Deeper water

Knee deep

I have snorkelled since I could swim, and have wanted for as long as I can think to grow up and be a mermaid. I think my tail would be blue…

In waters off Koh Kradan, Trang, Thailand

After years of (literally) dreaming about having the ability to breath underwater, I went and done did my PADI Open Water Certification.

It was a snap decision. Travelling in the western state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, I wandered into the Scuba Junkie office amidst the humdrum of Semporna to book snorkelling in the famous Coral Triangle; home to the Sipadan Marine Reserve, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s best dive sites.

“If you’re not getting your hands dirty on this issue, you should be.”

“If you have that many days in town, why don’t you just do your scuba diving certification?” It was an irresistibly sensible question. And so, with ten minutes to spare before the three day course began in the windowless, cramped back room of the dive shop, I signed on.

Five days later, after a full day of theory, two days training in the water, and another two of immaculate fun dives off the islands of Mabul and Kapalia, I had joined the ranks of one very special community.

 

 

“Up to here” with it

Back home in Melbourne, Australia my new addiction steered me to significantly colder waters and my dear friends at Dive2U. A family owned and operated business, these guys are un-believable in their engagement with community and conservation.

Just one of their many conservation-geared projects/events, Dive2U owner AJ Morton decided it was high time to take to the marina waters around Blairgowrie Pier and CLEAN UP; a way of giving back to the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron for their support of the dive community over the years.

(Also see Operation Sponge – the cutest and my favourite – which got a great write up from the ABC).

As the team of 15 divers splintered off into groups, we started at the far (western) end of the marina fingers; working our way east towards the main wall, slowly weaving around the concrete support pillars, passing under the shadows of the yachts above. And boy did we find a lot of rubbish.

Plastic, rope, bits of metal, tyres, pots and pans, hats, clothes… even a mobile phone! As Dive2U reports, however, “it was great to see most of the debris found seems to be accidental… from broken ropes to dropped items. There was no sign of deliberate dumping.”

 

 

The next clean up dive with Dive2U will run in conjunction with the Sea Sheppard Marine Debris Campaign Australia team, and is scheduled for Sunday, 29th April at Mornington Pier. You can also sign up with Dive2U to participate in Slug Safari and contribute to the first nudibranch census run in the area by the Victorian National Parks Association, the 2018 Sea Slug Census.

 

Let’s stop drowning in it

When you hear the ocean is choking with plastic, that’s one thing. Seeing it is another, and both Mabul and Blairgowrie Pier are relatively pristine! When you dig a little deeper on this issue, or look to the leadership of old hat players in this game like Sea Shepherd, the message is clear; we are morally obligated to contribute to removing plastic from marine environments.

Yes, prevention is key. But we continue to accumulate rubbish in our oceans regardless of the present efforts to reduce and refuse plastics.

A recent estimate published in Science predicts that between 4 and 12 million metric tonnes of plastic entered our oceans in 2010 alone, reportedly enough to cover every metre of coastline on the planet. Taking direct action to address the tail end of this enormous influx of crap, groups like Sea Shepherd Australia and the Marine Debris Campaign run volunteer-powered clean ups to remove it from our shores. In 2016 alone, the Marine Debris Campaign removed some 430,000 pieces of junk, more than 75% of which was plastic, much of it represented by single-use items.

Here are the stats from a single 90 minute clean up run in Freemantle.

 

 

I am not going to mince my words here. If you’re not getting your hands dirty on this issue, you should be. Seventy percent of our planet is covered by oceans and seas. These vast spaces are predicted to host millions of marine species, as many as 91% of which remain unknown to science. There’s a parallel universe down there folks. And we’re choking it with plastic.

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Best space day ever

As many of you know, I have the special privilege of working as a science educator at the Victorian Space Science Centre (VSSEC), Strathmore, Victoria. VSSEC’s flagship program for young teenagers, loosely based on the Space Camp program, Alabama (watch this for a run down), is the Mission to Mars; a simulation of humankind’s soon-to-be first landing on our neighbouring planet.

 

 

This stellar, fully-interactive Mission to Mars program sends half the student group to mission control, while the other half are landed on Mars as a team of scientist and engineer astronauts. The astronauts conduct experiments, monitor weather readings and collect samples on a simulated Martian surface, while their mission controllers direct them in their endeavours, problem solving and negotiating the astronauts through technical malfunctions and martian dangers to bring their people safely home.

 

 

Uniquely, we had the pleasure last week of running a Mission to Mars for The Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine (ASAM). These visitors were somewhat different to the 13 through 15 year-old astronauts we usually unleash on Mars. These ASAM visitors were a collective of highly skilled pilots, engineers, psychologists, biomedical scientists and educators.

The whole day was a huge buzz; alive with exciting discussions about humans in space, the potential of life on Mars, and what our motivations for exploring that planet should be.

Among these discussions and meetings, however, there was a particular stand out for me. I got to chat with Mars One candidate Dianne McGrath.

Her eyes are firmly fixed on the skies, but not for the reasons one might expect. You see, Dianne McGrath is motivated by her insight into humanities urgent need to extend our sustainable practices. As she explained to me, Mars One provides an opportunity to model the behaviour she wants to see us humans take down here on solid ground; complete sustainability in water, energy, food and waste. There is simply no other choice in the Martian habitat.

For real time insights into student-led space and Mars programs, follow @VSSEC@SpaceCampUSA and @TheMarsGen on Twitter, or check out their websites (in-text) for program information.

 

Mission to Mars photos courtesy of Marc Jurblum @mars_psych, used with permission. 

A huge thanks to Rabbot Hutch, the inquisitive man behind the camera, genuinely amazing artist, dog owner and housemate extraordinaire. Follow him @rabbothutch on insta.

Follow pug Thor @Thormypug on insta.

Best space day ever goes out to Nicole Morton, the most aspiring and inspiring woman I am lucky enough to call my friend.

 

 

Part 3: First Humans

On a hilltop in the Sahara Desert (Morocco, far northern Africa), at a retired mining site called Jebel Irhoud, a group of paleoanthropologists recently changed the course of history.

The team was led by one Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. The story of Jebel Irhoud kicked off in the 1960’s, when baryte mining operations at the site uncovered some pretty amazing, then-dubbed pre-human artefacts.

Starting in 1961, myriad stone tools and hominid fossils were uncovered after an on-site miner discovered what would later be identified as a hominid skull; ‘hominid‘ being the group that comprises all modern and extinct Great Apes–feat. humans–as well as all their immediate ancestors. This miner, presumably somewhat but not entirely unaware of the value of this piece, gifted the skull to an engineer who then held on to the artefact as a souvenir. Eventually, the skull was relinquished to the University of Rabat, Morocco, leading to the first paleontological expedition to Jebel Irhoud in 1961.

On account of the work carried out during this expedition, the Jebel Irhoud site was first falsely dated to just 40,000 years ago. As such, and because of the stone tools present that were historically associated with ancient relatives of us modern humans, the Moroccan hominid fossils from Jebel Irhoud were originally attributed to Neanderthal; a ‘sister species’ of Homo sapiens thought to have evolved directly from Homo erectus alongside us modern humans.

Re-enter Jean-Jacques Hublin.

Following on some forty years later, starting in 2004, Hublin’s group revisited Jebel Irhoud. To say the least, he is a little modest about the work they carried out there…

“We were very lucky,” Hublin says. “We didn’t just get dates, we got more hominids.”

Hublin’s team got a lot more hominids, but the most exciting finding was the spectacularly older date they calculated for the Jebel Irhoud site: a brand-spanking 300,000 years.

They also reexamined the hominid remains, and attributed them to Homo sapiens, rather than Neanderthals, making these the oldest known record of the modern human race. In doing so, Hublin’s team pushed the world’s start date for our species back by almost 100,000 years.

Furthermore, “artifacts found with the fossils suggest that activities typical of modern humans also emerged by 300,000 years ago”, says paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks, George Washington University. It also evidences a “a lot of communication across the continent,” Brooks says, “a  pan-African phenomenon, with people expanding and contracting across the continent for a long time.”

Just listen to Hublin explain the significance of this pan-African phenomenon.

 

 

See Part 1: Jane Goodall and Part 2: The Leakey Legacy for a good ol’ fashioned, well-rounded look at the events and reading that brought me to this story in the first place.

The original article, Hublin et al. (2017) “New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and thpan-African origin of Homo sapiens”, published in Nature 546 can be found here.

All other references linked to in-text.

 

 

Part 2: The Leakey Legacy

Jane Goodall’s early work on chimpanzees was solicited by paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey (pictured with her above), who believed the study of primates to be pivotal to an understanding of the early evolution of humans. Having facilitated Goodall’s scientific blossoming (see Part 1: Jane Goodall), in his own right Louis Leakey is an enduring, iconic figure in paleoanthropology. 

Here enters the Leakey family.

Born in 1903, Louis Leakey spent most of his life married to and working in collaboration with his second wife, Mary Leakey (paleontologist). Together, they raised three sons, including the paleoanthropologist to-be Richard Leakey.

“Louis Leakey led what can only be described as a life fit for fiction. Think Indiana Jones, and you’re on the right track.”

Throughout their long careers, all three paleo-inclined members of the Leakey family uncovered anthropological artefacts that have continued to serve as essential, illustrative pieces in the narrative we now tell on the evolution of our species. These artefacts, stone stools and pre-human and Homo fossil remains, were essential to the scientific epiphany that early humans evolved in Africa.

 

 

 

First man to the family, Louis Leakey was also the first in his science to prescribe multiple, concurrent lines of evolution within our ancestral history (rather than a single evolutionary chain of a -> b -> c -type transitions). He was also the first to argue fiercely for Africa as the ‘cradle of humanity’, an assertion further evidenced by the work of Mary and Richard Leakey, and one that has truly stood the test of time.

Amongst Louis Leakey’s academic acclaim–the publication of some 20 books and over 150 scientific articles in his time–Louis Leakey led what can only be described as a life fit for fiction. Think Indiana Jones, and you’re on the right track.

Time for the ‘adventure highlights tour’ of father and son.

Having grown up speaking Kukuyu (the language and name of the largest ethnic group in Kenya) as fluently as English, Louis Leakey was initiated as a tribe member in his teenage years. As a grown man, dispute over the veracity of some of Louis’s research claims led to his being ousted from Cambridge in 1935, and living in veritable poverty for some 18 months thereafter. This was due to some serious academic misfortunes, including compromised photographic film and the removal of research site markers by local tribesman for use as harpoons. In 1939,  he was drafted by the Kenyan government as an intelligence policeman.

Louis also involved himself, carefully, in the politics of the country; namely between the Kukuyu and white colonialists. At one stage between 1949-52, he was placed under 24-hr government guard against the Mau Mau, a guerrilla organisation of Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, which was striking out against the resident European settlers, but he also wrote extensively in defence of the Kukuyu’s rights. He also famously debated the ethics of female genital cutting with Jomo Kenyatta, who later became a president of Kenya, and he conducted the first Pan-African Congress of Prehistory. 

Richard Leakey, son to Louis Leakey, lived a similarly adventure-ridden life. Growing up in Nairobi, his major endeavour as a teenager was in trapping and skeleton supply; utilising his skills on horseback and as a Land Rover mechanic. As a young adult in 1967, on an expedition to excavate fossils along the Omo river, his boat was attacked by crocodiles. The contingent of onboard workers barely escaped with their lives. In 1993, Richard had his legs crushed in a plane crash wherein sabotage was suspected, but never proven. And, as the first chairman of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, he created armed anti-poaching units that were authorised to kill poachers on site.

These guys were 20th century badass.

And their legacy continues today, in a big way. See Part 3: First Humans, and check out the Leakey Foundation’s Origin Stories podcast to find out how.

 

Sources

The Leakey Foundation website, accessed 13/07/17. https://leakeyfoundation.org/about/the-leakey-family/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Leakey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Leakey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Leakey

Full family tree available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leakey_family

Part 1: Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is an incredible woman. A force to be reckoned with. She has a rare tenacity and a fierce sense of personal responsibility for her impact on the planet. In her own words:

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

This year, Think Inc. delivered an Australia wide tour in collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute; a ‘fire side’ chat with the woman herself, fronted up by a casual talk from Jane. I attended the Melbourne event at the Plenary on June 16th, where Jane Goodall told of her childhood fascinations with animals, the unfolding of her dream to work with animals in Africa, and spoke on her now long history of global activism.

This is a woman who worked crappy secretarial and hospitality jobs to scrape together enough pennies for the boat ride from England, around the Cape of Africa, on to Nairobi. A woman who essentially pioneered the field of animal behavioural science, in spite of being badly ridiculed by much of the scientific community. And a passionate activist that admits she has not been in the same place for more than two or three consecutive weeks for some 30 years.

Jane Goodall’s personal story brings together true anthropological discovery, which is still unfolding today (see Part 3: First Humans)–but which had more of a wild west-type twang through the course of the C20th (see Part 2: The Leakey Legacy)–with pressing modern day issues: environmental degradation, overconsumption and human desperation in the developing world.

In writing this three-piece blog series I came to realise that, in truth, there is little I can say to elucidate Jane Goodall’s work, insight and ferocity that she does not immediately demonstrate herself. Just watch her.

 

 

To end on a moral note as Goodall did herself, the crux of Jane’s fear for the world seems to be this; in spite of the undeniable evidence for human-induced climate change, in spite of the devastating degradation of natural habitats carried out by our species, so many of us continue to do nothing. And as she emphasises, our time to make a difference is already on the clock.

“The greatest danger to our future is apathy,” she says.

Since attending Jane’s Think Inc. talk, I have started to realise how often the children and teenagers I meet through my education and science communication work have already adopted, at their fledgling age, a wholly hopeless outlook on our planets future.

I, myself, am wholeheartedly committed to realism but, as Jane clearly indicates herself, we need, absolutely, to remain optimistic. In fact, our future depends on it.

“You would be amazed at what inspired children can do.” – Goodall

 

Information on the Roots & Shoots program referred to at the end of this video can be found here, with some 23 schools participating in Victoria alone at the time of writing.

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