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San Diego Bay: A Call for Conservation


By the Students at Jacobs High Tech High. Foreword by E. O. Wilson. Preface by Jane Goodall.

University of California San Diego Sea Grant Program. San Diego. 2009. Paperback. Illustrated. 344 pages. $24.95.  Distributed by Sunbelt Publications, El Cajon, CA.


Reviewed by Walter Hall


Part history, part politics, part biology, part artistic reflection and all heart…a remarkable testament to the power of project-based learning in a complex and changing world. -- Allison Alberts, Zoological Society of San Diego.


San Diego teacher Dr. Jay Vavra and his colleagues at Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High have quietly accomplished something extraordinary. Over the past six years, under the rubric of the San Diego Bay Study, they engaged some 250 students in original research leading to ecological assessments that today are invaluable references for San Diego’s civic leaders, policymakers and conservation advocates.


The students documented their discoveries in a series of fascinating books, putting many of San Diego’s most pressing environmental priorities under the microscope. The first three volumes were Two Sides of the Boat Channel: A Field Guide (2005); Perspectives of San Diego Bay: A Field Guide (2006); and San Diego Bay: A Story of Exploitation and Restoration (2007). The present volume, A Call for Conservation, is the fourth to appear.


With each new work, Vavra’s farsighted team nudged the bar a little higher, but the students cleared it with flying colors. A Call caps the series (to date) with an impressive contribution to the local literature on the Bay and surrounding coast.


Using their academic base in Liberty Station as a field laboratory, the students set out to explore the complexity and the fragility revealed by the interaction of urban and bay ecosystems. Armed with the fundamental questions that guided their work (Is civilization inherently harmful to nature? Can we repair our relationship to the natural world?) they waded into the bay’s diverse habitats and then took their inquiry directly into the offices of some of the nation’s foremost scientists.


The resulting interviews succeed on several levels at once. The scientists’ perspectives add depth and texture, while their own professional profiles balance the science with an element of human interest. By bringing the verbatim testimony of experts to bear on each major subject, the authors give the volume an additional measure of credibility, authenticity and immediacy.


The humanities enrich the story in equal measure. The emotional impact of the science is highlighted by original poetry. Placed throughout the book, the poems illuminate an unexpected maturity and an awareness of what might have been, as in these closing words from Sean Curtice’s haunting Breathe Adieu:

With sadness now I face the truth:
Man brings with him an endless pain.
Vivacity of nature’s youth
Will never here be seen again.


Despite the sense of loss, this is not an anti-development scolding. The accounts of habitat destruction or species decline are matched by corresponding studies of recovery or remediation. The students chronicle the principal causes of damage to the bay over the years, but they give equal time to an enlightening examination of potential solutions.


The “solutions” section of the book introduces readers to many notable stewards of the bay. Through these sketches, we meet the people and the organizations actively contributing to the recovery of our maritime inheritance. By relating these efforts, the student scientists and authors help us to better understand the meaning of coastal living – the beauty and the responsibility.


As E. O. Wilson points out, this collection has a special importance for science education – and not just for enrolled students, but for learners at all stages of life. The deft mix of science and the humanities is readily accessible; the numerous photographs bring the text to life, while the story of the bay remains both timely and relevant to the lives of all San Diegans. The fate of the Sweetwater rainbow trout reminds us that the stakes are high, the losses permanent.


As a quick reference guide to the region’s maritime institutions, as well as destinations for learning and recreation, the book is well suited to either the family room or the car. The text is beautifully illustrated with full color images and photographs throughout. A durable, coated paper gives the wildlife photography an exceptional vitality. Signposts to further investigation are listed in a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.


The Chula Vista Nature Center, to which this volume is dedicated, is a wonderful example of local treasures that deserve to be better known. San Diegans who have strolled on the embarcadero, admired the reach of the bay from Point Loma, navigated its currents and tides, fished from its piers or just shared a romantic meal at waterside, will profit from this fine work.


Audubon magazine’s Ted Williams describes the achievement of A Call for Conservation as “a perfect balance of warning, encouragement, lament and celebration.” He’s right. And it arrives in a smartly designed package that gives readers ample cause for optimism. High Tech High’s youthful scholars, and their mentors, did give their hearts to this exemplary work on the bay. With that, they became part of San Diego’s conscience. Our better angels.


Both A Call for Conservation and the earlier Story of Exploitation and Recovery are available from Sunbelt Publications in El Cajon. Meet project leader Dr. Jay Vavra and pick up a discounted copy at Sunbelt’s Holiday Open House on Thursday, December 3rd. For information call Sunbelt at 619-258-4911.

Walter Hall is the pseudonym of a La Mesa-based writer and national security analyst. He is a principal at Black Swan Advisors.

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