What could possibly be better than a shell?
There is beauty enough there to stir the poet, and structure enough to stimulate the mathematician, a vanished life history for the biologist, and a riddle in time for the archaeologist. From how they are made to the curious existence of what once lived in them to the strange uses which humans have found for them, there are sufficient stories in one shell to captivate the most hardened soul.
Science communication, at its very best, gives us a complete sense of the object at hand, from what it is in and of itself, to how we interact with it, and so the very best science writers tend to be people who unite a deep scientific insight with an innate understanding of humanity. Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) was one such, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was another, and today we have Helen Scales, a marine biologist whose books on shells and seahorses encompass biology, math, archaeology, myth, and history in equal measure.
Through her words, we have seen seahorses through the eyes of the ocean around them, as they court and feed and generally go about the perplexing business of Being A Seahorse, through those of the taxonomist struggling to determine just what these odd creatures really are and where they came from, and those of the hunters who are collecting them to the brink of eradication to feed the insatiable market of the Chinese medicinal industry. She has given us a simple shell as a mathematical object of timeless ratios, a work of art created by acts of tantalizing neural coordination, and a mobile home that is shield and, occasionally, sword as well.
And if all Helen Scales did was write Poseidon’s Steed (2009) and Spirals in Time (2015), that would be reason enough to learn more about her, but she is also a marine biologist who studies the interaction of species, and the impact of humanity on the complicated web of marine life. She has conducted research from Florida to Malaysia, and Cambridge to West Africa, tracking the toll that mankind’s hungers and superstitions are taking on the ocean’s biodiversity.
Scales grew up in a suburb outside of London but her family owned a small stone vacation cottage in Cornwall, a quick car ride from the coast and its trove of sea caves and tidepools, washed up shells, and bracing ocean spray. She was an explorer of a child, who swam in the freezing British waters and looked for life wherever she went. She was, in short, a marine ecologist in the making.
As an undergraduate at Cambridge, she mapped out the trajectory of her future career with a senior thesis on the coral trade, work that involved the intersection of marine species diversity and the crushing pressure exerted by global trade on biological systems. She had the opportunity to study a large collection of smuggled dead corals that had been seized by customs on its way from the Philippines to England. Those corals were once a thriving home to a plethora of marine species, now reduced to a mass of dead matter sitting ponderously in a room in Cambridge.
To balance that experience, as a Master’s student at Newcastle University studying tropical coastal management, she got to travel to Malaysia and witness coral conservation programs and take notes on their effectiveness. This set of concerns, about the size of our impact on the species we’ve chosen to target, and the efficacy of our attempts to undo the harm we’ve caused, recur again and again in Scales’s ecological work.
As a PhD student, her focus was on the most profitable species of the Chinese fish trade, including the Napoleon wrasse, which she traveled to the South China Sea to observe in one of its last effective refuges. The profits to be made on such species, because of their particular taste or fabled healing properties, quickly outstrip the ocean’s ability to provide them. To take just one example, a massive West African trade in seahorses has emerged from nowhere in the last decade to satisfy the Chinese medicinal market, creating a yawning (and profitable) scarcity where before there was a healthy community.
Through the mechanism of large scale ocean farming, species that once throve in their place in the ocean’s food chain have been reduced to slim fractions of their original populations, with resulting collateral damage all throughout the web of marine life. And as if documenting and reporting on the direct consequences of our ocean hunting weren’t enough to keep marine ecologists busy, there is added on top of that the many new and indirect means which humanity has found to negatively impact the oceans.
Scales is particularly interested in communicating the role that plastics, microbeads, and synthetic fibers play in marine systems. Of the role of plastics, she recounts:
Last year, I was in West Africa and for the first time found myself swimming in a sea of plastic soup. It really hit home just how bad plastic pollution is. You hear people using those words, plastic soup, but it never really sunk in what that’s really like until I was in the sea, surrounded by so much plastic. The enormous scale of the problem was suddenly very obvious to me. I surfed most days in West Africa and I’ll never forget the day when a piece of plastic tied in a knot around my leash (the cord that attaches the board to my leg); then a while later, that same day, a second plastic strip tied another knot. Since that trip, I’ve been convinced that plastic pollution is one of the really immense challenges ocean life faces, and we have to find some way of tackling it.
Our addiction to single use plastics (the straws and lids that come with your drink, the disposable forks that come with your meal, itself wrapped in a different type of single use plastic) contributes mightily to this problem, and represents a problem that each of us can help ameliorate by simply being conscious of avoiding plastics that we intend to use only once before tossing.
In addition, Scales says, we should avoid products containing microbeads – tiny bits of plastic that are too small to get picked up by filtration systems and which therefore get pumped back in the ocean, where they are consumed en masse by aquatic life. Just check the ingredients list for the terms PE, Polyethylene, PP, Polypropylene, or Polystyrene. Likewise we need to be aware of the harm caused by synthetic fibers – these are also not generally filtered out of water heading into the oceans and once there become ingested. To avoid contributing to that particular problem, simply buy natural fibers when you can, and if you can’t, here is some advice on what you can do to lower your microfiber pollution impact.
Yes, from eating fish farmed and caught in non-sustainable ways to hunting species to extinction because of imaginary healing properties to stuffing the oceans with plastics to choking them with fertilizer runoff, humanity’s role in the oceans is a grim one and the job of a marine ecologist is often one of cataloguing staggering tragedy.
But there is beauty too, in staggering amounts in spite of our best efforts to monetize and eradicate it. The shells that Scales describes in her second book are wonders of natural law that will be with us for some time yet, and if part of her day job is documenting man-wrought decline, the other part is supporting noble efforts at marine conservation. “I have been incredibly lucky to visit some of the places in the oceans that are still really healthy and breathtakingly beautiful. Recently I went for the first time to Palau, a tiny cluster of islands in the Pacific. The government takes conservation very seriously, because they know how much money divers will pay to visit their waters. Consequently, the coral reefs are some of the healthiest, most diverse and teeming with life that I’ve ever seen. It made a deep, lasting impression on me that there’s still so much we need to protect and look after in the oceans. It’s definitely not too late.”
People like Helen Scales are so devastatingly important: people with a genius for the literary and the scientific, who can do the research and write the words that our sense of morality, of conscientious decency, might find firm root in.
On a civilizational scale, our collective appetites usually run ahead of our collective conscience. We consume first and ask the searching questions about how and why later. In ages when our ability to gratify our instincts was limited to the axe, the plough, and the bow, this didn’t present much of a problem. But in a time when the statement, “I want It” can be followed by a coordinated, mechanized campaign to scour the globe, collect It, and sell It, the most important thing is to shorten the time between Desire and Responsibility. And that’s why people like Helen Scales are so devastatingly important: people with a genius for the literary and the scientific, who can do the research and write the words that our sense of morality, of conscientious decency, might find firm root in.
Through these scientist-scribes, the Speed of Conscience is augmented and if it will never quite equal the Speed of Industry, it can at least keep the latter from stripping the land and the oceans to nothingness. For decades, Sylvia Earle has been the voice of the oceans, and with Helen Scales that voice has grown a bit louder, and the succession is secured. She is undertaking the hard task of learning, measuring, writing, and communicating – it is up to us, then, to listen and, if possible, to change.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Dr. Scales has some great advice about what you, as an individual, can do to help the oceans, and was also good enough to provide some organizations who are doing their darndest to preserve what we still have:
Our lives are all connected to the oceans, even if you live miles from the coast, so there are things we all can do to make a difference.
Plastic pollution is a huge problem that we all contribute to. We all need to cut down on the amount of plastic we use, especially single-use plastic bottles and plastic shopping bags. Pick things in the supermarket with less plastic packaging. And carefully recycle as much plastic as possible.
Don’t buy toiletries and household products with tiny bits of plastic in them, ‘microbeads’. Scientists are studying how much of an impact this is having on marine ecosystems, and it’s not looking good.
Here’s a website listing products with microbeads
Also, support campaigns to ban microbeads
And surprisingly, our clothes are also a major source of ocean pollution. Studies have recently started to reveal that the oceans are filling up with tiny synthetic fibres that wash out of our clothes, and like other micro-plastics, various sea creatures are eating them, which can’t be good. Where possible, buy clothes made of all natural fibres. And keep an eye out for new technologies to trap fibres in washing machines – outdoor clothing company Patagonia is working on a bag to put synthetic clothes inside when you wash them.
They also provide advice on how to minimise the number of fibres that shed from your clothes when you wash them.
The other no-brainer is to only eat sustainably caught or farmed seafood. There are apps out there to help you make better choices, avoid endangered species, and fish caught in damaging ways.
Poseidon’s Steed and Spirals in Time are readily available, and her new book, Eye of the Shoal, is upcoming. Dr. Scales also recommends Carl Safina’s A Song for the Blue Ocean and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, along with Eugenie Clark’s classic The Lady with a Spear and The Lady and the Sharks. Follow Helen Scales on Twitter