called gabions, and prepare shells for the hatchery by sifting through them for unwanted debris. It was a 5-hour shift (including a lunch break). There were about 15-20 people volunteering that day.

We started the day with a group meeting where our host-leader, Inca, had us introduce ourselves and explained all about the process of growing oysters and creating a reef. They also gave us some of the history of the Billion Oyster Project. It was very interesting! Throughout the day Inca was there to give guidance and answer the tons of questions we seemed to have. They were wonderful and kept us motivated and the day exciting!

A gabion is a steel mesh cube that fits snugly into a raw bar steel frame. There are hollow columns in the middle of the structure to allow water, air, and nutrients to flow through (as well as marine life). The structure provides a strong, current-resistant, 3-D environment.

It is filled with juvenile oysters that have attached themselves to recycled oyster shells (they are called spat). The juveniles are raised in a safe environment at the Harbor School Hatchery then, once established and strong enough, moved into the gabions.

The gabions are then placed in areas where reefs are being developed. Over time, the mesh degrades, but the steel frame remains, while the newly-planted oysters grow and cement together.

Our job was to construct as many of the mesh gabions as possible during our shift. Staff from the BOP were on hand to provide educational lessons and to answer our ongoing questions.

Since 2014, BOP has restored 100 million juvenile oysters in the harbor. Over the past year or so they have found the oysters are starting to reproduce by themselves in the harbor. An exciting sign the population can become self-sustaining! In addition, BOP is now finding a wider variety of marine life around the oyster reefs, such as crabs, seahorses, pufferfish, herring, striped bass, red bearded sponges and more.

In order to grow the oysters to create the reefs, BOP needs millions and millions of shells.

So… where do all the shells come from? 

BOP partners with over 70 restaurants in NYC to collect the discarded shells of oysters consumed by their patrons.

BOP provides special buckets for collection and then partners with a shell collection service to pick them up and dump them onto long, 4-5 foot high piles of shells on Governors Island (middens).
These 70+ restaurants can donate up to 7,000 pounds of shells a week!

Since 2014 they have collected over 2+ million pounds of recycled shells, repurposing them to build the oyster reefs and keeping them out of landfills. Yet another way BOP is caring for the environment.

The second part of the volunteer shift was to help look through the middens (the piles of recycled shells donated by restaurants) for objects that don’t belong such as plastic bags and bottles, metal forks and other cutlery, rocks, etc. We also threw away any mussel shells since those would harm the oyster beds.

The middens were 4 to 5 feet tall about 25-30 feet long. They shells deposited there are first picked clean by the birds and critters and cleaned by the sun and rain. The piles are turned intermittently so they can get exposed to all that happens. They rest there about a year. Then there’s a manual cleaning with a tumbler that scrubs them the rest of the way so they are ready to be taken to the hatchery to become part of the project.

The hatchery is a set of semi-open, topless shipping containers where the baby oysters are able to latch onto the cleaned shells and grow to juveniles in a less hostile environment than the open harbor.

Harbor water still flows through the hatchery, but the hatchlings are semi-protected until they are deemed strong enough to be put into the open harbor.

By the end of the day’s volunteer shift, we’d made about 6 or 7 of the gabions and had learned tons from our BOP guide and team member.

It was a fascinating day!

I hope you enjoyed the journey with me. XO XO

How do I Learn More and Get Involved?

To learn more about the Billion Oyster Project and oyster reefs, or donate to this amazing cause, please visit their website at:

If you are a teacher and are interested in their resources and educational materials/curriculum, please check out:
(note – they have wonderful materials for every classroom – you do NOT need to be a NYC school to participate or find value in the materials)

Source Citations:

(1) Wood, S. (n.d.). Pearls of Old New York. Fraunces Tavern Museum.

(2) Nigro, C. (2011, June 2). History on the Half Shell: The Story of New York City and Its Oysters. Blog of the New York Public Library. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from

(3) Kurlansky, M. (2007). The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. Random House Trade Paperback.

(4) Hynes, T. (2022, August 4). Aw Shucks: The Tragic History of New York City Oysters. Untapped New York. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from

(5) Ellis, E. R. (2004). Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. Basic Books, Reprint Edition.‎ 978-0786714360

Killer Whale Sighting with Zooniverse

Historically, Steller Sea Lions were highly abundant along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that straddle the northernmost part of the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

For generations, Alaskan indigenous peoples hunted them for meat, hides, oil and other products and to this day they remain an important subsistence resource.

Photo from Killer Whale Project Education Page

In addition, Steller Sea Lions play an important part in the ecosystem of the land and waters of the area. They help balance the food web.

For example, Stellar Sea Lions are top predators who eat a variety of other species that eat salmon. Without Sea Lions the salmon population would dwindle.

Sea Lions also turnover the bottom substrate layer (ocean floor) in their search for various prey. This allows the turnover of various nutrients (nutrient recycling) that feed smaller species that fish then feed on, only to be eaten by larger fish…. and so on up the chain.

Their lives on the rocky shores means nutrients, prey remains, and se lion pool leave nutrient-rich patches for the growth of algae which feeds small crustaceans and a variety of birds.

Stellar sea lions are exposed to a variety of threats such as:

  • Increasing annual commercial fishery (leads to overall reduction in amount of prey available and a change in prey size as fish are captured before reaching full maturity)
  • Sea level rise from climate change (leading to loss of habitat access to terrestrial rookery sites)
  • Temperature rise from climate change (warmer oceans and changing patterns of natural phenomena, such as El Nino, lead to increase in harmful/toxic algae blooms, effecting distribution, variety and abundance of prey)
  • Human (tourist) disturbance through power boats, kayaks, hiking, paddleboards and flying drones (incursion into sea lion areas disturbs nesting sites, interrupts mating, nursing, resting and socializing, and can cause mass stampedes from land into water where juveniles are injured or killed)
  • Increased oil and gas activity from tankering and pipeline transport (leaves toxic substances in the waters)
  • Entanglement in marine debris, fishing line, and ingestion of fishing gear
  • Increase in Orca whale populations over the past decades (sea lions are a primary food source for these whales)

Due to these threats the Stellar Sea Lion population has experienced a population decline of as much as 80 – 90% since the 1990s(1) and the species is listed as endangered.

Photo from Killer Whale Count Zooniverse site

The Killer Whale Count is a collaborative project run by a trio of professionals: a Marine Science PhD student, a Research biologist, and a Conservation biologist, and supported by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the University of Canterbury (New Zealand).

The objective of the study is to assess the potential impact of Orca whales (Orcinus orca) – also known as Killer Whales – predation on the Stellar sea lion colony populations of the western range of the Aleutian Islands.

The research projects focuses solely on the impact of this particular threat facing the sea lion population.

The study involves sets of citizen scientists looking through almost 1 million photographs taken by remote cameras between 2016 and 2019 and identifying any sightings of Orcas. This huge dataset of photos were taken by cameras installed at various sites in the Aleutian Islands.

Some of the cameras were installed to look over mostly land (edge of shore) to identify and monitor Stellar Sea Lion populations. These photographs also can be used to identify opportunistic images of Orcas in the nearby water.

Other remote camera boxes were placed around the sea lion populations and aimed at the water to increase the chances of capturing an image with an Orca.

The Team leading the study partnered with Zooniverse – the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research ( It focuses on accomplishing scientific research using volunteers, enabling projects that may not have been possible, or practical, without access to unlimited volunteer citizen-scientists.

Zooniverse Project List Home Screen

Zooniverse has a wide-ranging and ever-expanding suite of available projects run by scientists and researchers from every industry and discipline, with topics across all sciences and humanities. So it’s easy to find a project for a topic you are passionate about.

With help of Zooniverse volunteers, researchers can analyze large sets of data quickly and accurately.  Projects run through Zooniverse volunteers have discovered interesting discoveries and produced a large number of published research papers. Research that has had impact on the world (check out:, as well as produced many open-source sets of analyzed data future projects can rely on to boost their progress.

What’s amazing is that it can be done through a computer or your phone from anywhere and it’s easy to do it as a group, in a class, etc. Plus, as a volunteer for a specific project, you can chat with the scientist Team and other volunteers and you are kept up to date on research findings. It is easy to see the tangible results of your impact!

Once you sign up for a project you are provided a short, helpful, educational self-paced study guide that trains you on how to do the project and provides interesting contextual information.

For the Killer Whale Project, I would be given randomly selected photographs from their dataset to review. I was to find, mark and count the Orca sightings in the images. I was given specific instructions with multiple examples of what to look for and how to mark the photographs. I also had access to a field guide for killer whale identification.

Their training and FAQ sections highlighted tips and tricks and common misidentification errors. A nice social aspect of the project was the ability to “favorite” any photographs so other volunteers, and the research team, could see them.

I started with about 75 photos. The photos are given to you one at a time and you can do as many, or as few, as you would like. One day I could only look at a few. Another day I had time to look through a few dozen.

I saw seals in most of the photos but no whales at first. I could, however, see photos of other participants, and those provided by the scientific team, which showed whale sightings. It was fun to see the seals and know I was part of a team of citizen scientists making a difference.

Could the scientist and research team have used machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to do this task instead of volunteers? Yes. But it would take time to set up the testing and one of their goals is to work on a citizen science project to promote outreach, raise awareness of human impact on nature, and get others involved in helping an important endangered species.

Since I started working through the photographs, I find myself coming back to do more whenever I have down time. I’ve found it especially helpful as a way to relax after a stressful day at work or when I cannot sleep at night. Participating in the project led me to do a bit of research on Stellar Sea Lions and Killer Whales, which I enjoyed and found fascinating. And through the project I feel connected to something bigger. It’s as if, from my own little corner of the universe, I’m doing something useful for the future of this great planet.

I am eager to see the research findings when the project is complete!

I also saw many other Zooniverse projects that interested me so I have a feeling I’ll be participating in others.

If you are interested in learning more about the Killer Whale Project, check out the project link at:

If you are curious about the types of projects available through Zooniverse and want to be a citizen-scientist yourself, or with your family or through your child(ren)’s school, check out the Zooniverse project site at:

It’s definitely fun to look through the current projects. There are dozens of them. If you see one that interests you, drop a note in the comments below. I would love to see what interests you!

Thank you for journeying along with me,

XO XO Penny

Going Wild with the New York WILD Film Festival

I’ll tell you how the sun rose that morning in Tsavo National Park, Kenya – just like all other mornings for days on end. There’s nothing casual about mid-February sun in Tsavo. It rises early and immediately unleashes an inescapable tsunami of heat across the land. Then, happy with its work, the sun stands guard in a cloudless sky, both like a fierce sentinel and a tyrannous explorer, relentlessly finding every tiny crevasse and crack in the parched land. Dancing heat along the horizon shimmers and sparkles as if in great celebration of the quest.

Photo 60040206 / Termite Mound © Volodymyr Byrdyak (subcription)

Across these southern plains of Kenya, communities of termites are building their mounds. They excavate nutrient-rich soil from deep underground and transport it to the surface, building their structures higher and higher, reaching to the sky, seeking fruitlessly to touch any possible breeze. But there is none. Not yet. Not until the deluge of the rains come in March.

The dirt the termites excavate is packed with minerals and nutrients not available otherwise in the surrounding soil of the plains. Over time, battered by seasonal rains, wind, heat and wildlife, the mounds eventually erode and leave large patches of bare soil filled with nutrients. These patches dot the landscape like freckles across the dusty plains.

They are a perfect visiting spot for families of elephants, who are drawn to the patches for the rich nutrients and salts in the clay…. minerals the elephants need for survival.

Photo 96834699 / Elephants © Klomsky | (subcription)

The elephant families come and dig into the patches, scraping up the nutrient-rich soil with their feet and tusks and leaving behind an indented area. Slowly, over time, the indented clay patch becomes deeper and deeper as more elephants visit. Then it rains.

Rainy season brings with it a deluge of life-giving water and the fine, mineral-rich clay of the patches becomes sticky mud. The elephants love it – they dig in it and spray the mud on themselves and each other. They wallow in it and roll in it and splash it all over themselves. The mud coats their bodies, head to toe, keeping them cool and protecting them from sunburn and biting flies.

Each elephant family carries away up to a ton of mud with them, so the indented freckle becomes a larger indented spot, and eventually a deeper hole that continues to widen and deepen with each visit. Within a few years, what the termites started, and the elephants created, becomes a full watering hole. An oasis in the plains, full of life….

This was part of the story shared in the independent documentary film “The Elephant and the Termite”- one of 35 powerful and exhilarating documentaries shown at the 9th Annual New York Wild Film Festival.

The Elephant and the Termite won the Best Cinematography award and it was easy to see why.

The film was enchanting and stunning – silhouettes of elephants against an orange sunset, the deep greens of chameleons poised perfectly on seasonal grasses, drinking crystal clear drops of water, underwater shots and close-ups of wildlife of all types (birds, insects, mammals). It was hard to pull myself away from the film!

Me at the “paparazzi” screen

The festival ran 4 days, and I was super-excited to be chosen to volunteer for a shift on Saturday, welcoming guests and generally helping guests however and wherever possible.

There were a team of volunteers who helped check people in, provided guidance to find film showings and reception areas, answered questions, helped usher people to their seats, organized gift baskets, helped set up and break-down, and more

While films were in process the volunteers had opportunity to watch some of the films from a separate viewing area. It was inspiring and emotional to watch parts of the films!

The NY WILD Film Festival is the first annual film festival in NY to showcase a spectrum of topics that bring attention to wildlife, conservation, exploration, and the environment. It is held every March.

2023 Event Poster

More than ever, people are fascinated with the natural world and phenomenon that affects it. There is a quickly-awakening awareness of human impact on our planet and a growing feeling of urgency to live differently in order to save it.

People want to connect with our planet and understand how to do better for the natural world.

The NY WILD Film Festival provides an active platform creating excitement around crucial issues, gives a voice to critical issues, builds important partnerships with key players in exploration and conservation, highlights dedicated scientists and explorers, celebrates filmmakers, and reaches growing audiences – spreading energy around protecting our planet. Films run anywhere between 5 and 90 minutes.

There were films by filmmakers from all over the world (USA, Brazil, France, China, Mexico, Kenya, Canada and more) and that diversity of experience and perspective was truly inspiring. The festival also includes Q&A sessions with filmmakers, explorers and experts.

It was exhilarating for ticket-holders to be able to watch the films, be moved by the powerful images and storytelling of the filmmakers, and then meet the heroes protecting our planet for Q&A sessions.

There were various receptions, award presentations, and on-line auction, and even a family program for children ages 7+.  

The festival presented an extraordinary opportunity to exchange ideas and effect change. Over 300 films were originally submitted, which were initially vetted by a group of pre-screeners, who chose a large number of films to go to a Final Jury for selection of the final 35.

The festival runs in partnership with The Explorers Club (the festival was held in its NYC location), the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), FujiFilm, Acr’teryx, Flite, and The New Yorker Documentary.

I left that day feeling that while there is much to do to save the planet, there is an extensive network of passionate, powerful, action-oriented teams of people looking to solve issues and make the world a better place for future generations! I am inspired to get more involved in making a difference and continuing to learn more about the synergistic human-wildlife-planet experience. Each of us already have impact – it’s up to us to make that impact positive or negative.

How do you celebrate the wild? What passions do you have for the planet? Leave me a comment below.

If you’re interested in learning more about the New York WILD Film Festival, to join their mailing list and to keep an eye out for tickets for next year’s festival, check out their site here:

This is the link to the inspiring and powerful trailer for the 2023 film festival here (you’ll be glad you watched it and I bet you can’t just watch it once):

If you’d like to learn more about my favorite film of the day I volunteered, The Elephant and the Termite, PBS has a learning media site with clips:

If you are a member of PBS Thirteen Passport, you can watch the film in entirety here:

External view of Explorer’s Club

A note about The Explorer’s Club – As hosting partner to the festival, The Explorers Club is a perfect location for the event. Founded in New York City in 1904 by a group of the world’s leading explorers of the time, the not-for-profit organization is dedicated to scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space by supporting research and education in the physical, natural and biological sciences.

The Club’s members have been responsible for an illustrious series of famous firsts: first to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the surface of the moon.

The building is stunning – 5 floors filled with artifacts and photos from explorations and scientific breakthroughs. You can spend hours just looking around!

You can learn more about the Explorer’s Club and their programs and public events here:

Thank you for joining my journey! XO XO

The Environmental Defense Center: 50 Years of Protection, Advocacy and Education

Me at the gate


Pockets of rain passed overhead on the 2 mile walk to the Environmental Defense Center’s (EDC) headquarters in Santa Barbara, California. It is impossible to ignore the breathtaking beauty of the area… even in the rain.


Behind me spread peaceful, wide beaches, shaped by the waves of thousands of years. Before me rose the undulating foothills of the imposing and majestic Santa Ynez Mountains, its tops hidden by thick shreds of clouds. Santa Barbara is nestled here, in this oasis. Read more