National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala is bringing sexy back to ocean science so that we’ll start paying attention

Enric Sala left academia to explore remote ocean ecosystems and join efforts to save them Photo by Zafer Kizilkaya

Enric Sala left academia to explore remote ocean ecosystems and join efforts to save them
Photo by Zafer Kizilkaya

If Indiana Jones had a real-life marine ecologist counterpart, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala would fill the bill.

The Spanish academic turned explorer of remote ocean ecosystems shares some of his adventures this week at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, kicking off a local series of National Geographic Live sessions with world-class scientists, filmmakers and photographers.

Described by his contemporaries in a recent Washington Post profile as “the Antonio Banderas of the marine world” and a “matador” of the water, Sala brings excitement and a little sexy back to the typically staid world of ocean science.

He uses that swagger to support a conservation message that isn’t always intuitive.

In his TED Talk on pristine ocean environments, Sala turns the traditional food pyramid of marine ecosystems upside down, arguing that an abundance of predators — not prey — is a sign of ecological health in sensitive areas. He likens the ecosystem to two gears in a clock: predators being the large gear, with reproductive cycles turning slowly, and herbivores being the small, fast-moving wheel that cycles through at a much faster rate. Maintaining higher predator populations, he says, allows key ocean ecosystems to bounce back from disasters more quickly.

Sala also argues that preservation is good for business. Preserving 20% of the world’s oceans in their natural state would create a kind of “savings account” for the world’s fisheries, he says, with the protection of crucial environments creating a spillover effect benefitting waters outside the preserves.

“What we have now — or a world without reserves — is like a debit account where we withdraw all the time and we never make any deposit,” Salas explains. “And if we think about the increase of biomass inside the reserves, this is like compound interest. … If you fish less, you’re actually catching more.”

— Christina Campodonico

What are the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems right now?

No. 1 is overfishing. The world’s taking fish out of the ocean faster than they could ever reproduce, and 90% of the large fish — tuna, grouper, cod — we have killed them in the last 100 years alone. No. 2 is pollution. Every year, eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean, which is killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals. No. 3: climate change, which is making the ocean warmer and more acidic, which affects organisms across the food chain.

Is El Niño cause for concern?

Absolutely, because the water gets too warm in the Pacific and many organisms, like the corals, die. They die of heat shock, basically. If El Niño was the only disturbance, the marine environment could recover because it has recovered over time in between El Niños. But now on top of El Niño we have these other problems. The ocean is getting more acidic, and this is not seasonal. We have fishing that happens every day. We have pollution that happens every day, and it’s growing. You have all these threats, one on top of the other, that only make the effects of El Niño worse.

Why leave academia to become an explorer?

I was tired of writing the obituary of ocean life. I was describing how ocean life was dying with more and more precision, so I felt like a doctor telling his patient how she’s going to die with excruciating detail and not offering a cure. As you can imagine, that was very frustrating, so I decided to work on the cure and forget about the diagnosis.

Considering the way colleagues talk about you, is there a benefit to making ocean science sexy?

When I was in academia I didn’t realize how bad scientists are at communicating, at speaking in plain English. When I left the ivory tower I had to learn to communicate. And, you know, science is so exciting. We’re sending probes to Pluto at the edge of the solar system, and we are exploring deeper parts of the ocean and things about our genes that we would have never dreamed about 20 years ago. Science is so exciting; it is exploration and discovery. What we need is for people to fall in love with science and be excited about it.

What’s it like to explore a pristine ocean environment?

You go to one of these coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific, places that have seldom been explored by people, and you jump in the water and you’re immediately surrounded by 10, 12 sharks. And then the big red snappers come to check you out, and they dig your fins and your camera gear and your ponytail. And you go to the bottom and you have this gorgeous lush coral reef, full of life. It’s like getting in a time machine and going back 1,000 years.

What are the key strategies for making oceans pristine again?

We want to use the ocean, right? So, by definition, all of the ocean cannot be pristine. But to have an ocean that is healthier and productive … we need to change the way we fish. We need to at least cut in half the number of boats that are there. And we need to protect at least 20% of the ocean in these marine parks. … Also we need to shift to clean energies, or the oceans are going to get so warm and acidic that we’re going to be in for a really rough ride.

You have also called for reducing fishing industry subsidies to instead support ecotourism.

A shark is worth more alive than dead. If you kill a shark and sell it to the Asian middlemen for shark fin soup, you get $200. That same shark is bringing in between $1 million and $2 million over its lifetime to places like Costa Rica and Palau because of the volume of tourism, all the people who go over there to pay to see that shark. A dead fish you can sell once. A fish in the water you can sell every day to hundreds of people.

We don’t protect Yosemite so that people can hunt wolves and bears that spill over the boundaries of the park. We protect it because we appreciate its beauty and its intrinsic value. There are places in the ocean that have the same value, that we should protect just because they are magnificent and have a right to exist.

How do you balance research, documentation and advocacy?

Everything is important. We need the research to make rational arguments for protection. But then we also need the storytelling to make an emotional connection with those places. You can have all the science in the world, but if you don’t succeed in making the decision-makers connect emotionally with these places, you’re getting nowhere.

This is where many scientists get it wrong. Information alone is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We need to make these places sexy.

Enric Sala discusses “Pristine Seas: Exploring Underwater Edens” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 29) and Friday (Oct. 30), kicking off the Nat Geo Live series at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $50 to $70. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit

The Broad is also hosting free matinee talks for students at 10 a.m. on both days. To register, contact Klarissa Leuterio at (310) 434-3560 or