Welcome, Mackenzie!

Welcome, Mackenzie!

We’re happy to announce a new addition to the Sapelo Island Reserve team: Mackenzie Maxwell, the new part-time Volunteer Coordinator. 

“It is a privilege to work with you all to support Sapelo Island,” says Maxwell. “There are so many things about Sapelo that sets it apart from anywhere else on earth; I am excited to help preserve its natural beauty, as well as its rich history and culture.” 

Maxwell is familiar with the Sapelo community, with roots in nearby Shellman Bluff, where she lives with her two children. She is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in holistic health, and she brings a good mix of customer service and nonprofit experience to her new role.

“The folks at the Sapelo Reserve ought to be proud of the indelible marks you have made for such a worthy cause, I look forward to seeing the great things we will accomplish together!

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Adam MacKinnon

Talk NERRdy to Me: Adam MacKinnon

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29—soon to be 30—Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Adam MacKinnon, education coordinator at Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve. They talked shipwrecks, disentangling whales, and 4,500 years of Sapelo Island history.

Nik: Welcome Adam! What’s going on down in Sapelo?

Adam: Since September 2019, I’ve been dealing a lot with the Golden Ray. You ever heard of that?

Nik: Is that a fish?

Adam: It’s the costliest Maritime disaster in US history. No one knows about it. It’s right in my backyard, a couple of sounds south of the Reserve.

Nik: What??

Adam: A car carrier rolled in the sound with 4200 cars inside of it. The largest crane in the Western Hemisphere is straddling the ship and they’re using an anchor chain to cut it into pieces. They put it on a barge and send it to Louisiana. I’m the only representative from the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Nik: How deep is the water?

Adam: The ship was driven onto a sand bar so it would not sink in the  main shipping channel They call these ships ROROs [Roll On Roll Off].  It’s the fifth RORO that’s basically done this. We’re already over a billion dollars in cost for this disaster.

Nik: This has been since September 2019? I never heard of this.

Adam: 2021 and it’s still there. It’s just bizarre. It was on national news, but people don’t know about it. Every day, every single day, it’s in our paper.

The Golden Ray

Nik: The ultimate small-town life. How many people live on Sapelo Island by this point?

Adam: Well, I don’t live on Sapelo. But there’s two types of people on Sapelo: descendants and others. Now for descendants, you have the Gullah Geechee. They’re descendants of the freed slaves of Thomas Spaulding, but they all claim descent from his head slave Bilali Mohammed. Bilali was a highly educated, Islamic slave from West Africa. He did all the day-to-day operations, so people could live where they want, they could keep their culture—that’s why the Geechee culture survived. It’s ironic they survived slavery keeping their culture pretty much intact, but now the price of their land is so high, and there’s all these wealthy white people moving in. 

Nik: Wasn’t Sapelo given to the state of Georgia?

Adam: State of Georgia owns all but 400 acres. That’s the little Hog Hammock enclave, which is private property. It’s a nice work environment on Sapelo, we get along great, but there’s a bigger picture of animosity. They remember when their fathers or grandfathers were displaced from other parts of the island. There were many communities on the island, they all got moved to one community. 

Nik: I am in love with the South, I am fascinated by the sea islands. I just read The Water is Wide, you know, the basis for the movie, Conrack. You’ve got prehistoric cultures, you’ve got 4,500 years of history, you’ve got slavery. You’ve got R.J. Reynolds and Detroit Motor bearings.

Adam: You’re well versed!

Nik: I read Buddy Sullivan’s history of Sapelo, because I’m so interested. Hate the sin, but love the SINERR, man! You’ve got so much going on down there. I just want to dive into it! But how did you get there? What are you doing there?

Adam: Education was never my career path. I have about 24 years working with the Department of Natural Resources. I’m an endangered species biologist by education and trade. I did research in Costa Rica with leatherbacks. I tagged green turtles and hawksbills in St. Croix. I actually met my wife on a loggerhead project in Georgia. I was with the Endangered Species Program for 14 years here. 

And then I had kids and I just found out something—well, many things. But one is that I love teaching. I used to disentangle Right Whales, and it was a big high, but after a while that becomes work and I’m getting old, too.

When the education coordinator position came open I thought, you know, this would be a great way to give back. I love science, I love wildlife, and I thought if I’m going to really make an impact, this is probably more of a lasting legacy.

Nik: Did you have any experiences early on in childhood where you found yourself teaching?

Adam: It was really having kids that showed me. I coached soccer and taught Sunday school. You have a chance every day to make a difference. Saving a Right Whale is great, then it gets hit by a boat next week. Great. 

Nik: Great job, whale. Stupid. That’s why you’re endangered!

Adam: Scientists can be absurdly, myopic. I’d say most scientists are terrible naturalists. Naturalists are generalists—they know a little bit of everything. I’ve always been more of a naturalist. I hate not knowing what I’m seeing. This job also allows me to do that. It’s more like imparting general knowledge, all of my 24 years with DNR. Adam’s Big Book of Useless Facts!

Nik: So what do you love about these places?

Adam: Well as I said, I met my wife tagging sea turtles on one of our northern barrier islands, called Wassaw. Most of our islands are protected. We only have about 110 miles of coast, but we have the 16 major barrier islands. You can only get to four of them, so that leaves a lot of wilderness. It’s probably the longest contiguous line of wilderness on the East Coast. 

My favorite island is Ossabaw. It’s about 13 miles of beach, and the general public’s not allowed. You can be in these wild places and feel like you’re a million miles away. No one knows about this coast. It’s kind of a big kept secret. Come on, Nik! I’ll pick you up!

Nik: If I wasn’t afraid to leave my house, I would be on the next plane.

Adam: I got Kenneth out there, I could get you out there.

Nik: I know it’s probably signing my death warrant here to ask the guy who has Adam’s Big Book of Useless Facts at his fingertips, but what’s your favorite part of the ecosystem? 

Adam: Estuaries are so fantastic. Sapelo is where modern ecology was invented by Eugene Odum. John Teal is a contemporary of Odom, a highly published ecologist in his own right, and I’m friends with his son. So it’s cool to walk in the footsteps of legends like that. Plus, Sapelo is like science central. 

Not only do we have the NERRS doing science, DNR does a little bit, but we also have University of Georgia and part of that, there’s an LTER there, a long-term ecological research site. I get to surround myself with these high-powered scientists all the time. On Sapelo we’re dictated by that ferry, and I can only do school groups on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I like to fill the other times.

Nik: It’s not one of these drive-up Reserves. I think I heard you were involved with the friends group and two of my favorite friends, Linda and JD, came from Sapelo. How does the friends group help out?

Adam: The Friends were under me for years and years, but now our stewardship coordinator took it over. They’ve really taken a hit with COVID because they haven’t been able to go out there. I know other Reserves have this issue but our group is kind of getting old. Mentally, they’re sharp—they’re great.

Nik: How is Sapelo dealing with climate change?

Adam: So the big noticeable effects are the increase in tropical storms we’ve been experiencing. Sea level rise is hard for the average person to comprehend even if you say, “Oh look! Ours is going up by 3.8 millimeters per year!” And they’re like, “That’s not really bad.” They don’t understand it’s bad. 

The last hurricane to directly hit the Georgia coast was 1898. Hurricanes tend to either go behind us or skip us. So people always thought we were just immune. Matthew was the big wake-up call. It knocked down 68 trees across our main road. And then Irma was a big flooding event. Hog Hammock got flooded including the old church. FEMA was out there and they’re telling everyone you got to raise your houses where everyone lives in a trailer. How do you raise a trailer? 

Nik: They’ll just swim!

Adam: I hated hearing after Irma, “Well we finally got hit by the big one and it wasn’t that bad.” No, we didn’t get nearly hit by the big one. I took a pole and put a line on it where Irma’s flooding was, right on the baseboard. And then I did all the major hurricanes and then Katrina’s obviously way up the pole. Just to get people used to the concept that that was nothing. It’s not going to go away. I know I’m tired of spending my vacation money on evacuations. My wife works at DNR too, and some of her co-workers, their wives are just done. They were having PTSD from all these hurricane evacuations, just one after another. 

I have an overly long climate change talk because my brother is not a climate change guy, which was actually perfect for me because I listen to all of his arguments why it’s not real or scientists are making it up or whatever. And answering those arguments was my whole PowerPoint. A lot of my talks are about how just because someone has a study doesn’t mean it’s a good study. I talk about what it really means to be a scientist, you know.

Nik: Science is not done on Facebook or, you know, by guys who have podcasts.

Adam: I’m committed to telling them how true good science works. If you get within a 95% confidence rule, you’re pretty certain about a trend or something like that. And it’s amazing when people say, “Why aren’t you 100%?” I’ve never been 95 % certain about anything in my own life.

Nik: Listen, I heard that in a wedding vow once, which did not go well, so.

Adam: Yeah. I chose my wife well (laughs).

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Sapelo Partners on Fish Monitoring

Sapelo Partners on Fish Monitoring

The white shrimp commercial fishery nets over 3 million pounds in Georgia every year. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

The shores, sounds, and tidal creeks of Georgia’s Sapelo Reserve teem with fish and crustaceans, including white shrimp, a commercial fishery with a harvest that tops 3 million pounds in Georgia every year. Although long-term monitoring of coastal fishes has been ongoing in Georgia since 1976, tracking the extent, diversity, health, and abundance of these important fisheries within the range of their estuarine habitats has always been beyond the reach of any single organization to manage. To address this need Sapelo scientists decided to do what Reserves were designed to do: collaborate! 

“Juvenile and non-game fish trawls are really resource intensive in terms of time, labor, and equipment,” says Rachel Guy, the Reserve’s Research Coordinator. “We wanted to leverage the resources of different agencies and organizations in our area. Some have boats or technicians, others have fish expertise or funding. By pooling our efforts and resources, we thought we could come up with a sustainable network that we could all benefit from.”

Data from the EFMC will support local resource managers in understanding changes in anchovy populations. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

These conversations led to the launch of the Estuarine Fish Monitoring Cooperative (EFMC). “The Reserve has been fostering local partnerships and relationships for more than 20 years, so it was really natural for us to reach out,” says Guy. “We are able to bring people together and hope to connect fish data to patterns or trends in the Reserve’s long-term water quality data.”

Through a partnership between the Reserve, the University of Georgia Marine Institute, the University of Georgia Marine Extension & Georgia Sea Grant, the University of Georgia School of Forestry & Natural Resources, and the College of Coastal Georgia, sampling boats will conduct EFMC monthly juvenile fish trawls at 33 locations. The data will be organized in a central database for use by researchers, fisheries managers, and educators. The EFMC database will also be a home for other scientific and opportunistic data collection—such as fish research and other trawl data collected by tourist or educational organizations. 

“Some fish populations can go through cycles of highs and lows that can take a decade to complete, which means you really need a long-term dataset to understand trends,” says Guy. “Sapelo has over 20 years of continuous water quality monitoring data. We’ve seen trends like warming winter water temperatures, but we have no equivalent fish diversity or abundance dataset to see how changing environmental conditions may be affecting fish communities in our estuaries.”

EFMC trawls capture data for many species, including small fish like bay anchovy, which are a prey species for commercial fish and ecologically important. Their decline would impact coastal human communities that depend on commercial fishing. Being able to compare the new EFMC fish data to the Reserve’s long-term water quality data will be a uniquely powerful resource for fisheries managers. Data from the EFMC, for example, will help local resource managers understand whether changes in anchovy populations are tied to climate change trends, or just reflect natural variability.

The EFMC data have been used to create curricula for students. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

The reach of the EFMC extends beyond data collection—the partners are also training the next generation of Georgia’s coastal scientists. For example, faculty at the College of Coastal Georgia have used the EFMC data to create curricula for students. As the program expands, students will be brought into the field and taught field research skills, including best practices for boating, data collection, and fish identification.

“Working with the cooperative is such an honor and just outright fun,” says Lauren Carroll, a Georgia Sea Grant intern working with the Reserve, who helped test the program’s hands-on curriculum. “Everyone has been so patient, informative, and encouraging as I build up my boating and fish identification skills. The skills I am learning feel tailor-made for the experience I sought in graduate school. I feel privileged to be able to be a part of a big, collaborative project from the beginning to gain the knowledge and experience for my future career.”

Since data collection began in April 2021, the program has conducted 77 sampling events and caught more than 12,000 critters and 56 individual species. Photo courtesy of the Sapelo Island Reserve. 

The EFMC officially began collecting data in April of 2021. Since they began, they’ve conducted 77 sampling events, with a total catch of more than 12,000 critters and 56 individual species. Guy has high hopes that the program will not only be a critical resource for understanding Georgia’s natural resources, but also the groundwork they’ve laid might also be transferable to other regions. 

“We’ve had so much momentum and so many committed people work with us on this,” says Guy. “And it’s generating excitement with other researchers and agencies already. I’m very hopeful it can grow!”

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Honoring True Friends

Honoring True Friends

Coastal communities depend on their local Reserves, and Reserves depend on their friends. In October, the Friends of Sapelo Island Reserve in Georgia held a small ceremony dedicating a restored beach pavilion to two true friends to the Reserve, Linda and J.D. Daniels. 

The Daniels were honored for more than 20 years of service to the Sapelo Island Reserve. Before stepping down last fall, Linda had served as the FOS volunteer coordinator for many of those 20 years.

 Sapelo Island Education Coordinator Adam Mackinnon observes: “It does not happen very often that one feels like you are taken into another person’s family, but I did with Linda and JD. They have been advisors and friends to me, and I certainly view them as family. ”

NERRA is grateful to Linda and JD for all they have contributed to the Sapelo Island Reserve, and for making every member of their local friends group feel welcome. Linda’s leadership as volunteer coordinator will be greatly missed, but we take comfort in the fact they will still be involved in Friends of Sapelo.

Sapelo Island Educator Helps Save Whales From Beaching

Sapelo Island Educator Helps Save Whales From Beaching

Adam McKinnon (left foreground) took time off from his education program at Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve to help rescue a pod of pilot whales. Photos courtesy Sapelo Island Reserve.

On July 16 at 6:30 PM, when most of us were enjoying dinner, Adam Mackinnon, the education coordinator at Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve got a call. It wasn’t about a teacher training or kayak tour or other Reserve event. Thirty-four short-finned pilot whales had mass stranded on East Beach in St. Simons and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) needed his help.

“Like many Reserve staff, I wear many hats,” Adam says. “I was called because I had extensive experience when I worked for DNR’s Nongame Endangered Species program and have been involved with mass standings before.”

Pilot whales are normally found around 100 miles off Georgia’s coast and are known to strand in mass, sometimes by the hundreds. When Adam arrived, the event was already streaming on Facebook Live, so a sizable crowd had already gathered to watch events unfold. It even made the New York Times.

“Crowd control, informing the public, and educating all of the good Samaritans who wanted to help became a sizable task,” says Adam, who coordinated with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section to decide the proper response.

The team determined that a large juvenile male was the potential cause of the mass stranding. The whale was injured or ill and sadly had to euthanize the animal at 1 am the following morning. As the small crowd of citizens helped shepherd the rest of the pod to safety, two other whales died on their own. 

“Little is known about why whales strand in numbers like this,” says Adam. “This species has extremely close ties with other members of their pods and will often stay with a sick or injured whale no matter what. In this case, three whales died so that more than 30 could live. It could have been much worse without the all-hands effort.”

Sapelo’s History Grows at African American Museum

Sapelo’s History Grows at African American Museum

Live oaks trees have become cultural ambassadors for Sapelo Island: their seeds are growing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of Adam Mackinnon, Sapelo Island Reserve.

For generations, the live oaks of Sapelo Island have provided cooling shade for residents, including the descendants of 400 enslaved West African people who overcame tremendous hardship to form a culture that thrives today. With the support of Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve, these historically significant trees—and the cultural heritage they symbolize—are growing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

  Smithsonian Horticulturist Brett McNish traveled to Sapelo Island to meet with staff from the Reserve and Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and learn more about the island’s unique history, cultural traditions, agricultural practices, and language. While there, McNish harvested oak seedlings to plant on the grounds of the African American Museum. (Read more about his quest.)

Once mature, these seedlings will shelter a green space with sculpted benches at the African American museum’s reading grove. The oaks will be sited in a microclimate—an outdoor space heated by the museum’s underground galleries— that will help these southern trees flourish in a colder climate. The grove has been designed to symbolize hope and optimism and honor Sapelo Island’s history and people.

Sapelo’s community is under threat from coastal development and lack of economic opportunity, making the work of the Reserve and partners to preserve the island’s cultural, historical, and natural resources more vital than ever. The collaboration with the Smithsonian is an opportunity to share the value of these resources with people from all over the world who visit the museum and its gardens.

“The Reserve works with partners to protect Sapelo Island from the impacts of development with an eye towards facilitating research, education, monitoring and sound stewardship of important natural and cultural resources,” says Fred Hay, Sapelo Island Manager for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. “The Reserve is an essential part of Sapelo’s protection. It sets clear priorities for sustaining vital ecosystem processes. This is becoming more critical as coastal development pressures increase along the southeastern coast of the United States.”

ReservesSapelo Island, Georgia