New England Wildlife Through The Lens of a Local Legend | Shaped By The Sea
Great guest, great show. Dive in.
New England's coastline has changed significantly through the years, and Ron Watson has been a firsthand witness, both above and below sea level. Ron comes to the table with great stories from his life working as a professional diver, wildlife photographer, and volunteer for marine conservation organizations. We discuss the power that a simple photograph has in bringing joy to people who need it, and what cold-water surfing used to look like before the advent of modern wetsuit technologies! Join our philosophical conversations about the need for a conservation ethic in wildlife photography, and how passion, drive, and focus can pave the way for a career in marine conservation. As humans become increasingly inspired by the beauty of our natural world, education will be critical to ensuring that we don't 'love' wildlife to death.
Brian Yurasits 0:22
Hello, everyone and welcome to another episode of shaped by the sea, the podcast where we dive into the minds of ocean fairing folks to learn something new from from their perspective. Today I'm joined by Ron Watson, a New England native who has spent more time in and around the Gulf of Maine than anyone else I know. So Ron, thanks for joining me here today.
Ron Watson 0:45
You're very welcome, Brian.
Brian Yurasits 0:47
Yeah, so I figured, I know you personally because we do work together at the seacoast Science Center. You, you're the maintenance coordinator over there. And I just want you to you know, you're much more than that. You're a wildlife photographer. You were you weren't as a professional scuba diver. So I figured, you know, what better way to start off the show than to give a little intro about yourself?
Ron Watson 1:10
Yeah, as you said, I started off very, very early in life. Mostly with diving. My mother and father bought me a mascot snorkel, and I used to spend hours inside the clock, bathtub underwater. From there, I just continued on. We I grew up beside a lake in Wilmington mass called Silver Lake. When I was 1012 years old, my mother hated to take me to the lake because she could never find me. I was just underwater so much. I had a few will say kind of heroes. Okay. First of all, and foremost was actually my uncle. My uncle was a Navy Diver. And he was one of the first Navy divers helped to teach UDT he was in the submarine service. And he's the one who actually put me the first time on scuba equipment when I was 12 years old.
Brian Yurasits 2:23
That's pretty young.
Ron Watson 2:24
It was, you know, the the certifying agencies now allow us a junior certification, I believe at 12 years old. But back then, we didn't even have a certifying agencies. So first one that I was able to get involved with was what the YMCA and that wasn't until I was 16. Yeah. And then I also was very, very influenced by Jacques Cousteau, as many of us were. But the third one was somebody who was a National Geographic photographer, did a lot of documentaries and so on, by the name of Stanton Waterman. Okay, and he actually came to our high school when I was in the eighth grade and put on a presentation. And that was it. From that point on, I was hooked.
Brian Yurasits 3:26
Yeah, what did that did that just spark your you'd like you you're very into photography now have was that the moment that you kind of also got into photography?
Ron Watson 3:35
No, I actually I can't. I joined a photography club when I was in fifth grade. Oh, nice. And I don't often want I got, you know very much into it. But a lot of times, I really wasn't into it as much. When I started getting into diving in high school. I wanted to do more than just dive. It was so interesting down there. I wanted to be able to record and show people so I built my own housing for a brownie Instamatic camera. The the housing lasted for a total of one and a half dodge before camera flooded and that was the end of that.
Brian Yurasits 4:19
That's a bummer. I know it that's that's tough to watch it all just you know that well, anytime you're you're bringing electronic equipment and so and so salt water or any kind of water. It's it's a recipe for disaster.
Ron Watson 4:32
Yeah. Can be. Yeah,
Brian Yurasits 4:35
but but So Ron, then I know that you. You mentioned to me, when did you start working for the New England Aquarium because you were you were one of the divers there right for their tanks?
Ron Watson 4:44
That's correct. Yeah. I actually started there in 1980, January of 1980. But I didn't start as a diver. I actually started in their education department. Oh, nice. I didn't know that. Yeah, with the understanding. I mean, I was already a certified diver, and they only have one other volunteer diver at that time, and I was a volunteer and, and through most of my career at the Newman aquarium, I was a volunteer and part time staff and that vary throughout the years. So I only worked at the aquarium for two months, not even a truthful two months. And I came in on a Saturday morning one morning and the divers were shorthanded, there was only one staff diver. And at that point, they had no one staff divers, you basically six days during the day and all the feedings? Yeah. They asked me if I'd like to dive with them for the day. I said, Yes. And from that point on for almost 37 years, I was involved with the New England Aquarium, guy staff and with penguins, and with the marine mammal research.
Brian Yurasits 6:04
That's, that's awesome. And I mean, I've got to ask you, I've got so many questions, because you know, myself when I was younger, going to the aquariums that's that's how I really got hooked on marine science and, and just seeing those divers going into those tanks. It was it looked it looked like the coolest job in the world, I have to say, so IV, can you attest to that? was it was it the coolest job like ever being able to just every day that's, you know, something that you do as you swim with these animals? And, yeah,
Ron Watson 6:33
I can certainly attest that it was my happy place. You know, but on the other hand, you got to look at it, that it is a job. And there were certainly times when it had the same. You know, when you were down there for hours scrubbing the fake coral to get algae off of that. Okay. Yeah, you were floating, and you were, you know, underwater. But yeah, there were times when it was still a job.
Brian Yurasits 7:04
Yeah, that's very true. It brings you back to reality a little bit in a way. But it's still it's an opportunity that not many people can say that they've done, right? That's correct. Yeah. You know, when I started, it was actually they would just at the beginning of actually having volunteer divers.
Ron Watson 7:26
There was actually only two of us at the time, myself and a gentleman named Steve Koren. Were the only two, you know, volunteer divers. Through the years, it's evolved. As a volunteer diver back, when I started, we really got to do things that the volunteer divers today do not get to do because of the fact of the OSHA requirements, and so on.
Brian Yurasits 7:58
That's very true. Yeah. But I mean, and that's, that's interesting to me, too, something that you that you said that I find really cool is that you you've made your way in the marine science field, pretty much, it's that, you know, you worked as a part time, you know, part time diver there, you you volunteered a lot of your time. I find I find that very interesting, because even with the seacoast Science Center, your your your full time position is your maintenance coordinator. So you kind of take care of the nuts and bolts of you know, the just what happens at the center. But, you know, you you It sounds like you made a way for for you to be able to work in all these organizations, you know, the sleet, the seacoast Science Center, the New England Aquarium. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit to that, because I know a lot of people today it's working in the field of marine science, it's a it's a high demand field, right? Like it's it's tough to it's tough to get a job. So I'm wondering if you could talk to that a little bit about your story.
Ron Watson 9:00
Yeah, um, you know, I never ever expected to be able to go as far as I have in the marine science industry. You know, my background is basically mechanical engineering. And I started with the aquarium as pretty much a hobby. Something that I you know, I could take my hobby, which course was diving and do something that was really, really interesting to me, and that was spending time in the water with all these animals and learning. But what actually made it progress for me was my mechanical engineering background. Yeah. I developed I was able to do things for the aquarium and for the giant ocean tank and also for the penguin tray. That they had nobody else to do. I developed underwater vacuum systems for them. I built enclosures designed enclosures for segregation of animals. Yeah. And that is really what allowed me to grow in the physicians there. And then of course, also work ethic. Yeah, one thing, that one thing that the aquarium has always, I guess, rewarded me for was that even as a volunteer in my first 18 years of volunteering here before I moved to Florida, I only missed two shifts in 18 years.
Brian Yurasits 10:58
Ron Watson 11:00
That's important. Yeah, big thing. But then to realize, I mean, a volunteer is still an employee and has a specific job to do.
Brian Yurasits 11:11
And you were able to reliably do it every day. And no, that's and that's big time. And you do you you volunteer for the the Science Center to for a marine mammal rescue team, you know, it and this It sounds like this work ethic is never you know, it's a it's a part of you, right?
Ron Watson 11:30
Yeah, my wife would my wife wishes I would slow down.
Brian Yurasits 11:37
Man, that's, that's funny. And so I want to talk it really like you've, you've spent a lot of time underwater, just even outside of working for the New England Aquarium to write did? Did you ever do any other, like professional diving jobs while you were certified?
Ron Watson 11:53
I did. Yeah. I worked a lot for a dive shop that was in Burlington, mass, I was an instructor. So I taught a lot of students and I taught them up to the divemaster level. I did some commercial work, I did some underwater work on dams. I did some salvage work. And then when I moved down to Florida, I ended up being and again, my background is not Marine Science, had I learned so much about it, that I was actually brought on as the Chief Scientific diver for the Charlotte marine research team.
Brian Yurasits 12:35
Ron Watson 12:37
What that entailed was actually finding areas to put artificial reefs off of the coast of Charlotte county in Florida, which is on the on the west coast, and it's down in both Central Florida down in Fort Myers to Venice area. Yep. And then once we found those areas to place the reefs, we then also helped to actually place them by doing the coordinates working with the people who were putting down the reefs themselves. And then we wanted those monitors those reefs, for their growth for their efficiency, and, and whatever.
Brian Yurasits 13:26
Yeah, that and that's super important work. And usually, usually you think of, you know, that you need, you need a some kind of master's degree in Coral ecology or, you know, coral reef studies to, to, like, get a kind of position like that, but I think it's so cool that you were able to just with, from your knowledge, your knowledge of scuba diving, and your persist, you know, your, your persistence in this field, that you were able to get these, you know, really cool, really awesome, and, you know, jobs that are in the field of marine science and be able to participate in that firsthand. So I think that that's super cool. And, and, Ron, I want to I have another question here that I want to bring up because there's a lot that I want to cover with you. But I'm one of one of my favorite things that you've you've put out in the past year and this has been running for over a year now. So you are an avid wildlife photographer up here in New England. You you a lot of your stuff is what you would say mostly New Hampshire and Massachusetts, right?
Ron Watson 14:29
Correct. Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts. Yes. Yeah.
Brian Yurasits 14:34
And and so you you started this it's on Facebook, this smile a day pics, right that you've that you've been posting that you've been posting since really since COVID. happened? I wanted I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you created this. It's It's awesome. I love watching it every day. And you've you've developed like this huge following kind of, you know, from these from these wildlife photos that you post on Facebook. So I was hoping you could you could talk a little bit about that.
Ron Watson 15:03
Okay. I really haven't. I really haven't told people about why I started it so much. And it can be kind of a little bit emotional for me.
Brian Yurasits 15:17
Okay, I gotcha. I got Yeah.
Ron Watson 15:21
Prior to me doing this, and prior to COVID I was posting again, the same things not not as frequently. Yep. And a Facebook. There were two Facebook friends. Now, I've never met either one of these, but it was a mother and daughter.
Brian Yurasits 15:39
Ron Watson 15:40
And they would just constantly they would, I mean, on days that I didn't post, they would ask if I was going to post, they wanted to see my pictures. And then just before COVID hit, I found out the mother had cancer. It progressed very quickly. And the daughter, okay. You've got a hold of me one day and said, Ron, she said, Could you post a picture of seals? My mother loves seals. Yeah. So I posted the picture. Later that day, she contracted people that her mother passed away.
Brian Yurasits 16:39
Oh, that's that's that's horrible.
Ron Watson 16:43
she was passed. She passed away looking at my picture.
Brian Yurasits 16:46
Sure. Oh, man.
Ron Watson 16:49
Yeah, it did. My [indiscernible] start actually right at the beginning of COVID. They started on March 30. Last year. I've gotcha. And you can see that picture on badges. Roxy, Merrimack River. Okay.
Brian Yurasits 17:06
Ron Watson 17:09
But her daughter told me that I made her smile every day.
Brian Yurasits 17:14
Haha. Oh, yeah. Yeah. What are you gonna say?
Ron Watson 17:22
Well, and that's how we start.
Brian Yurasits 17:26
That's, I'm sorry. That's That's such a sad story. But like that. I mean, it's a testament to like, how much one picture can really make someone's day? You know? And how, I don't know. Like, how, I guess I guess which they were outdoor enthusiasts as well. correct?
Ron Watson 17:47
That's correct. That's correct. And the daughter frequently is down at badges, badges, rocks, kitten pictures and shields.
Brian Yurasits 17:55
I gotcha. And you say, you stay in touch with her still?
Ron Watson 17:58
I do. Yes. Nice. Nice.
Brian Yurasits 18:00
I know. And, and that's, it's wild, though. Like, at even as like, I've become involved with wildlife photography. It's it's a tight knit community. Right. And yeah, and I think No, no one can really attest for that as much as you can. I mean, you've like with these smile a day pics that you've been posting like it people comment on them like every single day like it's it's a way for people to find common grounds with other people and you know, every politics and everything else aside like it's it's just enjoy this enjoy the the natural gifts that we have here in Massachusetts, in New Hampshire and and in these awesome places that we can get to visit. And yeah, I didn't know that. That was the story behind it. I personally thought that you did it because of COVID
Ron Watson 18:49
it continued because of COVID. I gotcha. Okay. I one of my, one of my first posts, basically labeled a non political post. And it was the mash across from od on point with all the posts that come up out of marsh.
Brian Yurasits 19:11
Ron Watson 19:12
That's at sunset. And it was a gorgeous picture. And you know, what? That's, that brought a lot of people to my smiling latex.
Brian Yurasits 19:22
Yeah. Because they can all relate. It's something that everyone can relate to in this community. And, and I think too, I mean, like, I now now that I know the reason that you started I mean, I think I think so many people are drawn to it too is because it is a like a positive ray of light and in a really just crappy year for most people, you know, and, and it's just, I don't know, I think it's incredible.
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Brian Yurasits 20:42
I'm shocked that you have so many pictures of wildlife to just, you know, at your at your disposal to post. But um, yeah, I mean, you you post pictures of snowy owls, you get the Hawks, you get everything, you know, to this to the smallest birds, the sparrows and some of the the ducks and the geese that we have around here. You know, and I think it's incredible that you're able to find find this beauty in every different kind of species that comes across our coastline like you, you don't discriminate, right? Like you you post pictures of pretty much every species you can you come across, right?
Ron Watson 21:17
If I can find it, I'm going to post a picture of it. And what I you know, I mean, the pictures that I post now, for the most part, almost every one of those pictures have been taken within the last three years because prior to that, I virtually did no above water, wildlife photography. Everything I did was underwater. Oh, really? Yes.
Brian Yurasits 21:41
Yeah. Okay, so you Well, I didn't know that either. Because you you what I what I know of you right now is that is your you're basically burning photography. Right? Like that's, I would say that's mostly what you do now, right?
Ron Watson 21:55
Yes, yes. Yes. Yeah. Interesting.
Brian Yurasits 21:57
I didn't know that. You made that what what made you want to make that transition three years ago?
Ron Watson 22:05
I guess it was mostly monetary. And the reason why is because I was for a long time, I was a holdout. I did not want to change over to digital photography. I wanted to stay with film photography. And part of that was because, of course, that's what I grew up with. But also because of the fact that changing over to digital photography also meant that I had to change over all my underwater housings.
Brian Yurasits 22:34
Yeah, that's very true.
Ron Watson 22:36
Yeah. And that's a that's a major outlay. And I didn't really feel I wanted to do that until finally something came along a relatively relatively inexpensive underwater system, digital system. And that's when I changed over to digital. And I changed over to digital first underwater, and then said, You know what, this is great. I can take 200 pitches instead of 24 or 36.
Brian Yurasits 23:09
Yeah, that's the nice thing. The SIM cards hold plenty more pictures. Yeah, but I mean, for me, too, that is a barrier to that. The only reason I haven't, you know, done underwater photography over the summer is because I can't afford underwater housing. You know, it's just those things, they run 1000s of dollars. Like, it's almost as expensive as a camera itself. Right? Yeah, it
Ron Watson 23:33
can be, you know, the good thing is, is that there are now a couple of manufacturers who make basically a point and shoot system that you can get out of it for under $1,000 and have a system that shooting at 16 megapixel, and some of them are shooting in 4k video.
Brian Yurasits 23:56
Yeah, that's true. That's, that's pretty, that's pretty wild. I know that the technology is definitely getting there. So I know, I'm hoping to get my hands on something that's a little cheaper sometime soon. But um, but so I do I do sticking to this photography topic, because I think that there's a lot that I really want to pick your brain with with this. But I'm curious how, how have you seen through your years of you know, live living in Massachusetts and New England? How have you seen the photography community and and just like the outdoor community here, change on this on the sea coast? I'm just curious, like, has has there been has the sea coast become more developed, have more people, you know, been visiting these natural places like Plum Island and crane beach and, and, and your audio input, audio and point? You know, I've only been here for the past five years in New England, so I don't I don't know what it used to look like. So I'm curious if you could give a little insight into you know, The past of living in Massachusetts in New Hampshire,
Ron Watson 25:04
there's no doubt there has been a major, major change. The first change that I can say is that there are a lot more people
performing the different sports that are involved around the coast. I mean, we can start off with something that you do okay with surf.
Brian Yurasits 25:32
Ron Watson 25:34
On a really good day when I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s. I mean, I knew every single person basically who was at the Hampton wall. Yeah. And there may be 20 people who were there.
Brian Yurasits 25:52
I wish it was 20 people today.
Ron Watson 25:55
Yeah, I know.
Brian Yurasits 25:57
You put you pull up, you can barely find a parking
Ron Watson 26:00
spot in the summer. Okay, exactly. Yeah, exactly. And, and that was not a problem when, you know, when I was growing up, and like I said, the 60s, the late 60s and 70s. At the surfing has changed. There was very, very few of us. Who did winter surfing, that's another thing.
Brian Yurasits 26:23
Yeah. Well, the wetsuits weren't there. Right.
Ron Watson 26:26
Yeah. I mean, you know, first of all the way excuse me, the wetsuits were so stiff, that you have a hard time lifting them up and over your head.
Brian Yurasits 26:38
Let alone paddling for a wave and you know, 15 degrees out, you know, the waters 30 degrees. Oh, my God, I couldn't, I couldn't even imagine.
Ron Watson 26:47
Brian Yurasits 26:48
yeah. But you, you told me once this, this hilarious story. So back in the day, how did you get the surf report?
Ron Watson 26:58
Well, of course, back in the day, we didn't have cell phones. Yeah. And where I lived one week in Massachusetts to quality Hampton was long distance and it costs money. So what we actually did was the search shot, which is now cinnamon rainbow. Had a system designed that you would call in. And there was what was called person to person collect. Yeah. In other words, you call and ask for a specific person. If that person was there, then you could talk to them. And you could charge for the call with that person wasn't there? Then you just hung up? Yep. So seminary, Rainbow had three different names. I used Corky Carol. Carol was, you know, he was one of the founders of the East Coast surfing Association. I believe he was the editor for surfers magazine. Yep, I would call up and ask is Courtney there? And person on the other end would say no, but he'll be back between two to three men, it was two to three footsies that they said he's not gonna be here today. There was no waves.
Brian Yurasits 28:21
That's it. That's ingenious. So did everyone know that? Or was that just you? You had to be you know, in the crowd to kind of know or was
Ron Watson 28:31
it was more in the crowd? Not everybody knew it. You know, there was there was a couple of surfing clubs. I belong to the see fort Seabrook surfing Association. And, you know, there was a Hampton surf club, and those are the people who really, you know, they worked with more,
Brian Yurasits 28:52
yeah, who were serious about it and kind of laid the foundations for what we see today. Right, essentially, and I mean, today for those of you who are listening the I mean, surfing, I won't say too much about it, because I don't want to blow up any any spots or anything like that. But you know, it's there's a lot more people's surfing up north in there, I'd say that there ever was you know, and I've seen this I've seen this throughout, just like anywhere anywhere outside of like California, right, like New York, New Jersey, the sirt the surf scene is exploding right now. A lot a lot of people are trying to get outdoors because more people can I guess now then, or are they they see it they see it on social media and they're inspired to go do it right. And so I can see that the the crowds are starting I I've seen the crowds grow in New York and New Jersey just because that's where I grew up surfing. And I saw that happen within you know, five years, just the amount of people exploded. But you do see with the wetsuit section And, and, you know, and social media and Instagram and all that it's it's becoming popular up here. And it's like, it's almost like there's nowhere cold enough, like the cold doesn't really keep people from doing it anymore, right?
Ron Watson 30:12
That's correct. I mean, you still amaze me. I mean, I used to go out and surf during the wintertime, but I wasn't out there at sunrise. Like I see all these people out there now on you know, eight degree morning.
Brian Yurasits 30:27
Yeah, that was, that was like two weeks ago, it was sure it was, I was out there. But yeah, I mean, we have the booties in the like, you can you can serve for at least two hours if you have the right equipment in the dead of winter out here. And, and it is true, the crowds are still pretty thinned out from it. It the the crowds are thinner if you serve in the in the winter than you do in the summer, but the amount of people who are willing to you know, put, put it put in the pain to go out and paddle out and catch them in the winter is, is definitely rising pretty steadily. But um, would you say would you say as well, other than surfing, when it comes to like wildlife photography and and things like birding in general? Like, do you do you see more people? Or even like younger people getting into this kind of stuff?
Ron Watson 31:19
Yeah, I mean, there's no doubt about it. You know, first of all, when it comes to photography, the advent of the digital photography certainly made a big difference. You know, with with film photography, there was a lot more to learn, okay. And it was a lot harder to take good pictures, digital photography, you can throw a camera, and I don't care what that camera costs, you're at $9. Or it costs you $5,000 you can put it into automatic and you can get some pretty good pictures.
Brian Yurasits 31:55
Yeah, that's very true.
Ron Watson 31:57
Yeah. So that has made a major, major difference in the photography portion of it. That being said, COVID has just skyrocketed. The people who want to be outdoors, and they're not that's birding in the use of spotter scopes, and binoculars. Well, whether it's the use of cameras, a lot of the camera companies had a hard time keeping up with camera sales this year, as did almost all the recreational the outdoor recreational market, they had a difficult time keeping up with sales because of COVID.
Brian Yurasits 32:45
Yeah, but that's true. I couldn't I was trying to buy a kayak for like all summer last year, and I couldn't find anything bring anything new in any stores. I had to I had to resort to looking on online for used kayaks pretty much.
Ron Watson 33:02
Yeah, yeah. No doubt about it. And so I mean, I think that continues across the board is when it comes to anything to do with the ocean. As you said, the kayaking you know, I mean, kayaking has become, you know, a major outdoor sport, paddle boarding. The other one that I grew up with, of course, is scuba diving. The scuba diving community. It's kind of sad, in a way the scuba diving community has grown incrementally. I mean, it just is much, much bigger than what it was when I was growing up. yet. On the other hand, the scuba diving industry, the small shop that has gone away in many cases, we've we've really lost a lot of the small shops, which is partially due to online sales. But, you know, overall, the amount of divers has has grown a lot and a lot of that has got to do with the fact that the equipment itself is so much better, so much easier to work with. Yeah, and so on.
Brian Yurasits 34:30
Yeah, it's a little maybe it's a little bit more accessible, accessible for people in a way. But yeah, I know I mean, I mean, for me, personally, I only just started scuba diving two years. I think it was two years ago at this point. So I had gone my whole life like surfing was the thing that drew me to the ocean and fishing and get it like I snorkel anytime that I could but for me scuba diving was it was just like a little bit of expensive for me to do and and I I still actually haven't scuba dived up in New England yet, so I'm gonna have to wait me, you and I are gonna have to talk after this. Rob, we got to set something up. We can do that. But But I mean, is that is that something that you ever saw with with scuba diving was like that it was just it was just tough to get for people to get into it unless you were like really passionate
Ron Watson 35:20
about it? Yeah, there's no doubt I mean, it as an instructor. Okay. You saw that pretty frequently? Yeah. He to go out and purchase? I mean, when I first started instructing, it would still cost you approximately $1,000 to get a minimal setup for scuba diving. Yeah. And that was a lot of money. It really was, it was a lot of
Brian Yurasits 35:53
money. It's still a lot of money.
Ron Watson 35:55
Yeah, it certainly is. The difference now, I mean, when I first started, there was very little in the way, I mean, the shops had minimal rental equipment. Now, the shocks of North up here are all, you know, they all have rental equipment, you can get into it. And really make the decision as to whether or not is something you really want to do. You that's something you excuse me, that's something you can do with scuba diving until you're trained. Yeah, you know, you can go out, you can use somebody's surfboard and decide I don't want to buy I don't want to do this. Okay, it's not what I want. But unless you go through the training courses with scuba, you can't do that you can't make that decision until you've actually gone through some of the training.
Brian Yurasits 36:54
Yeah, because it's so it's such a dangerous activity, you know, you're put it you are, you know, even even up to the intro courses up to 30 feet, you know, there's, you have to know what you're doing to jump into it, you can't just grab, you know, grab, you know, a set of scuba gear and throw it on and know what to do. Right. Yeah, that's
Ron Watson 37:15
correct. I mean, it, it can be very dangerous. And, you know, I mean, I hate to say it, but I have I have basically worked a few times in recovery. Okay, gotcha. We went out and, you know, had to go after people who were not certified. Okay. And pay the price for it.
Brian Yurasits 37:41
Yeah, that's I know, it's, it's a it's a dangerous game that you can't, you know, you can't really you can't mess with the ocean when it comes to that stuff.
Ron Watson 37:49
That's correct. I mean, you know, it's something that with the correct training, then it's a lifetime sport, okay, that you can enjoy. But you have to do it safely. And there's only one way to do it safely investigate train correctly.
Brian Yurasits 38:05
Exactly, exactly. But to so kind of, I want to circle back around here, just Sue, I'm talking about, like, how a lot more people have been, you know, participate in these outdoor activities. And you you're out there basically every day, shooting wildlife, right, like any, any chance you get. So I wanted to pick your brain a little bit about I know, there's, there's really like a lot of talk about the conservation ethic that wildlife photographers should be having out there, right? Like not giving give making sure that you respect the space of any animals that your photography, you know, photographing, no matter if they're birds, mat, marine mammals, like whatever it is, try not to disturb, disturb the animals leaving no trace when you're out there and not, you know, climbing over sensitive habitat to get a better shot. And I'm curious if you've seen if you think that, like people have been getting better with that kind of stuff, as as people become more aware of like, you know, these these guidelines online, like they see, you know, they see people posting about it, they see signs up. Do you think people are getting better with it? Or do you think that because there's so many more people spending time outside, that it's becoming more of a problem?
Ron Watson 39:22
I think, I think the people who have been involved in it for a long period of time, are getting better read. But I do think that, again, especially during this COVID period, and there's been so many people who have just entered into it, that they really don't know in many cases, they don't know what the guidelines are. They don't know what you know, they don't they don't understand that if a snowy owl during the daytime has its eyes. Wide open staring at you. You're too close. Yeah. Because it makes a dramatic picture to have those big, bright eyes staring at you. And we see that the same thing. I mean, both you and I are involved with marine mammals. Yep. We see that same thing, okay, that people want to get up close, people want to whether it be for the picture on because with marine mammals, the seals, they're so cute. I think we also have our perception of wild animals has also changed. We think of wild animals, more and more as human beings in some ways with human emotions. Yep. That's not a good thing.
Brian Yurasits 40:59
Yeah, there's a lot of people personify these animals. And, and they, yeah, it's, it's like people want to connect with these animals, because they see themselves in them in a way, right? Like, especially with the marine mammals. So many people think that they that they're like, their dogs, right? Or that, that's the biggest thing that I see. But even I know, and it drives people to get close to them. And it's, it's, you know, from what, whenever I see it happen, I try and educate the people that are doing it, you know, and like calmly and without, you know, making it making a big deal out of it. But, you know, letting them know that like, that they are harming these animals, I think that that's what really gets to them is, you know, it's not about telling someone that they can't do something just because it's wrong. It's like, I see people do change their ways when they really do like under when you sit down and tell them like exactly how this is going to harm the animal. Right? Because no one no one wants to be the bad guy. But like, but at the same time, I don't know. I do see people. Like I don't know if you've ever witnessed this, but like someone almost intentionally like trying to flush a bird out. So they get a shot of it flying. You know what I mean?
Ron Watson 42:15
Oh, yeah, I mean, I, I have a very specific incident last year. I have been monitoring a great horned owls. Family for basically from right about this, this time, right through into the summer when the iOS with branching and fledging. Yeah. And I mean, I'm certainly not going to mention any names or anything like that. But I saw this person, have a dog with them. And the dog was not on leash. There were two outlets who were up in a branch that was only 25 feet off the ground. Yeah, she would throw a ball under the outlet so the dog would chase it. Okay, point. I mean, those eyelids as far as they concern, that's a predator. Oh, 100%. And so, and then she stand there and snap pictures of their reactions. I actually had to inform her that I had videoed her doing that. And that I was also going to wait out in the parking lot for her to get to her car. And then I was going to view the car and turn it into the wildlife. At that point, she decided, well, maybe this isn't a good idea.
Brian Yurasits 43:38
Yeah. Yeah. And I know sometimes the sometimes people only change when, you know, they, they understand that they're gonna get in trouble for it, you know? And, I mean, the, the one thing that's interesting to me too, about this kind of stuff, is that, you know, in today's day and age where everyone everyone has a camera on them now in the form of your phone, right? And, you know, a lot of these things do become documented. But I mean, have you have you ever seen someone actually get fined for doing something like that?
Ron Watson 44:11
I can't say that I've ever seen anybody find I have seen people escorted, okay, by law enforcement away from an area and be given a very, very stern talking to, but I can I honestly say, I don't know if they've ever been fined for it.
Brian Yurasits 44:34
Gotcha. Because that's, that's something that I'm curious about myself, because I feel as though you know, there are laws in place to protect these animals. Right? Like, it's, it's very clear, in some cases, like, especially with the snowy owls, or when it comes to marine mammals, there are specific distance guidelines that you have to respect and, and it's and, you know, in some cases, it's a it's a federal law. And yet, I do feel as though most of the time and I think this must be the strategy by the law enforcement. But for the most, for the most part, I don't see any real strict fines being, you know, put down. It's mostly like, if they ever do have to respond to something, it's just been, you know, they educate the person they give them, they, they really do give them a stern talking to you, but and they and they pretty much note that like, we we know, your we know who you are, if we see you do this again, then, you know, something, something more serious will be done, like more serious action will be taken. But, but Yeah, I do. That's just something that I've noticed as well. But um, I mean, yeah, and the snowy owls are a perfect example, though. Where we, where we are here in New England, in that it's, it's like this iconic animal that you ask any anyone who's birding there, they're looking for snow days, right? Like for the for the most part, you you know, you're down at Plum Island or crane beach? And yeah, yeah, ask people what their what they've seen what they're looking for. And, you know, most people are out there looking for snow ease. And I, you know, you do get some pretty serious crowds out there.
Ron Watson 46:12
Yeah, there's no doubt about it. I mean, you know, I mean, this year, earlier in the season, I did go down to take a look at a snowy owl, that was all the way down the end of Plum Island. And when I got there, and Sawyer, the amount of people I just turned around and left at that point in time, there had to be 300 people down there. And 300 Yeah, 300. And they had pretty much surrounded the snowy owl. Now, that being said, for the most part, they were not extremely close to the snowy, but still, they surrounded it, and at no point conditionally I will rest and so on. Yeah.
Brian Yurasits 46:58
Yeah, at some point, it just becomes too much of a volume of people. And, I mean, I think that's where it just, I think this is what's kind of a key is that, you know, on one end of the spectrum, right, it's awesome to see that so many more, like so many new people, so many more people are coming out and enjoying the outdoors, right? Like, that's, in my opinion, that's one of the only like, learning by by example. And by experience it, that's the kind of stuff that stuff that sticks with you forever, and it has the potential to turn you into a life long wildlife advocate. Right. And, and but on the on the other end, though, like to having your we are only going to see more and more people become, you know, interested in this kind of stuff and spending time outdoors and, and hiking, surfing, fishing, you know, photographing wildlife. And at some point, you know, it becomes almost like too many people. So it's like, I feel like that's the the stage that we're in almost is like trying to find that balance between, like, but between showings showing more people what the, you know, the awesome things that are out there in the outdoors, and like maintaining this respect for the wildlife and not impacting them, because I mean, humans, humans innately, we are not compatible with, like these wild animals, right, like too many people innately is going to harm whatever, whatever natural space is out there. But I was curious what I mean, what do you think is kind of a way forward with that?
Ron Watson 48:38
I think this is this is a very difficult one. And honestly, in some of the burning groups on Facebook, and so on, there's a lot of dialogue that takes place. I also, myself have many times, talk back and forth in private conversations. One of the things like it, you know, like anything else, education, first of all, is paramount to making changes. But in some cases, also, stricter enforcement has to take place. And the enforcement has to include, you know, penalties, not just a slap on the wrist and talking to and I think that's one of the only ways that we'll get this across to the small fraction of people out there who don't really care there, just for the best picture and they're not there. They're not they don't honestly care about the wildlife. They're there for the wow factor.
Brian Yurasits 49:58
Yeah, that's Very true. And and some of these animals, they they are they have that wow factor. They're, they're what people want to photograph right and, and it comes down like, those are the kind of people who I've witnessed firsthand where they try, you know, they know what they're doing is wrong, but they do it anyway, you know you can, you can clearly you can tell them all that you want, you can talk their ear off about it, you can educate them as much as you want, but they really just want to get that photo. And I agree those, the it's a small group of people, but yeah, those those are the ones that definitely changing their ways is what would happen, you know, what would have a big impact. But that's I that that topic was something I really wanted to cover with you. Because you you're out there more than anyone else I know. So I figured I figured you'd have a good a good report on kind of the status of it, at least here in New England, and I'm sure I'm sure plate places elsewhere have been kind of feeling the same pressure of you know, of more people visiting their natural places and, and things like this happening for vulnerable wildlife. But so I do, there's one more question I have for Iran that I want to kind of end with. And so like we like we talked about earlier, you know, you took a really unique path in your career in marine science and scuba diving, and, you know, be the being a wildlife photographer. And I'm curious, like, what advice would you give to a student today who wanted to like follow in your footsteps, right?
Ron Watson 51:36
Yeah. I guess I've thought about that a lot. There it is. Realistically, the path that I took is is not an easy path, to follow. And to be able to end up in the positions that I ended up being in. In many cases, I probably would have, things may have been easier for me if I had a little more of the marine ecology, the marine biology background. But it's not impossible by any means. To do it the way that I did. Yeah, what's more important is to if you have a dream, more towards that dream in whatever way that you can possibly do it. Yeah. Become affiliated with some type of an agency that will help you work towards that. the fulfillment of that dream.
Brian Yurasits 53:00
That's, that's some good
Ron Watson 53:00
He that's I mean, that's how it worked for me. I mean, I didn't have that dream. When I started, I wanted to be involved, but I didn't have the dream of having a lifetime of being involved in ocean conservation, animal conservation. You know, it has put me into some really neat positions. Doing manatee research down in Florida. Okay. I never would have been in that position. If it hadn't been for the Norman aquarium. and meeting the person who would later Give me the job of working with manatees as so networking certainly is, is one of the things is critical. Volunteering, volunteering is, in my mind, that's the way first of all, to get in the door. Secondly, to really see whether or not you're going to actually after a year or two, is this really what you want to do? Yeah,
Brian Yurasits 54:24
that's, that's a really good point. And yeah, and and I think another another really good point with volunteering to is I knew you were going to mention volunteering. I think a huge thing is that it doesn't matter. Like what age you are, you can volunteer for an organization very easily and have an impact there like you don't have to be a you know, an undergraduate student at college to to volunteer somewhere and make it matter. Like I volunteer for Surfrider Foundation here to write like you volunteer for marine mammal rescue right now. You can like you can do this, you can volunteer throughout your entire life, and it's only going to make things better for you like it, it opens those doors, those connections and, and, you know, if you want to work in a space like and you really like that's your dream, you know, the opportunity might not be there for something paid right away. But you know, keep on just volunteering, keep on keeping at it. Yeah, that's
Ron Watson 55:21
correct. I mean, when I take a look back to the years at the New England Aquarium, almost every person who is a staff member at the aquarium started as either a volunteer or an intern and has progressed up to the point where, you know, I mean, I know of at least two people who are now head aquaris. Okay, who started as volunteers. So, yeah, I mean, it just, it really is, it's a great way of getting your foot in the door. And But more than that, it's a great way of finding out whether or not this is really what you want to do in life.
Brian Yurasits 56:06
Yeah. And that's what matters. Because you know, that it's a tough, it's a tough field to work in. And you really, you have to know that you want to do this, right. Otherwise, otherwise, you're just wasting your time, pretty much. That's correct. I
Ron Watson 56:19
mean, the first thing you have to realize is that it's, it's tough to get into this, there's a lot of people who want to get into it. So the competition is, is pretty heavy. And you also have to realize that unless you go to work for certain for profit companies, that you're not going to make an awful lot of money. Because the majority of it, the companies that do this are nonprofits. Exactly, you know. So, yeah, I mean, you could go to work for Johnson and Johnson, okay. And they take almost every marine biology major who comes out of the University of Florida. And eventually, you can make a pretty good living, if you want to work for them in a private as a private entity. You're doing research, you're, you know, you're basically trying to find out why sharks don't get cancer. And that may be the direction you want to go. But if you really want to work with animals, then in many cases in some nonprofit, okay, and again, that competition to get in there is fierce. So you've got to stand out, you've got to be somebody who, first of all has a lot of drive has a lot of passion. And I can honestly say I have worked with some of the most passionate the most passionate young people, I think, in the world I know of people who have gone. I mean, I, the person who got me my job. down in Florida doing marine mammal worse research is now a doctor. And she runs the manatee Lake, the serrania Foundation in Africa. In Yeah, and just last year, her and her husband became National Geographic fellows for the work that they do.
Brian Yurasits 58:32
That's Yeah, that's about it. That's about as high as you can get pretty much right. No. But I think that's that's a really that's a good note to end on. I think Ron, like just it. Just to answer that question like, how, what advice would you give someone, I think you, I think you hit the nail on the head. It's just you've got to be passionate in this field, you got to work hard towards it. And you know, you You are an example of that, right? Like, what the things that you've you've been able to accomplish and where you've worked, you know, what you've done in your career. So I mean, hard if you work hard enough and stick to it, you know, you can you can make your way in this field, and you can make a difference difference for our planet. Right. And, Ron, you know, we're, we're running out of time here. So I do want to just give you a chance. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention, before we close up this this episode?
Ron Watson 59:26
No, no, not really. I mean, I'm, you know, I'm, I'm going to be 70 in just a little over a week. And I'm hoping to stay doing this for many, many more years to come. And
Brian Yurasits 59:42
we all hope you're going to stay doing this for years to come and I know you will. And happy big seven. Oh there Ron. Well, almost almost a day. Thanks again, Ron, for joining us for this podcast. It was a pleasure having you.
Ron Watson 59:57
Yeah, thank you for having me.