Personal History, Professional Background, Travel & Adventures
Part 1 of 3: Personal History
I got my love of nature from my father, my curiosity about it from my mom.
My dad was a handsome, athletic, high-school dropout with a stutter, a quiet, killer sense of humor and a way with animals. He had a pet cat as a boy who turned pages for him when he read books in bed, and a wild squirrel used to scratch at our window when my sisters and I were kids, beckoning my dad out on the front porch, where the squirrel would hop on his knee and take nuts from his hand.
My father was taken prisoner of war in Germany during World War II and came back with a drinking problem that killed him at age 43. The only place he ever really found peace was in nature. My happiest whole-family memories are pretty much all of times we spent outdoors, almost always by water, camping and fishing, picnicking and swimming, or just picking up a watermelon on a summer Sunday afternoon and driving to the local forest preserve where, when my dad wasn’t playing softball with his four girls (no sons), he and my mom could sit quietly at a picnic table, breathing grass, trees and sky.
My father’s Bohemian immigrant family was country stock. My mother’s was cultured. I think about what her life might have been if her own mother hadn’t died when she was a toddler and her dad hadn’t put his three kids in a Catholic orphanage until they reached high school age, by which time the damage was done.
My mother was tiny, skinny, pretty though she never believed it, smart, anxious and painfully shy. She loved movies, music and books.
Because of my mother, when we weren’t spending summer weekends outdoors, we were driving into “downtown” Chicago to see a movie or visit the Shedd Aquarium or Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History or, my favorite, the Museum of Science and Industry, where you could ride a coal car down into a mine shaft, see preserved human fetuses in different stages of development and walk through a large-scale model of a beating human heart.
I don’t remember how old I was when I looked through a microscope for the first time — 10 or 11. I remember the impact it had. When my mother asked what I wanted for my birthday that year, I couldn’t help myself. “A microscope!” I blurted. I didn’t expect to get one. My father worked in a steel mill. My mother worked on an assembly line. We were a struggling family of six. I don’t know how my mother did it, but I got a microscope for my birthday. And I don’t know who was more thrilled when I opened the box, my mother or I. And this I will never forget. As I stood gazing at it, speechless with astonishment and joy, my mother apologized that it wasn’t a better one. “They make a better one, honey,” she said, her dark brown eyes big, worried, shining, “but the store didn’t have it in stock, so if you don’t like this one….” I looked at her, my beautiful mother. Oh, Mommy. Not like it?
My sisters and I grew up playing mermaid at our local swimming pools, arguing over whose turn it was to be Lorelei, our favorite mermaid name. Even then, maybe because I was a tall, chunky girl and underwater I was fluid and weightless, underwater was my favorite place to be.
But I don’t think that’s all it was.
My mother and I loved reading. My father and I loved water. I remember standing with my mother and sisters in waist-deep water at a lake we often visited, watching my dad dive off a raft out in the deep water and disappear for what seemed like hours — until my mother or one of my sisters or I screamed a delicious, half-laughing scream as we felt his hands grab our legs.
I wanted to be Esther Williams. I wanted to be a Weeki Wachee Mermaid. The first book I checked out of my elementary school’s new library when it opened was Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World. The librarian, who was also the science teacher, said it was too advanced for me, I’d never read it. I devoured it, words and photographs: my first glimpse of this whole other universe right here on our own planet. I wanted to be part of that world.
We went to the zoo a lot as a family, too, while my dad was still alive: the Brookfield Zoo, now the Chicago Zoological Society, in Brookfield, Illinois. When I was 12, the zoo opened the first inland, indoor, captive dolphin exhibit in the country: the Seven Seas Pavilion, 50 years old and at least twice refurbished this year.
I won’t go into how I now feel about keeping dolphins and whales in captivity here. More on that later. This is about when I was a kid, and all I knew then was, “Dolphins.” The mere thought of even possibly being near them sent an electric jolt through my heart.
I didn’t really care about seeing them perform, though my family and I did see a show — once, I think. But that wasn’t what drew me. They did, the dolphins themselves. From the first time we visited that exhibit, all I wanted to do was stand at the underwater viewing windows, watching them when they weren’t performing — yearning, hungering, imagining myself among them in the open sea.
Part 2 of 3: Professional Background
Editing & Writing
I wasn’t supposed to go to college. No one in my family had ever gone. But when my mother saw how desperately I wanted it, she found a way to help make that dream happen, too.
I came to New York City after graduation as a summer intern for Ladies’ Home Journal and got hired on staff. The first piece of writing I published was an item in LHJ’s pet column about efforts to save the then-endangered Florida alligator — that’s how long ago that was. A few years later, when I quit to freelance, my wonderful boss and mentor, Dick Kaplan, gave me the pet column as my first regular freelance gig.
I’ve been writing and editing ever since, going back and forth between freelancing and staff jobs. During my decades-long career, I’ve been an editor at LHJ, Viva, Redbook, Life and Family Circle, among other publications, and my articles and essays have appeared in these periodicals and others, including Glamour, The New York Times Sunday Magazine and Sunday Arts & Leisure, Ms., The Village Voice, American Health, Shape, Working Mother, Omni, American Forests, Woman’s Day, NEA Today and Parade — more than 35 magazines and newspapers in all.
I had a great time not long ago helping to launch a Prevention.com website now called Outsmart Diabetes, working with the wonderful Katherine Solem, and I’ve written for other health websites including rodale.com and the Cleveland Clinic’s 360-5.com.
I’ve been involved in the creation and production of a number of special-interest publications, I’ve taught magazine- and essay-writing at Fordham University Lincoln Center, and I’ve been a frequent panelist and speaker at writing conferences and courses. I don’t have a professional website and much of my work isn’t available online, but you can see other samples of my writing here, here and here, and I’ve included a few more links below.
Of all the pieces I’ve brought to print as an editor, one of the ones of which I’m proudest is one of the shortest: a one-page essay in Family Circle by Jean-Michel Cousteau alerting Family Circle’s then-20 million readers that Navy sonar testing was endangering the lives of dolphins and whales (“Saving the Songs of the Sea,” FC 6/10/03). It wasn’t exactly your standard women’s magazine fare, which is why I was so proud of it.
The most consistent Nature News fun I’ve had on a magazine staff was during a short stint at Life, where, among other things, I worked with renowned underwater photographer David Doubilet on a photo feature about manta rays in the waters off the Big Island of Hawaii (“Manta Rays,” August 1998); wrote copy for a photo essay on Carol and David Hopcraft’s adventures raising children and orphaned cheetahs in Kenya (“Life with Shallah,” October 1998); interviewed outdoor/nature photographers Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee, Sheila Metzner, and John Wawrzonek for photo features on their work (“Human/Nature,” September 1998; “Wonderlands,” October 1998; “First, Frost,” December 1998); wrote a gatefold feature on animal and plant species scheduled to come off the Endangered Species List (“Look Who’s Back!” January 1999) and oversaw staff writer Ken Miller’s report on the transport of Keiko, the orca star of “Free Willy,” from a rehabilitation tank in Oregon to a sea pen in Iceland in preparation for his release back into his home waters (“Keiko Goes Home to Iceland,” November 1998). Very cool.
Dolphins, Diving, Islands, Whales
Of all the Nature News pieces I’ve written for print, one of the ones of which I’m proudest is also short and also about Keiko. I broke the story of Keiko’s real-life circumstances in an article entitled “‘Free Willy’ … and Maybe Rescue Keiko, Too” in The New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section on July 11, 1993, five days before the film’s release.
The “Free Willy” story is one of a series of articles and essays I’ve written about dolphins, whales and related water subjects, including pieces about: my early experiences interacting with wild dolphins as a participant with Denise Herzing’s Wild Dolphin Project (“Swimming with Dolphins,” Shape, September 1990); the multiple factors that contribute to the unique pleasures of scuba diving (“Rapture of the Deep,” Moxie, September 1990); diving with a one-of-a-kind dive guide named Dee Scarr in Bonaire (“Reach Out and Touch Something,” Shape, October 1992); some of the many islands I’ve known and loved (“Thank Heaven, Warm Water,” Shape, February 1995); a dolphin-welfare dustup during filming of the remake of “Flipper” (“Dolphin Advocates Persuaded ‘Flipper’ To Change Course,” NYTimes Sunday Arts & Leisure, February 19, 1996); the interlocking, human-caused threats to our air and water, oceans and marine life (“We Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes” and “Our Approach Is Too Piecemeal,” American Forests, Autumn 2006); a sampling of ocean encounters and experiences I’ll never forget (“Salt Water: A History,” Florida InsideOut, Autumn 2006); and the gratifying impact a then-little-known documentary called “The Cove” had on a screening room full of film critics with attitude. (“Dolphin Lady on the Cove,” Hollywood-elsewhere.com, June 30, 2009).
Longer pieces in my unpublished dolphin-whale archives include a comprehensive report on the state of dolphin research that allowed me to meet and interview some of the leading lights in the field, including David and Melba Caldwell, Lou Herman, Randy Wells and the late, great Ken Norris (1989); a report on the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of a coalition of dolphin advocates, including Ric O’Barry of “The Cove,” to rehabilitate three Navy dolphins for release back into the wild (1995); my quest to get in the water with a sperm whale in Dominica (1998); and a book proposal in progress on the history of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity, tentatively entitled Wild at Heart: Do Dolphins and Whales Belong in Tanks?
Part 3 of 3: Travel & Adventures
I’ve traveled a fair amount, too — to 19 countries and 9 island nations — and have been lucky enough to see some breathtakingly beautiful places while they were still in their natural or almost natural, pre-major-tourism state: Koukounaries Beach on the Greek Island of Skiathos. Jamaica’s Negril and Bloody Bay. San Blas, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Thailand’s Phuket and Koh Phi Phi islands. Dominica. Grenada’s Carriacou. Nevis and St. Kitts….
I’ve seen blue snow in Colorado and had wild chickadees peck seeds out of my hand in upstate New York. I’ve driven north along a winding, deserted Arizona road at dusk on the way to the Grand Canyon, watching the sun set huge and blood-orange on my left as a full moon rose huge and pale yellow on my right and come around a bend to see a heavy-antlered elk standing majestic at roadside. Magic night.
I’ve heard a humpback whale sing underwater while snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii and been in the water with sperm whales in Dominica. I’ve touched a moray eel while diving in Grand Cayman and held hands with a little octopus while diving in Bonaire. I’ve heard a jaguar cough in the jungle, had a blue morpho butterfly almost land on my leg and had whale sharks approach close enough to touch, which I did, in Belize.
I’ve seen flamingos line the shore of Kenya’s Lake Nakuru thick as pink pond scum and rounded a bend on a lunar landscape road in Kenya’s Samburu district to see a morani (young warrior) standing still as a statue atop a boulder, spear in hand, draped in ochre cloth, his hair and face daubed in ochre, all brown and ochre like the earth.
I’ve seen the horizon line where water meets sky flash green for a billionth of a blink as the last sliver of sun sank into three different seas, and I once lost myself so completely gazing up at a star-filled night sky from the back deck of a boat in the Bahamas as it rocked on gentle swells that for one eternal instant the boat fell away, the sea fell away, the earth and all sense of self fell away, and there was just consciousness in the cosmos. I keep hoping it will happen again.
I’ve watched the rising and setting sun turn the snowy peaks of the Himalayas shimmering rose-gold in Nepal and surprised myself watching one sunset by bursting into sobs it was so beautiful I couldn’t stand it I couldn’t take any more it was just too much. What Nature can do.
And I’ve been in the water with wild dolphins many times as a long-term supporter of Denise Herzing’s Wild Dolphin Project. And here’s all I’ll say about that for the moment: 1. Every visit brings some new test and some new amazement — at least one of each. 2. No amount of time in the company of these dolphins is ever enough. It just makes me want more. 3. If for nothing else — and there is so much else — for the privilege of spending time in the company of dolphins “in their world, on their terms,” to quote WDP’s slogan, I owe.
So listen up: Taking dolphins and whales out of the wild and/or keeping and breeding them in captivity is wrong. It’s time for facilities that engage in these practices to stop and time for those of us who support these facilities by paying to see dolphins and whales in captivity to stop doing that, too.
We didn’t know enough about who these big-brained, intelligent, sensitive, self-aware, long-lived mammals are and what sophisticated, family-oriented, socially complex lives they live in the wild to realize what we were doing to them when we first began tearing them away from their families and out of their world and putting them in tanks. But we do know now.
Educate yourself. SeaWorld won’t help you there. Just the opposite. But other good people and organizations will, including:
• Naomi Rose of Humane Society International, author of a number of papers explaining why dolphins and whales belong in the wild, not in tanks and the go-to person for enlightening government officials about how the captive-display industry lies to the public.
• Lori Marino of Emory University, who studies the dolphin brain and dolphin self-awareness and speaks at scientific conferences about the ethical implications of keeping dolphins in captivity.
• Tom White, of Loyola Marymount, author of In Defense of Dolphins, who has appeared on panels with Lori Marino, arguing for the dolphin equivalent of a bill of human rights.
• Tim Zimmerman’s Orca Project.
• Candace Calloway Whiting of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
• Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel.
• And, of course, former “Flipper” trainer turned dolphin liberationist Ric O’Barry of “The Cove” and The Dolphin Project, the telegenic, sound-bite-savvy founder and folk hero of the anti-captivity movement.
Gini’s Nature News will do what it can, too. Like I said, I owe.