Wallace J. Nichols Refuses to Break Our Hearts
The marine biologist learned the hard way that we have to give people hope when it comes to the health of our planet
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Wallace J. Nichols told his story to producer Sarah Vitak for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
We were monitoring this turtle, tracking and mapping it and sharing the data in real time. It was so much fun and so cool to have colleagues and kids all over the world tracking this turtle. And at the same time, it was so stressful. I was just like, I can’t breathe until this turtle makes it home.
My name is Wallace J. Nichols, but everybody just calls me J. I’m trained as a marine biologist and have worked on solving ocean problems, but more recently I also work on reconnecting people to water.
My childhood was pretty wet, I guess you could say. Pretty water-filled. I always felt really good when I was in the water or near the water. When I was on land, I felt less good. I felt distracted. I stuttered and I was kind of an introvert, but whenever I was in the water, I just felt free and better. My career as a marine biologist probably grew out of that.
Adelita was a loggerhead turtle that a fisherman in Mexico caught when she was very young. We named her Adelita after the daughter of the fisherman. They took her to a research facility, and they raised her for 10 years.
So she lived in a tank for 10 years, was raised and cleaned and fed and reached this adult size. I was studying sea turtles there. And I always watched this one turtle, and she kept resting her head on the west wall of the tank that she was in. I wrote that down in my field notebook. “This turtle is always on that side of the tank.”
Then, we had the opportunity to release her, and we got a satellite transmitter and put it on her. We took her out in a small boat called a panga and released her over the side.
Her first few seconds back in the wild ocean after being in a tank for 10 years, and she swims a distance away from the boat that is about equal to the diameter of the tank that she had lived in. And then she pauses as if to say, Where’s the wall? Stops swimming, just pauses and glides and her little turtle brain is thinking, Where’s the wall? If I had done this anytime for the past 10 years, I’d whack my head against the wall. Finding no wall, she continued to swim, and her track was like a straight shot, as if out of a gun, straight across the Pacific Ocean, like an arrow. She just kept going and going and going.
One of the lessons I’ve derived from that initial experience is she imagined a wall, and the imaginary wall stopped her. That’s interesting. We imagine all kinds of walls. Think of the imaginary walls that stop you from doing the thing you need to.
On our epic journeys, there’s so many more imaginary walls that we need to swim through and we need to say, That’s not real. That’s just my fear, or that’s just somebody’s opinion.
This was the first animal ever tracked of any kind, swimming across an entire ocean. So at that point we didn’t really even know if animals made these trans-oceanic migrations. We tracked it for 368 days and it left Mexico. It left the Baja California Peninsula, and it started swimming home to Japan. We tracked it for a year as it swam 12,000 kilometers, and that sounds like a really cool science project. And it was, but every single day I was on pins and needles. Like, Is the turtle going to make it today? Is it going to eat a plastic bag? Is it going to get caught in a fishing net? Is it going to get run over by a ship?
Turns out sea turtles are the poster species for everything that’s beautiful about the planet, but also everything that’s really going wrong.
They’re impacted by climate change. They’re impacted by oil spills. They’re impacted by sea level rise. They’re impacted by destructive fishing practices, habitat destruction. Sea turtles just get hit by all those things directly, right between the eyes.
We all kind of became invested in this turtle’s journey. I’m the one who’s putting the data online and then sharing the story with kids. I’m somewhat responsible for the emotional connection that’s developing with these kids and the idea that that could be just cut off by a piece of netting or a plastic bag or a turtle hunter.
We’re tracking this turtle and it made its way across the Pacific Ocean. The track is very straight, uncannily straight for months and months and months for thousands and thousands of nautical miles. Then the track gets all zig-zaggy as she starts to get near the Japanese coast, which throws up a red flag of What’s this? What’s going on? Is she searching for a beach, or is there something else going on? So when we checked the dive data and saw that she wasn’t diving, it became clear that this was an anomaly, and something was up.
So, I packed a bag, got on a plane, flew over to Japan with a GPS in hand to visit that final location. The town was called Isohama and it was basically a squid fishing town. Just dominated by the fishing industry. Nobody said that they saw our turtle, but they did say, Yeah, they do catch loggerhead turtles while they’re squid fishing.
That was heartbreaking. Tracking this turtle for a year, then having to share the news that Hey, we think she made it to Japan, but we think her fate was fishing gear.
I think there’s a responsibility, especially with young people, to just not go around breaking people’s hearts and leaving them gasping on the floor for hope. That’s not going to work. And so that part of the responsibility I hadn’t really dealt with before on a big scale. You don’t really think of working with sea turtles as being a high stress or burnout potential career. But it can be.
You sign up because you want to be like Jacques Cousteau and travel the world and dive and hang out with turtles in beautiful places. And then you’re like, Boom, dead turtles.
I can remember just really feeling like on the verge of burnout from just the quantity of dead turtles. Seriously, what the hell.
If you’re feeling this way, if you’re a scientist or a conservationist and you’re just having lots of bad days, take care of yourself. I would encourage people to make sure there’s a piece of what you do that builds you up. Jump in the water if that’s your thing. Whatever your water is; there isn’t a right or wrong water. But get in it and go there and sit by it. Put your feet in it and splash and dive under it, and float on it and get it in your ears and up your nose and just do it.
If you’re feeling crummy, get in the water. If you’re feeling creatively blocked, get in the water. If you’re feeling a lack of peace in your mind, get in the water. If you feel like you want to connect more deeply with someone you care about, get in the water together.
If you need to heal, heal your mind and your body, and your heart and your soul—get in the water.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is a marine biologist, author, water lover, turtle nerd, explorer, movement builder, and an embarrassing dad. He has written several books, including Blue Mind and Dear Wild Child.
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