Today I turn 23. With every birthday there is a certain amount of expectations for the new year, and a time to reflect. At midnight, I found myself with a glass of wine and my best friend, trying to figure out how I got to where I am today.
I’ve just graduated from Stanford University as a Marine Biologist. I am now in graduate school with a focus in Marine Policy. Throughout my career I have been determined to seek opportunities to gain experience in the field. I earned my PADI Divemaster as soon as I became of age, completed numerous individual and group research projects at institutions across the world, and have had many conversations with those at the top of their field to soak in their advice. It all seems like a blur, but I keep the childhood sense of wonder and amazement close to my heart to guide me through.
I remember the first time I went SCUBA diving. I was 12 years old and on vacation with my family in Turks and Caicos. Our hotel had a one day Beginner Scuba Class. After using my persuasive skills (at least those of a very eager 12-year-old), my parents allowed me to try it out. I can still hear my heart beating deep within my chest, under all of that equipment, as I waited by the side of the hotel pool. Along the concrete edge we all stood, myself (a small child) in the middle of six other beginners (tall and middle-aged men). Although I felt out of place among the other students, once I plunged into the sea I felt right at home. I instantly relaxed as I saw the way that the sunlight entered the water in a scattered and beautiful pattern. The colors and diversity of everything astounded me. You can actually hear the parrotfish chomping down on the coral. You can see the clownfish moving in and out of its anemone home. You can watch as a cleaner wrasse enters a grouper’s mouth unharmed and feeds on parasites. A sense of wonderment overcame me as I realized that all of this, the busyness, the beauty, the bountifulness, is happening all the time. When I drive to the grocery store, while I’m sleeping, even when I’m blowing out candles on my birthday cake, there is a whole world that is continuously working and living. To me it’s funny how NASA spends so much money on exploring space; how people are so interested in finding another world, when all they had to do was look under the surface.
Diving inspired me to pursue an education and career in Marine Science. Last winter I attended a seminar by a local coral expert from The Coral Reef Alliance. He showed photos of destroyed coral communities in the Caribbean. Entire ecosystems had been degraded by coral bleaching, trawling, and other human induced threats. I’ve seen pictures like this before, but it wasn’t until he started saying the names of the sites that it became truly personal. All of a sudden I realized that these were pictures of some of the first dive sites I ever visited. I was shocked to see that the exact places that motivated me to pursue my major, that gave me the energy to work hard at all hours, and that led me to so many adventures, were gone. I instantly became depressed, imagining that my friends and family would never have the chance to see the places that caused such a strong response in me, and they would never truly understand why I am who I am today.
Until recently, I hadn’t considered myself a conservationist. I loved the ocean for what it was, the wonders deep inside it, the perfect vacation spots, the questions it sparked. Yet through my studies and the stories I’ve heard from people all around the world, from scientists to fishermen, I’ve realized that it’s not okay to love the ocean and ignore the opportunities to channel that passion into doing something positive to protect it. I’m 23 and I’ve already lost something that had one of the biggest impacts on my childhood and sparked the passion for my career path. Yet, I still have hope that everything won’t be lost, that my friends, family, both present and future, will be able to dive into that turquoise colored water and explore all the fascinating wonders below the surface.