Life in Salt: A Chat with Ocean Ambassador and Rolex Scholar Megan Cook

by Owen James Burke

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(Media Courtesy of Megan Cook)

Megan Cook is a compassionate young marine ecologist, Rolex Scholar, and a proponent of several ocean conservation organizations including Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue. She’s traveled the world over with the National Geographic team as a photographer’s assistant, and has no reservations about expressing that she’s loved every minute of it. She’s a strong force in the oceanic world, and we’re glad to have her around. We caught up with her after a recent visit to South Africa with the I Am Water Trust.

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Scut: So can we start with a little background story — what first intrigued you about the ocean?

MC: Absolutely, we can start back there. Well, I grew up in Boise, Idaho, which is a desert, basically. It’s the high elevation desert far away from the coastline. I think almost every six-year-old somewhere along the way wants to be a marine biologist, and for me, that was fantastic timing, cause in the first grade, my teacher designed our entire year and our curriculum around the ocean, even though we were in this landlocked state. So we were doing math with shells, and learning about currents, and drawing maps with crayons, and reading ocean stories. She was just a real passionate ocean-lover, and had studied Marine Biology.

So I was pretty hooked at that point, and my parents are absolutely wonderful, and have always just encouraged anything that either my brother or I were into, so we just continued feeding that, reading more and learning more. It just stayed on my radar as sort of like the number 2 and number 3 options would change sometimes, like “Oh, I’m gonna be a Marine Biologist or a fighter pilot, or a Marine Biologist or the president!”

Scut: Wonderful. When did you first see the ocean, then?

MC: Ooh, great question, there are some photos of it. I think I was probably about 4 or 5? Actually, well, it would’ve been before that, ’cause I was born in Louisiana, and so we went and visited the Gulf shores when we were little-little, I don’t really remember that. My first vivid memory of the ocean was going to the Oregon coast, and it was cold and wet, and we were playing the game that every kid plays, where you chase the waves down as they recede, and then as they come back in you turn around and run from them, and I got completely leg-swiped by this wave, and just tumbled down the beach…and was sure I was gonna be, ya know, sucked away to my doom. That’s my first actual real vivid memory of the ocean, so we’ve improved our relationship since that time.

Scut: (Chuckles) Following that – what’s the most horrific thing that’s ever happened to you at sea?

MC: Hohoho, man, well, aside from that… the most horrific, wow, hmmm… — I guess I don’t keep those logged away very close to the surface. I’ve been really fortunate, actually. With all the diving that I’ve done around the world, I’ve dived with some really exceptionally safe divers. I’m actually very impressed continuously, that I haven’t been involved in more serious accidents and injuries and that sort of thing.

Scut: Wow, good for you, hehe. How about the most wonderful thing, then?

MC: Oh, man, I think the most wonderful thing about being in the ocean is just the incredible amount of joy that’s there. Getting to experience just that wonderful moment of being in touch with something that is so powerful, and so larger than anything else that you bring in your whole life to it. And so, those wonderful moments for me have been big iconic animal moments, where you get to be swimming with sharks or turtles or manta rays or anything like that; or it can be those moments of spectacular vistas, or it can be just bobbing in blue water. I think those greatest moments  when I feel most connected are when I have to wrap my head around the scale of everything that’s happening in the ocean.

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Scut: Yeah, there’s something very existential about that. Do you have a specific ocean story you’d like to share? Anything inspiring or noteworthy?

MC: Sure, well one of the projects I’m working on right now is this deep sea exploration work with Dr. Robert Ballard, and there are so many great stories about that. What is particularly amazing: last summer, I was out at sea with that team, and they’re diving deep ROV’s – so they’re sending robots to the sea floor, in places that we haven’t really seen before, and then they’re also streaming it live, to the rest of the world. So, it’s this great connection of being an ocean explorer, and watching on these cameras, and being a part of truly groundbreaking work, and then at the same time it goes absolutely live to anyone with an internet connection… So my role was sitting right there in the middle. I was there on the ship with the science party…we had this grad student on board, who made this projection that “I think there’s going to be this reef on the seafloor here.”

No one had ever gone, or looked, or ever seen it. And we drove the ROV’s down there, and the lights shined kinda up this hillside. All of a sudden, there’s just this reef forest — an absolute tangle of deep sea coral, and there are fish swirling around, and there’s all this marine life, incredible marine creatures, and we realized that no one had ever seen that before. Of all of the things that happen up above, no one had seen that in that very moment. And to sit there with the connection — all of a sudden the text responses from the audience just started to blow up. Kids in their classes, and people watching at home, and in their offices, and getting to share that moment with new ocean audiences, new ocean-lovers around the world, that one is always a really special one for me.

Scut: Mmm, that’s incredible. How deep was that reef?

MC: Oh, I don’t remember exactly, but probably in the 850-1000-meter range.

Scut: Wow.

MC: And it was just so great, you know, the grad student who projected it was right there with me in the control van, and all his scientific work with models and numbers — I think it’s really exciting as a scientist-turned-communicator which is what I would say my ‘hat’ is, to see all that science and process, and understand what goes into it, and then to see the excitement, joy, awe and wonder when there actually was something there, and you knew that was gonna be his career’s work — that deep sea ecologist, and he’ll be learning just about that reef…

Scut: That’s remarkable. I also wanna ask you about that Nuytco Industries Exosuit you tried on: what was it like slipping into that thing?

MC: Sure. So, I had the chance to go up there and see that, as part of my Rolex Scholarship year, from Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. I was up in British Columbia, and Nuytco Research has been a part of the scholarship for years, and they were just so gracious in opening the doors for me to come up and learn more about their deep workers — their submersibles, and then also the Exosuit.

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So they were still working on it at that point, that was at the end of 2012. I guess it had been announced at the sea-conference a few months before, but it wasn’t fully done yet. The Exosuit was just sort of lurking in the background, you know, hanging right there, a little like a fly on the wall. I was fascinated in submarines, but you couldn’t ignore this giant suit on the wall right behind, and so, almost as an afterthought, I said “Guys, can I please get inside the suit?” And they were so gracious and wonderful, and they opened it up for me and it’s as close as I think I could be to being a comic book hero.

You’re slipping into a full suit of armor, and you feel the precision of all the controls, and everything. You control the thrusters with your feet inside the feet panels, so you’re actually sitting kind of on a bicycle seat, but standing up with pressure delivered on your feet, and so, by pushing forward or backwards or side-to-side you’re controlling different aspects of thrusters from the back. And then, even hanging there from the crane, you’re not being submerged in water, so to put your arms into the shoulder sockets you realize every bit of joint movement that needs to happen so you have normal human mobility.

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Scut: Great. So, I guess this probably pertains to your year as a Rolex Scholar: where has been your favorite port, anchorage, or even blip on the map throughout your seaward travels?

MC: Ooh, it’s hard to pick favorites.

Scut: Feel free to list a few.

MC: The first one that jumped in my head — I gotta go with Antarctica. I had the chance to be down on the Antarctic peninsula with Lindblad Expeditions, which is the National Geographic’s eco-tour arm. I was there with David Doubilet as a photography assistant, which was amazing, unbelievable. David and his wife Jennifer are big supporters of Rolex and good friends and I was able to go down there and establish the first relationship with Lindblad and the Rolex Scholars. Everything is bigger that life in Antarctica; you take a photo, and then look immediately at the photo, and there’s no way that it captures everything that’s there.

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I love warm water, I do. I trained and learned to scuba dive in cold water, and did almost all of my scuba development in cold-temperate water in the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve moved to Hawaii. I really like being warm. But there’s nothing — nothing — like Antarctica. The colors and the icebergs are just so stunning and so dramatic, and every single piece of life in Antarctica depends on the ocean, and that’s fascinating to me. You know, there are no land mammals, there’s nothing that lives separate from that ocean interface. Every piece relies on healthy and balanced oceans, and I would go back in any and every opportunity someone gave me with no hesitation.

Scut: I’d love to go.

MC: Oh, it’s so, so special. It’s really, really a wonderful place.

The most amazing coral reef I’ve ever been to was in the Gambier Islands, which is in French Polynesia, in the extreme southeast corner island group of French Polynesia, and we had a chance to go there with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Last year I got to go there, actually again, as a photography assistant on that trip. They’re going around the world and surveying coral reefs to establish a baseline, to understand what’s happening and changing in these coral reef environments, and this was the first time a comprehensive science team had gone and done a survey in this island group and established that baseline. You know, ocean conservation can be kind of a downer sometimes, because you hear about what you’ve lost, and what it used to be.

Scut: Yeah, but there’s still so much!

MC: Yes…when I got to the Gambier Islands, there were reefs there with almost 100% coral cover, I’m gonna say 98+% live coral cover, and I didn’t know places on the Earth existed like that anymore. I though they were gone, the examples you hear about of what we’ve lost and how you sure should get to work protecting what we have left, and it was just so exciting and enthralling, to just look at a place and know that it existed…it was sort of this imaginary creature in my mind. Really healthy coral, really vibrant marine environment, and very, very far away from everything else. So that’s one of those gems, those jewels that I keep in the back of my head, knowing it’s there, knowing what the stakes are — that there are really beautiful, pristine places that are worth protecting, and worth working for.

Scut: Sure. What is it that gratifies you most about what you do?

MC: I think it’s the chance to share inspiration, to share enthusiasm. I think whatever you’re looking for, you can find in the ocean. Whether you’re looking for tranquility, adventure, health, intrigue, mystery, exploration…it is such a vibrant piece of the world. That’s what’s very exciting for me about working with ‘I Am Water,’ the new group I’m working with that does ocean conservation through human experience. It’s taking underprivileged kids who’ve never been in the ocean into the ocean to understand why it’s important and why it’s cool. It’s what I love about working on submarines, although sometimes it feels silly taking tourists underwater in a tourist submarine, but, when you distill it down, I get to get people excited about the ocean every single day, and that’s really cool.

Scut: That’s a beautiful thing.

MC: And the other half of it is knowing that it matters, knowing that it’s essential to a healthy human planet. So every person that I can hand a little fun fact to — a little gem of knowledge, a little seed to help them think about how they can help, and how they can be a better human on the planet — is really impactful. That also helps drive me ahead, ya know? It’s not just cool cause it’s cool, it’s cool cause it’s important.

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Scut: Where, or even what do you think you would be without the ocean?

MC: Hmmm, I think I would be uninspired without the ocean. I don’t actually know! Maybe I’d be a fighter pilot, that was the idea I had when I was little. Every other career path along the way is somehow tied in.

Scut: What’s next for you?

MC: Excellent question. So, I have two projects or organizations I’m working a lot with right now. The primary one is the I Am Water Ocean Conservation Trust, that was what I was just in South Africa working with. I Am Water has been selected as one of the flagship philanthropies for UBS’ global philanthropy forum, and the theme for the year is ‘Scaling Up.’ I Am Water has been very successful on a local scale. It’s a small-scale non-profit in South Africa doing really great work, and they have the potential to make wonderful iconic change, so we brought together the team to really build up our capacity and start looking at these local goals.

So in the months ahead, we’ll be working on projects in Bermuda and in South Africa — I’ll spend June in Bermuda working and taking kids — Bermudian local kids — and introducing them to the reef that’s right in their backyard. A lot of those kids don’t swim, let alone snorkel or free dive, so we’ll be teaching ocean seminars for them, and getting them into the water, which will be fantastic. So I’ll spend June there.

In July I’ll be working with I Am Water. They’re working on an upcoming coffee table book, that will be coming out called “The Last Wilderness,” absolutely stunning art portraits of the I Am Water founder, Hanli Prinsloo, diving with iconic ocean animals, and so we’ll be shooting on assignment and working on those projects. We’ll be in Hawaii, and in Mexico and Ecuador.

Then towards the end of the summer, I’ll be back out at sea with Dr. Robert Ballard as one of his science communication fellows for the season, and that’s representing Mission Blue, Dr. Sylvia Earle’s organization.

Scut: Oh, great!

MC: So I am writing a “Young Explorer’s” series for them, so I’ll be out at sea with the Ocean Exploration Trust, and we’ll be in Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands. Right in between there is mountain chain of unexplored sea mounds — nobody’s ever gone and looked at these sea mounds, and this year we had time to take the robots and the diving team there for one dive to do one little transect. We found really unusual and unbelievable marine life, so we’re going back this year. We’re gonna be streaming live from the seafloor, Deep Sea T.V., so I’ll be out there for about a month doing science communication work.

Scut: Great, that’s a beautiful part of the world, I used to live in the Virgin Islands… So, where are those sea mounds? Are they in a part of the Puerto Rico Trench?

MC: Actually, yeah, they’re right in between there. They don’t have very fancy names, they’re called “Shark Mount” and “Dog Mount.” …It’s definitely an area that hasn’t been documented, but we also get to look at some cool rocks along the fault line.

Scut: Great. So, do you have any advice for marine biologists-to-be?

MC: Absolutely, lots of great things they could do. The first one, I think is to read. I think students who read, and stay curious about the world, find the best way to start asking questions, think about what great questions they want to solve, and what the world knows, and what the world doesn’t know. There are lots of great things that we don’t know, and we need new scientists help to figure out.

I think the other thing to keep in mind, for people who want to be involved with the ocean, is not to be confined to one pathway, like “If I want to have an ocean career, I need to be a biologist.” …One of the great things that helps me in my career is that I don’t have a Marine Biology degree — I studied Chemistry, and I studied Biology. I took those broad strokes, and I think that’s great, and it’s served me really well. I can write, I can film, and I can produce T.V. I can also count fish and do science. So, diversify! Be as diverse as the ocean.

Scut: Yes, as goes with anything. I couldn’t agree more.

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Scut: Do you have a favorite animal to dive with?

MC: Ooh, well, I really like Cape Fur Seals. I just got back from South Africa, and it was the second time I dove with them. They are so playful and active, and you’d be swimming along and look down, and there’s baby seal mouth closing down on your elbow! They’re just so playful and curious and kind of naughty. They’d be biting your fins, and then you look up and they’re biting at your hood, and kind of at your face, and it’s a little overwhelming for a second, but they’re just so full of life, it’s a blast. We were free diving with them, and my breath holds were absolutely useless, cause I couldn’t catch my breath cause I was just laughing too hard at their antics.

Scut: Seals are fun to swim with.

MC: When I learned to dive rebreathers I dove with AP Diving Systems, that was just another world in and of itself, to be able to go underwater, silently, without bubbles. Diving with the seals with the rebreathers is really cool because they have NO fear when you have no bubbles. A couple times, shooting with a big video camera, I’ve had to decide what is my space, and what is something else’s space, which is again, a humbling and very cool part of the ocean — to not be on the top of the totem pole. I love that feeling of getting to be a part of nature, and literally on a level field with nature.

Scut: Do you have a favorite book at the ocean? Or one that you like at the moment that you’d like to share?

MC: I really like The World is Blue, by Sylvia Earle. I think it’s a great book, it has a strong conservation message, and Sylvia is certainly one of my icons.

Scut: Do you have a piece of gear, a tool, or piece of technology that you rely on at sea and would like to recommend?

MC: There are many! Really wonderful support from a lot of companies who have helped me go in the ocean in a lot of cool ways. I love Go-Pro cameras — I think they are revolutionizing action sports, but also the way people get to do science, and people get to see things that they didn’t get to see before. I love how easy it is to hop in the water with a tiny little camera and bring back some cool footage.

My Suunto D6i is the other piece of equipment ​​I take with me into the water every time. It’s incredibly versatile taking me from the tropics to the pole, and from cavediving to freediving.

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I love my new long blades for freediving — I just got a pair of carbon fiber fins that I think are the coolest thing since sliced bread, and they are Spierre brand which is wonderful.

I also love Aqualung diving gear. The Details line was designed by women and for women which is surprisingly rare in the industry. Without resorting to gypsy magic they have finally created a wetsuit that’s long and lean enough for me while also accommodating room for muscles.  The best part is it doesn’t have to be pink!

Also, a cell phone app — Seafood Watch App, I think needs to be spread around the world. It’s from Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Seafood Watch, and it searches by your location in the States. It also gives you sustainable sushi that you can order. Then there’s also a really cool feature called ‘Project Fishmap,’ where you can search based on your location and find restaurants near you that are serving sustainable seafood. My policy on seafood is, if you’re gonna eat a fish, you should at least know what its name is, where it used to live, and how its family is doing. If you can answer those questions, then I think you can make an educated choice about it. They used to make fold out pocket guides, and I think it takes those to a more accessible level.

Scut: Yep, that’s great. It’s about time, too.

MC: Yeah, I think it’s so important. So much of ocean conservation is the same people getting together and talking to each other about the same things, and it’s not like I have all the answers, but it’s absolutely essential that we do talk.

I was speaking in front of the members of the Rolex Scholarship Society, and someone asked me, “What would be the best case scenario?” and I said, “The best case scenario would be that we could take down the Kardashians, and get all the people who are paying attention to the Kardashians to pay attention to the ocean instead.” And they all laughed, and I laughed, and I was like, “Well, I’m only kind of kidding…”

So we’ll work on that.

Scut: Hehe, please, let’s.

MC: You and Brian and I, we’ll get to work here.

Scut: I’m right with you. Well, I’ll let you run. Thank you so much, Megan, it’s been wonderful talking with you.

MC: Absolutely, my pleasure. We’ll talk again.

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Above: ‘Let the Wonder Never Cease,’ the film conclusion to Megan’s year as a Rolex Scholar

Megan Cook was awarded a Rolex Scholarship by the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society in 2012 after graduating from Oregon State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. Since being selected for a Rolex Scholarship, she’s traveled the world over, and begun work with several other organizations including Dr. Sylvia Earle‘s Mission Blue and lately she’s been working with the I AM WATER Ocean Conservation Trust (follow on Twitter @IAMWATERTrust), but calls Hawaii home base. She’s an extraordinarily outgoing scientist with a lot on her plate, but a lot more, no doubt, in her future.

Follow Megan Cook:

Facebook: Megan Cook-Ocean Ambassador

Twitter: @MeganCook33

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