19 May 2011

BLUEMIND: Your Brain On Ocean

-Wallace J. Nichols, PhD

"We are more than logical. We are human." - Jacques Yves Cousteau

On June 2nd, BLUEMIND Summit: www.mindandocean.org at California Academy of Sciences (join our livecast), followed by an Ocean NightLife event...always a favorite.

 Once I met a man who hated the ocean.  Intensely, he said.  He described to me fear, negative associations and a general unease he couldn't quite put his finger on.  His aversion was so strong -- especially when measured against my own great, unabashed love for the ocean -- that I'll never forget my bewilderment.  Everyone I have ever known loves the ocean.  I'm not talking about lower-case "l" kind of love either; the kind that we apply indiscriminately to pop stars, sports teams, soft drinks and chocolate bars.  I mean the capital "L" kind of Love; the love that is unfathomable and ineffable, a fusion of respect, understanding, awe, sensuality and mystery.

Nearly a decade ago, I read with great interest reports of interrogators at Guantanamo promising detainees a swim in the tropical ocean as an inducement to cooperation.  From those small, hot jail cells, clad in heavy jumpsuits, the ocean must have looked mighty inviting.  The technique worked.

Later, in the summer of 2003, on a coastal trek from Oregon to Mexico, I walked past a beachfront bungalow for sale in Del Mar, California.  Eight-hundred square feet, no lot, but the sound, smell, sight, touch and taste of the Pacific awaited just beyond the bedroom window.  The asking price?  A cool $6.3 million.  They got their asking price, then some.

It turns out that globally the ocean imparts a trillion dollar premium on hotel rooms, condos, houses and all other forms of coastal real estate.  People want to see and hear the sea from where they eat and sleep and are willing to shell out a lot of green to get some blue.

I've also spent a lot of time with fishermen around the world.  I've seen their working love of the ocean up close.  Theirs is boundless joy in the freedom of a wide open, big blue space. It is the irresistible draw to a life spent catching seafood. In one Mexican lobstering co-op I work with, the rogue member who dares violate the community rules of "how many" and "how big" is banished to the packing facility with a never-ending view of white walls and stainless steel tables instead of big blue.  For them, it is the worst punishment imaginable.  Few, if any, subvert the community standards.

The poet Robinson Jeffers found language in the rhythm and drone of ocean waves and the meditative act of rolling boulders up from the sea to build his stone home.  "The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it," he wrote.

Canadian actor Michael J. Fox famously quit television right after spending a few hours blissfully following a sea turtle gliding through the blue Caribbean sea.  "Never once after my encounter with the sea turtle have I wavered in my conviction that it was the right thing for me to do and the right time for me to do it," he wrote.

A girl in the fourth grade at the San Francisco School sat in front of me holding a bright blue marble to her left eye.  "It's beautiful in there, I can see whales and turtles and hear the ocean," she said. "I know just who I'm going to give this to."

I also queried the modern oracle (Twitter) on the topic of the #1 seafood (shrimp) and learned a lot about American's unbridled passion for cheap, fried crustaceans.  We know that a certain kind of obsessed food and power addition underlies the extirpation of bluefin tuna, sharks and sea turtles, that get caught in shrimp nets, from the ocean.

@DSchnell: Ate 90 pieces of shrimp at Red Lobster's Endless Shrimp, now it's time for bed
@davezatz: Red Lobster's Endless Shrimp would be more appealing if they provided an announcer and scoreboard. Gluttony ftw
@OREOaddict16: i just ate my weight in endless shrimp at red lobster..yum =)

And, whenever I travel -- which is a lot -- I invariably meet total strangers who say: "So, you're a marine biologist?  I dreamed of being a marine biologist when I was a kid!"  And they'll disappear on the red Zodiac, chasing down whale songs on the ocean in their head.

We humans offer up our dreams, our secrets and our treasure to the sea from whence we came.  Those imprisoned terrorists, lifelong fishermen, deep-pocketed property owners, poets, shrimp and tuna addicts and world-weary travelers clearly feel great emotional pull towards the ocean.  But, why?  What is it about the ocean that speaks to us on such a fundamental, profound human level? I have always wanted to know, but my chosen profession, science -- skeptical, detached, dispassionate science -- wouldn't allow me to go there.

When I was a graduate student, I tried to weave emotion into my dissertation on the relationship between sea turtle ecology and coastal communities.  No luck.  My advisors steered me to other departments, another career even.  "Keep that "fuzzy" stuff out of your science, young man," they counseled.  Emotion wasn't rational.  It wasn't quantifiable.  It wasn't science.

But, the human-ocean connection, BLUEMIND as we've dubbed it, held me in its grip even as my career as a scientist blossomed.  Eventually, I shaped my general philosophy into an effort called "The Mind and Ocean Initiative."  Today, I think -- actually, I know -- it is time for a new kind of ocean science.

Economists, marketers and politicians recognize that deep-seated, inscrutable emotions, not rationality, are what rule human behavior.  Aided by cognitive neuroscientists, these fields have begun to understand how our deepest, most primordial emotions drive virtually every decision we make, from what we buy to the candidates we elect.  To my way of thinking, if the lessons of cognitive neuroscience can be used for the crass purposes of influencing what people buy and how they vote, why not use such knowledge for ocean conservation?  I believe we can.  And, I believe we should.

Consider these questions:

Why is "ocean view" the most valuable phrase in the english language, bestowing a 50% premium on everything from lunch to a night's sleep in a hotel room to a beachfront cottage?

If stress causes disease, and the ocean reduces stress, is time spent in, on, under or near the ocean good medicine?

Can our deepening understanding of brain science be applied to better protection for ocean animals being eaten to extinction by addicted and power-hungry humans?

We must seize this particular moment in time -- when the nascent power of neuroscience is burgeoning and the popular momentum is toward conservation rather than exploitation.  We can use science to explore and understand the profound and ancient emotional and sensual connections that lead to deeper relationships with the ocean.  I believe that if we do that we have an opportunity for real conservation gains that could do some true and lasting good for the ocean and planet Earth.

It's time to drop the old notions of separation between emotion and science.  Emotion is science.  Let's convene the top marine scientists, skilled communicators, dedicated conservationists, and leading neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists to ask and answer the most probing and compelling set of questions about the ocean that we can imagine.  Let's explore the mind-ocean connection -- our BLUEMINDs.

Let's mentor a new wave of passionate and brilliant graduate students to get their PhD's in the breakthrough field of NeuroConservation.  And together, let's mine neuroscience to develop a set of powerful conservation tools that educators, advocates, policymakers, medical doctors and scientists can use to better and more deeply engage, inspire and lead people in the restoration and protection of our beloved ocean.

Who knows what we will find.  It's likely, maybe even certain, that the greatest unexplored mysteries of the sea are buried not under a blanket of blue, but deep in the human mind.  The lessons and new questions are in there.  They await only discovery.

BLUEMIND: Your Brain On Ocean is being held June 2nd, 2011 at the California Academy of Sciences. Watch and listen live online at www.MindandOcean.org

26 April 2011

People Helping Turtles, Turtles Helping People

(Note: This is a guest post from Jesse Senko of the Blue Ocean Institute.  It originally appeared on the BOI Blog here.)

On the Pacific coast of Mexico, all five species of sea turtles (green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley and leatherback) have declined over the past century due to illegal poaching and incidental capture in fishing nets. One of the most heavily impacted areas has been the Bahia Magdalena region, where endangered sea turtle populations remain low despite progressive conservation measures that include complete legal protection for sea turtles and their major nesting beaches.

In order to evaluate alternative sea turtle conservation strategies that rely on increased participation of local residents, a team of researchers led by (SEE Turtles co-founder) Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and myself interviewed 136 people from seven coastal fishing communities in the Bahia Magdalena region.  “If we want to save sea turtles we need to find novel ways to include local residents in conservation efforts, and basically that comes down to finding out how a live sea turtle can become worth more than a dead one, be that financially, emotionally, or intrinsically…but most likely some type of combination”, said Senko, the study’s lead author.  “The human-sea turtle relationship is wonderfully complex. No surprise, so are the ways to restore sea turtles. Restoring what’s broken in nature requires biodiversity, economic and cultural diversity, but also emotional diversity”, noted Nichols, a marine biologist who also founded the grassroots sea turtle conservation organization Grupo Tortuguero.

The researchers found that although residents were overwhelmingly interested in participating in sea turtle conservation, peer pressure and conflict within their community often presented challenges. “It can be difficult to fully embrace sea turtle conservation when some of your friends, family, and community members may still be eating, hunting, or even selling these animals on black market circuits, especially if you are not directly benefiting from the conservation efforts in some capacity”, added Senko.

The development of sea turtle ecotourism may help protect sea turtles and provide additional revenue for fishers who previously hunted them or accidentally captured them in their fishing nets.  When asked about the prospects of sea turtle ecotourism, most residents indicated that this would have a positive impact on their community. Economic incentives and increased protection for sea turtles were mentioned as benefits of sea turtle ecotourism, whereas peer pressure, difficulty obtaining permits and producing effective marketing materials, and doubts about direct economic benefits were cited as constraints. Whale watching guides were especially interested in developing sea turtle ecotourism programs, in large part because they already possess the necessary equipment (e.g. boats, GPS devices) and knowledge of sea turtle life history, movements, and abundance.  “Researchers have relied on turtle hunters, fishers, and local whale watching guides to find and study sea turtles since I first arrived in Baja as a doctoral student in the early 1990s. Sea turtle research and conservation in Baja has been all about artful collaboration and mutual benefits from day one”, said Nichols.
Recently, Nichols and Brad Nahill started a non-profit sea turtle conservation travel program called SEE Turtles that relied upon some of the findings and recommendations from this study. SEE Turtles works to provide ways for visitors to work hands-on in the field with fishers and marine conservation biologists to capture sea turtles and collect/record scientific data on these endangered animals. Although the researchers acknowledge that initially sea turtle conservation jobs are likely to be supplemental, the added income from SEE Turtles has already aided local communities and sea turtle protection efforts.

“Conservation travel endeavors that generate even a modest amount of part time jobs is a great first step in developing and promoting positive attitudes towards sea turtle and marine conservation efforts”, said Senko. “If people know of others who work with sea turtle conservation efforts they may develop pro-environmental attitudes towards sea turtle conservation even if they themselves do not directly benefit from the endeavor…and we’ve already seen this from gray whales in Baja, so why not sea turtles, they are here year-round.”

“We believe that adding sea turtle activities to an existing tourism experience that includes whales, dolphins, sea lions, birding, island and dune exploration, kayaking mangroves, diving/snorkeling, sport fishing, and surfing would be a great starting point, especially because direct economic benefits from existing sea turtle ecotourism programs are likely going to be minimally distributed throughout the communities”, added Senko.
In fact, SEEturtles.org has been so successful that Nichols and Nahill have expanded the program to include other vulnerable wildlife species (i.e. bears, large cats, birds, sharks, and whales) and the project is now called SEEtheWILD.  “Everyone I meet enjoys seeing beautiful animals in the wild: scientists, kids, fishers, and travelers alike. Even people who like to eat sea turtles, love seeing them swim underwater. As our understanding of our emotional connections with each other and nature deepen, it will certainly help guide and expand conservation and restoration efforts”, noted Nichols.

The other authors in the study include current School for Field Studies/Center for Coastal Studies professor Andrew J. Schneller, Francisco “Paco” Ollervides, former Center for Coastal Studies director and current Waterkeeper Alliance research associate, and Julio Solis, Bahia Magdalena Baykeeper, Latin America Regional Representative for the Waterkeeper Alliance, and distinguished Grupo Tortuguero sea turtle biologist. The full study is published in the journal “Ocean and Coastal Management” (Email the author below for a copy).

Blog written by Jesse Senko, Blue Ocean Institute’s seafood consultant: jesse.senko@gmail.com

09 December 2010

My Untimely Arrival at Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, Nicaragua

The next stop on my "Tour of Nicaraguan Turtle Beaches" with FFI's Jose Urteaga is Refugio de Vida Silvestre Rio Escalante Chacocente, Chacocente for short. Chacocente is one of only two beaches on Nicaragua's Pacific coast where the Olive ridley sea turtle nests "in mass". This phenomenon, also known as an "arribada" which means "the arrival", only occurs on a small number of beaches in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans - a handful occurring in Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and a few in India. Elsewhere in the world, the Olive Ridley is a solitary nester like other sea turtle species.

An Olive ridley track

Much to my dismay an arribada occurred just a few days before my arrival here, with approximately 10,000 Olive ridley nests being deposited over the course of just a few days on this very beach that I am walking on. In my time working with sea turtles I have yet to witness an Olive ridley arribada but imagine it would leave me without words.  Today, only a few scattered tracks remain on the beach.

The Olive ridley is the only turtle to put on such a spectacular nesting display which occurs approximately every 28 days during the nesting season. During these few days, tens of thousands of turtles may converge on a single stretch of beach, competing for prime beachfront realty, and inadvertently digging up each others nests in the process of laying their own. This "mass nesting" strategy is thought to overwhelm predators, ensuring the survival of some of the young, although the arribada strategy is still somewhat a mystery to scientists.

The beach here at Chacocente is really spectacular....and really hot today. I'm walking this scenic stretch of beach with a University student from Managua that is here to do her thesis research.  She's looking at the hatch success rate of nests in relation to the density of nests on the beach. Olive ridley arribada beaches, with their high density of nests, naturally have lower hatching success rates than other beaches where turtles are solitary nesters and nests are spaced out along the beach.  As we collect sand temperatures from the study sites, armed military guards are walking down the beach on patrol. 

The beaches here are part of a wildlife reserve, managed by MARENA - the Nicaraguan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and are patrolled by the Nicaraguan military. Jose and Fauna & Flora International work in collaboration with these entities to manage the sea turtle program here, protecting the turtle eggs from poachers.  Although the Olive ridley is the most abundant of sea turtles worldwide, their numbers have been in decline due to poaching and other threats like entanglement in fishing gear.

This part of Nicaragua also holds one of the largest tracts of dry forest in the country.  FFI is also working with the government and local communities here to manage and preserve this important habitat and develop alternative livelihoods for locals including reforestation projects and providing services to visitors.

A troop of Howler monkeys laze in the trees within the Refuge.
The 10,000 Olive ridley nests that were deposited here just prior to my visit are due to hatch in January.  Although I missed the last arribada by just a few days, perhaps my next visit will coincide with the hatching and mass exodus of thousands of tiny little hatchlings making their way to the sea.  I can hope at least, that the timing of my arrival will be better next time around.

For more information about Fauna & Flora International's work in Nicaragua click here.

For information on how to contribute your time to a sea turtle conservation project, see our Volunteer page.

Paula von Weller
Research Associate
SEE Turtles