During one lecture at Stanford, Nichols implored graduate students to remember that, as conservation- ists, "we have the power of happiness on our side."
We were seated outside the Academy of Sciences on a late-winter afternoon. Nichols, who goes by J., was dressed in a casual button-down blue shirt, brown cords, and leather boots and wearing a perfectly manicured salt-and-pepper stubble beard. He looked directly into my eyes, speaking in a slow, even canter that was mildly hypnotic, the vestige of a stutter he overcame 25 years ago by forcing himself to make turtle presentations to school groups.
The marble shtick may have made me uncomfortable, but the last line stuck with me; I imagined myself giving the marble to an old friend. Turns out I’m not the only one to fall under this spell. Nichols tried it out for the first time in 2009, during a talk at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and the audience response was overwhelming. He figured he was on to something, so he set up a simple website, BlueMarbles.org, and decided “to try and see how big we could make this thing with no budget or strategic plan.” Nichols now estimates that there are as many as a million of his blue marbles in circulation around the planet. They have made it into the hands of Jane Goodall, Harrison Ford, James Cameron, E. O. Wilson, and four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, who carried one during this year’s race.
Nichols’s success at reaching large numbers of people on an emotional level both underscores the premise of his theories and makes it harder to dismiss him as a left-coast flake. Several times over the past six months, I watched him captivate audiences with a clever Trojan-horse narrative: I’m a scientist, but—surprise!—I want to talk about how much we all love the ocean. During one lecture at Stanford, he implored graduate students to remember that, as conservationists, “we have the power of happiness on our side.”
For environmentalists struggling to find a message with staying power, Nichols’s feel-good approach offers a compelling alternative to the usual tactic of scaring people into action with bad news about extinctions or global warming. “Hell, we’ve tried everything else,” says Nature Conservancy scientist M. Sanjayan. “We’ve tried to price nature. We’ve tried to stand and protest. We’ve tried every way we know to get people to see what we’ve seen, and we’ve been failing.”
Nichols blames these failures on the detached way scientists gather and share information. When he was studying Baja’s sea turtles as a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the mid-1990s, he hired fishermen and former turtle poachers to help collect data. The research was interesting, but Nichols was even more intrigued by the intense and often conflicting feelings locals had for the animals. He convened a gathering of everyone—“turtle lovers, turtle eaters, biologists, NGOs”—and they formed an activist network called Grupo Tortuguero.
Nichols was energized, but his academic advisers were skeptical. “‘You’re organizing fishermen—where’s the biology?” they asked. He was told to avoid the human element in his thesis. “It made no sense,” says Nichols. “The changes happening in the ocean and with those turtles were driven by humans.”
He was similarly progressive in his research methods. Early on in Baja, he tagged a female turtle his team had named Adelita with a GPS transponder and posted her coordinates online as she made a never-before-recorded crossing of the Pacific to Japan. His colleagues were horrified. “‘They said, ‘Someone could steal your data!’ ” Nichols laughs. “My response was: ‘And do what with it? Save turtles?’ ”
TODAY, NICHOLS applies this same open-source spirit to what he calls his “fluid” career. He’s spent most of the past decade “hopping between grants” while continuing to publish research on turtles, often coauthored by graduate students he advises. He works with a number of environmental groups and recently created SeetheWild.org, a nonprofit that connects adventure travelers with conservation projects in exotic locations. His office, a 1954 Airstream trailer parked at a friend’s organic strawberry farm off California’s Highway 1, is also the headquarters for Slowcoast, an initiative he recently helped launch to draw tourists to the mostly empty stretch between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, with future revenue supporting local public-school lunch reform.