In 2007, Enric Sala, a marine ecologist, quit his job in academia, saying he was “tired of writing the obituary of ocean life.” Only 1 percent of the ocean is currently protected, marine scientists say, and the rest is being disrupted by overfishing, pollution, climate change and species extinctions. Dr. Sala said he felt the need to take action.
Dr. Sala joined National Geographic as an Explorer-in-Residence, a program to enhance the organization’s relationships with leading explorers and scientists. He started the Pristine Seas program to identify, study and protect the last wild places in the ocean. His job is to travel to the most remote areas of the seas with a team of scientists to document the treasures they find and conduct scientific analyses to show the benefits of protection.
Last month, Mr. Sala, who is 47 and was born in Girona, Spain, was in the Galápagos Islands, where he studied marine ecosystems so deep that scientists know little about them.
Seven of the sites that Mr. Sala has explored are now under protection, and two more marine protected areas are expected to be announced this year. Mr. Sala’s mission is to protect 20 places. “It’s a lot,” he said. “I never regret leaving academia. Never.”
Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Sala.
Q. What are some of the most surprising sites you’ve seen on your expeditions?
A. So, so many. I had a school of 200 hammerhead sharks swim over me in Cocos Island in Costa Rica, the same place I dived with 100 white-tip reef sharks who were on a hunting frenzy. I also dived next to 20- to 30-foot- long whale sharks and heard their songs under water. It’s a very spiritual experience. These places should help us decide the future ocean we want. If you are used to an ocean with, for example, only small fish, in the Mediterranean, that is fine. But we know it can be way better, and we are much more demanding because of it.
How do you document what you see?
We use everything from deep-sea high-definition cameras to drones to pencils. In the Galápagos we used scuba and rebreather diving; a manned submersible; 360-degree imaging; satellite tracking of sharks; and drop cameras.
Most of the places we go, we have to charter a boat to get there, and it’s very expensive. Once, Chile gave us a warship from the navy. So we have a packing list that is way longer than the normal tourist has. The first time I went somewhere, I remember waking up in the middle of the night, panicking that I was in the middle of the ocean without pencils to count the fish.
If these places are so remote that very few people go there, why do we need to protect them?
Well, we’ve been to the most remote islands in the Pacific, and these sharks had brand-new stainless-steel hooks in their mouths from deep-sea fishers. We are running out of ocean. There are very few places left untapped; the bad guys know they are there.
How do you convince leaders to issue protection for marine life?
Leaders of these countries have never been to the places we’ve been to; it’s too much of a time commitment. So we put these places on their radars and meet with them and show them the treasures they have in their backyards. One time the president of Gabon joined our expedition and operated our underwater robot. Right there, he realized what we had been talking about. He said, “This is incredible, this richness. I had no idea.” He then created the best fish-management protection system in all of Africa. It’s impossible to see these pristine places and not fall in love. These are the Yellowstones and the Serengetis of the seas.
What is going to be the hardest place to get protected?
There is one place in Antarctica, the Ross Sea, that requires the consent of 25 countries to protect it; 24 of these countries have agreed. Only Russia is left. I would like to take President Putin down there so he can see it with his own eyes and understand firsthand how stunning these places are and understand they are for all of life.