Friends, family, and colleagues simply call him ‘J.’
His employer: the world’s oceans.
His challenge: to remind people to commit ‘random acts of ocean kindness.’
Why? Because we’re all connected to the oceans in more ways than we currently understand.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, is a scientist, educator, author and conservationist, but he describes his occupation in straightforward terms: “I work for the ocean.”
Since 2003, the 42-year-old has been a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and co-director of Ocean Revolution, a global network of young ocean activists. The author of more than 50 scientific papers, book chapters and popular articles on sea turtle ecology and ocean conservation, Nichols advises graduate students across the world. He is passionate about bringing people together to appreciate and protect a part of the earth that is far more vulnerable than it seems.
“There’s the perception that the ocean is just so big, so boundless, so inexhaustible that we can put anything we want into it and it will just take it away; that we can take as much as we want out, and it’ll just keep on giving,” says Nichols.
“That is the way it has been for most of history, but we’ve reached the limits of that idea. Our actions, wherever we are, matter to the future of the ocean. And the future of the ocean matters to us.”
Indeed, water plays a vital role in human health, says Nichols, in no small part because humans are made mostly of water— water that, in mineral composition, is comparable to that found in the sea. “Every cell in our body has both salt and water in it,” says Nichols. The salt in our bodies, he explains, “is the same salt — salt from the earth — that fills the ocean.”
Our entire biosphere also relies upon the ocean, which plays a critical role in moderating global weather patterns and in supporting global food and water supplies.
“The fates of oceans and humans are inextricably tied,” notes Nichols. And yet most of us are largely unaware of the threats that are currently putting the planet’s oceans at risk. Unlike the results of deforestation, mining and smog — where damage is quite visible and easily witnessed — ocean damage is often nearly imperceptible to a land-based public. As a result, it rarely rises to the top of most people’s environmental concerns.
That needs to change, says Nichols, or essential ocean systems that are today “on the edge of extinction” will soon be gone forever.
Nichols has long been an ocean activist, and over the past few years he has created three separate projects to help combat the ocean’s visibility problem and remind people “to commit random acts of ocean kindness.”
The Blue Marbles Project (bluemarbles.org) is a viral, grassroots initiative that encourages people to find and circulate blue glass marbles among their friends, along with a reminder to care for the ocean. (Nichols estimates that more than 100,000 recycled blue glass marbles are already circulating in 2011.)
SEEturtles.org promotes conservation tourism and offers tourists resources for traveling in a way that directly supports sea turtle protection efforts.
And with sound artist Halsey Burgund, Nichols created OceanVoices.org, an online art and conservation initiative that enables people to record their personal stories about the ocean and upload them to the site.
Burgund and Nichols are collecting the stories to mix to music and create audio collages that listeners can download. To date, more than 500 people have recorded ocean stories and uploaded them to the site.
Nichols’s own fascination with marine life began early. As a child, he spent his summers on Chesapeake Bay. It was there that he fell in love with the ocean, and when he found out he could study it as an adult, he says, he immediately recognized his professional calling.
Nichols earned a master’s of environmental management from Duke University and a PhD in wildlife ecology from the University of Arizona–Tucson. He spent several years as a senior scientist at the Ocean Conservatory in Washington, D.C., and has been a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco since 2000. He lives on California’s Slow Coast with his partner, Dana, and their daughters, Julia, 5, and Grayce, 8.
But even for those who have visited the ocean only once or twice in their lives, personal ocean stories abound, notes Nichols. He speculates that this can be explained in part by the well-established ties we have with it, both biologically and physiologically. Yet, humans also have an equally important emotional connection with the ocean that is less easily defined.
“When you look throughout history, you see that connection described in art and literature and poetry,” says Nichols, who is currently writing a book on the subject. “As a scientist, I’m told, ‘Don’t talk about emotions. Be an unbiased observer.’ But that’s impossible.”
On the contrary, Nichols would like all of us to know the earth’s watery worlds more subjectively and to feel that personal connection more acutely for ourselves.
There’s no amount of scientific or economic data, he notes, that can take the place of experiencing the ocean’s mystery and beauty firsthand. And it’s only by authentically caring about the ocean’s systems that we can hope to preserve the tenuous lifelines that support both its well-being and our own.
Q How did you get involved with Delta Chi?
Back then rush occurred before classes started. The majority of students at DePauw joined a fraternity, so I went through rush. Looking back, it has to
happen. Greencastle, IN was a small town. Students need something to do and people to associate with. I’ve always felt that human beings want to be a
part of something.
Q Why did you join Delta Chi?
I’ve always been an outdoors guy. The Delta Chi house had a big yard and was adjacent to an area known as the “dells.” The trees were especially great. When I met the guys in the Chapter, I could see that they were a very diverse group and were all about mutual respect and tolerance. There were kids from all over the country and the world. Even though it was a group of guys all living in one house, everyone had independent ideas about how to do things. They were very successful because they followed their ideals. When I joined, my brothers helped me become successful, rather than trying to make me into something. The Chapter nurtured its members’ strengths. Looking back, we really were about camaraderie and friendship – the real stuff.
Q How did you get involved within the Chapter?
While I never was an officer, I did mentor some of the younger guys. I was highly involved on campus, so that took up a lot of my time. I also took EMT training, which has proved beneficial.
Q Looking back, what do you remember most about your time at DePauw?
I still remember walking to campus and back from the house every day – I just loved being outdoors. When you left campus, you were able to detach a bit on the walk back to the House. There was always a lot of space around the House too. I spent a lot of time throwing a Frisbee or football around with the guys.
Q What advice would you give to our younger members about making the most out of their college experience?
Once you figure out what really gets your engine going, make that what you do – no matter what. The guys used to give me a hard time for being so into all the outdoors stuff. I knew it was all in good fun, but that’s when I found my passion. No one was surprised to see me in the field I am in today – they all could tell. If you have peers around you that support you no matter what, that’s all you need.
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