Q&A with Steve Palumbi

In advance of his lecture on September 15th, we chatted with Steve Palumbi about his experience documenting the extreme life of the ocean!

Published September 01, 2015

Dr. Stephen Palumbi

Steve and Tony, why do you think it is important for people to understand the astonishing diversity of aquatic life so often out-of-sight for non-scientists?

Steve: There’s this whole set of secrets we know about how these creatures live and as a marine biologist for years and years, I’ve found if I just told people about some of those stories, especially younger people, they never knew that and that was cool. So that’s where we approached it, that we had this incredible, just palette of neat things that are out there. And that was a really good way of just entertaining people and entrancing them, and then educating them as well a little bit, and what happens along the way is because you know more and more and more about these things and they’re cool and you never heard about those things and you get that, then you develop an appreciation for them and then you develop more than an appreciation, you kind of develop this real relationship with those things and from those relationships comes understanding and from those relationships comes the willingness and then the need to protect them and preserve them. 

Tony: The idea of something interesting being gone from the world is a very different feeling than something that you love being gone from the world. There is a much more powerful pull there, and that’s really the only sort of thing that can function in conflicts where the stakes are this high and where all the issues are this important. You really really need to have that kind of powerful feeling on your side if you’re going to be able to win arguments and make changes.

Tony, your book, The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival, is an amazing account of that area’s turnaround. How important is it to zoom out and taking stock of the bigger picture in marine stewardship?

I actually think that the big picture is really important for context and for scene-setting. It’s a big ocean; organisms inhabit that ocean in a huge scale but that when push comes to shove it’s actually things that are really going on in your town and your village and your community and your head and your family that seem to be playing a huge, huge role, and you know I think the Monterey Bay book was an example of that and Extreme Life of the Sea is an example of how people actually live their lives, how  these critters live their lives – it’s really kind of a small-scale drama; it’s set within this big, huge context of the whole ocean, but we really are trying to focus on the things that an individual organism has to do during its life every day in the ocean to stay alive and how that’s really amazing. 

Your work at the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford has gotten some international attention recently. How do you most enjoy engaging in conversations about conservation with non-scientists?

Steve: Well, what is most fun is exactly what we’re coming there to the National Aquarium to do which is to stand up in front of a really neat audience of people and then talk about what we know, what we love so much. And, honestly, I like that forum a lot; I like the interaction with the audience I like talking directly to people in that kind of setting, and as we’ve also gone a little bit more broad-scale and electronic, we’ve had some really wonderful sessions with essentially chat rooms and Google Hangouts, things like that, and those are all fun. I do really like this business of writing for non-scientists. It’s very releasing, you get all kinds of chances to write in ways that you don’t usually get if you’re just writing science. 

What do you think are the most effective ways people living in cities can protect marine ecosystems?

Tony: Be aware of the degree to which you are still surrounded by nature and the degree to which that nature has been changed, because cities are really fascinating ecosystems even though we don’t think of them that way.

Steve: There can be progress. The Inner Harbor is still not necessarily the nirvana of marine ecosystems but it’s so much better and more functional than when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s so in addition to the fact that people can to individual things, it’s important to realize that, collectively, the will to make things better can result in really good things.

To register for Steve's lecture, click here

**This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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