Diving in Deep with Jennifer Adler

Jennifer Adler’s love for the sea led her to pursue a degree in marine biology, and when she received her first job offer to work as a biologist at USGS in Florida, she eagerly accepted. She studied the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and dinosaur-like sturgeon fish in the Suwannee River, and those sweltering summer field days of netting sturgeon in the foreign fresh waters of North Florida acquainted her with the springs. These incredible ecosystems immediately swept her off her feet, and she started exploring, researching, and documenting them through photography. To go a little deeper, she eventually earned her cave-diving certification, and she’s endlessly fascinated by the winding tunnels of the aquifer. But with this fascination came concern for these fragile, compromised ecosystems. This ultimately led her to pursue her PhD at the University of Florida where she is currently working on a dissertation that blends science with photography and writing to effectively communicate about Florida’s threatened springs and water resources. In Florida, we spend our lives walking on water. This precious resource is threatened, yet it is out of the public eye. Hidden in the aquifer below, water winds its way through limestone tunnels that few will ever experience, and where this water makes its way to the surface, it forms the highest density of freshwater springs in the world. But instead of seeing that the springs are fragile and degrading, we see a watery peninsula filled with lakes, wetlands and river — an illusion of abundance.   Jennifer Adler’s underwater photography can help change this illusion and mend the disconnect between our lives aboveground and the aquifer below. Photographs speak without words or political bias, allowing people to make their own conclusions and empowering people to make informed decisions about this threatened resource. By giving people a novel view of our drinking water, both deep in the aquifer and in the sunlit springs, photos can help us fundamentally change our perspectives on water.

1. How did the idea for your TEDxJacksonville talk get started?

“I guess it really began almost 5 years ago when I first moved to Florida to work as a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. I was immediately captivated by the state’s freshwater springs and began a quest to swim in all 33 first magnitude springs. I shared the experience on a blog called “Magnitude 1” and spent every spare second swimming in the springs and eventually cave diving. But with this fascination came concern for these fragile, compromised ecosystems. Over time, I began to notice both their striking beauty and their decline and documented this dichotomy through the lens of my camera. In 2014, I created a series of exhibits called Illusions, which combine photographs and writing to raise awareness about Florida’s threatened springs. It was at my Illusions exhibit at the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History where I first met Doug, who introduced me to TEDxJacksonville and really inspired me to start thinking of innovative ways to share my ideas about freshwater and photography.”

2. What progress have you seen since your talk?

“I was recently awarded the Young Explorers Grant from the National Geographic Society to carry out a project that I have been dreaming about for a long time. At the end of my talk, I spoke about the importance of leaving clean and abundant water for future generations. The children who will inherit our water are the most curious about it, and they play a profound role in helping inspire a new water ethic for Florida. This is why I want to give them the opportunity to explore these incredible, but fragile, ecosystems for themselves. Beginning in June, I will create the first underwater virtual tour in a Florida cave and travel to elementary schools throughout the state to share the aquifer with the next generation. After they virtually explore the aquifer in class, I will take the students to the springs to experience snorkeling and try underwater photography for themselves. Using art as a means to discover the springs and aquifer will empower kids to explore issues surrounding water and will help them learn to better manage and care for the water that flows in the limestone tunnels hidden just out of sight.”

3. What are recommended resources related to your talk?

“My top recommendations are always Cynthia Barnett’s books Mirage and Blue Revolution. Cynthia has a wealth of water knowledge and writes beautifully about the issues affecting the world’s freshwater while also highlighting solutions and stories of hope. In terms of specific springs-related information, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) created a springs website that contains a lot of helpful information (floridasprings.org), including educational resources and a map of springs to visit. You can also visit a springs art exhibit called Aquiferious (spearheaded by artist Margaret Ross Tolbert), which recently left Gainesville and is now traveling around the state. Tolbert’s book, also called Aquiferious, is a great resource as well; it is full of both science, history, and beautiful imagery, including Tolbert’s immersive paintings. Additionally, you can stay up to date with water-related news and environmental reporting through the Florida Conservation Coalition.”

4. How can people take action on your idea?

“There are several citizen-organized groups you can get involved with that advocate for the springs and Florida’s freshwater — many of them organize meetings, conduct river cleanups, fundraisers, etc. For a list of groups and ways to get involved, see this list created by the Springs Eternal Project. In the Jacksonville area, St. Johns Riverkeeper is an active organization that is great to get involved with, and in the Gainesville area, the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department organizes quarterly Santa Fe River Springs Protection Forums that are very informative and interesting to attend. Two relevant examples of upcoming events are Florida SpringsFest (at Silver Springs, March 19-20, 2016) and the H.T. Odum Florida Springs Institute’s Give Springs a Break (at Ginnie Springs, April 1-3, 2016). And of course, I encourage everyone to grab a mask and snorkel and jump in a spring to experience it for yourself. It changed my world, and I think it just may change yours too.”

5. Who inspires you?

“Author and journalist Cynthia Barnett has been an amazing source of inspiration as well as an incredible mentor. It was through Cynthia’s beautifully written and well-researched books that I first became immersed in the issues surrounding freshwater in Florida. Under her patient, positive, and invaluable guidance, she has helped me vastly improve my writing, reporting, and communications skills – as well as those of many students at the University of Florida, where she currently teaches Environmental Journalism. In the photography and diving world, David Ulloa and Harry Averill have been instrumental figures in teaching me about photography, videography, and diving. I have also always looked up to Becky Kagan Schott and Jill Heinerth, two incredible women explorers, photographers, videographers, and cave/technical divers. From swimming with sharks, winning Emmys, exploring new caves, and now snorkeling the Northwest passage, these two women continue to inspire me every day. They also happen to be wonderful people – they are supportive and kind and are both active diving instructors.”

6. What is your favorite TED or TEDx talk besides from your own?

“I’m tempted to say James Balog because his film Chasing Ice and his work combining science and art to bring light to climate change is brilliant. But I have also recently discovered Lewis Pugh’s TED talk and it left me completely mesmerized. His heartfelt talk touches on so many emotions and shows the very human side of someone who has accomplished seemingly superhuman feats. Part of what makes his talk so interesting to me personally are the bits and pieces I can somehow relate to — his frozen sausage-like fingers after his first swim brought back memories of frost-bitten fingers during long winter sailing practices and the athlete and adrenaline junkie in me could practically feel the music he listened to before his swim pulsing through my veins. His descriptions also allow the audience to relate to things they may never have experienced; for example, he likens altitude sickness to being repeatedly hit in the head with a hammer. Finally, and perhaps what is most compelling, is to hear that he failed and was able to overcome his failure and completely change his approach and outlook on the entire Everest swim. Then, the fact that he can relate this all to global warming is amazing, and it is incredibly powerful when he ends the talk calling people to action and asking them to think about a “radical tactical shift” they can take in their relationship to the environment.”

7. What invention or idea do you hope will come to life within the next 10 years?

“Gills! OK, I guess that’s more of a superpower than an invention, but it’s always been my dream to have gills. More and more divers are using rebreathers, and these units are perhaps the closest thing to gills – instead of breathing out a lot of bubbles as divers do while on open circuit, each exhale is captured, the carbon dioxide is removed, and the remaining oxygen from each exhale is recycled instead of wasted. This requires much less breathing gas, but the units are still large, technical, and can be dangerous … so I will keep dreaming of gills. And on a more serious note, I truly hope that we will develop a new water ethic in Florida. This is fundamentally what needs to happen if we are going to save our fragile springs and have a clean and abundant supply of freshwater in the future.We must learn to live differently with water and begin to value water as a precious resource, rather than an unlimited, abundant commodity.”