Sign Up for Our Newsletter! »

August 14, 2014


This interview was originally published in
(Photo: Abigail Alling/Biosphere Foundation)
Back in 1999 Serge Dedina and Wallace "J." Nichols teamed up to found WILDCOAST. Serge and J. had met through their overlapping research and work with fishermen in Baja on preserving wildlife (Serge studied gray whales, J. studied sea turtles). Together they carried out the groundbreaking and innovative efforts to highlight the need to preserve sea turtles and helped defeat the "Escalera Nautica" mega marina plan. 
Nichols has now published a new book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do that explores the cognitive and emotional benefits of being in and around the ocean and water. 

You grew up in New Jersey and Illinois and wrote about your favorite weekend activity being fishing at night from a canoe with a box of Pop Tarts and Tchaikovsky. How did you first experience the water, and what was it about the water that first appealed to you?

My earliest memories of water are from dreams and photographs. A reminder that water’s role in our lives goes beyond our physical, direct contact. In that early dream the water was in a giant teacup and I dove to the bottom to find an iron bear. I loved that dream so much that I’d try to dream it every night. I still have that dream. The feeling of being completely submerged, the quiet privacy of water, searching for and finding something special in it is indeed appealing. Pop Tarts and Tchaikovsky are optional.

Having grown up near the sea in New Jersey, how did it feel to find yourself in landlocked Arizona? Did the experience help generate your curiosity about the relationship between human health and the ocean (or water in general)? How did you first begin to recognize the effects of water on human health and well-being?

As a graduate student studying the ocean at the University of Arizona I did field lots of questions, comments, and jokes but the salt water was just a few hours away and visits to desert lakes, rivers, arroyos, and oases were frequent. I love Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe National Monument. Being in the desert studying water certainly sharpened my awareness of its cognitive, emotional, and social benefits. The faces and field journals of the high school and college kids we took to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico each semester–sometimes their first contact with salt water–tell the story best.

What was it that first intrigued you about sea turtles (if anything other than your course of study)?

As kids we used to catch snapping turtles in the Chesapeake Bay. We’d paint numbers on their shells and throw them back. Sometimes we’d catch them again and do some simple algebra to estimate population size. I’d think about the turtles and math all night and dream about it long after summer was gone. They can be such still and strong yet ancient and wide ranging animals. Many years later I learned that I could essentially make this turtle-counting activity my vocation. So, I signed up. Twenty-five years later I still like counting turtles.

DSC0027 640x428 Life in Salt: An Interview with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Biologist and Author of <i/>Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do</i>

(Photo: Neil Ever Osborne)

Who or what, for you, illuminated the necessity to write this book?

I’ve been reading neuroscience books since college and noticed that the subjects covered were quite wide ranging, but rarely had anything to do with nature, the outdoors, or water. Most ocean and aquatic conservation publications avoided the topic of the human brain and our emotional connections to water. This seemed like a gap worth filling, so I wrote a proposal and tried to give the project away to one of my students. A few years passed and there were no takers. So I decided to take a shot at it myself. I learned a lot about many fields and academic disciplines that rarely intersect with my own. Maybe this book and the questions I’ve posed in it will help open a new door for future students and better-prepared researchers to go deeper?

What parts of your life and/or work with the sea do you enjoy most?

I’ve always enjoyed asking people about their favorite water, the water they fell in love with, their home waters. I love listening to their stories and feeling the wave of emotion those memories push up. The best is when that happens near, in, on or under their water. Talking, walking, swimming, then eating with people at their special places is the best part of this work.

You reference a few times the Eeyore/Pollyanna analogy, which is especially pertinent when it comes to ocean news today. Most ocean news, at least that which appears in my news feeds, tends to hone in on the Eeyore, doom-and-gloom side of things. Where do you tend to find yourself within this analogy?

I’ve done my share of collecting and publishing bad news. I’ve been literally up to my ears in dead sea turtles and pulled outrageous amounts of plastic out of their stomachs. If you are in this field it’s unavoidable. But if you read the way the research is communicated you may think the ocean is already toast, that all big animals are gone, that it’s literally full of plastic. I assure you that’s not true and that there’s quite a bit left to fight for. Oceans and waterways are in serious trouble, that’s certain. But we are far from “game over” and people around the world still daily enjoy the vast cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of healthy water. Even if we don’t hear about it on the news.

What are the salty moments that you enjoy most today?

My best ocean moments now are with our daughters. In the waves or the tide pools the ocean makes any day better. We have a creek in our backyard that provides endless fascination before it dumps into the Pacific. My oldest daughter went through a stage when snorkeling at night in deep cold tide pools (without a wetsuit) was her obsession. I’m glad that didn’t last long.

What’s next on the horizon?

We are raising a couple of pre-teen daughters and thinking about which water we might spend their high school years near. And very much enjoying the learning process of connecting Blue Mind to a range of sectors including health care, education, art and architecture, real estate and city planning, travel, and sports. Of course, I’ve already compiled enough new research and ideas for the sequel!  

nicholsboooneill 640x640 Life in Salt: An Interview with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Biologist and Author of <i/>Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do</i>

Dr. Nichols with daughter, Boo, and surf icon and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill