Liz Max: Intertidal Innovator
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Liz, Lizard, Elizabeth. She’s your supportive best friend, fun-loving adventure seeker, a rocky-intertidal scientist, the apple of her mother’s eye.
Multiple names for a multi-faceted and multi-talented person. Our interview took place during week two of shelter-in-place. In the space of just one hour, I got a hearty glimpse into the complexity of Elizabeth Ann Decker Max.
Not one to complain of being bored, she was working on multiple projects. The newest one was film photography. A continuation of a previous project was building a tricked-out boogie board for spearfishing that includes storage for her catch, a place to hold the spear gun, and a pool noodle to increase buoyancy and hold onto.
And considering the many times I’ve seen her cooking up a vegetable feast in the shared kitchen at San Francisco State University’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center, I’ll bet she’s making some gourmet meals too. She’s the kind of person you want to hang out with, regardless of what you’re doing.
A fourth-generation abalone diver, Liz has been freediving and spearfishing on the Northern California coast since she was 10 years old. The youngest of seven siblings she was the only one, and the only girl, to follow the family tradition in the footsteps of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. From the age of five, she began spending weekends with her father in Guerneville, near the family home built by her great-grandfather in the early 1900’s.
This cabin served as a hub where multiple family members would gather for abalone diving and store and share their diving equipment, including about 20 prized abalone irons forged by family members, including her “super-beefy German-Russian dude” great-grandfather, Roosevelt, who is descended from the Russian pioneer community established at Sonoma County’s Fort Ross in the early 1800’s.
She was often the only child among them, and eventually became the only woman in her large extended family to carry on the tradition. At five years old, she was too young to dive with the adults, but she nevertheless accompanied them on their diving trips. While sitting on the beach waiting for them to return from the water, she got her first tastes of salty coastal air, the rocky intertidal, the customs of diving, and the nuances of navigating the culture of a male-dominated sport. Access to the beaches sometimes required hikes through the coastal redwood forest, a place that often feels magical for adults, and for young Liz established in her psyche an indissoluble link with the nature of Northern California. At 10 years old, she joined the men in the water, learning freediving from her father. Although he passed away three years later, Liz was firmly established in the sport and continued with her uncles, cousins, and grandfather.
Liz’s devotion to nature is also supported by her family’s hunting tradition. Rather than being at odds with nature conservation, the perspective of most hunters is based on a deep respect for wildlife, and Liz’s family was no different. She’s not a game hunter herself but makes a connection between hunting and spear fishing. When abalone diving became unsustainable even for recreational fishers, not wanting to abandon freediving, Liz made the transition to spearfishing. She equates it to hunting in that you must be active, alert, patient, and try to make yourself seem like you’re a normal part of the environment, which she admits is “kind of weird to do when you’re a terrestrial organism.” She explains, “In order to get my best dives, I have to be zen, to exert the least amount of energy possible, because every move I make costs me oxygen. I have to be mindful of my body and what I’m doing and [turn] my perspective into a fish’s perspective.”
That fish’s perspective has followed her out of the water and into San Francisco State University’s RIPTIDES program, where Liz is pursuing a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Marine and Estuarine Science in Dr. Karina Nielsen’s Coastal Ecosystems Lab. Her study site is the US Fish and Wildlife Service Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which she knows as intimately as her fishing and diving waters. Through collaboration with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) and Point Blue Conservation Science, she is one of the few people allowed on the islands.
She can describe the pinnipeds, the bird populations, the seaweeds, and the disappearance of sand on the islands and put it together in a coherent picture for the rest of us who can only see the islands from a boat. Her research is focused on an 18-year data set to provide the GFNMS an in-depth analysis of intertidal organisms and the oceanographic conditions that influence them.
With this study, Liz reveals her innovator’s perspective: she aspires to cast a modern lens on older projects to analyze them in an entirely new way. She says, “Observing the past to inform the future is an historical philosophy that I would like to continue seeing more of in science, especially with an eye to climate change.”
As I’ve been gaining an understanding of Liz’s capacity for innovation and independent thought, I shouldn’t be surprised when she tells me that after graduation she wants to take a break from science and learn a trade like electrical engineering or plumbing. She believes the hard skills, like fixing water pipes and the electrical components of ocean acidification and pH sensors can help scientists “understand the natural world and modes and mechanisms we use to understand that science, to get better data and better projects. A fusion of imaginations based on real practice.”
As we finish up the interview, I reflect on the complexity I have learned of her life and ask what she’s most proud of and what she wants for the future. Her reply is inclusive, like her character. She says ingenuously, “To be a happy, well-adjusted, contributing member of society and to be a better listener so I can help give voice to the struggles of others. For the world, I’d like to see less brown and gray and more green and blue.” Isn’t that the kind of person you want to take care of our world?