Following a five-decade career advancing environmental education in Virginia and producing stunning nature photography, Bill Portlock retired earlier this month as Senior Educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). Portlock, a Norfolk native and Caroline County resident, is known across Virginia and Maryland as a longtime conservation champion who has motivated multiple generations of environmental stewards.
Portlock’s photographs of landscapes, wildlife, and birds in their natural habitat have won numerous awards and run in National Geographic and other publications. He has also broken ground in environmental field research, notably studying and documenting a bald eagle hotspot along the Rappahannock River for more than 30 years.
“Bill Portlock is a Chesapeake Bay legend,” said CBF President William C. Baker. “Generous with his knowledge and wisdom, he is a master naturalist, a master educator, and natural history expert extraordinaire. I consider myself lucky to be among the thousands inspired and mentored by Bill Portlock.”
Portlock began his career in 1975 in Virginia State Parks and rose to become the State Naturalist for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. He joined CBF in 1981 to launch the organization’s environmental education program in Virginia. This program has grown to bring hands-on learning to thousands of Virginia students annually on field investigations in canoes and boats on the Bay and rivers from the Shenandoah Valley to Hampton Roads.
Beginning in 1989, Portlock also launched two advanced level teacher professional development courses, the Bay Academy and Teachers on the Bay. In the summer months, these courses continue to take teachers into the field and on the water at many locations, including CBF’s education centers on islands in the middle of the Chesapeake. As a result of these courses, teachers from all over the Bay watershed have incorporated environmental education into their classroom curriculum and earned graduate credit.
Advocating for environmental education has also played a big role in Portlock’s career. In 2015, he began coordinating the Virginia No Child Left Inside Coalition, a collaborative effort of over 50 education, conservation, business, health care, and sporting organizations, that promote opportunities for all students to develop environmental awareness.
On environmental restoration, Portlock has worked with schools and communities to organize tree plantings, raise underwater grasses, and restore oyster populations.
“Introducing our students, teachers, and elected officials to the Bay and its natural wonders is key to a better future,” Portlock said. “Once you go outside and become immersed in nature, you begin to see the interrelatedness of the world. Being outdoors teaches us not only appreciation for the environment, but also how we play a role in its health—and how it plays a role in ours.”
In 1987, Portlock launched an annual mid-winter bald eagle survey that for the first time documented hundreds of overwintering bald eagles on the Rappahannock River. He continued the survey every January for 30 years, plying the Rappahannock by boat to count eagles, in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. Additionally, he has participated and led bird counts for the Audubon Society for 48 consecutive years.
The wildlife, plant life, and natural landscapes in Portlock’s photography have revealed natural scenes around the region to many thousands, inspiring action for the environment. His photography has run in many publications and been the subject of shows in New York, Virginia, and Maryland.
“Bill is an amazing educator who has forged the path for thousands of students, teachers, legislators and decisionmakers. He has had a profound influence on environmental education across the watershed that has inspired so many to save the Bay,” said CBF Vice President for Education Tom Ackerman. “His deep knowledge of the natural world will be passed on for generations to come.”
The many awards for Portlock’s work promoting conservation and education of the environment include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Environmental Education Merit Award in 1995, the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education from the Virginia Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Institution in 2005, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for Natural History’s Hornbeck Award in 2008, and the Elizabeth Cabell Dugdale Award from the Garden Club of Virginia in 2016.
In the years to come, Portlock plans to stay involved in conservation and continue pursuing photography.
“The time flew by. It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with passionate people to make the world a better place,” said Portlock. “I will keep seeking how I can play a role in helping others see the world as it can be. The Chesapeake Bay and environmental education will always be a part of who I am.”