In Alabama for The Nature Conservancy

Boots on the ground in Mobile Bay, AL

In December I was hired by The Nature Conservancy to shoot photographs and video of their conservation and community-building projects in Bayou Le Batre, Alabama. The marsh and oyster reef ecosystem, has been collapsing in the Gulf since long before the Spill, and the Conservancy has been there for years, working on many fronts to stabilize the most severely impacted marine habitat on Earth.

The Conservancy is involved in a ton of projects down there. Multi-dimensional efforts with a scope of decades and a cast of thousands. The physical reef-building alone is probably the biggest reef restoration project in the world. Their strategy is to build strong partnerships with local groups that know the area best and can work more or less autonomously.

I headed down to the coast for a week with two Conservancy field staffers, Christine Griffiths and Cara Byington. Gareth Nichols was on crew as Sound Recordist and field assistant.

Gareth Nichols, Mobile Bay, AL

Essential Gear

photo by Gareth Nichols

Boots. Gotta have em down there. Of the knee-high waterproof variety. I prefer mine in red patent leather with a 10″ heel but it wasn’t practical for this trip.

My main kit is a Nikon D3s with fast zooms, but expecting wet conditions, I also brought the new Olympus E5 as well as an Olympus Pen E-PL1 and underwater housing. I’ve said before that the Olympus Zuiko lenses are some of the best lenses made, with superior weather protection to boot, but I think the E line is a little behind the curve. Drawing on the strength of their glass and ruggedness, I’d love to see Olympus re-dedicate themselves to developing the pro DSLRs in some way.





I’m not afraid to get the Olympus wet, even a dunk or two in the ocean. The E5 has the same weather-worthiness as the E3 with the expected increase in image quality and shooting capabilities. It did allow me to get down and dirty more than I would have with the Nikon, but I still relied on the Nikon for the majority of the work.


photo by Gareth Nichols

On the video front I relied mostly on the Panasonic HPX-370 for coverage and interviews, and switched to the Nikon D3s when it was convenient and as a backup. Not a bad system as long as you have a good sound recordist who is also keen to schlep.

I’d been using the HPX-370 for a few months, including a TV pilot, action sports videos, and corporate spots. As an affordable ($10K or so) shoulder-mounted ENG camera with interchangable lenses, it’s without peer. It shoots high-bitrate AVC-Intra at 1080 to dual P2 cards, has four XLR inputs, and has the great ergonomics and “look” that Panasonic is known for. It’s light on the shoulders, and field-worthy. The tradeoff for affordability: 1/3″ chip, so less depth-of-field. I also find the white balance to be a little more difficult to nail, especially next to a camera like the EX-1. I’ve since moved to a Panasonic AF-100. Though a totally different form-factor, it’s a superior image. Be nice to have both.

Those are the essentials. Let’s talk about what we shot:

Photo by Gareth Nichols

I wanted to keep an “editorial” look for these photos, both as a matter of style (mostly natural light, candid), and also because we would have a ton of subjects to cover so we wouldn’t have too much time to dick around with lights, and for some subjects – like the out-of-work Vietnamese fisherman who were being trained to build reefs – I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible.


Left to right: Wayne Eldridge of J&W Marine Enterprises and a Vietnamese boy at the Boat People SOS offices. A Vietnamese fisherman works on a reef bag. A box of empty reef bags

A local group called Boat People SOS helps find work for unemployed local fishermen, mostly from Southeast Asia. The Conservancy has been working with them and local businesses to build the oyster reefs that will eventually line 100 miles of Mobile Bay with healthy Oyster habitat. This will kick-start the local fishing and oystering industry and support the overall ecosystem. Plus it generates paid work for people who have lost their livelihood as a result of the BP Oil Spill.


Reef balls ready to be deployed in Mobile Bay

Me atop a giant pile of oyster shells, ready to be bagged and deployed as new oyster reef. Photo by Gareth Nichols


They build the reefs with a combination of DeathStar-like concrete “reef balls” as well as piles of mesh bags filled with oyster shells. Both of these help stabilize the coastal environment and provide a place where new oysters can grow.

Did I mention this is a massive undertaking?

Jeff DeQuattro, Marine Program Director for the Nature Conservancy in Alabama examines young oysters growing on artificial reefs at Helen Wood Park near Dauphin Island, Alabama.

The Conservancy also has an “Oral History” project going in Mobile Bay. It’s a way to get the straight dope from the old timers about what the environment used to be like. They record stories, collect photos, and mark up high-resolution maps to get a picture of how the environment has changed over time. Armed with this information they have a better idea of how to move forward with conservation efforts.

Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway (left) and a local fisherman talk about past conditions in the Gulf during an oral history gathering event in Mobile Bay, AL


At these sessions you get a feeling for what is at stake for these people. Occasionally there are tensions in the room. You’ve got multiple industries – oil being the largest, followed by large-scale fisheries, shrimpers, oystermen, dredgers, the works – often at odds with eachother, competing for the same resources. It’s challenging to work out a real solution. The Conservancy and their partners have experience on their side, as well as some truly great ambassadors.

Jeff DeQuattro (left) and Conservancy Trustee Jimbo Meador chat on Meador's dock on Mobile Bay.

We met one such local hero, Conservancy Trustee Jimbo Meador, at his house on the Bay. Meador is a guide, fisherman, and paddleboard shaper who was apocryphally the inspiration for Forrest Gump. Though he did meet Tom Hanks and consulted with the voice coach, he plays down the association. Anyway his personality is way beyond that. He is a real salt-of-the-earth southerner with his mind on the future. As a Trustee, he works with the Conservancy on a lot of different projects, and is a eloquent champion of their vision. Sadly we only had a day with Jimbo but I hope to run into him again.

What it's all for: Raw oysters and tabasco on a plate at The Topless Oyster in Mobile Bay, AL

If you are a member of the news media you can access photography and video assets from this and other Conservancy projects by contacting Krystal Murphy at


Great post Andy! So interesting………..

posted by Jennifer C. on 05.03.11 at 12:51 pm

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