Man of the ‘hour,’ local marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, delivers a sobering message about the state of the world’s oceans: ‘Really, no kidding—this is our 11th hour’
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) recently released its Red List. Using the mental manna from a group of global authorities, the renowned list assesses the risk of extinction on various forms of ocean life.
Polar bears are listed as “threatened.” It’s not necessarily “good” news, but it does sit somewhere north of “endangered.” That’s the spot reserved for the right whale, the black-footed albatross, the blue whale and, something that will turn heads locally, sea otters.
But the future looks far more daunting for other forms of life, such as the pacific leatherback turtle, the vaquita marina (a harbor porpoise in the Gulf), the southern bluefin tuna, the angel shark, black grouper and black abalone. They are all considered “critically endangered.”
There’s only one place to go after that: extinction.
Extinction became the final destination of the Baiji dolphin, which resided in the once fresh waters of China’s Yangtze River. The Baiji was officially reported as being wiped off the face of the Earth in December of 2006 after a group of scientists from six nations failed to locate any sign of it.
The news is something that makes Santa Cruz marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, who has made his living researching the ocean and teaching others about his discoveries, shake his head.
“I think, ‘Wow, it’s a beautiful, beautiful group of animals,’” he says of IUCN, an organization for which he’s been recruited to do research. “I’m lucky to have seen many of them ALIVE in the wild. That’s my first reaction—what an amazing planet we get to live on. And then, it’s sort of WTF! Are we really so arrogant as to just push them off the edge? It’s not just a LIST. They’re living beings and they’re disappearing with most people completely asleep about it. Then I think, ‘Let’s just do everything we can; give it our all and try to grow the movement, hand it off.’ What else can you do? You’ve got to just give it all you’ve got. There’s nothing more important. This is OUR planet. Life!”
At 39, Nichols, or J. as most people commonly know him, may have always been a passionate human being. But over the last few years, he has even more reason to be, thanks to two words: global warming.
The way he sees it, “global warming is an ocean issue.”
That, in and of itself, is plenty for locals in eco-conscious, surf-friendly Santa Cruz to take notice and cheer on one of their own. But Nichols’ beliefs also managed to turn the scratching yet hopeful heads of Santa Monica-based Tree Media Group several years ago when it was in the planning stages of producing The 11th Hour, a documentary penned and directed by actor/eco-activist Leonardo DiCaprio. Nichols’ commentary on the state of environment, specifically the ocean, is featured in the film, which hits Cannes Film Festival on May 18 and opens locally later this year. The 11th Hour promises to be a vivid tapestry filled with enough sobering images and factoids on the condition of planet to rattle enough souls to create change. In other words, the filmmakers don’t want people to just wipe off their buttery popcorned hands with a napkin and call it a day. They want the world to wake up. To do that, they’ve lured Stephen Hawking, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sylvia Earle, James Woolsey, Andrew Weil, William McDonough, David Orr and renowned scientists into the mix.
The project finds Nichols in, deservedly, good company. And while mixing scientific discoveries with Hollywood may be a far cry from the quiet Davenport home Nichols shares with his two daughters and their mother, the man who nabbed his doctorate in ecology and who is on a long list of environmentally conscious organizations—Ocean Revolution and Ocean Conservancy among them—knew that being in involved in the project would be an opportunity to help rattle humanity out of its eco slumber.
In a candid GT interview, Nichols reveals himself to be both a soulful creature and ecological patriot. But don’t let the cool blue eyes fool you. The man’s on fire. And as a staunch advocate for helping restore the damages already done to the world’s oceans, he’s clear about one thing: Healing the planet isn’t going to happen by using a verbal bandage.
Good Times: There’s a push to be “green,” what with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. How did Leonardo DiCaprio’s project come across your radar?
Wallace J. Nichols: I believe it was an organization called Oceania, which I am on the council of. It was having a fundraiser in L.A. Bill Clinton was speaking and it was this loose networking with nothing particular in mind—you know, these people are going to do something interesting so you keep them in the rolodex. I am not a pop culture media consumer in general. I don’t have a TV and I don’t gravitate towards the L.A. and Hollywood scene, but I realized that’s the way we’re going to solve some of these global problems—through the best media spokespersons available; getting the word out relentlessly and without any elitism filtering out.
GT: You met with folks there from Tree Media, which is DiCaprio’s company and it evolved from there?
WJN: Yes, and now we’ve been exploring other projects together. Ridley Scott is going to do an ocean film, too.
GT: The 11th Hour hopes to raise the level of awareness about what’s going on environmentally with the planet. What do we need to know that we haven’t already heard?
WJN: Global warming is the number one global issue facing humanity right now. The film doesn’t only deal with global warming. That’s one part of it. There’s agriculture and over- fishing and pollution. I think the key point is that, when we’re talking about global warming, we are essentially, at its core, talking about an ocean issue. The planet is 75 percent ocean. If the planet is warming, the ocean is warming. This is an ocean issue, so it’s just having that understanding. The ocean is a buffer. It’s this huge, huge tank that’s protected us from more of the extreme climate conditions. If the ocean warms, even a little bit, we are in trouble. As go the oceans, so goes the life on planet Earth. Even if you are living in Ohio or the center of Mexico, your life depends on the ocean. Our climate is all about the ocean. That’s something that tries to come across in Al Gore’s film. That film is essentially about the ocean although nobody ever says that.
GT: The ocean is warming. How ‘fast,’ for lack of a better word, is it warming? What do we need to know?
WJN: The ocean as a whole has warmed about one degree over the last century, with some regions higher. North Sea temperatures have risen by around 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 25 years and are predicted to increase by between 0.4 and 0.9 degree Fahrenheit per decade for the foreseeable future, for example. It doesn’t sound like much but is enough to cause the changes and shifts we are beginning to experience and now understand—changes to the food web, ocean ‘acidification,’ changes to ocean currents, melting glaciers. And it’s likely to continue in
the warming direction through this century. I would characterize the science on ocean warming as clear and clearer, making the case for human involvement in ocean warming strong and stronger.
GT: There are some regions more at risk, yes?
WJN: Yes, there are regional differences but the ocean
should be thought of as ONE ocean. The connections are real, albeit slow sometimes. Water flows, animals move, pollution travels. Of course the impacts of global warming— OCEAN warming—are seen most clearly and drastically at the poles. The polar bears are THE poster species for these changes but the impact is felt globally as the ocean warms, becomes more acidic and the patterns begin to change.
GT: So, if global warming is an ocean issue, that would be of interest to people living here.
WJN: As far as a Santa Cruz message, that’s key. What happens here in the bay is really closely connected to the economy of Santa Cruz—our recreation, our climate … I have said in some Ocean Revolution events, that Santa Cruz is kind of the heart of the Ocean Revolution. Not only did the movement start here but think about it: Inarguably, you have the best surf in the world; you have the best ocean science in the world, starting with Hopkins, then Stanford and the MBARI and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The best aquarium in the world is on our bay. My office is out on the wharf and literally there is ocean water and wildlife swimming under me, and flying all around me. And outdoors, some of the world’s best surfers ripping it at the Lane. It’s an amazing ocean town. So getting people to make that connection—that global warming is an ocean issue—and having them get involved and make some changes is important.
GT: When you say, ‘make changes,’ are you talking about becoming more eco-friendly; conserving energy? What else?
WJN: There are two levels. There’s the private level. There are things you are going to do at home or at work; and then there are things that can influence on the public level—who you vote for, what you say and where you give your money. And both of them matter. I mean, even though it feels like you’re dropping your grain of sand on the pile, the pile is getting bigger a lot faster than it was last year, and certainly faster than it was two or three years ago prior to the 2006 election. So, yeah, I am not really fond of saying, ‘change your light bulbs, carpool and ride your bike,’ as if that’s THE answer. Of course, that’s part of it. I am much more interested helping people find a way to express themselves and take it to another level. It’s speaking out, especially young people—young activists who are pretty fearless and shake things up a bit; speaking out and saying ‘It’s our planet and we’re watching it get wrecked.’
GT: What’s at stake and how repairable is it?
WJN: What’s at stake is the way oceans work right now—the way that ocean’s have worked—that allow us to thrive on the planet; a climate that’s acceptable. That’s what’s at stake. That’s being undermined to the point where the ocean can’t produce the food that we want. It’s becoming less habitable. The coastline is becoming more dangerous—hurricanes and the increased frequency of storms and the erosion that results in that. Things we sort of take for granted in the ocean are at stake; that you can go down to the market and buy local seafood and know that it’s healthy and abundant. That’s at stake. You could say, ‘Well, who cares? We can grow stuff and raise more pigs and we’ll be fine.’ But we can react to it and will react to it, and there will be things we can head off and can’t in terms of the changes that are happening. But my feeling is you have to try. You can’t just throw in the towel. As a scientist, once you learn these things, it’s kind of impossible to turn your back and just walk away and forget about it. When you see injustice … I can’t stop thinking about that. I have to help.
GT: You mentioned a long list of problems with the ocean right now.
WJN: The ocean is becoming more acidic and that’s affecting the animals that survive in shells; that create shells. The coral reefs—the water is warming and the reefs are bleaching. The diversity of life in coral reefs is declining as a result. The oceans are becoming more full of plastic. It just doesn’t go away. That plastic breaks down and comes back to us in our food. So, it’s all at the heels of consumption. If you take too much out of the ocean and put too much in the ocean … We are really wrecking the edge of the ocean—the coastline where a lot of the junk ends up. Some of the damage is permanent. The genetic diversity is also lost. When a population breaks down and there is no more, there is ‘no more.’ And at the current state of the science, we are not going to genetically engineer the species back into existence. The Baiji dolphin is the most recent to go into extinction. It’s a fresh water dolphin in China—gone. And that was written about and in the news about two months ago and a week or so later, people moved on.
GT: What really led to the Baiji’s extinction?
WJN: Mostly habitat and destruction and pollution. The Baiji are a river dolphin that come up the delta area but China is an environmental nightmare.
GT: How did you respond to that reality?
WJN: In my field, it was a kick in the pants. People were saying, ‘OK, this can happen on our watch.’ If you asked anybody who studies aquatic mammals, and ask them what’s the most endangered animal it would be the Harbor Porpoise—the gaquita—in Mexico. So after the Baiji dolphin, we are like, ‘We have to make sure the gaquita doesn’t go extinct on our watch.’ When you are working for the government in a nonprofit organization, and something like this happens, we are not accomplishing our goal here. We are not protecting these animals if they are going away. Even if you are never going to see a Baiji, when I told you it went extinct, it made you sick—just a little bit. So take that feeling and multiply it by 1,000, by 10,000. Think of the places and the animals and the diversity that are being wiped out. That’s what’s at stake. Really. No kidding. What’s at stake is not being said loudly enough. And essentially, that’s why the film is called The 11th hour. The 11th hour means: This is it. This is huge. This is our 11th hour. We have to rise to the occasion.
It’s not easy to fully absorb Nichols and his significance. Draw a line under him, add him all up and the sum seems too large to fathom. He calls himself a marine biologist, but even he admits that lately, his work “goes beyond science.”
That’s evident through his efforts as a senior scientist with Ocean Conservancy, the 30-year-old Washington-based nonprofit that promotes healthy and diverse ocean ecosystems and nixes practices that endanger ocean life—and human life for that matter. Ocean Conservancy is just one of the portals where Nichols’ passions leave an indelible impression.
After spending most of his childhood exploring life in the ocean and the forests, he became fascinated by genetics and animal migration—human culture and conservation also piqued his interests. He excelled at Indiana’s DePauw University and spent his winter breaks researching the vibrant waters of Latin America. After graduate studies at Duke University and University of Arizona—of all places for a bona fide waterman—he became a Fulbright Fellow and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. In time, he realized that there was a way to successfully create a network of like-minded souls who shared a passion for maintaining prosperous life in the oceans and along the coasts. To that end, in 1998 he founded Grupo Tortuguero, an international grassroots movement committed to restoring Pacific sea turtles. (Actually, Nichols is fascinated by turtles.) The organization was also designed to help manage ocean fisheries. A year later, he co-founded—and for five years continued to direct—WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team dedicated to the protection of coastal wilderness. WiLDCOAST also worked with coastal ranchers to protect their shores for future generations. These days, his scholarly plate is full. He works with a wide variety of universities and organizations to increase the amount of ocean protection—and the list, truly, is entirely too long to print. Nichols’ philosophy, then, seems to be all about incorporating what he’s dubbed as “participatory science, social networking, and creative communication to inspire a healthier relationship with the sea.”
It’s a much nicer way of saying that global warming is the new “war at home” and its time to use our emotional ammo.
GT: Why are you so drawn to the ocean? What about the ocean intrigues you?
WJN: I’ve been drawn to it for some reason ever since I was a little kid. It was the feeling of feeling small, in comparison to … whatever. I mean, looking at the sky at night when I was a little kid and feeling really, really small to the point of feeling like a blade of grass or a leaf on a tree. It’s the deep insight from that—how small we are. And then you shake your head and come out of it and say, ‘But you are all you have.’ So it’s that dichotomy, where we are really just here for a fraction of second, really, and essentially we are almost nothing, but at the same time we are everything. We’re all we have. That idea—having that feeling—that was my spirituality. That was where I found meaning. I think that’s why I wanted to connect that to a bigger worldview, to remind people how insignificant we are and at the same time, you’re it. This is your chance. This is all you get in this life. I like that feeling. It connects me to something very real; an insight into the world, the universe.
GT: Making a connection to something bigger, then?
WJN: I get that feeling at night when I look at the sky and during the daytime when I look at the ocean. It centers me. And I didn’t become an astronomer, I became a marine biologist. I went the daylight route. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision, but I like the idea that you can go into the ocean. You can go into space but it’s harder and I like getting my hands on things.
GT: You have a passion for turtles.
WJN: I think they were my way of justifying hanging out in and being in the ocean. We used to catch turtles and paint numbers on their shells and throw them back into the ocean, and then recapture them and calculate the population. Sea turtles make these long trips and travel across the ocean. I started studying them because there was so much unknown.
GT: That’s interesting, because you are from …
WJN: Manhattan. I went to high school in Chicago so Lake Michigan was my “ocean” for those years. And there’s an interesting piece to that. I was adopted and that plays into what I do in some ways. I always knew I was adopted and my parents would explain it to me in more mature ways, which led to a fascination with genetics and origins and the nature/nurture debate. I was always very interested in all that stuff.
GT: What do you find most fascinating about turtles?
WJN: Initially, there are a lot unsolved mysteries of the sea turtle: Where do they go; how do they navigate; how do they find their way to these tiny islands and what do they do out there and how are they surviving? How did they survive so long—100 million years on the planet? Some of those bio-history questions are fascinating and I wanted to contribute some answers to those questions and largely, because they hang out in places I like to hang out—tropical beaches in Latin America, where there’s great surf. So you have the big science questions and the geography. And then, the human component. Wherever they occur and humans occur, the turtles have this really interesting relationship, going back to indigenous cultures. The idea that earth began on the back of a turtle shell makes us connected to sea turtles. The Mayans using turtlegliphs in their art. All around the world, you find these essential myths repeated over and over again. And turtles have gotten reamed time after time. They’ve gotten the short end of the stick.
GT: Explain that.
WJN: Everywhere people and turtles have coexisted, turtles are in trouble. It’s a global situation. And part of that is turtles are slow to reach maturity, slow to reproduce and slow growing. Unlike sardines and shrimp, where the population can bounce back, or, at the extreme end of spectrum, bacteria—reproduce, divide and take over quickly—turtles reach maturity in 30 years. I want to try to change that relationship between humans and turtles in some way. By their nature, they are vulnerable at every stage. They have to come up on land and lay eggs. That makes them vulnerable to people who might collect the eggs or people living on the beach or somebody putting a seawall up to protect their home.
GT: What turtles are most at risk right now?
WJN: Pacific leatherbacks. In fall, they come into the Monterey Bay and eat the jellyfish that are here. Generally, they come from Indonesia. They make their migration from there to feed and they get really fat feeding on jellyfish in the bay. But they are one of the most endangered species in the Pacific Ocean. And they are getting some attention, but most people in Santa Cruz don’t know that one of the most endangered species in the world, every fall, is, literally, in their own back yard.
GT: Why are they at risk?
WJN: A Combination of things. Egg poaching, and the development of beaches; sea nets, plastic—they can eat plastic and choke on it. Probably more important than the nets is long lines—our way of getting seafood is not turtle friendly. You use long lines out for thousand of miles and they are dangling with bait. That’s how we catch swordfish and fisherman, generally, are not interested in catching the turtles but they haven’t devised a way on how not to catch the turtles. To catch the target species.
GT: I’ve got to ask. I’m curious. What’s your astrological sign?
GT: The crab. A water sign.
The (Carbon) Road Less Traveled
During the second week of May, the Associated Press wrote about the Southern California algae bloom that hit record levels of toxic acid reportedly responsible for the demise of a significant amount of marine mammals and seabirds over the last few months. The number of acid concentrations was measured at 27 micrograms per liter, up 15 micrograms from last year, which, at the time, set new records in toxicity.
That very same week, The Washington Post reported, “Climate change is the most critical problem the Earth has ever faced.”
Another scientific report from Ocean Conservancy, where Nichols is senior research scientist, indicated this: “by the middle of this century … fishermen may have almost nothing left to catch. Simply put, the global abundance of fish, the wealth of seafood found in the local markets of the world, are, in reality, an environmental illusion.”
It doesn’t take much effort to locate more coastal trauma. Florida’s dilemma: Loggerhead turtles are affected by the rise in sea levels. In the Antarctic, the threat to Emperor penguins is growing. Meanwhile in the Caribbean and Indonesia, it’s all about deteriorating coral reefs. And, while it’s not entirely a global warming issue, per se, Japan’s dolphin slaughter and China’s shark fin trade don’t necessarily do much to improve the current malady.
There’s one more thing, of many hundreds of things, to note: The North Pole may have been frozen for 100,000 years, but according to scientists, that won’t be the case by the end of this century. Is the top of the world melting like an ice cream cone on a Phoenix sidewalk? It’s certainly looks that way.
GT: Do you ever get angry about the information you gather?
WJN (smiles): Fortunately, I am a pretty even-keel guy, just by my nature. I am set at a low-simmer. But I have seen things … As heartbreaking as it is to see your family hurt in a world—where war is happening—to see animals I have spent time with harmed … When you see them killed or bulldozed or destroyed … You know, I have two daughters and I am teaching them about nature. We walk out our door and there are redwoods and salmon in the creek and coyotes and bobcats and the beautiful coastline, and they are falling in love with nature. I see it happening and it’s beautiful but I know it’s just setting them up for heartbreak. When you are taking care of a kid, the last thing you want for them is pain. I know that the things they are going to see—that nature that they love destroyed right in front of their eyes. And it’s going to break their hearts.
GT: So, what do you do?
WJN: You think, ‘What’s the alternative? Shield them from that?’ That’s not an option. So what’s the result? They are heartbroken and then they may become angry and you have to put that energy somewhere and make it useful … I want to teach my kids, any kids who fall in love with nature, that when you see what you love destroyed, react.
GT: Are you surprised at the amount of knowledge you actually hold?
WJN: Mostly I am frustrated with how little I know. There’s this morbid feeling that there’s more to know. My favorite places are libraries and bookstores and I love them and hate them. I feel I have to read everything. I am very curious. There’s so much to know. But everybody you meet has a knowledge of something more than you do so I just want to take it all in.
GT: Whom are you most influenced by?
WJN: Well the obvious answer is Jacques Cousteau, but I think everybody was. We all watched that guy and what he did, but I never really thought, I want to be Jacques Cousteau. It wasn’t where I wanted to go, but in more recent times, the fishermen I work with in Baja, Mexico—more than any mentors—probably have had the most profound influence on me.
GT Why is that?
WJN: They are not paid to be scientists, or contributionists, or environmentalists but they are. They are all those things. And they are doing it on their time. They don’t get academic accolades or promotion. They are out there doing it. Those guys are the heroes.
GT: You took a trek—a big trek—along the coast, Oregon to Mexico, in 2003.
WJN: Yes. It took about four months. It was about letting the “chatter” go, but it became more of an opportunity to talk about the coast and how to protect it. Mostly I was walking quietly and watching the ocean to my right.
GT: What did you learn from that experience?
WJN: One of the things was that the people who have fought for keeping part of our coast wild and scenic and open were not the people you would expect them to be. They are not the professionally trained environmentalists. They are teachers and dentists and artists and coastal residents. And they saw injustices and fought it and decided that the whole coast didn’t need to be condos. This was back in the ’70s. So, to meet those people along the way and have them bring dinner out to the camp and eat some mac-and-cheese and talk about how it was and what it felt like when they marched … It goes back to your other question about who has influenced me. A lot of people who have taken long walks, they’ve influenced me. It’s worth doing, while you still can walk …
GT: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
WJN: My adoptive father … I don’t know if he ever stated it this way, but basically, his philosophy was that you are born and you give everything you’ve got to the minute you die. I think about that. He said that in so many ways.
GT: What would you like to see people do to make a difference to the planet?
WJN: Make the connections between themselves and the life support system around us—our air, our water, what we eat. Make that connection of who actually gets you your nourishment. Just to get that understanding that it’s not magic. Stuff doesn’t just show up in the refrigerator in a plastic container, and to know what’s our place in that. I’d like to see that taught, clearly taught, from day one. And it isn’t. It’s cleverly hidden.
GT: What most shocks you at this point? What offers you the most hope?
WJN: Generally speaking, what shocks me is that there are several big problems with our planet’s life system that seem like they’ll get worse (perhaps much worse) before they begin to get better. If we ceased polluting the ocean right now, which isn’t going to happen, it will still take 100 years for things to restore themselves. Yet we are still dumping millions of tons of pollution into the ocean each year. It’s the same regarding global warming. We are still speeding up, and just thinking about tapping the brakes. As we begin to turn things around, and I have hope that we will, we still face an unknown future with regard to what we are putting into the environment. Sometimes when I stop and think of the enormity and trajectory of it all, it’s shocking. Overwhelming, which naturally bring us to the next question, about hope. Each time I speak to a group, a university class, at a museum, or to a group of kids, all over the place, there’s always a larger and larger group of people who hang out afterwards to share stories. So many different clubs, groups, nonprofits and individuals joining the movement. And they’re all passionate, creative, enraged, engaged, brave and glowing with hope. There’s all this hope. We feed off each other. My hope comes from them and from life, nature itself and its ability to restore, re-grow, forgive. … And it’s not a dreamy, magical, wishful or naive sort of hope, it’s based in real human capacity and my understanding of life … of evolution.