Monday, 5 March 2012

Welcome to my crow's nest

Sharing his thoughts: Professor Laurence Mee
Last week, Anuschka (our Head of Communications) suggested that that I should write a blog and in a moment of weakness I agreed. Last time I did this was when I was on a cruise in Western Greenland, working late at night and to tight deadlines. This time, it will be more relaxed, totally random and perhaps irreverent. I have called it 'from the crow's nest' though the tabloid edition might be 'from the murky depths'. It has no secret agenda but you may get some insights about SAMS and the Scottish Marine Institute, marine science or my unstructured mind.

Talking of the crow's nest reminds me of time spent on a research ship in the tropical Pacific. One of my colleagues was a whale observer, Anelio, a highly experienced Chilean scientist who had been a senior political figure, narrowly escaped from the repression of Pinochet and had returned to his passion of marine mammals. Every day for a month, rain or shine, he disappeared up to the crow's nest with his beer bottle thick spectacles, notebook and binoculars. In the evening he waxed lyrical about 'seeing the sperm whale with the bent fluke … again' or large numbers of other species. The problem was that, apart from the odd shark or dolphin, we lower mortals only saw endless blues waves, instruments and sample bottles. So we began to think that he was making it all up.

It was near the end of the cruise that something happened to change our mind. We had been searching for a radio buoy that we launched to track currents and it was getting dark. The Chief Scientist's sense of humour had expired. Our whale observer came up with his floppy hat, thick glasses and cheery smile. "Perhaps I can help" he said – and before the Chief Scientist could swear at him, he had disappeared up the mast, walky talky in hand. Five minutes later, he told the captain to steer 232 degrees for two miles and – bingo – there was the buoy. Reverent (and somewhat guilty) smiles from us all, a beer from the dwindling stock…

How come we never saw the whales? Anelio told us that you had to learn to see beyond the big picture and scan it, as if pixel by pixel, in a systematic way. Then with practice, we saw the odd whale (but never as well as he did or his students).

So why am I telling you this? Well, at SAMS we look at the big picture of the sea but also try to distinguish some of the key details that help understand its function and uniqueness. Contextualising the details in the big picture is crucial to our overall understanding and we can only reach this understanding by working at a number of different scales, temporal and spatial. This requires teamwork and dialogue as well as mutual respect by members of the team. We are still learning to work at different scales and join up all the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle and we are always working hard to secure the funding that enables us to do this work.

By the way, the reason that Anelio saw so many whales was that our study area, the Costa Rica Dome, was an oasis of fertility in a rather unfertile sea. This phenomenon was a consequence of ocean dynamics bringing essential nitrates and phosphates from deeper waters and of atmospheric dynamics bringing a reliable supply of essential iron from the land. Humans play a role too, previously reducing whale numbers and now potentially influencing ocean dynamics through climate change. The big picture is indeed a very complex one. Understanding it can help us to use the marine ecosystem in a more sustainable way and avoid destabilising it in the future.


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