Helen Scales a freelance writer, broadcaster and marine biologist from England is this week’s “Defender of the Ocean”. Her PhD research consisted of studying the majestic humphead wrasse and its exploitation for seafood restaurants across Asia. For a decade she has worked for conservation groups, including WWF in Malaysia. Now she writes books and articles about the oceans and makes documentaries for BBC Radio.

What got you into marine biology, and passionate enough to write about it?

As a kid, I was always an outdoors junky. I especially loved our family holidays to Cornwall, the South-Western toe of the United Kingdom, a place that feels more wild than the rest of the country. It actually wasn’t until I learned to scuba dive as a teenager that I suddenly realised that the oceans were for me. Until then, I had my heart set on saving the rainforests (a big issue when I was growing up was deforestation). But as soon as I caught a glimpse firsthand of the underwater world, I was utterly hooked and my vision turned from green to blue.

My passion to write about the oceans grew as I travelled and dived and learned more about these wild and endangered places. I gradually realised that my true passion lies in telling people about the wonders that hide out of sight beneath the waves, and how they are suffering in the modern world in so many ways. 

What’s the hardest thing/best thing about your job?

One of the tough parts of my job is staying optimistic about the future of marine life as scientists keep on finding out more and more about the impacts of human activities on the underwater realm. There are days when it seems like everything is doom and gloom. I have to keep reminding myself that there are still great wonders in the oceans and all is not lost.

On a more personal note, one of the hardest things I find as a freelance writer and broadcaster is having to constantly push out new ideas and finding the next thing to do. In a funny way, though, that’s probably the best thing about my job too; the fact that I have freedom to follow ideas and stories I love, and that there’s no one telling me what to do. Also, of course, I love that my job allows me spend lots of time underwater. I couldn’t live without that.

Helen carrying out research within the mangroves

Helen carrying out research within the mangroves

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen/discovered while on the job?

It’s really hard to pick out just one thing, so I’m going to cheat and give you a couple.

In Fiji a few years ago I went diving with bull sharks. They were being carefully fed by a local dive company, who donate some of the money from their dive outfit to local fishing communities in exchange for their promise not to catch sharks. I have some reservations about feeding wildlife, but seeing dozens of these beautiful, powerful predators up close was a truly extraordinary experience. The sharks were so controlled and careful, and showed me that they can certainly learn things – they know where to go to get food, and they even queue up for it!

One of the craziest things I’ve experienced is a fish bomb going off underwater. I was diving near Kudat, in the north of Sabah, when a fisherman threw a bomb in the water. I think it’s illegal to use fish bombs in Malaysia now, it certainly is in other parts of the world, but fisherman desperate to make money still use them to catch little fish, which are then used as bait or made into fish meal for farmed fish.

The sound from the explosion was so loud it shook my insides and I was sure if the fisher threw in another bomb any closer it would deafen me. My buddy and I immediately (and carefully) surfaced, only to see that the fisherman was a long way off. No wonder these homemade bombs have wreak havoc on coral reefs, blowing the corals apart.

What do you help to achieve through your work?

In everything I do, I’m driven first and foremost by the hope that my work will help show people the wonders of the ocean. I want to inspire people to be interested and to care for this incredible place and all the things that live there. After that, I hope my work helps inform the public about the problems the oceans face, and give them ideas of how they can do their bit to help.

Who is your marine biology role model?

I have a few marine biology heroes who inspired me to do what I do now. Probably greatest of all, though, is Eugenie Clark. She was a wonderful ichthyologist and shark specialist who sadly passed away last year. She was in her 90s and still diving and exploring the underwater world; she never lost her sense of wonder and joy in the oceans.

I loved reading her books when I was a kid and was captivated by her stories of travelling around the world studying fishes; this was back in a time when women didn’t really do that sort of thing, but she went ahead and did it anyway. I was very lucky to have a chance to meet Eugenie a few years ago. They say don’t meet your heroes, but she was even more fantastic in person than I imagined she would be; so kind, caring and inquisitive, and above all passionate about the oceans. If I can be a fraction of the person she was, then I’ll be very happy indeed. 

You are currently in the mix of researching and writing From the Eye of the Shoal, the follow up to Spirals In Time… what can readers expect to learn about the secret wonders fishes?

In a way, I want to do for fishes what I did for molluscs in Spirals in Time, namely to shine a light on an amazing group of animals that many people might not realise are diverse, complicated, ancient, noisy, clever and above all utterly fascinating. Readers will find out what it means to be a fish, how they evolved, how they see, swim, eat and hear, and the latest scientific insights into their lives in oceans all around the world.

I will also to trace links between fishes and people. For molluscs, those links to human lives are mainly their shells that people have collected and treasured for millennia. For fishes, I want to trace other ways these animals loop into our world, and not just via our stomachs.

I will seek out the most unusual and little-known uses of fishes, to show readers that our relationship with these scaly creatures goes much deeper than predator versus prey. Among many stories, readers will see how people have used fish scales to make fake pearls and their swim bladders to make beer that sparkles. And I will seek out the truth about whether voodoo priests really do use puffer fish to make zombie potions that convince people they have turned into the living dead.

Helen, by Ria Mishaal

Helen, by Ria Mishaal

What made you decide to write From the Eye of the Shoal?

Ever since I did my first open water scuba dive many years ago, I’ve been an avid fish-watcher. I find myself being totally mesmerised by them, by the way they move so effortlessly and gracefully underwater, by their colours and shapes and by their complex behaviours.

I went on to study marine science and became an ichthyologist, and still today I take every opportunity I can go find fishes and watch them for as long as I can. This book is a logical step in my writing, to share my passion for these captivating animals and to reveal to readers the incredible and unexpected scientific findings surrounding them.

Is there a particular message
you’d like readers to take away from the book?

My biggest ambition is for the book to encourage readers to treasure fishes as wildlife. I want as many people as possible to see that fishes are worthy of our attention, compassion and protection, like many people do already for marine mammals, like dolphins and whales.

I also hope the book will spark a new craze for fish watching. I want to encourage readers to go out and admire the wildness and wonders of fishes. There are plenty of bird watchers out there, so how about us fish watchers get together and show them how it’s done underwater! 

What do you think lies ahead for marine ecosystems?

There’s no doubt that the oceans and the creatures that live there face an array of human problems, like never before. Overfishing, pollution, rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are the big ones, and they’re all acting together, in concert. So, it’s easy to get quite gloomy about the future of marine ecosystems.

I think the ray of hope lies in protection and the hundreds of committed people around the world who are fighting to save marine life. If we can reduce as many pressures as possible, in as much of the oceans as possible, it will keep those ecosystems as healthy as possible and raise the possibility that they will be resilient to the onslaught of human activities. We need well-enforced marine reserves, protecting ecosystems from the tropics to the poles. The oceans have an amazing ability to recover, if we can just give them a chance.

What can the average person do to help protect life in the oceans?

There’s lots you can do.

Plastic waste is a huge problem in the oceans, from turtles choking on plastic bags to micro-plastics winding up inside barnacles and fish. And you don’t have to actually live on the coast to make a difference; a lot of our garbage that we throw out can end up blowing from landfill into the oceans.

So, cut down your use of plastic as much as possible: take reusable bags to the supermarket, recycle and reuse whenever you can, don’t buy face wash with micro-plastic beads in it, and get yourself a refillable water bottle instead of buying a single-use, throwaway plastic bottle each time.

If you eat seafood, you also have the chance to pick only sustainably caught fish. Check out the Seafood Watch programme at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Good Fish Guide from the UK’s Marine Conservation Society for ideas about better seafood choices, and what to avoid. Learn to ask questions at supermarkets and restaurants. If they won’t tell you what the fish is, where and how it was caught, then don’t buy it.

Helen in Sabah with local fisher kids (1)

What next for you?

I’ve only just begun work on From the Eye of the Shoal, so that will keep me busy for a while including a long journey around the world when I plan to do as much fish watching as possible. I also have plans to do other writing, perhaps even a novel, which I expect will still involve the oceans some how.