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March 2011: Volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico

From the Photographer

Erika Nortemann 

There was mud everywhere. It covered peoples’ clothing, splattered across their faces and it even pulled the boots right off their feet. It was an absolute mess out on the Mobile Bay mud flat at Helen Wood Park in Mobile, Alabama, but the 500+ volunteers that came out to support Gulf of Mexico coastal restoration work were as happy as if they were on a beautiful sandy beach because they believed so strongly in the cause.

People came out by the hundreds to spend their weekend building nearly a kilometer of living reef with thousands of bags of oyster shell. The shell provides great habitat for oyster larvae as well as finfish, shellfish and hunting grounds for the birds who love to dine on such delicacies. This was the kickoff event for the 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama partnership, in which The Nature Conservancy is involved.

I’ll admit I was more than a little nervous while photographing this event. Juggling two camera bodies along with multiple lens and accessories while trying to maintain my balance was an impossible feat. The trick to not succumbing to the muck was to keep moving, but since I don’t generally make my best pictures “on the move,” I knew that every time I stopped to compose a shot, I would sink past my ankles before I could get going again. In the battle of me versus the mud, I definitely lost over and over again.

(Un)luckily, I am a clumsy person even on dry, solid ground, so I know how to fall with my gear held high in the air. And it never took very long before someone realized I was stuck and rushed over to help.

Despite the chilly weather and messy work conditions, the mood of the volunteers was exhilarating. The smiles on their faces and their stick-to-it spirits reflected an overall celebration of hope, resilience and camaraderie for the Gulf of Mexico. I am proud to have been a part of it.

This particular shot was one I captured later in the day, when the sun’s light wasn’t so harsh. (The glare off the mud earlier in the day was brutal!) In the foreground is a row of concrete reefballs, also used as structure when creating reef habitat. I liked how the line of reefballs paralled the line of volunteers.

I took this shot with my favorite equipment combo—a Canon 7D and Tokina 11/16mm lens (f/22 at 1/60)—and then promptly slipped back into a muddy hole that came up to my knees.

Erika Nortemann is the photography archive manager and photo editor for The Nature Conservancy

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