Unlocking an ocean of mystery

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Comparatively little is known about the vast oceans that cloak the Earth, but through a partnership with Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®, Rolex is encouraging young people to explore the seas. This forms part of our Perpetual Planet engagement with organizations working to protect the environment for future generations.

Why is it significant that Yann Herrera Fuchs encountered tens of thousands of sea urchins bristling across the ocean bed off the coast of Monterey, California? Why was Australia’s Great Southern Reef of such compelling interest to Olivia Johnson? And why was Èric Jordà Molina so entranced with an area in the Red Sea?

The answer is simple, and significant. These three 2018 scholars of the Rolex-partnered Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® are members of a new generation of smart, articulate scientists and environmentalists intent on understanding and communicating the profoundly important mysteries of the underwater world.

They know there is little detailed understanding of the oceans, which cover about 71 per cent of the world’s surface. The oceans regulate weather, global temperatures, and ultimately the conditions that support all forms of life, yet no more than 10 per cent of them have been explored, or even accurately mapped.

And that is why the society, with the assistance of Rolex, has sponsored 100 scholars since 1974. The organization gives young, highly committed scientists and environmentalists from North America, Europe and Australasia the opportunity to pursue dive-based research projects that can last for weeks or months and take them to different parts of the world.

The Society has helped to propel many of its scholars into careers in underwater sciences, marine research and various forms of environment-based activities. Michael Emmerman, the society’s past president, says: “If we destroy our ocean environment, we will destroy humanity. If [the scholars] can be put into an army tasked with getting the message out, we might be able to do something about it. It’s amazing what the scholarship year opens up to them.”

In the case of underwater cinematographer Adam Ravetch, his 1985 scholarship led to his working with National Geographic to produce a 2007 feature-length film, Arctic Tale, narrated by rapper Queen Latifah. Ravetch went on to win an Emmy Award for directing and filming Polar Bears: A Summer Odyssey. He described his scholarship period as “a game-changer”. The trio of 2018 scholars are beginning to experience the same sense of transformation.

Herrera Fuchs, 24, from Mexico, became fascinated with the jellyfish, urchins and starfish in tide-pools after his family moved to Seattle. A decade later, he was studying for a degree in environmental science in Vancouver.

He believes that more concerted action should be taken to protect the world’s oceans: “My greatest concern is that there still exists severe disconnection between people and their resources, both from a cultural standpoint and a scientific, conservationist one. And it is evident to me that people who are able to dip their heads underwater, literally or metaphorically, will be more prone to conservation.”

Through his Rolex Scholarship, Herrera Fuchs visited various places, including Mexico, where he was involved in a reef restoration project, took part in a drone-monitored count of Gulf turtles arriving on beaches in Oaxaca, and studied Acropora palmata, a threatened species of coral.

His dives in the kelp forests off Monterey, California, produced a particularly important insight: “Suddenly it became clear to me that we have a much larger role to play than just intervening and trying to control the changes in our environment. We have the capacity to study these changes and facilitate the adaptation of these species into an evolving world.”

Johnson’s scholarship has allowed her to examine marine life “in some incredible places around the world, 13 countries so far, and I’m only halfway through my year”.

The 23 year-old Tasmanian became hooked on all things oceanic when, at high school, she took a course titled Exploring the Oceans. It was a first step towards her degree in marine and Antarctic science.

Her explorations as a scholar have included a diving safari through the Polynesian islands between Fiji and Tahiti, an examination of the coral reefs at Ningaloo, Western Australia, and observing the flora and fauna of Australia’s Great Southern Reef.

“Change-related issues and threats to the ecological environment of local marine habitats in Tasmania and Australia opened my eyes up to how little the general public were aware of what was happening in their own backyard,” she says. “Gaining the skills to communicate to the general public, to give them the opportunity to understand and form educated opinions about ocean research and the real threats the oceans and their associate ecosystems face is critical. I feel that education is key – you can only protect what you know and understand.”

Jordà Molina, a 24 year-old from Barcelona, became a marine scientist following a childhood fascination with snorkelling off the Costa Brava. His key interest is benthic organisms; sea life that lives on or near the bottom of the sea. These creatures recycle decaying organic matter, capture CO2 from the atmosphere that is dissolved into the ocean and, crucially, are accurate indicators of the chemical and physical health of specific ocean areas.

His scholarship has taken him to the Red Sea, the Norwegian sub-Arctic fjords, the Baja California peninsula, and Somerset and Cornwall in the United Kingdom, where he studied 3D photogrammetry and gained high-level diver certifications. He says the society “is giving me the amazing opportunity to increase my experience in the underwater [research] field exponentially in an incredibly short time”.

“There are so many extraordinary things at the bottom of the seas that it is our obligation to document and protect as best as we can. Not only because they are extraordinary, but also because they have an important role for the good health of our planet.”

Molina was particularly engrossed by his research and underwater photography course in the Red Sea, where he dived among cathedral-like coral formations. “After 37 dives in 13 days around the southern Red Sea I still can’t believe all the things I’ve seen and discovered about the underwater world of this region. Now I realize how important seeing is in order to inspire caring.”

About the partnership

Rolex has sponsored the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society® since it was launched in 1974. It has since become a global organization with a vast community of ocean professionals. Its legacy is the success of the Rolex Scholars who are contributing to the exploration and protection of the underwater world.

The Rolex Scholars spend one year working with leaders in underwater fields such as marine biology, anthropology, archaeology and hyperbarics. They are undergraduates or graduates of high academic standing and are certified rescue divers, aged between 21 and 26. Each receives an engraved Oyster Perpetual Submariner.

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