Interview with Richard Wylie, Marine Biologist

Written by on June 13, 2013 in Interviews, Other News

Editor’s Note–Contributing MST writer Michael Bear is an AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) Science Diver and a Featured Contributor with California Diver Magazine. He lives and works in San Diego and recently interviewed Richard Wylie for us.

Richard Wylie

Richard Wylie

Richard Wylie is a marine biologist currently researching marine education in Australia and the Pacific as part of his Ph.D, while being the co-founder and Director of the Euakafa Island Research Centre, Neiafu, Tonga.

He is a member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and the Commission for Education and Communication and was recently inducted as an International Fellow of the prestigious Explorers Club.

He is currently lecturing at Monash University’s Education Department, RMIT University teaching marine biology for their winter program and NMIT teaching Molluscan Aquaculture to 2nd year undergraduate students. He has worked for the United Nations, New South Wales Fisheries, commercial pearling companies, NGOs, private consulting, Department of Education and Early Childhood Victoria, and various SCUBA diving companies as an instructor. His work has taken him throughout South East Asia, around Australia and much of the South Pacific while his current research takes him around the world presenting at academic and conservation congresses.

Although a relative newcomer to the field of underwater photography, his 22 year marine career and several thousand dives, especially in the Tonga area, means he knows where to go to photograph the most interesting marine life, especially cuttlefish and leafy/weedy sea dragons.

His photography has won awards in numerous international and national photography competitions and has been used in articles, magazines and even exhibited in galleries, a phenomenon you don’t find often with marine biologist who often become too absorbed in their research to devote such quality to an outside passion like that.

MST caught up with him recently to ask him a few questions about his fascinating life and work. He and his wife are recent proud parents of a little girl.

Below, you will find the full Q & A with Richard Wylie about his life and work as a marine biologist, educator and photographer. For a shortened version, click here.

You’re a marine biologist with the Euakafa Island Research Centre in Tonga which focuses on the areas of coral reef systems, turtle conservation, marine mammals, sharks and marine education.

Q: What would you say is the most pressing issue you face as a marine biologist today?

A: In a word, communication! The world’s oceans are in a bad way with many, many years of pollution and overfishing – both directly through huge fleets and super trawlers and indirectly through ghost nets and abandoned fishing line. We used to view the oceans as inexhaustible and that we could throw whatever we liked into its depth without any repercussions – but we’ve known that this is completely untrue for some time. I feel that many of the issues that are effecting our marine environments could be addressed if more people were truly aware of what is actually going on. I think that the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ concept has enabled this true tragedy of the commons to get as bad as it has so we need to communicate the urgency of the problem to as many people as we possibly can and make them see that we need to change this attitude. Like most scientists Marine biologists are very focused on their own area of research and tend to ignore politics (and even people in general – sometimes we find fish/dolphins/sharks, etc. more interesting than humans) but we cannot just do our own research without looking around at the bigger picture anymore. We know that the situation is dire and urgent action is required and we therefore need to reach out to other scientists, educators, journalists and local (and global) communities – in fact anyone who will listen and who are interested in making a difference.

Q: What is the state of coral reefs in the South Pacific, specifically the Tonga area? Are there any areas of immediate concern?

A: Like most of the tropical regions around the world the corals in the South Pacific are under pressure from climate change and human impacts. Generally though, the reefs that are left alone are doing well despite the rise in average sea temperatures. Of real worry is the increase in ocean acidity due to CO2. The combination of increased acidity, rising sea temperature and human pollution and/or habitat destruction has caused widespread issues in the more populated areas in the Pacific. Tonga itself is doing ok but we are in the process of surveying the area to get a better idea of the actual state of the region – trying to get a base study so that any changes can be monitored over time.

Q: What first got you interested in the ocean and your start as a marine biologist?

A: I remember watching some documentaries by Jaques Cousteau and an Australian guy called Ben Cropp when I was a kid and fell in love with the underwater world almost at first sight. I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist by the time I was 8 years old and worked towards that goal from that point on. My dad is a scientist (entomologist) and my mum was a pharmacist so I had a good base to work from as well – though I have to say that most people advised me to find a career in anything but marine as the competition was so fierce and the money inconsistent. My first job out of university was with the United Nations in the Solomon Islands but instead of marine it was working with fruit flies – though I also worked at an international giant clam breeding program called ICLARM on the weekends and whenever I had time off. That work with giant clam aquaculture determined the rest of my career as I went back to study after the Solomon Islands and did a postgraduate masters in Aquaculture – I never finished the masters but ended up working for NSW Fisheries researching reseeding abalone in the wild and commercial oysters which in turn lead me to work with pearl oysters in Indonesia and Thailand for a couple of years.

Q: What specific area does your research concentrate on?

A: At present I’m doing a Ph.D on marine education in Australia and the Pacific – a bit of a change from marine science but I believe that its incredibly important that we start to educate people about our marine world. As I mentioned earlier I think that communication is the key to resolving some of the crucial issues facing our oceans and that we need to have a clear line of communication between marine and climate scientists, educators and communication specialists such as journalists etc. I’m also researching how photography can influence conservation – an area that I find particularly interesting given my passion for underwater photography.

Leafy Seadragon. Photo credit: Richard Wylie.

Leafy Seadragon. Photo credit: Richard Wylie.

You are an International Fellow of the Explorers Club as well as an accomplished underwater photographer who has recently received recognition from National Geographic and La Mer for your photographs of Weedy and Leafy Seadragons or Glauert’s seadragon as they are sometimes known (Phycodurus eques), which are leafy-looking members of the pipefish family and only member of the genus Phycodurus. Also known as “leafies”, they are the marine emblem of the state of South Australia (and weedy seadragons are the marine emblem of Victoria).

Q: What got you interested in photographing this species?

A: Actually the photography was an extension of my work as a marine educator. I developed a program for a local school that involved getting kids out of class and into the water. I trained them so they were confident snorkelers and then taught them marine observational skills and habitat monitoring – and the data we collected was uploaded to Museum Victoria which was then used by marine scientists. It was a great program but the kids drove me nuts to begin with as they kept missing these amazing animals in their search for something interesting! I bought a cheap underwater point and shoot camera so that I could take photos of the weedy sea dragons that they were literally swimming above but not seeing (to be fair, they have amazing camouflage and are not easy to see the first time around). Then I bought a dozen more cameras and gave them to the kids to use and found that their observational skills increased incredibly. I also became completely addicted to underwater photography myself – and of taking shots of weedy and leafy sea dragons. I’ve found that my photography has been invaluable as a communication tool in my work as a university lecturer and public speaking – they enable me to convey how truly majestic these creatures really are while showcasing the beauty of their temperate marine environment.

Q: Are they endangered in any way?

A: Yes, both species are listed by the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened, a classification that essentially means that we don’t know the true extent of the population but do know that they are geographically limited and at risk from habitat destruction and pollution.

Q: We’ve all heard the dire situation about sharks recently. How are they doing in the area of Tonga? Any areas of concern?

A. One of the reasons we decided to lease the island of Euakafa was because it had a healthy population of reef sharks when we first inspected the surrounding waters in 2008. Unfortunately I had to have two total hip replacements (very annoying as I was only 36 at the time) after we first purchased the 99 year lease on the island, so by the time we came back to the island two years later (it took a long time to recover after some complication with the surgery) all the sharks were gone. We found out that a fleet of foreign fishing vessels had come through the region and pretty much wiped out the local shark populations – a phenomenon that is all too common around the world unfortunately. We are now conducting a tag and release program so that we can gain a better understanding of what is happening to the sharks in the area.

Q: What words of advice would you have for any young people coming up in college, who might like to become marine biologists?

A: Firstly, you need to be passionate about the marine world – there is very little money, unfortunately and its very competitive (my job with Fisheries had 450 applicants and it only paid $17K a year) so when you’re stuck out on the water getting soaked to the skin in the middle of a freezing winter night you need to be doing it for the love of it rather than the big bucks! Secondly, the best way to get ahead in this field is through volunteer work. Every job I’ve had has either started out with me volunteering or has come from a previous volunteer position. Ultimately I’m still positive about saving the world’s oceans but we certainly need to get organized quickly, so finally I think that if you’re interested in being a marine biologist you need to know how to communicate. We need people who are fluent in both science and education so that we can reach more people and make them aware of the urgency of the situation and to then turn things around.

To see more of Richard’s underwater photography, including his Sea Dragon photography, see here: Sea Dragon Photography.

Weedy seadragon. Photo credit: Richard Wylie. Make this photo your wallpaper!

Weedy seadragon. Photo credit: Richard Wylie. Make this photo your wallpaper!

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

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