By Tanya Lewis
DAVENPORT -- Don't let Wallace J. Nichols' surfer demeanor fool you: He's a committed marine conservationist on a mission to save turtles and our oceans.
Nichols, 44, who goes by "J," is a Davenport marine biologist associated with the California Academy of Sciences. His motto, "Live Blue," encapsulates both his commitment to ocean preservation as well as his unconventional approach to science. It's a sentiment he cultivated early on, as a boy obsessed with turtles.
Born and raised near New York, Nichols spent childhood summers in the Chesapeake Bay area. In creeks there, he and his brother would catch snapping turtles and paint numbers on their shells, a primitive version of the tracking work he would later pursue. Also a math club nerd, he was encouraged to pursue a career in medicine or law.
"I remember one day realizing that that's not what I wanted to do," Nichols said.
He knew he loved turtles, but wasn't sure what sort of career would allow him to study them. "There's something that's really hard to describe that makes that group of animals more interesting to me," he said.
Nichols went on to earn his doctorate in evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. A Fulbright fellowship took him to Mexico, where he has spent much of his career championing turtle conservation and working with local fishing communities.
Nichols made his first big splash in the mid-1990s when he successfully tracked a loggerhead turtle on its
15,000-mile migration from Japan to Mexico and back.
In 1999, he started Grupo Tortuguero, a grassroots movement that brings together fishermen and turtle poachers -- traditionally thought of as enemies of conservation -- to raise awareness of Pacific sea turtle endangerment. It's this sometimes-scorned approach that Nichols believes is essential.
"It's like Alcoholics Anonymous for turtles," Nichols said. "Everybody has a voice and a vote."
Part conference, part party and part reunion, the group's meetings provide a link between conservation efforts and the communities that have historically been at odds with them.
"Nobody wants to see turtles go extinct," Nichols said. "It's not just money and it's not just food. It's more than that."
A million marbles
But Nichols wants to reach an audience much greater than a few fishermen. In enlisting others in his cause, Nichols wondered how he could make his message "stick more." He had the idea of giving people blue marbles, which grew into his successful Blue Marble Project. The goal is to "commit random acts of ocean kindness one blue marble at a time," he said.
First, Nichols gives you a marble and tells you to hold it out at arm's length. That's what Earth looks like from a million miles away, he says. Next, he tells you to hold it up to one eye and look at a bright light. The patterns you see represent all the life contained in a drop of ocean water. Then, it starts to get touchy-feely when he asks you to hold the marble to your head and think of someone who cares about the world, and hold it to your heart and imagine passing it on with that same message.
It's precisely this emotional connection that Nichols sees as integral to ocean conservation. About a million of these marbles are now in circulation worldwide.
"It's just a marble, but it's loaded with science, empathy and knowledge," Nichols said. "Each does a little work each time it's shared."
Nichols wants to know why we love the ocean -- why it makes us meditative and relaxed, reduces stress, and provides creative inspiration.
"What's going on inside our skulls when we feel that way?" he asked.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence supports the notion that the ocean affects our brains emotionally, Nichols said, but it hasn't been quantified. Once off-limits to science, emotion is now legitimately studied by neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, using brain scanning tools like electroencephalography, which records the brain's electrical activity, and functional magnetic resonance imaging, which tracks blood flow in the brain.
Scientists already use these methods to study everything from "your brain on music" to "your brain on chocolate," Nichols said. He wants to study "your brain on ocean." That was the premise of a conference he held in June at the California Academy of Sciences. An eclectic group including neuroscientists, marine biologists, ocean explorers, surfers, marketers and photographers convened to discuss the science of our mental connection with the ocean.
Nichols' big idea is, "If stress causes disease, and the ocean reduces stress, then shouldn't the ocean make us healthier?" What if doctors could say, "Take 15 minutes of ocean?"
It's not just cosmic woo-woo, Nichols said. He cited the research of Darin Schreiber, a political science professor at UC San Diego who attended the conference. Schreiber uses brain imaging to study human interaction, including how a person's emotional state can rub off on people with whom they interact. Nichols thinks this could explain how the ocean's positive effect on people might ripple throughout entire communities.
"People could pass on their stoke," as Nichols put it. But he's serious about improving scientific understanding of the ocean.
"Maybe that understanding leads to a different kind of appreciation for what we get from the ocean," he said. "There's another reason to take care of it -- because you get all this psychological, emotional benefit."
And that doesn't even begin to get at the ocean's economic value, according to Nichols. When you get "a room with a view," what exactly are you paying for? Nichols wants to know. How do you quantify the experience behind the billions of dollars spent on ocean access?
No billionaire himself, Nichols takes a creative approach to earning a living. Never enamored of the academic lifestyle, he recently gave up a steady job at the Ocean Conservancy and now supports himself through a foundation he started called 100 Blue Angels. It relies on the monthly contributions of donors -- his "blue angels" -- made up of friends and students, as well as supporters he's never met.
"It's an experiment in crowd-sourcing an income," Nichols said.
Nichols admitted his earnings are modest, and many have told him it's career suicide. But he likes the freedom of not being tied to an institution.
"It's like academic tenure without a university," he said.
Nichols also makes use of that freedom to spend more time with his family. He lives in Davenport with his partner, Dana, and two daughters, ages 7 and 10. Whenever possible, he takes his kids with him on his travels -- whether that's attending a conference in the nation's capital or tagging turtles in El Salvador.
He harbors no delusions that all is well with our oceans. He's outspoken about plastic pollution, and chairs the science advisory board for the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which aims to end the world's dependence on disposable plastic. According to Nichols, the plastic industry has had its run, and now it's time for an alternative.
After all, the alternative approach has always been Nichols' way.
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