Our Water is a Treasure We Need to Protect
May 2020 Issue
By Cynthia Robinson
Mike Force Photography
As the Coastkeeper with the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which is a non-profit dedicated to the “protection, defense and restoration of Georgia’s biggest river, Susan Inman spends much of her time in the great outdoors actively monitoring the health of the Golden Isles’ waters. This is perfect for her.
“My passion is being outside,” said the native of South Dakota/Minnesota. “I started out working on my uncles’ farms. Of course, when you do that for family, you don’t get paid,” Susan laughed. “That passion led me to work all over the United States to study animals and work on the environment.
“I chose to move around while I was young, mainly because someone told me once it is easier when you are younger: you don’t have a house, you don’t have a large amount of things to pack in boxes, and you have time to figure out what you have a passion for. I did set a few rules: I must have a roof over my head, be able to feed myself and enough money to keep my car in good shape. Everything else will fall into place, I just have to work for it.”
Her first “real job” after college was working for the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she helped rescue and rehabilitate about 300 species each year. From there, Susan moved Salt Lake City, Utah, to work for Tracy Aviary and Hawk Watch International.
“While working there, I heard about an island off the coast of Georgia that had all of these exotic birds.” That island was St. Catherine’s Island located between Savannah and Brunswick. In the spring of 2002, Susan moved there to work with rare and endangered bird species and other rare animals. “We focused on breeding and, hopefully releasing them into the wild. We worked with hornbills, parrots and tons of cranes.”
The first year, she lived on the remote island full time. “After that, I moved into a house on the mainland in Midway.” Susan said she loved it and even got to work with the island’s main veterinarian, Terry Norton, director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Her job also included work with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on the American Oystercatcher program. “We monitored breeding pairs, compared artificial incubation verses natural incubation and banded adults and fledglings.”
After 10 years, the economic downturn hit and Susan, as well as most of her co-workers, was laid off. Fortunately, she found a new position with Sea World in Orlando as a senior aviculturist, which is a professional who raises and cares for wild birds. “I focused on artificial incubation techniques, hand rearing and expanded work with husbandry.”
Working for Sea World afforded her travel opportunities for work, including traveling to Seal Island, Maine, on Project Puffin, a long-term project which brought puffins back to the state, Susan said. “I lived in a tent for the three weeks I worked there. Puffins are called the parrots of the sea because of their coloration, but most people don’t know they also have a bite like a parrot,” she added, laughing. “I got to spend three weeks playing with the puffins! They are so neat.”
Susan returned to the Georgia Coast accepting a job at Savannah’s Oatland Island Wildlife Center, a conservation and education center. “I enjoyed my four years there. It is such a beautiful relaxing place with trails all through the woods.”
As much as she enjoyed the wildlife center, Susan found herself looking for a change. “I wanted to do something where I could not only observe but make recommendations and real changes.” That’s when the position of Coastkeeper became available, a position she accepted in 2018.
“My life as the Coastkeeper with the Altamaha Riverkeeper organization is to work with communities to make sure we have swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. If we find pollution, we locate the source, point it out to the responsible parties and try to work with them to find a solution. If that doesn’t work, we bring in the lawyers. If that doesn’t solve the problem, we go to the legislature. We might stop one polluter, but you can’t stop them all. If we can change laws, then we can make a difference.”
Since the Golden Isles is home to four Superfund Sites, (polluted areas requiring long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations), Brownfield, (land sites of potential sewage leaks) and an ongoing project with the UGA Skidaway Institute studying and tracking the estimated trillions of microplastics (tiny plastic particles/fibers) found in Georgia’s coastal waters, Susan and her colleagues have more than enough work to keep them busy. However, on Sept. 8, 2019, their jobs got even harder, when the car carrier vessel, the Golden Ray, capsized in the St. Simons Sound.
“When the Golden Ray occurred, we were pretty much working around the clock to make sure our waters are protected. We have a great team here in Brunswick,” said Susan, who lives just north of Darien. “But the biggest challenge with the Golden Ray will occur when they cut the ship open. Salvage is a dirty job. We know there is going to be pollution from it, but we have to minimize it.”
Although the current Covid-19 pandemic has limited some of the Riverkeeper organization’s activities, such as halting sewage testing because of possible virus exposure, Susan and her coworkers remain diligent in protecting the safety of the area’s waters.
When able to grab some downtime, Susan spends solitary time in nature. “I love to be on the water, usually kayaking and fishing in the estuaries. One of the good things about working with other Riverkeepers is sharing in their favorite fishing spots/honey holes,” said Susan, who grew up fishing and duck hunting. “I also love being out in the woods and camping. I’m not one to just sit on the beach, I have to be moving. You can’t beat a morning walk on the beach when it’s cool and quiet.”
Susan said the pandemic has brought her closer to her family. Her mom and brother who live in and around her hometown of Watertown, South Dakota, communicate with her on social media, phone calls and apps like Zoom. “My mom was one of six kids, so I have a big family with 16 cousins!”
While she looks forward to the day she and her family can visit in-person again, Susan is staying focused on her job. “We all deserve clean water to swim in, fish in, and drink. Our water is a treasure we need to protect.”
Education: Graduated from South Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry.
On Ice: Last trip home was in January for her family’s ice fishing tournament. “You should try it. It really isn’t that cold!”
Cash & June: The best companions on her outdoor adventures are her dogs, Cash and June, named for the famous singing couple. “They both “talk” and “sing” all the time!”
Recommended Wanderings: “I love Wildlife Management Areas. They are untouched, protected and are great places to walk and see so many species of plants and animals.”