Telling the ocean’s stories

Helen Scales is a marine biologist, writer, broadcaster, explorer and all round polymath. Two of her greatest passions are the oceans and storytelling. Her love of the sea and academic background, and a flair for narrative, have led to several books, the most recent of which, Spirals in Time, was published last year. She also makes regular appearances on BBC radio and Cambridge University’s Naked Scientists podcast, and gives frequent talks, lectures and presentations. How she fits it all in is a mystery, but I was lucky enough to catch up with her via Skype while she was in Senegal, researching her new book From the Eye of the Shoal which, perhaps appropriately given her name, is all about fish. 

JP: What are you currently working on and what are the biggest challenges you face with it?

HS: At the moment, I’m just starting to write my next book, another ‘popular science’ book. This one is about fishes and aims to explore the wonders of fish as a group of animals. We all know what fish are, but people don’t always know what lies behind the piece of fish on their plate, or, if they keep them, the fish in their tank… I’m just starting out, and one of the biggest challenges, but one which I really enjoy, is trying to find the really catchy stories to engage an audience. Trying to find perhaps surprising or little told aspects of fish biology or their relationships with people, that’s what I’m really hunting for. At the same time, I don’t want to fall into a pit of doom and gloom – that’s something which is being very well told and hopefully people are more aware. What I want to do is convey a greater appreciation of the animals themselves, their ecology and what they get up to in the wild. It’s certainly very good fun, but I know it’s going to be a long journey to get there.

JP: How and why did you began to adopt a storytelling role around the science that you do (with your writing, broadcasting, presentations)?

HS: From my early days at school, when I wanted to dash off and stop people chopping down the Amazon, and then, when I learned to dive and realised the ocean was where I wanted to be … all that time I’d really just seen myself being a conventional field biologist, going out to study and figure out what was going on in the wild. Then, when I was doing my PhD, I slowly realised that I enjoyed talking and writing about my work and also that I did it in a way that perhaps not everyone was doing. I started to really grasp the power of speaking well about my work.

I get really frustrated at the idea that if it’s science it’s just facts and it can’t be entertaining. When the time came to write up my PhD, I had done the research, described the findings and results, but I was having trouble with the introduction and discussion section. I sat there for a few days not knowing what to write, so I went to one of my supervisors who told me that it didn’t really matter and just to tell the story of what I did and why. From then on, I realised I could just go and tell stories, so I really had fun with it.

Storytelling is the basis of really good communication, and I guess I really just discovered this idea of being able to engage people and the power of that, not just within conservation. I looked around me and saw other journalists doing really powerful things, and that made me understand that storytelling is such an important part of what we do.

Telling stories for a TEDx talk at LSE.

Telling stories for a TEDx talk at LSE.

JP: It’s also really important to have the science underpinning those stories though, isn’t it?

HS: Absolutely. No matter who you’re talking to, it’s got to be accurate and you’ve got to back it up, and if people want to find out more, you have to know where to send them or how to expand on it. It’s a hard balance to strike, especially I find when writing my books. I actually am amazed that anyone reads them! But you can find that balance between being able to write something for somebody who knows virtually nothing about the area and also for experts, and to ensure that the experts don’t get bored and the newcomers don’t get lost. It’s about trying to find that balance.

JP: While you’ve been researching your new book, has there been anything that has really surprised or shocked you?

HS: One thing that really struck me recently was an idea from a writer called Paul Greenberg, in an article about Palau and pirate fishing, who talks about the amount of fish that we catch in the oceans. In the late 1940s the annual global catch was about 16 and a half million tonnes and in the space of a human lifetime that’s gone up to 94 million tonnes today, which is equivalent in weight to the entire human population at the turn of the 20th century, removed from the oceans every year – it’s just incredible! The thing that really blew my mind was just trying to imagine the amount of life that we take from the sea, it’s just so colossal, no wonder it’s causing problems!

JP: What’s the thing you love most about your job?

HS: That’s a great question. I love the process of doing what I do, which is a sort of strange mixture, as you’ve probably already figured out, of writing and talking and meeting people. I love tapping into the geekiness of others about what they do and their own inspirations. But I think ultimately, the best bit is when I hear from listeners or readers who have taken something positive from what they’ve heard or read, especially those who weren’t necessarily convinced about it otherwise. I guess that’s when it really hits home that what I do makes a little bit of a difference, even if it’s just to a few individuals who are the ones who get in touch and say thanks. 

JP: Can you describe some of the differences between how you imagined working in conservation would be (before you started) and how it actually is? 

HS: I guess like so many people who set out to become conservationists, of course I thought I could save the world, that was a very long time ago, and you slowly realise that’s not what it’s really about. I guess I’ve realised that the problems are a lot worse than I thought when I first started out, and actually a lot of those problems really are worse than when I first thought about wanting to go and save the world back when I was a teenager. There are so many more problems and issues that I know about now that I had absolutely no inkling of back then, which is probably a good thing, otherwise I may not have gone down that route and just been scared off by the whole thing. But you have to just find your place and do what you can within that.

Helen Scales Photo: Steve Trewhella.

Helen Scales Photo: Steve Trewhella.

JP: So, what would you say now to somebody contemplating a career in conservation who feels that the challenges we face are simply too huge and complex for one individual to make a meaningful difference?

HS: It’s something we all have to confront, whether we’re thinking of a possible career in conservation or just in our everyday lives – I think it’s about getting that balance right between being inspired and motivated to do something on the one hand, and being overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems on the other. There always has to be a part of you that is an optimist and the belief that you can make a difference. You have to nurture the optimistic part of yourself and remind yourself why you’re doing it.

Jim Pettiward: April, 2016

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