“I look out to see how the water is doing, the sky--to check the clouds. My eye always goes to light first.” - Erika Nortemann
By Karen Sosnoski
Erika Nortemann, Photo Archive Manager for The Nature Conservancy, likes to make practical use of her morning commute. Driving from Annapolis, MD to Arlington, VA, she listens to Spanish language CDs to keep up her skills for her next trip to Latin America (a favorite source for photo adventures). But when she crosses the South River Bridge, the local view commands her attention:
“Every single time I drive over the South River [a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay], I look out,” says Erika, energy rising in her voice. “I look out to see how the water is doing, the sky--to check the clouds.”
This need to visually commune with natural surroundings reflects Nortemann’s photographic instincts. “My eye always goes to light first.” It also reflects her human passion. “I’m a water baby, so grateful to live near the Bay.”
Erika moved from Wisconsin to the East Coast in 2005. As a conservationist and photographer eager for stories, she fell in love with her new environment. Before long even her social life centered on the water of the Chesapeake - on sailing, camping, kayaking, swimming and walking the beach with friends. As her bond with the Bay developed, Erika found she couldn’t savor its gifts without acknowledging its vulnerability. She went from “What can the Bay give me?" to "How can I give back?”
Flash forward seven years and Erika shows commitment to her answer: by protecting oysters. Erika still remembers the sick feeling she got when she first saw a video documenting the destruction of the oyster reefs. “The bottom of the Bay looked like the floor of the moon, just decimated.”
By the time Erika moved to Annapolis, many of the Bay’s threatened species, including Rockfish and Maryland Blue Crabs, had begun to attract their champions. But few photographers tracked Oysters. In the video Erika recalls as pivotal, a guide sent underwater to investigate found, instead of healthy reefs with their multiple high-rises of stacked oysters, “nothing was there.”
In 2012 less than a third of 1% of the native oyster population remains. Erika explains why this matters. Oysters filter the water, making it habitable for other species. They provide incomes for shuckers, cooks, and boat-builders, and are integral to the cycles of the “watermen” who fish, crab, and collect shellfish according to the season. Oysters form the heart of the Chesapeake’s cultural heritage. They support the fun, beauty, and dining enjoyed by tourists from all over the country today.
Because these goopy, silent creatures don’t naturally pull at our heartstrings, Erika Nortemann brings to life the moving landscapes and people whose interconnectedness with oysters makes us care.
Each week on TNC's DCMDVA Facebook page, Erika's images turn Friday into FriBAY. It invites us to share this passionate photographer’s visual celebrations of a Bay worth protecting—its gentle sunrises, vibrant boats, fascinating crabs, dynamic characters, joyous recovery projects, and, yes, its precious oysters.
Karen Sosnoski is a freelance writer. This is her first article for TNC.