Little Bluegills and Big Sharks: Exploring Waters in Wisconsin and Abroad |
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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Little Bluegills and Big Sharks: Exploring Waters in Wisconsin and Abroad

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 12:31pm -- Kirsten Shead

I looked over the edge of the boat at the slim shadows schooling below. Beneath the crystal blue water I could only make out their forms. Their shape, number, and the way they swam over and past one another reminded me of a bucket of minnows. I was about to jump into a huge bucket of minnows!  Except for one thing—all the minnows were sharks.

Incredible. Seriously, awesome! This was why we were here: to scuba dive with the Caribbean reef sharks that call this area of the Bahamas home. This wasn’t my first large-animal dive experience (night diving with 13-foot manta rays in Hawaii is equally stunning), but I’d managed to convince my husband that this wasn’t a crazy idea. I was thrilled.

A few moments later we were in the water. No cages, no protective gear—just a guide, some know-how, and a lot of sharks. They circled and jostled each other, brushing us as they passed. I’m not an adrenalin junkie. I wasn’t here for the rush. I was here to see them up close, to observe them, to be awed by their natural beauty and strength. 

Posing with a Caribbean reef shark, Nassau, Bahamas.

Posing with a Caribbean reef shark, Nassau, Bahamas.

No matter how many times I dive or how stunning the aquatic life I encounter, I still flash back to images of tiny bluegills in the shallow waters of my childhood Wisconsin lake. You see, this love for the underwater world started off innocently enough.
At age 10, my trusty mask worked well in the pool, but the wildlife was far less interesting.

At age 10, my trusty mask worked well in the pool, but the wildlife was far less interesting.

I have clear memories from my earliest years of floating face down in the shallows, sun on my back, interacting with tiny bluegill, sunfish, and largemouth bass. Simple goggles or one of those cheap, round, brightly-colored plastic masks were my window into the marine world. I spent more time with my face in the water than above. I can still see the summer sunlight shimmering across the bottom, filtered through the prism of the lake’s surface. The shallows of a healthy spring-fed lake in a beach area with a sandy bottom are like no other water I’ve experienced. 

Making eye contact with a three-inch bluegill in the beach area of my childhood lake.

Making eye contact with a three-inch bluegill in the beach area of my childhood lake.

The water was lovely, warm, and comforting in those shallow places. As I grew bolder and older, my explorations expanded. Races into the weed bed (often as a dare to boys I wanted to show up) were not nearly as fun as exploring the edges of those green habitats, spotting larger bass on their spawning beds.  The eerie darkness of the weed edge as it neared the “drop off” and the cooling water as I went deeper would periodically send me up to the surface for the water games children have been playing for generations. But it wouldn’t be long before my head was back under water, scanning the weeds for fish and turtles.

I’ve been exploring under water for 30 years or so. I hope to continue to enjoy these waters for at least that many more years. I want the next generation of curious kids to dare to put their face in the water and open their eyes to see the beauty beneath the surface. But no matter how fond my memories or how powerfully beautiful my encounters, these ecosystems—from Wisconsin lakes to Caribbean coral reefs—are not guaranteed to survive the pressures we put on them. My sharks and my tiny bluegills are both in peril along with water habitats across Wisconsin and around the world.

Last month my husband and I were scuba diving off the island of Cozumel, Mexico. Our lower-impact travel choices didn’t prevent us from seeing the giant cruise ships coming and going on a daily basis. One of the most beautiful dive sites on the island, Paradise Reef, is flush with brightly colored corals, exotic fish, and sea creatures. Despite the plight of coral reefs and need to protect them worldwide, a large section of this reef (inside the protected marine park) is being “moved” to make room for yet another cruise ship dock. They are literally paving Paradise to put up a [cruise ship] parking lot!  I will pause here for the song to get stuck in your head.

Beautiful corals and sponges in reef, Cozumel, Mexico.

Beautiful corals and sponges in reef, Cozumel, Mexico.

The creatures and their aquatic home in my childhood lake are at risk too. For the sake of golf-course-green lawns and perfectly manicured shorelines, herbicides and fertilizers are washing into the tiny ecosystem, encouraging algal blooms. My childhood lake has a deep center, with healthy weed beds ringing the shallows that trace lakefront property. When property owners want their waterfront as weed-free as their lawns, they try all manner of spray and cutter to manicure clear away plant life – to the detriment of the lake’s fragile ecosystem.

Invasives are a growing threat as well. At one point my mother, who has been a guardian of our special lake for decades, literally stood in front of a zebra mussel encrusted weed cutter to prevent it from introducing invasive species into her paradise. Those same mussels have dramatically changed the natural balance of Lake Michigan and the scuba diving community has seen the effects first-hand.

In my heart and mind, all these waters are related. When I submerge myself in the ocean, I remember Wisconsin.  When I swim in my childhood lake, I think of the Milwaukee River and of Lake Michigan; of the Fox, Sugar and Crystal Rivers; of the tide pools of coastal Maine, the kelp forests off of California, and the reefs of St Lucia. For me, a key part of my motivation for both local and global water stewardship flows from my personal experiences. The tiny bluegills, bass and painted turtles of my childhood led me to a life of encounters with sharks, manta rays and huge sea turtles. So too, our little stories are the bridge to the bigger, overarching story of water.

Gliding through the water with a green sea turtle, Kona, Hawaii.

Gliding through the water with a green sea turtle, Kona, Hawaii.

Please, tell your stories. Encourage others to tell theirs. Beaches, rivers, oceans, sprinklers, kiddy pools, creeks, marshes and puddles all contain more than a liquid resource we must protect.  The stories of our water places are the vessels that contain the memories, the celebrations and the life that motivates and inspires us to conserve and protect our Wisconsin waters.

Tell your stories. It might be the most powerful thing you do.


Kirsten Shead is the Co-Executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons. She has an unwavering commitment to social justice, environmental stewardship and the Milwaukee community at large.

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