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J. Nichols, marine biologist

J. Nichols, marine biologist

You may recognize his face from recent GAP or Nautica ads, but what Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols would prefer to be known for is the cause closest to his heart: Ocean research and conservation. A marine biologist, J. has helped to save sea turtles from extinction, and is now working through his organization,, to preserve our oceans. Follow him on Twitter: @wallacejnichols, his web site,, or The Huffington Post.

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

JN: I wanted Jacques Cousteau’s job. I grew up in New Jersey and was a member of the Cousteau society and got a sticker and a newsletter every month. But nobody ever told me I could be a marine biologist. The only person who had a job related to the ocean was Jacques. The job was taken. At least that was the perception. So there wasn’t really a lot of encouragement at home or at school that I could become a marine biologist. So I decided the next best thing was Evel Knievel, but obviously the world didn’t need two Evel Kneivels.

PPF: So what did you think your best options were?  

JN: The paths that were encouraged were doctor, lawyer, or businessman. Those were the serious options to choose from. I was an empathetic child. I wanted to help people. I was never interested in making money. But I was interested in biology. So to me, medical school seemed to make the most sense. So I majored in pre-med at Depauw in Indiana.

PPF: What was your first real job?

JN: In college, I worked as an EMT on an ambulance..

PPF: So did the stint on the ambulance convince you medical school wasn’t for you?

JN: Actually, I had a conversation when I was in college with an upper classman that changed everything. He mentioned wildlife biology as a career, and I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” It was the first time anyone had told me about such a thing. In college, I’d go snorkeling in the quarry when everyone was out partying, camping in the cemetery when everyone else was getting wasted. So to merge my love of nature with my education, that seemed right.

PPF: So you did grad school at Duke, then got a Ph.D. at Arizona?

JN: After Duke, the job world wasn’t booming, and I knew investing in my own education at that time was the best option.

PPF:  Was it at Arizona where you first started researching sea turtles?

JN: I was in Tuscon thinking , “What is my Ph.D. work going to be?” I decided it would involve working to save sea turtles from extinction. My committee, which included some well-known biologists, said, “We have to steer you away from that because it’s too late—there aren’t enough left in Baja. They’ve been wiped out.” They basically said it was their job to advise me that my plan was not a good one. To which I said, “Thanks for the advice, but I’m going to go for it anyway, and if it doesn’t work out then that’s my problem.”

To be fair, they were doing their job, based on the information they had. But they didn’t realize that I was just a little unusual in terms of what scientists would normally do. The Evel Knievel part of me was alive and well. I worked with turtle hunters directly and involved them in my research. I thought, “Here’s the deal: We’re going to build a sea turtle movement from the ground up, based on working with the very people who are wiping the population out.” No one on my committee thought that made any sense. But to me, the most important research involves working with people, creating social change, solving problems. Having good science is part of that—but it isn’t the end.

PPF: So you began by tracking sea turtles?

JN: We put a transmitter on a turtle to follow it as the turtle swam across the ocean—normally in science you’d take that info, save data till it’s done, publish it in a journal, and your colleagues would be thrilled and congratulate you. But I wanted to share that data in real time, which meant faxing it to fishing communities in Baja, so they could make copies of the maps and put it in schools. I created a social network before there was a social network. In 1996 the Internet was growing fast, and we built this web site to track the sea turtle as she swam from North America to Japan. Anyone interested could find it. It was the first animal ever tracked across any ocean of any kind, and the only thing like it happening online. We had millions of people around the world following Adelita. It was radical in the science world, even though it didn’t feel radical to me.

PPF: So how did your work – and that of the social network you speak of – help the sea turtles?

JN: These fishermen who grew up eating the sea turtles, well, it turns out they were interested in keeping the turtles around. They didn’t want to see this part of their tradition disappear. I’d start a conversation with them, ask them if they did have a party, and eat a turtle, could they save me the stomach in a Ziploc bag, so I could do genetic analysis. A few days later, I’d come around and they’d give me the turtle’s stomach. We’d have a conversation, and slowly trust was built. And I could tell them how far the turtles swam to lay their eggs, and how people like me were out trying to protect them. The next time I came around, there wouldn’t be a Ziploc bag. They wouldn’t have killed a sea turtle. Then there were the school kids. They helped us stack the shells of the ones who’d been killed, and when you saw them all together, it was horrifying to the children. They’d beg their fathers not to kill any more. You have to imagine, to these people it was the equivalent of someone showing up on your doorstep at Thanksgiving and begging you not to eat the turkey. It is part of their heritage. But slowly, the number of turtles killed began going down. Over the past five years, the numbers of turtles laying eggs has been rising and last year was the best year in thirty years. We think it’s working. Fishermen say they see more turtles than they ever have in their whole life.

PPF: You do a lot of activist work now, way beyond the sea turtle work. Tell me a little about it.

JN: So some colleagues and teachers said, “Nice work in Baja, but is it scalable?” Some people thought that kind of thing was all about the circumstances and timing. I thought, “Maybe our information could be useful to people working on some other issue on the other side of the world.” We started something called “Ocean Revolution,” a project focused on building a network of young indigenous ocean advocates and supplying them with knowledge and helping them move things forward in their own communities.

PPF: Is that where LivBlue came from?

JN: The LivBlue project grew from that idea. In the field of ocean conservation, you hear people ask, ‘The ocean is so huge, and so important, why don’t people pay more attention to it?” I started wondering, if I were going to come up with a marketing tool to get people talking about the ocean, something that costs nothing, what would it be? I started passing out blue marbles to everyone at my lectures, and asking them to pass it along to anyone they knew doing something to improve the environment, which in turn protects the oceans. Now we have more than a million blue marbles floating around. Organizations called, classrooms called, asking for blue marbles. It’s really taken off.

PPF: Somewhere I saw a photo of James Cameron with a blue marble.

JN: Yes, James, and Harrison Ford, and so many other famous and not famous people. When you start talking about fisherman saving sea turtles not because we paid them to, but because they felt pride and dignity, well, that sounds really soft to scientists. But to me, it’s the science of empathy. How can we create a world with more empathy?

PPF: What has been the lowest point in your career?

JN: The past few years have been really tough, since I walked away from a job with a salary at the Ocean Conservancy. I came home and said to my wife, Dana, “I quit my job.” She asked me what the plan was. I didn’t know. I just knew I needed to be somewhere where I could be freer to do the work I wanted to do. But I had bills to pay. So I looked through the want ads in the paper. They were hiring a street cleaner at night in Santa Cruz, near where we live. That was my back-up plan. I’d be a street cleaner at night, listen to books on my iPod. And then I could do my ocean stuff during the day and find an hour here and there to sleep. The salary was almost as good as what I’d had before, the benefits were better, and I remember thinking I’ll go there if that’s what I need to do. But privately, that was a low moment. I thought, am I a failure? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I make this work, or support a family on what my dream is?

PPF: So did you get the job as a street cleaner?

JN: No. I thought, “ How do I get the most done, on things that I think are the most important? Do I need to work for a big organization?” Well I tried that and learned I don’t get much done at all. I need to collaborate well, which I do, and I need intellectual freedom. I don’t deal well with bureaucracy. So here is my latest experiment: If I found a hundred people in the world who like what I do and think it’s worthwhile, and those hundred people were willing to put a monthly donation into my fund, so I could live on a modest salary and have something somewhat predicatable, I can get a lot done. I can go wild. Advise NGOs around the world, advise students, start projects, study and track turtles, do the things I think I’m good at. I don’t need to represent an organization. I want to represent a movement. Rather than trying to find the one perfect fit, forget that, I’m going to create a tenure-like existence with sustainable financial base for my family. So I set up something called 100 blue angels, and right now I have 70. I do need 100 to make it work. There are 70 people who donate, and that generates right now around 3500 a month of income. But for my family, we need just a little more to survive. Some people say, you need one million blue angels, and I say, no we don’t need a million, we need 100. We don’t need a bigger house. We want to keep doing what we’re doing, living simply. People seem so shocked by that. Not all goals have to be on grand scales. I love figuring out ways to do things with no money. Like the blue marbels project. It’s the biggest campaign I’ve ever been involved in, and it has a budget of zero.

PPF: What has been the highest point so far in your career?

JN: So many things. I think putting a satellite transmitter on a sea turtle with my daughter Julia, in El Salvador, on a beach with a bunch of Salvadorians. She was five and she’s still so proud of that. That, and swimming with sea turtles in Indonesia with my other daughter, Grayce.

PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?

JN: I think intellectual freedom.  The ability to creatively meander and try things is invaluable. The thing I trust the most, as far as employment, is my own persistence, creativity and tenacity.

PPF: When have you been most brave in your life?

JN: I never feel really brave. When my wife and I decided we were going to walk from Oregon to Mexico in 2003, people would say, “It’s going to be so hard.” I said, “No, it’s just walking.” But I will admit that my wife and I committing to one another that we were going to walk the 1800 kilometers with our baby girl was difficult. It was a big, big commitment for us to do it together. But as far as bravery is concerned, I really reserve that description for friends of mine in the field who are risking their lives to fight the status quo.

PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

JN: My father basically had a philosophy that you’re born, you start the process of giving everything you have, over the course of your existence. That’s life—you just keep giving all the time. It’s the richest way to live, to give it all away.

PPF: Okay, so here are a few questions everyone has to answer. Just for fun.

JN: Uh-oh.

PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

JN: We don’t have a bedside table. We have a trunk. But on the trunk, let’s see. A reading lamp, a stack of books, a glass of water.

PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day?”

JN: One we’re talking about now is just taking a year on the road, or should I say on the water? Maybe pick a dozen different ocean places and do an ocean year with the kids out of school. If anyone wants to sponsor that we’re all about it.

PPF: First concert you ever went to?

JN: Little River Band.

PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

JN: U2 in Madrid. In the soccer stadium. Bono sang to me the whole time because I was this much taller than anyone, and there I was, the tallest one, right by the stage. I was an exchange student in Madrid at the time.

PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

JN: Born to Run. Springsteen.

PPF: Best meal you ever had?

JN: On our honeymoon we had dinner at a really fancy place in Provence. It was truly a food experience. It was a meal that kept going and going. But the first course was a little bowl of soup served in this tiny little pitcher. But you couldn’t get the spoon into and out of the tiny little dish without turning the spoon sideways and losing all the soup. I finally asked the waiter, how do we eat this? Is it okay to drink it? He said, “Do whatever you like, but do it quietly.” I’ve never forgotten that. Just do your thing, and keep your head down. The ability to not have to ask permission is really precious.

PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

JN: If I have a wad of paper and there’s a garbage can, I can sink the shot. So yeah, I’d say bank shots, like my socks into the hamper from across the room. Oh, and I’m a poet. I write poems and publish them.

PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

JN: My three childhood heroes that I come back to are Jacques Cousteau, Evel Knievel, and Dr. J, the basketball player. The only one who’s still alive is Dr. J. I’ve worked with Jaques’ grandkids and Evel’s grandkids. But I haven’t met with Dr. J. I’d like to do that, or work with his grand-kids. He basically invented the slam dunk.

*Photo of J. Nichols by Jeff Lipsky


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