Dr. Wallace J. Nichols: conservation travel can help save endangered wildlife

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols
Marine biologist, lecturer, ocean ambassador and founder of several conservation initiatives, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols speaks to Deborah Bassett about the benefits of wildlife tourism, saving baby turtle eggs and an 112 day trek along the US west coast

Deborah Bassett: I am intrigued by your blue marble project and see more and more of them popping up in various places around the world. What is the significance of the marble and what do you hope to achieve with this initiative?

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols: The Blue Marble Project began in 2009 as a simple way to make our ocean message stickier and more memorable. After a presentation in the New England Aquarium's IMAX theater, we gave everyone a blue marble to pass along with a positive ocean protection message. The marble represents the Earth from one million miles away in the spirit of Carl Sagan, Stuart Brand and Apollo astronauts. The response was incredible, so we've continued sharing blue marbles. The project's 'gone viral' as they say, and now there are a million blue marbles being passed person to person around the world including to EO Wilson, Jane Goodall, Harrison Ford and to thirteen year old Ben Freiman who shared blue marbles at his recent Bar Mitzvah, 'Ocean Mitzvah' he calls it. It's a simple reminder of the importance of gratitude, thanking each other for the small and large efforts to restore and protect our biosphere. It feels good to be given a blue marble, and to share it forward.

DB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of remaining an independent scientist and researcher?  

WJN: Over the past decades I've worked with and for lots of organizations. Many of our systems and ways have us locked in to an abusive relationship with our biosphere and successful restoration work is almost always a struggle. For the past few years I've been experimenting with a more open, freelance career model that allows me to be an independent scientist-advocate-communicator and to work with others in new ways. Being able to think and act independently and collaboratively is important to me, and it turns out we get  a lot done.

Being able to communicate freely about the global problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, for example, is crucial. The influence of the petrochemical industry is enormous and has slowed down our response to this crisis considerably. Serious concerns about ocean micro-plastics were described in the early 1970's in the top science journals. Forty years later, the problem is still increasing, as is the pile of research and data describing it. By forming the Plastic Pollution Coalition we've given a stronger voice to new ideas and real solutions.

DB: How did you become specifically focused on sea turtle conservation?

WJN: As a marine biologist I find endless fascination in sea turtles. They swim back and forth across entire oceans, are incredibly resilient, occupy both land and sea, yet are harmed by so many of our activities from our plastic pollution and coastal development to our shrimp dinner. I think they are a compelling and charismatic ambassador for both what is beautiful and mysterious on Earth and what needs to be fixed.

DB: You and Fabien Cousteau recently returned from El Salvador where you have been working with FUNZEL on sea turtle restoration. Can you tell us more about the highlights from this particular mission and you related successes with sea turtle protection?

WJN: I've been into turtles since catching them as a kid, and professionally for the past twenty years. The projects I'm attracted to seem to be those considered 'impossible' or 'too late'. A few decades ago I started studying sea turtles in Baja against the advice of my academic advisors and funders who thought that it was too late or too hard to help Baja's endangered sea turtles due to the tradition of hunting and eating them, severe bycatch levels, narco-influence and institutionalized corruption. I recently attended the 13th Annual Meeting of the GrupoTortuguero, a thriving and successful grassroots movement that has spread all over northwest Mexico. Sea turtles all around Baja are making a comeback.

In El Salvador, we have applied the community-based model of GT. Three years ago nearly all of the turtle eggs in the country were collected and sold in the cities.  This year, the national network of tortugueros made up of former egg collectors, released 1.6 million baby sea turtles into the ocean. They've set their 2011 goal at two million.

Lately, we've also been working with people and turtles in Indonesia, with similar results through The Biosphere Foundation.

In all three countries, we work with some of the poorest people on the planet. And they are having unexpected successes. When I'm in need of some hope, my colleagues in Baja, Indonesia and El Salvador provide it by the boatload.

Fabien Cousteau and his ocean restoration organization Plant A Fish have been great friends of the sea turtles. Together we hope to support the release of one billion baby turtles over the coming decades.

DB: What does your current research with local and indigenous groups involve? Is this model of wildlife conservation the hope for our future and if so, can you please explain why?

WJN: We've been thinking a lot about ways to support community-based conservation efforts at places with urgent needs. Conservation travel offers some opportunities. We started a pilot project called SEEturtles that connected people with community-based tourism projects and sea turtles. The results have been great across the board, turtles and the people who live near them have benefited, and travelers have had some of the most profound experiences of their lives. So, we've expanded the project, now called SEEtheWILD to include other groups of animals like whales and sharks, bears and big cats. This is when people interact and help endangered wild animals, under the guidance of local marine life experts.

DB: I understand you once walked the entire pacific coast form Oregon to Baja? What was the purpose of that trip and what did the ocean reveal along the way?

WJN: A few years back, my family and some friends took a break from sea turtles and set out on a long trek along the west coast.  Personally, it was based in a desire to tap into something basic and human that modern society drains from us.  By just walking quietly next to the ocean for 112 days, my body and mind got strong.  Our mission was to promote protection of our coasts as well as public access to the ocean as we walked along the California Coastal Trail.

I look at it this way: stress causes disease and being near the ocean reduces stress, so coastal access is a public health issue.

That trek has led to a more local effort called SLOWCOAST which supports organic farms and artisans along a fantastically mellow 50-mile stretch of the central California coast, that also happens to be where I live!

DB: As an independent scientist, you rely primarily upon the generosity of individual donors to continue your invaluable work in marine conservation and important role as an ocean ambassador. How can one support your work and what are your current goals for 2011?

WJN: To support myself, and to maintain flexibility and independence, I rely on the generosity of a small, committed group I call 100BLUEANGELS. I'd love for anyone interested to join us. But our efforts are all about collaboration, and support for the organizations I work with is critical. Really, it's about picking a project and really getting into it. The contribution can be time, money, ideas and connections, or other resources. I think it's very satisfying for people to really see how their contribution gets results.

In 2011, I'll continue to support organizations and people working to protect and restore sea turtles and the ocean around the world. We'll continue to connect people with the wild. We'll continue to spread gratitude through sharing blue marbles. And I'm extremely excited about our work on NeuroConservation, exploring the mind-ocean relationship. We recently hosted the first annual Blue Mind Summit at the California Academy of Sciences which brought together top neuroscientists to consider the ocean. What we have learned there will continue to inform everything else we do for the ocean.

For more information on the work of Wallace J. Nichols, please visit Ocean Revolution.

Deborah Bassett is a freelance journalist


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