Life in Salt: An Interview with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Biologist and Author of Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do
by Owen James Burke
(Photo: Abigail Alling/Biosphere Foundation)
Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols is a wild water advocate, a sea turtle conservationist and a Research Associate at the California Academy of Science, an author and a dad. His 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 explores the effects being in and around water has on people through a myriad of subjects from himself and his family to famous athletes and victims of PTSD. He also really, really loves the 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.
(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 are you doing to develop the “Blue Minds” of your children?
Throughout their lives they’ve had the chance to spend time with sea turtles, travel the world, and get into its waters. But the past few months we’ve been dragging them along on a book tour, along the Thames, the River Arun, across the English Channel, up the Seine, up the coast to Seattle and down the coast to LA. They are learning about and touching new waters and hearing the water stories people share as books are signed. It’s quite amazing and a true cross section of humanity. They sit by my side and we ask folks who have picked up a copy of the book What’s your water? or Where’d you fall in love with water? And then we listen to hundreds of stories–they are like mini movies. Later I ask the kids which ones they remember, which ones they liked, what stood out. It’s like swimming in a thousand oceans in our imaginations. I think they like it. Or maybe it’s pure torture to be on a book tour with dad.
Dr. Nichols with daughter, Boo, and surf icon and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill
What do you do in your free time?
If we have a chunk of time and we aren’t at the water or working we like to hike in the mountains around our house or mess around in the garden or orchard. Running into wild animals in the hills or eating food we grow are some of our favorite things to do on dry land. We have a fabulously healthy population of mountain lions that consider our home a “hot spot.” The sound of a big cat screaming at you at close range is quite memorable.
What are your favorite books of the sea?
Lately I’ve been reading Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside, Tim Beatley’s Blue Urbanism and James Nestor’s Deep. My favorite recent ocean fiction is Me, Who Dove Into The Heart Of The World by Sabina Berman and The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman. Steinbeck’s Log From the Sea of Cortez and Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga are two beat up classics on the shelf I return to often.
Do you have any gear you’d suggest (anything ocean-related)? Furthermore, are you still wearing your “Wave” cologne? How can we get our hands on some of that?
I carry a small vial of the “Wave” scent. It reminds me of the way things smell when you wake up in the morning on a beach where the fire has gone out, things are a bit damp and the salty vegetation is beginning to photosynthesize. Certainly not your typical scent for cologne! You can usually find it at www.slowcoast.org.
I always bring board shorts, simple flip flops, a dry bag, and swim goggles when I travel. My media kit is an iPhone with a tripod, waterproof case, and an external mic for interviews. It’s small, simple, and good enough assortment to keep my head in the action rather than gear management. You can borrow or rent the rest.
Where do you think life would have taken you had you not developed such a love for the water?
I’m quite certain I’d be working to help heal people in some way. I had an early brush with death as a kid (spinal meningitis) and my mother was a nurse. I remember meeting the man who saved my life. I didn’t have the words to express much of anything at all to him. But I remember pledging that someday I’d help someone the way he did. If I can help some people and some waters be a bit healthier I’ll have fulfilled that childhood pledge.
Having conducted and compiled this most remarkable volume of research on the human condition and its dependence upon the sea, do you foresee yourself ever living—or being able to live—the landlocked life again?
When I’ve lived far from the ocean there’s always been water around. In Tucson, Arizona a river ran nearly under my house. In North Carolina there was a farm pond to swim in. In Indiana I floated nearly every river and dove in the quarries. I find the water wherever I am. That said, no I don’t think I’ll move far from the sea again for 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! Some film projects have bubbled up. We are also picking and eating a lot of peaches right now.
(Photo: Jeff Lipsky)
Dr. Nichols lives in Central California with his wife and two daughters along what is often called “the Slow Coast” – “50 miles of cool, peace and quiet – just a jump south of San Francisco.” At the moment, he’s got the whole family along on the Blue Mind book tour, whether they like it or not.