My job: I’m underwater with sharks, polar bears, walruses

NAME: Alan friedlander

JOB: Marine Biologist, Chief Scientist of the National Geographic Pristine Seas Project and Director of the UH Fisheries Ecology Research Laboratory

BEGINNINGS: “I grew up surfing the East Coast and moved after college to San Diego for warmer waves,” he says. “I joined the Peace Corps and worked with the local fishing community on an island outside Tonga.

“I realized how important the health of the oceans was to people and the encyclopedic knowledge of many of these communities about how the ocean works. I decided that I wanted to try to understand and help protect the ocean for the good of all.

Friedlander therefore obtained his master’s degree in oceanography, then worked in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean before obtaining his doctorate at UH.

CHALLENGES: “We work everywhere, from the tropics to the poles. I have been to Antarctica and the Arctic. Diving under the ice has its own challenges. The first time I was in the Russian Arctic, I got frostbite and was chased out of the water by polar bears and walruses.

Friedlander says he’s been surrounded by a hundred sharks in the South Pacific and although he wasn’t bitten, a shark bit his team’s dinghy once, he says. Fortunately, the boat had several air compartments, so he was able to limp home.

TO TRAVEL: In addition to Antarctica and the Arctic, he visited countless exotic places.

“We were at Cape Horn, the most dangerous body of water on the planet at the southern tip of South America between the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern Ocean. Being in the middle of nowhere sometimes has crazy consequences, but you also see amazing things. “

He also went to Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the Juan Fernández Islands off Chile; the Galapagos; the island of Malpelo off the coast of Colombia; Cocos Island, famous for its hammerhead sharks, off Costa Rica; the Revillagigedo Islands off Mexico; Niue, a small country between the Cook Islands and Tonga; Palau; Rapa Iti, one of the southernmost islands of French Polynesia; Seychelles ; Mozambique and Gabon in Africa; and in the Atlantic, the Selvagens, the Azores and Tristan da Cunha, the most isolated populated island in the world.

“I think that’s probably it. How much is it ?”

Photo: Courtesy of Alan Friedlander

EQUIPMENT: “Above all else, you need a boat and many of the places we go are so far away that it’s hard to find a boat to hire nearby.” When his team first traveled to the Line Islands in southern Hawaii near the equator in 2005, the team used a rusting World War II boat that was falling apart.

“We ran out of food, all kinds of things. But it was a sort of “misery loves company”. It was such an amazing trip because we had this amazing group of scientists on board and everyone was like a little kid there. “

Friedlander says a lot of these places are relatively unexplored, so teams are doing as much as possible.

This includes “basic dive surveys for fish, corals, kelp or whatever is there. We do rebreathers with deeper dives or technical dives that can bring us down from 50 to 100 meters. We used submersibles that brought us down to 500 meters. We used deep waterfall cameras that National Geographic developed in the deepest parts of the ocean, including the Mariana Trench.

“We do a lot of collection, including water samples, looking at microplastics. We collected microfossils from the sediments because they are a good indicator of past climates.

Misconceptions: “A misconception about most marine biologists is that you scuba dive all the time. It’s actually my job, but most marine biologists aren’t so lucky.

“I think a lot of people become biologists or scientists because they don’t like people or numbers, but after you’ve done a lot of policy work you need skills with both. Being at sea for weeks on end can be difficult for people. Fortunately, we all get along very well.

OCEAN MANAGEMENT: “The oceans are resilient and manage very well. These are the people to be managed. We need to find the optimal way to balance human needs and a healthy ocean. “

COVID-19 PIVOTS: His last pre-pandemic expedition was to Palau. Since then he has written and worked extensively in Pūpūkea on the north coast of O’ahu and in Molokini off Maui.

He says many areas prospered during the shutdown of tourism to Hawaii. “Nature bounces back very quickly when people leave. Even though Hanauma Bay, Pūpūkea, and Molokini are not fished, the animals react negatively to too many people. They don’t reproduce in the same way, they don’t feed in the same way.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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