Over lunch at the Soho CafÈ on Liberty St. in Savannah, GA, I discover Cathy Sakas, a woman who has: lived in a platform tree house with three wood walls, one glass wall, no water, plumbing or electricity for four years; sailed across the Pacific with one other person in 28 days; lived as an Aquanaut in the underwater habitat called "Aquarius" with five men for nine days; and piloted a one-person submersible craft called "DeepWorker 2000." This supra-heroine has fused Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into a novel life that enthralls me.
When she tells me her business attire for the first two decades of her career consisted of 22 bathing suits, I want to start a fan club or a cult. Cathy Sakas is a professional naturalist-which she defines as "one who observes and studies nature"-who has leveraged her passion and curiosity about the natural world into a successful career that spans over three decades.
With a B.S. in biology and a M.Ed. in science education, Cathy is currently the education director for the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, one of 14 US sanctuaries (including two in Hawaii and one in American Samoa) under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).1 To reach Gray's Reef you locate Sapelo Island-positioned in the middle of Georgia's Barrier Islands-and head straight out for 20 miles. Researchers have identified 1,000 different invertebrate species there. Cathy says she "supports the diving operations", which means she is willing to scuba dive when it isn't too cold. She calls herself a "cold-water weenie." One of the research tasks is called "acoustic fish tagging." A transmitter, "the size of a thumb," is surgically implanted in a fish, and its signals are then picked up by "coke bottle size receivers" placed around the reef. The transmitters have codes that identify specific fish and track their movements. Once, a receiver picked up foreign signals. They were traced to two white sharks-one 16', one 13' named Marylee and Genie-that had migrated into Gray's Reef from Florida.
Cathy says, "My job is knowing a little about a whole lot of things on the land and in the sea and making connections." Her skill is communicating this information. She creates educational programs and workshops for educators, students and research scientists. "You can't know things about the ocean and animals and plants and not feel obligated to protect and preserve them. I try to encourage people to feel a sense of stewardship. My friends know I never quit teaching." She was assigned to Gray's Reef for an 18-month stint. That was in 1998. She never left. "I've travelled all over the world, but for me there is really nothing better than the Georgia coast."
Curiosity-fostered mainly by her father (her mother would have preferred her in dresses with flowers in her hair)-and an intrepid adventurer's spirit, have propelled her life and career. She recalls, "Beginning in first grade my Dad gave me a microscope, then a telescope, then a chemistry set. He was in the Navy and we moved throughout my childhood, but as long as I was outside discovering things, I felt at home. I consider myself a naturalist not a scientist. When I graduated from college I knew I didn't want to wear pantyhose to work; I didn't want to work in a lab; I did want to be outside. From 1976 to 1998-the bathing suit years-Cathy was hired as a naturalist to lead expeditions along the coasts of southeastern United States and into Central America.
During one expedition she overheard two gentlemen referring to the Swamp Goddess. She knew that none of the lore she'd shared included such a character. She asked the men who they were talking about. Chagrined, they admitted they were talking about her. It took a moment, but she decided it had panache. With the pride of the newly anointed she stepped into her expanded self-definition and assumed her new name. It stuck.
Since 1998 she has made some additions to her wardrobe and to her resume. Fully clothed, she has hosted two series on Georgia Public TV both titled "The Coastal Naturalist". She worked on a third series, "Secret Seashores" that was distilled to an Emmy award winning documentary when its funding was cut. It is still used as a PBS fundraiser.
What is most compelling about Cathy Sakas is her fusion of passion and adventure with wisdom and purpose. She is concerned that the ocean's acid levels-30% higher than before the Industrial Age-could prove catastrophic. She is committed to building international relationships and cooperation. She also understands change is the most difficult thing for human beings. "I'll keep educating people. Every small change helps."
Married: Her husband got her through calculus in college but waited 25 years to ask her out on a date; now married 15 years.
Living on Tybee: they built a fence around their property & padlocked it. She calls it a gated community of one.
Teacher: 35 years ago, a high school teacher asked Cathy to take her senior class to Okefenokee Swamp for Spring Break. They've done it together every year since.