J Nichols on Why We Should Save Sea Turtles and Why Our Brains Need the Ocean

 

Marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols has worked tirelessly to preserve the world’s endangered sea turtles and raise awareness about our need to conserve our oceans. He just returned from a trip to Baja California’s Magdalena Bay, where he spent time in the field with fishermen who help preserve endangered sea turtles.

Through his BLUEMIND annual conferences he is helping us understand the role the ocean can play in our health and cognitive function. J. and I co-founded WiLDCOAST together in 1999. Today he is one of the the world’s most passionate and innovative ocean conservationists.

Dedina: In the past few years you’ve helped shed light on looking at connections between neuroscience and the ocean, which will be the subject of a new book you are writing. What are some of the insights you’ve gained into the new emerging field of neuroconservation?

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Nichols: Our successes in Baja with sea turtles, apart from the mountain of scientific ecological research, depends heavily on the emotional commitment to saving the animals among the many people working so hard along the coast.

It’s said that conservation is really about managing people and changing behaviors. If we don’t understand what’s happening in the human brain, we’re really in the dark. So the idea of studying neuroscience has been on my mind for a long time. In recent years we’ve connected the best neuroscientists in the world with the best ocean advocates and explorers to ask some very interesting questions about “our brains on ocean.”

If Coca-Cola can use neuroscience to sell sugar water, we can use neuroscience for the ocean.

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Dedina: You have your third BLUEMIND conference coming up. What is the purpose of the conference and why is it being held on the East Coast this year?

Nichols: Each year we hold BLUEMIND at a different location, with a slightly different general theme. This year the theme is “Last Child in the Water” and we’ll explore the role of water in healthy cognitive function. Holding the summit on Block Island makes it easy for our colleagues in New England to attend. We may jump the pond and take the conference to the UK in 2014.

Dedina: Why is the ocean so vital to human health and well being?

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Nichols: The list of biological, ecological and economic services that the ocean provides is long, and fairly well known. Oxygen, our climate, food, transportation and so on. But the “cognitive services” the ocean provides are just as important. For many of us the ocean, and other bodies of water, literally pulls the stress from us.

It’s a form of daily therapy. People go there to relax, re-create and vacation. Artists, musicians and writers go there to be inspired. I’ve met countless people who’ve told me that they do their best thinking when they are in, on or near water. Neuroscientists have shown that even the color blue doubles creativity and being seaside provokes an enhanced felling of well-being.

If we were to lose all of that, the world and our lives would be vastly diminished. I hope that when people learn about how healthy water makes them better at being themselves it gives them another reason to join the fight to protect our blue planet.

Serge Dedina: How did you get involved in carrying out research on sea turtles?

Wallace J. Nichols: I was into turtles as a kid. We used to catch snapping turtles in Chesapeake Bay, paint numbers on their shells and throw them back. Sometimes we’d recapture them and doing some simple algebra we’d estmate the number of turtles in the bay. Little did I know that 10 years later I’d be doing essentially the same thing with sea turtles for my doctoral thesis. My first sea turtle job was in Tortuguero, Costa Rica.

From there I worked with Jeff Seminoff to survey all of the sea turtle nesting beaches along Mexico’s vast coastline, driving a 1975 Toyota Land Cruiser. We then started to focus on northwest Mexico, especially the Baja Peninsula.

Dedina: You moved from studying sea turtles to advocating for their conservation? What happened that caused you to initiate your conservation
efforts?

Nichols: We’ve published a mountain of sea turtle science, literally hundreds of papers and reports in some of the best journals. But science doesn’t turn into action on its own. And back then there were no government agencies or NGOs to take our science and act on it.

Sea turtles were being killed by the thousands and it was clear that if we just continued to produce research papers, nothing would happen. Given the lack of official capacity to respond, we started by creating a grassroots network of fishermen interested in the plight of sea turtles. We called ourselves the Grupo Tortuguero. This year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of Grupo Tortuguero, which is now a robust network of thousands of people in 50 coastal communities and involving dozens of NGOs, managed by a strong team of Mexican scientists and advocates.

Dedina: Back in the early 1990s you tracked a loggerhead sea turtle from Baja to Japan? How did that come about and what eventually happened to the sea turtle?

Nichols: Fellow scientists were somewhat baffled by the presence of loggerheads along the Baja coast, since the closest nesting beach was all the way over in Japan. The status quo was that Japan was just too far away to be the source of the animals. In 1996, working with biologists Antonio and Bety Resendiz, we had the opportunity to put a satellite transmitter on a mature loggerhead. We named the turtle after the daughter of the fisherman who helped us and released her off the Pacific coast outside Santa Rosaliita, BC.

That turtle was ready to swim home, and home was due west, 7,000 miles away in Japan. We tracked Adelita for 365 days until she reached the Japanese coast. We did something that was radical at the time by sharing our data in real time, allowing millions of kids, teachers and researchers around the world to join the project. I guess you could say that built our own social network before there was such a thing.

When Adelita reached the Japanese coast, her track did several strange things. There are several viable ways to interpret the data from her final days, but it appears likely that she was caught in a squid net near Isohama, Japan and broght back to the dock, before the signal went dead.

Dedina: What are the primary threats to sea turtles and what can people do in their everyday lives to help in sea turtle conservation efforts?

Nichols: Sea turtles interact with our activities in more ways than people realize. They get hung up in our fishing gear, their beaches get developed for hotels, they swim through oil spills and they eat our plastic. Climate change is impacting the sex of sea turtles, their food sources and the dynamics of their nesting beaches. Virtually any move you make towards living more sustainably is good for sea turtles.
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Dedina: How can people help preserve the ocean?

Nichols: The first way is to touch it. Connect. Get wet often. Bring your family and those you love with you to the water. Consider your brain on ocean for a moment. If you enjoy and value the way your brain responds to a healthy ocean and you think it’s worth protecting, look around and ask questions and the next steps to becoming an ocean protector will become clear–and consider becoming one of the 100BlueAngels.org.

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