National Geographic Pristine Seas Project
Proyecto National Geographic Pristine Seas
He got a doctorate in ecology from Aix-Marseille University in France, comparing marine life inside and outside a small no- take marine reserve on the Costa Brava. National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala, 48, originally from Girona, Spain, then went to work for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. There, he helped design a network of marine reserves for Baja, Mexico, and did research dives in places like Cuba, Belize and Brazil to study fishing, pollution and climate change impacts in the ocean. But he increasingly began to feel that the science he was doing was all for naught. “One day I realized I was just writing the obituary of ocean life. I felt like the doctor who tells the patient how she is going to die - with excruciating detail - but without offering a cure.”
It was a 2005 expedition to Palmyra Atoll and the remote Kingman Reef some 1,000 miles south of Hawaii that would
change the course of Sala’s career path, as well as the way scientists understand how coral reefs work. They found that, unlike at reefs with lots of human impacts, where the fish outnumber the predators, the inverse is true on a pristine reef - the Kingman reef was dominated by sharks instead of fish. Ultimately, Sala also came to realize that our understanding of marine ecosystems would always be limited if we don’t study similar unexploited ocean habitats in their most natural state. He decided that he wanted to seek out the most remote parts of the ocean to explore and docu- ment them. He quit Scripps, and in 2008 convinced National Geographic to launch the Pristine Seas project, an effort to find, survey and help protect the ocean’s last wild places.
Since then, Pristine Seas has organized 23 expeditions around the world, each lasting from two to six weeks and involving a team of 10 to 40 scientists and filmmakers. Their efforts to call attention to the need to protect these areas has helped persuade countries like the United States, Great Britain, Costa Rica, Gabon, Chile, Ecuador, France, Palau and Kiribati to protect 13 of the Pristine Seas sites — some 4.4 million square kilometers of ocean.
Sala told Patagon Journal that their biggest challenge to protecting these areas has usually been a strong industrial fishing lobby. But armed with studies, they show them that protected areas not only help nature, but the fisheries around them. “We conduct economic analysis to show the damage that industrial fishing has on the ecosystem, the opportunity costs of overfishing, and the benefits of conservation.” But he says ultimately it comes down to political will. “It takes elected officials to show leadership and integrity to create large marine reserves. Chile is a great example of that, where Foreign Minister Muñoz and President Bachelet have turned Chile into a global leader in ocean conservation.”
Marine protected area are a vital part of the solution to protect oceans and marine life, but Sala says far more marine reserves are needed that prohibit fishing to “bring back marine life, bring in new tourism opportunities, and help to replenish the fish populations around them.”
Today, just 3 percent of the ocean is part of some type of marine protected area. Scientists now call for 30 percent of oceans to be protected. But Sala says “half of the ocean needs to be protected from humans, so it can continue to provide for us. And the other half should be managed well, with smart fisheries and sustainable aquaculture. Otherwise we’re going to deplete the principal of the ocean’s account, and there will be little left for us to enjoy.”
National Geographic Pristine Seas has worked around the world, from the Arctic to tropical reefs, including four wild places in Chile. In 2018, they have plans in the works to explore the southern tip of Argentina, and Malpelo - an oceanic island off the Pacific coast of Colombia. Asked what pristine site has left the biggest impression on him, Sala says they’re all beautiful but a recent expedition to Cape Horn and Diego Ramirez in Chile was particularly special. “It’s the sea of the end of the world, where a thousand boats and 15.000 lives have been lost,” he said. “Yet, it harbors one of the richest and more majestic ocean ecosystems on the planet, from magical underwater forests to thousands of albatrosses that endlessly roam the sky.”
Enric Sala retains cautious optimism that mankind will do what is needed - and in time - to protect the oceans. “It’s difficult not to be pessimistic when one sees how we’re trashing nature at a global scale. But I believe in possibilities, and work hard to help protect as much of the ocean as possible. When I dive in places that have been protected and see how fast marine life can recover, that gives me hope.”
Herein, Sala’s incredible photography from some of the Pristine Seas projects around the world.
Above / Arriba: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Pristine Seas founder Enric Sala dives in Palau›s famous Jellyfish Lake. El explorador en residencia de National Geographic y fundador de Pristine Seas, Enric Sala, bucea en el famoso Lago...
Left / Izquierda: Whitetip reef sharks and bigeye trevally are silhouetted against the sunlight at Roca Partida, the smallest and most remote of the four Revillagigedo islands. Tiburones de arrecife de punta blanca y jureles voraz dejan ver sus...