Rain Washes Out Talk of Sun, Sunglasses

A First: Delegation From Latin America

There had been enthusiastic talk on the Society of Environmental Journalists conference’s online “welcome” page about turquoise surf and the need for attendees to bring sunglasses and flip-flops for their stay in Miami. “We’ll be saturated in the Florida sunshine,” it gushed.
So it was perhaps surprising to some, but somehow perfectly fitting, that an event billed by its co-chairman, Jeff Burnside, as one of the planet’s largest gatherings of environmental journalists, should actually be held against a backdrop of extreme downpours and a 130 mph tornado that demolished homes a few miles north.
“Welcome to the Sunshine State,” Michael Grunwald, senior correspondent for Time magazine, said as he introduced keynote dinner speaker Ken Salazar, secretary of the Interior, before adding wryly: “Sorta. …”
South Florida’s weather woes paled, however, as the hundreds of members of the Society of Environmental Journalists who have descended on Miami from across America and around the globe – including from the Middle East, Uganda, the Philippines, Denmark, Poland and Costa Rica – were connected live via Skype with a shivering, windswept scientist at the Palmer Research Station in Antarctica.
“Hello!” exclaimed Dr. Kim Bernard, appearing on a large projection screen clad in a fur-lined parka jacket, with snow falling in the background and the wind rattling the camera relaying her image live to the Grand Ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami. “It’s 8:30 p.m. here, it’s just about freezing, and the wind is blowing at 30 mph,” she grimaced, before waving
into the camera.
Conference guests paused briefly between mouthfuls of hot chicken and sips of fine wine to wave back sympathetically.
The link-up was organized by conference co-chair Angela Posada Swalford, a Miami-based science writer for Spain’s Muy Interesante magazine who has visited the Palmer Research Station. What no one in the ballroom would have known, she told The Miami Planet before the event, was that the logistics of beaming Dr. Bernard live into the conference were rather more complicated than they looked.
“It’s plain old Skype, but the other scientists at the station have been told to get off their computers and go fishing, or whatever, because I’m going to be sucking up a lot of the station’s band-width. We’re shutting down half the station,” she admitted, adding hastily: “But only for a
little time.”
Among the audience was the SEJ’s first-ever delegation from Latin America, including Henrique Kugler, a writer for Ciência Hoje, a Brazilian science magazine. The sight of hundreds of like-minded journalists all thrown together in one room to focus on the environment, he said, was “a dream.”
“I’m so excited just to hear all these guys talking and just to learn, to take back with me some great experience that I can pass on,” he said, bemoaning the Brazilian news media’s general lack of environmental curiosity despite its ecological and geographical richness.
“It’s true. We don’t have a strong environmental network and yet look where we are situated. We need to be strengthening our message, reaching more people with the important issues. I think I will learn more about that here,” he said.
At the book stall outside the hotel ballroom, conference participants lingered over tomes ranging in topic from urban agriculture and energy independence to hurricanes and shark conservation. Particularly popular on bookstore shelves, said the lady manning the stall, was The Lionfish Cookbook, a publication compiled by Reef, a Florida Keys-based organization
working to protect marine life – except the lionfish, an invasive species now rampant in the western Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
Selling well Wednesday night were novels by Carl Hiaasen, the journalist, Miami Herald columnist and novelist who has put South Florida’s political scandals and environmental quirks before millions of readers. His appearance at the dinner as a guest speaker had guests rocking with laughter as he regaled them with his trademark sardonic wit, dry observations and fantastical tales about the sexual prowess of a dolphin called Dickie.
With the preservation of the Everglades a political talking point in South Florida, journalists should expect presidential candidates to descend on the region dressed in khakis and pose for photo opportunities, he warned. “They’ll be conservationists for one freakin’ day and that’s it,” he said to snorts from journalists who may yet find themselves having to cover just such an event.
But then came the Cousteaus, five of them on stage together in a rare show of family unity, to expound the legacy of their environmentalist father, the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The mood in the ballroom swung from one of mirth to one of solemnity as, one by one, his descendants took the microphone with their “save the planet” theme.
“This is a first in years that we have been all together … in front of such a group of esteemed storytellers of the world. Like Hermes, you are the carriers and messengers of vital news reflecting the pulse of our planetary life support system,” Philippe Cousteau Jnr, the late explorer’s grandson, told guests.
Weather permitting, journalists will spend Thursday on field trips ranging from shark-tagging off the Florida Keys to “swamp-slogging” in the Everglades and diving on a coral reef.
Kasey Cantwell, a marine biologist at the University of Miami, might be hoping that the coral reef dive group includes the unnamed conference guest who asked her a surprising question outside the ballroom Wednesday night, where she had put up a display board explaining her research on the effects of ocean temperatures on the health of reefs.
“I was talking away about coral and they said: ‘What? Coral’s not a rock?’” she said.
“I kept a straight face, but really. …”

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  • Kevin

    It seems like the conference certainly got off to a good start. I would have loved to see the Cousteau family; that was probably a great experience I’m looking forward to seeing what interesting dialogue the conference will create!

    • Kevin Sands

      There should be a period between “experience” and “I’m.” My apologies.

  • Aisha M

    I have to give it to Michael Grunwald. I loved his sly remark “sorta” after he welcomes participants to “The Sunshine State.” Regardless of if it was raining or not, that comment would have made my day.

    • Aisha M

      That should read “after he welcomed.”

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