Life near the ocean is good

Posted by: Liz Parissenti

As a native resident of San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to grow up with the Pacific Ocean practically in my backyard. My family’s membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium allowed us to spend a weekend (or two) every month looking at the wonders of the ocean, and I remember spending hours staring at the Open Sea exhibit, laughing at the otters, and reaching gleefully in the touch tank and bat ray enclosure. Life near the ocean is good.

I also can’t remember a time before I knew that the ocean was a beautiful mystery that I wanted to explore. When I graduated from high school and thought about my major at Stanford University, I assumed what many people assume – that marine biology is a hobby, and that working with the ocean “isn’t practical.” I’m not sure why I believed this, except it seemed too perfect to be able to work with an ecosystem that I love and make a living. Yet my classes, peers, and professors taught me that anyone can work on anything (truly) if they work hard and care about the people that lead to solutions.

Snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California

During my sophomore year, I worked for a professor in Hawaii and earned my scuba certification. I found that underwater systems are the most dynamic places in the world. I then studied abroad in Australia, where I was able to dive and snorkel almost every day and have been obsessed with diving ever since. There’s nothing that can compare with the freedom and joy of being fully immersed in the ocean and seeing fish and ocean animals living on their terms. It is definitely humbling too, and the ocean never fails to awe me; I think if everyone could see the ocean as it exists beneath the waves, we would have a lot more ocean lovers and advocates.

In an effort to understand the ocean better, I completed an honors thesis on the giant squid Dosidicus gigas in Mexico – check out the photo, they are as big as I am! Creating scientific results was fascinating and rewarding and fun. However, I realized that without some powerful entity utilizing my science, someone who could apply this knowledge or change how people think about or interact with the ocean, it would be very difficult to change anything. The solution? In my opinion, policy.

Aboard the Don Jose, catching squid in Mexico.  The squid are people-sized!

I decided to pursue a Masters degree in Earth Systems from Stanford, an interdisciplinary program that allowed me to travel to Washington, D.C. and Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, CA, where I was able to work with two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) departments. I experienced firsthand how federal agencies work with NGO’s, state and local governments, and with each other. It was fascinating and eye-opening, and showed me an entirely new side of working with the ocean. I want to dip my feet into a healthy, vibrant ecosystem – and I want my children and grandchildren to do the same. Without some serious policy work, the ocean of the future is going to be significantly different from the one that I know today.

Hopkinsia rosacaea, the nudibranch named after Hopkins Marine Station where I studied.  It’s one of my favorites – my scuba gear is pink too, so that people won’t lose me in bad visibility.

When I was at Hopkins, I lived near downtown Monterey and could smell the ocean every day. Waking up to the foggy California coast seemed irrelevant when I could dive, and I learned how to identify the myriad of gorgeous invertebrates, fish, and algae. I wish I could describe the upwelling of joy that California’s coast brings me (pun intended). It is truly a magnificent place with wonderful people who care about what lies offshore.

The ocean has seemingly unlimited facets, secrets, and beauties. Policy certainly has the first two, and I am also learning how policy can be collaborative and enriching and beautiful in how it provides workable solutions to enormous problems. Our oceans are in trouble – you don’t have to be a scientist to know that. I have now completed my Masters degree and am heading to Thailand in October to explore the reefs and local conservation efforts. Before I go, I want to make sure I understood how politics and policy work to affect change because they greatly influence ocean health.  My internship with Ocean Champions is showing me how the people we elect – those representatives who speak for us locally, in Congress, and in international forums – are such an important part of finding answers to the world’s ocean crises. I want to continue to learn, and am so excited to continue growing as a marine manager and ocean conservationist.

Aplysia spp., also known as a “sea hare” – these are my absolute favorite sea creatures, and this little guy was feeling friendly on the Great Barrier Reef!

Date Posted: September 24, 2012 @ 9:40 am Comments Off

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