May 05.24

The Man Loves Turtles: An Interview with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

Charity Pot >> Community >> LUSH Life

Life is never boring at LUSH HQ! A typical Tuesday morning may include meeting an inspirational change maker, like Dr. Wallace J. Nichols.

Interview with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist

A marine biologist, wildlife conservationist and one of the world's leading experts on sea turtles, Dr. Nichols stopped by to share his passion for the ocean and its inhabitants. Before addressing the packed room, Dr. Nichols passed out little blue marbles as a token of gratitude and a reminder of our beautiful, blue planet. He shared his love of turtles (spoiler alert: he really, really loves them), his groundbreaking research and how he, along with our Charity Pot partners RED Sustainable Travel, helped transform a community of turtle hunters into turtle conservationists.

With our blue marbles in hand, we sat down to chat with him about his Billion Baby Sea Turtles project, the study of neuroconservation and how love can literally change the world.

When did your fascination with turtles begin?

When I was a kid I fell in love with turtles, but there was a period of time when there was no encouragement. It was mostly discouragement. People just didn't study turtles for a living. No one around me was doing that. I saw a flier in the library for a job listing in Costa Rica and applied. I went off to Costa Rica and it rekindled that dream. From that moment, I never looked back. I just kept going, getting my masters and then my Ph.D. I became president of the sea turtle society. I never knew there was such a thing!

You spoke today about love and its role in ocean conservation. How does this fit into the scientific community? Why don't traditional scare tactics work to get the public involved?

Fear is a motivator. Naturally, it works. But it does something to you physiologically that's really pretty unique. It jacks up your stress hormones so your cortisol levels go through the roof. You use that strategy to freak people out over and over again, and life goes on. You tell them the world is ending and they wake up the next morning and everything is fine. Next time you'll have to scare them more. The environmental movement has been really good at using fear, guilt and information to try and present its message. What we've done is attracted a relatively small group of people who respond to fear, guilt and information, and the rest of people don't want to part of our club. They see you coming, and think, 'you make me feel sad and bad about myself.' The flipside to that is love. We've been afraid to use love because it's somehow soft, or mushy. Turns out, it really works. For some reason, the environmental community is really nervous about being seen as tree-huggers, turtle lovers or ocean lovers. But love is what really resonates with people. There's a time for fear. I'm not saying we hide the bad news, but if we lead with it, it consciously turns people off. Their brain will associate you with scary, bad things that make them feel terrible. It doesn't build the kind of movement that we really need.

Interview with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist

Your billion baby turtles project aims to release one billion hatchlings into the ocean. In order to attain that goal, you're asking individuals to donate one dollar. How does your organization, SEE Turtles, use that dollar to save a turtle hatchling?

We collect the money and make grants to projects that are right on the beaches. We solicit applications from projects that need extra funding and then we review them according to a set of criteria. We try to minimize overhead costs as much as possible. We're really lean as far as an organization goes. We're not interested in spending money on just stuff- we want it to go to the projects. Our Charity Pot partner, RED Sustainable Travel, leads sea turtle conservation tours through La Paz, Mexico with the help of former sea turtle hunters.

How did you convince the hunters to switch their industry?

We had worked with Chris and Luis, the founders of RED Sustainable Travel, for many years, and it become clear that we needed an outfitter to work with the (former) turtle hunters in the right way. We needed to find them alternative sources of income. It hasn't been easy. It's taken twenty years to build the relationships and the trust. At first, I would approach it with, "Hi, I'm collecting tissue samples for genetic analysis. Do you mind if I come over to your house while you're cooking the turtle?" You're in the kitchen, and you're hanging out, and now you have a conversation going. Some of the conversations lasted for many years, until someone in their household said, "We eat about ten turtles a year, but I think we could reduce it to eight." Then when a small group of local people start in turtle tourism, it becomes harder for the person doing the wrong thing to do the wrong thing, It's their next door neighbor, or their brother, or uncle hunting the turtles. The peer pressure starts to work.

Your Bluemind initiative has created a new field called Neuroconservation. Can you explain what Neuroconservation is and what you mean by 'our brains on water'?

Neuroscientists have studied the human brain on stress, on happiness, on coffee, on chocolate, on red wine...but not on water. We just thought it would be super great to know about the intersection between the most complex organ known in the universe and the biggest feature of our planet. We also thought that maybe an understanding of our brains on nature and the vast cognitive benefits of being outside might help us fix what's broken and create another compelling reason to do so.

You're a parent and have spoken about engaging your children in your work. If parents could pass along one message to their children about ocean conservation, what would it be?

The ocean is still beautiful, still inspiring, still has so much life. Fall in love with it first. We hear so much bad news about the ocean. Some kids' first ocean experience is picking up gross stuff at the beach and watching depressing ocean documentaries. Parents should help kids fall deeply in love with and play in the ocean first...being a junior ocean activist will follow.

To read more about Dr. Nichols or to donate to his Billion Baby Turtles project, visit www.wallacejnichols.org

Julia Hamfelt

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