When did you come to Nantucket?
"1998. Before that, Michelle and I lived in London, and found out about a good job on Nantucket. I was familiar with the Cape. I said that I'd heard really great things about Nantucket, and recommended she take the job if she could. She worked down at the Corner House for a season. So then we lived in New Zealand for nine years, her home country, and were on our way to Europe when a friend convinced us to come back and work for a season. So we did. I drove a taxi, Michelle did some landscaping. I decided to stay for the year, while Michelle went off to Europe. She came back the next year and we've been here ever since.
I love that this is a small community. It's well-educated. And because it's affluent, there's a lot of things going on. The affluence doesn't make Nantucket special except that it provides a fertile field for visiting scientists, artist... whatever it is, it happens here."
Can you tell us about the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program?
"That was started in 1982, by a woman whose name most people will recognize; Jean Rioux. There was a stranding of 13 pilot whales at Cisco Beach. The issue was that the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, one of the most successful environmental laws that there is, had come into play, but Nantucket hadn't prepared for it. So we had a game warden on the island at that time who said that a big weekend is coming up. People are showing up, and I need to get these animals off the beach, and the only federal land on the island is the dump. So he made the decision to pull these living animals two miles across the scrub to the dump, where they died. There was a pretty big outcry, much of it lead by Jean. She got Green Peace out here, and there was national coverage of the issue. And from that issue, a stranding team was formed. And the Marine Mammal Conservation Program was formed. So for 30-odd years it's been an educational tool. We raise funds for ourselves, but a lot of the money goes to other organizations that are doing some scientific work, or to bring speakers out here."
What inspired you to study marine biology?
"I grew up in Northern California, not far from the ocean. I've always liked the ocean. I went to school in Alaska on a swimming scholarship. Marine biology wasn't my focus, but when Title Nine came in, a lot of schools lost their small sports teams. So I ended up going to another school with an oceanography department, Humboldt State University. So I was interested in the ocean. And I'll be blunt, I'm an animal rights advocate. I believe that animals should, in human terms, have rights. Cetaceans and other marine mammals in particular have evolved over 70 Million years. They've evolved from the ocean to the land and back. Some of the best digs for whale fossils are in the highlands of Egypt. They moved into the marshes. So to me, that they're still around... that's successful evolution. And they've got huge brains. That sperm whale hanging in the Whaling Museum had a brain seven times larger than ours. That's the largest brain ever known on the planet. That should give them some respect. They have languages, dialects, names... We know that bottlenose dolphins have different clicks for every member of their pod. That's a name. These are really intelligent creatures. That's what really drives my passion for animal issues."
Any advice you'd like to give to the readers?
"Keep an eye out on what's going on with the Marine Mammal Rescue Team. It's kinda miraculous that we've got the team together; we've jumped through a lot of hoops and come up with a whole different concept and approach for marine mammal rescue that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has never looked at before, and they (NOAA) said 'OK, we'll try it. We'll go your way. We'll make this work.' So that's gonna be a pretty big story for Nantucket and for marine mammals in the near-term. I really hope that we have the team up and running in full this summer.
I think that charismatic megafauna, like whales and dolphins... People love 'em. You can use knowledge of marine mammals as a tool to try to connect people back to nature. We're losing that connection, and that's really sad because once that's gone, it'll be gone forever. So I'd like to mitigate that. I'm hoping that the Marine Mammal Rescue Team will help get Nantucketers really keen on the ocean life around us. Remember, 95% of the biomass on this planet is in the ocean. The other 5%, everything from fungus to elephants, is on land. Everything else is in the ocean. And we're losing it. Every fishery on the planet is under stress. Some folks are reckoning that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. So let's educate each other, and try to mitigate that."
Subject: Scott Leonard
Location: Downtown Nantucket
Date: March 13th, 2016
Humans of Nantucket, modeled after the famous Humans of New York, intends to portray various members of the island community who share with us their lives, dreams and hopes.
Robert Smith is a local landscape and portrait photographer. He will soon begin building a website to feature his work, and will also shortly provide links to his Flickr and Instagram accounts. He can be reached at 508-221-6926