Captain Seaweed: Pied Piper of the environment

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 02, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Tony Fernandez remembers boyhood trips from his rowhouse on 25th Street in Baltimore to the lush waters of the Eastern Shore. There was seaweed then, which disappeared with the years and the filth. But a name was born out of the disappearance.

"Captain Seaweed!"

This little kindergarten boy utters the cry the other day, his arms wide open and his voice rising a delighted octave above falsetto. love you."

And the captain, once known as Tony Fernandez, a man who hit people very hard for a living, bends down and becomes the gentlest of characters, Captain Seaweed.

He wants to rearrange the future. The waters are filthy, the air is poisoned, and the garbage collects all around us. He tells the kids how to change things. He goes to schools, to fairs, to houses of worship where the pollution hasn't got a prayer.

In less than two years, existing out of his own pocket, riding around in this old car filled with anti-pollution booklets and badges and cartoons, Tony Fernandez has made about 250 appearances as the captain and talked to an estimated 400,000 youngsters.

"Kids," says Fernandez, "are so pure. They'll listen. They want to learn."

He's a Pied Piper of environmental cleanliness with a cartoon crew that sounds like a list of Runyonesque nicknames Fernandez might have beaten up in boxing rings years ago: Myrtle the Turtle, Mindy the Minnow, Baby Driftwood, Spirit the Crow.

They bring a simple message to kids around the state: We've got to clean up our room.

Fernandez knows about messages. As a professional boxer, he had 41 fights and kept his body and his intellect in one piece by out-thinking his opponents. Along with a pretty good left jab and quick feet, he could anticipate.

"I knew what a guy was gonna do in advance," he says. "You don't know how many times I caught punches in the air. The other guy would be stunned, and I'd smile at him. But it was just anticipation."

The anticipation's a little different with the environment. We can't move through some of our streets without tripping over minefields of garbage, can't sit in the sun without fear of skin damage, can't travel our waters without seeing the sludge.

As a city kid on 25th Street, none of this occurred to Fernandez. Pollution? You barely heard the word back in the '50s.

"You dropped a piece of paper in the street," he says, "it blew down a sewer, and you had this vague idea about it washing out to the bay. And it was nothing to worry about."

We thought the water and the air were limitless in their capacity to absorb our crud. Fernandez learned differently when he began working as a waterman on the bay. He remembered summer trips to the Eastern Shore, and walking through waters thick with seaweed. But the seaweed was gone now, killed off by human filth, and as he worked the waters the crabs and oysters were disappearing, too.

"I'd see car engines in the water, and floating tires," says Fernandez. "You say to yourself, 'What's going on here, what are all these tires doing here?' I'd pull 'em out and throw 'em in my jeep, but that's not the answer."

While this was going on, the seafood he sold was disappearing. Once, he'd sold 50 or 60 bushels of oysters a day. This dwindled to maybe three bushels a week, until he got out of the business a few years ago.

He wanted something with a future -- not just a business, but a calling, something to feel good about -- and came up with an idea with two buddies, Mickey McGraw and the former boxer Larry Middleton.

They created the Captain Seaweed character and his crew mates, put together costumes and cartoon materials and a solid, sensible pitch to children: Save our Earth.

"We figured, the way to get to moms and dads is through their kids," Fernandez says.

The result, in little more than a year, is a few hundred schools and fairs and thousands of kids who have been touched by the captain and his message, plus letters of commendation from Governor Schaefer and heads of local government, and media attention.

What's left, for Fernandez, is finding a full-time corporate sponsor. Somebody out there is missing a good bet, because linking a company name with this kind of character, and this kind of cause, is a natural for positive public relations.

"I see hope," Fernandez says. He's talking about the environment now. Years ago, he says, some water around the Eastern Shore was so thick with seaweed that you couldn't walk through it.

"But then, all that man-made debris that washed through the sewage system contaminated the water, and the seaweed disappeared," he says. "Now, forget it, it's gone. But I'm starting to see a little algae built up in certain areas on rocks.

"People are starting to take stock in what they're doing. They realize what a tremendously bad thing we've done, and we've got to get ourselves out of it. That's why I feel so good about Captain Seaweed."

His eyes sparkle when he talks about the character. The one-time tough-guy boxer speaks in a hushed voice.

"When I put on the Captain Seaweed mask," he says, "I become a different person. I don't have bills, I don't know if I'm running out of gas, I don't know anything. I'm just the captain. And these kids look up at me and say, 'Ah.'

"And I see the glimmer in their eyes, and I think, 'Yeah, they're the future. We can still make things right.' "

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