The Ocean is Cold, Smelly and Dark: A Marine Biologist’s Introspective Into Our Connection With Nature

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By James Mortimor

We only look after what we care about; but what makes us care about the ocean? Until recently, I never considered the origin of my caring. I just cared! Most people in my social sphere also cared. I had been in a like-minded bubble without realizing it. A result of having a pre-school child is mixing with a variety of other parents; some of whom have quite different values. Recently, taking my daughter on a play date, another parent referred to the ocean where we live (Pacific Canada and location of IMCC2) as “cold, smelly and dark”. I was met by a look of indifference when I explained that my wife and I are marine biologists and our love of the ocean. I failed at the time to convert them. Upon reflection, I pondered the core connection to the ocean. What led to our different perception of the ocean? Was it geography – because the other parent was from the Prairies? That would be a simple answer, but I know dedicated marine biologists based in Winnipeg (they do Arctic work if you were wondering). Wherever you live there is at least some connection to the ocean – for instance oxygen in the air we breathe, medicines, food and transportation of goods [1]. So what made me see the ocean so differently to this other parent? The ocean, to me, is a source of great fascination and enjoyment. It dawned on me that I cared because I was exposed to nature and the outdoors at a young age leading to a strong personal affinity for the ocean. I beachcombed, rock pooled, fished, snorkelled, surfed and generally just enjoyed mucking about in and around the sea as far back as I can remember. It all started with rock pooling! I thank my parents for countless holidays in my early years sitting on often rainy and windy British beaches while I attempted to catch various intertidal fauna (blennies and gobies were a personal triumph). A beach holiday was not complete without a bucket and a net. I became interested in knowing more about the incredible array of shore creatures. In reality, I was a marine biologist before I even had a clue that such a discipline existed. I was lucky to be exposed to nature in a variety of ways as a child – whether making a frog pond, keeping fish, visiting museums, aquaria and parks, vacations with family and friends, or school trips. Similarly, when I talk to friends, within and outside of environment-related careers, their love of nature originates from childhood experience. Just writing about it brings a nostalgic smile to my face and something I can wax lyrical about over a whisky or a beer.

Courtesy of James Mortimor

Courtesy of James Mortimor

More importantly, this early experience has major repercussions for how we value the natural world. It makes me realise that an important part of my children’s upbringing is to foster their engagement with nature. Luckily, with the aid of a leaky mask, my 3 year old daughter already likes looking underwater to see what’s down there.   However, children are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature [2]. The implications of “nature deficit disorder” are very concerning for health and education [3] and, in light of our use and abuse of the world’s resources, how we value nature as a society. This is especially worrying when environmental education is being assaulted [4, 5] or subject to potential corporate interference [6, 7, 8]. To borrow from Dr. Russ Markel “Unfortunately, at a time when the natural world needs stewardship and advocacy the most – overfishing, climate change, ocean acidification, and global loss of biodiversity, are but a few examples of current challenges – humans are becoming increasingly disconnected from it. Nowhere is this trend more striking than with the remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature. In the US, in just six years (1997- 2003) the number of children with outdoor hobbies fell by half (Louv 2005). In the UK, in just one generation, the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places has fallen from more than 50% to less than 10%, and 11- to 15-year-olds in that nation now spend half their waking hours in front of a computer screen (Louv 2005). Most concerning is that as children’s engagement with nature declines, so too does the likelihood that the next generation will engage in the social and political advocacy needed to protect it” [9]. What does this mean for developing future generations of environmental stewards? It is crucial for our relationship with the planet to harness children’s intrigue [10] to connect them with nature [11, 12, 13]. To adapt a Jesuit maxim “give me a child and I’ll give you an environmentally conscious adult” [14]. I urge all attendees of IMCC and marine scientists in general (including myself) to: (1) step outside of your bubble from time-to-time; and (2) think and act to engage younger people to build a curiosity and appreciation of the marine realm.

James Mortimor is a marine biologist currently working in Canada. Find him on Twitter @Vit_Sea!

 

References

[1] Five Reasons We are All Connected to Oceans  http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/habitats/oceanscoasts/explore/five-reasons-we-are-all-connected-to-oceans.xml

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The Ecology of Haggis: Food or Friend?

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By Brinkley Dinsmore

The traditional Scottish dish, haggis, has enjoyed worldwide popularity due to its savory flavor and overall Scottish-ness. Before you indulge, you may find yourself wondering…what is this haggis? Some wild creature of the glens?

The elusive wild haggis, Haggis scoticus, is the cryptozoological namesake of the traditional dish. It is a mysterious animal revered by the Scottish, doubted by the English, and hunted by many an eager American tourist.

A representation of the wild haggis next to its culinary counterpart.

A representation of the wild haggis next to its culinary counterpart.

Wild haggii are said to inhabit the Scottish highlands, a landscape to which they are perfectly adapted: the legs on one side of the body are significantly longer than the legs of the otherside.

Their ability to maintain balance on the Scottish hills is unparalleled—in one direction. There are actually two subspecies of haggii, known as leftus and ius, named for their dominant leg side. The leftus populations are reported to run clockwise around the hilltops, if seen from above, and the ius runs counterclockwise. Their disparate leg lengths give them a unique advantage in their ability to move, but rather limits their ability to change direction—if a leftus were to attempt a counterclockwise jaunt around the hill, it would promptly roll right down the hill, likely into a bog.  This crucial fact of life for the haggis makes inter-subspecies mating nearly impossible and has contributed to their speciation.

There have been recent reports that wild haggii have been seen riding the Loch Ness monster, which is fully ridiculous—neither the ius or leftus  could keep its balance on such a beast. British disinters have posited that the apparent difference in haggis leg length is due to a predator-avoidance strategy that involves standing in a bog. This is also ridiculous as it completely ignores the deeply ingrained aversion to bogs that haggii have developed in the name of self-preservation. Belief in the wild haggis remains strong, however—33% of American tourists are certain that this creature can be found in Scotland.

The true skill of Haggis scoticus  is their ability to avoid humans. Unable to catch wild haggis regularly enough to keep up with demand, humans created a substitute haggis for regular consumption. A mix of offal  minced with spices and salt, and traditionally simmered in a casing of sheep stomach, haggis is served with “neeps” and “tatties” (turnips and potatoes). Never fear! For those of you that are opposed to eating all animals, mythical or observed, they do have a vegetarian version.

If you haven’t tried haggis yet, you’ll have ample opportunity to indulge guilt free while you’re in Scotland for the 3rd International Marine Conservation Congress.  Feel free to use your new knowledge about the wild haggis to educate any Americans you encounter—they may have the chance to tromp out on the glens and observe them in their natural habitat!

 

Brinkley Dinsmore is graduating from George Mason University in May of 2014. She is the Communications intern for IMCC3.