Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is not your typical scientist. He talks about love and emotions.
You see his passion when he recalls a trip with one of his young daughters to a faraway island where the sky and water were blue and bright or when he speaks about lessons he learned from his late waterman father. Watch Nichols while he talks about his own experience with sea turtle conservation in Baja, Calif. and you see his eyes light up.
Recently Nichols gave a warm and engaging talk at the Environmental Learning Center (ELC) in Vero Beach. He is the author of the 2014 national best-selling book "Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do."
Tall, trim and handsome, Nichols, 49, was dressed in a navy blue dress shirt untucked over jeans and boots. He shared the many ways in which water positively impacts our minds, bodies, overall health and sense of well-being. Showing how an ocean, or any natural body of water, can have a unique relationship with the human psyche.
Nichols' work is getting plenty of attention. A marine biologist and conservationist, seven years ago he began hosting seminars that attract neurologists and psychologists from around the world. He also calls in big wave surfers, adventurers and artists. He calls the concept "Blue Mind" which morphed into the book.
"I noticed in a lot of environmental books that less than a chapter was devoted to water," Nichols related. "There was a disconnect with the vastness and importance of it. Marine science is about ecological, economic and educational values. What was left out was the emotional value and I wanted to fill it with this book."
Blue Mind does not come off as a dry science book. While Nichols is comfortable with complex neuroscience terms, the book is not bogged down with the details of research. He peppers the scientific parts of the book with fresh angles and lively stories. I thoroughly enjoyed the personal stories of the surfer, swimmer, sailor, diver, kayaker, paddle boarder, fisherman and those who sometimes risk their lives working on the water. Nichols points out that water therapy is increasingly being used to treat a variety of ailments, including drug addiction, autism, and post traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans.
Nichols made a name for himself in the mid-1990s tracking a loggerhead turtle named Adelita that swam from Baja, Mexico to Japan, the first time anyone had recorded an animal swimming an entire ocean. He has spent much of his professional life studying sea turtles of the Pacific Ocean and working with fishermen in Baja, California to protect the turtles from poachers. Now he's exploring the scientific reasons why humans have such a deep connection with the deep blue. Most of us know that feeling of calm we get when we are on, in or just near the water.
"This is what you want if you're in the midst of a stressful week, you just want to hit that big blue reset button and get out here," says Nichols, who grew up not far from the New Jersey shore and these days lives with his wife Dana near Monterey, Calif. where their daughters attend school.
"There are all these cognitive and emotional benefits that we derive every time we spend time by water, in water or under water," he continues. "Even the actual color blue of the ocean generates a feeling of peace in our mind."
Water is the most omnipresent substance on earth, and together with air comprises the primary ingredients for supporting life. Our bodies consist of about 60 percent water and our brains, a whopping 75 percent.
"So when you see water, when you hear water, it triggers a response in your brain that you're in the right place. To simplify my message: it's get into the water and take someone with you who needs it."
Nichols writes that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water-- oceans, bays, lakes, rivers, waterfalls. In Blue Mind he investigates our emotional ties to water. Contemplates what happiness is and how it is evaluated. He looks at the effect of the color blue and why some people will pay a premium for waterfront property (and what in your brain is telling you to do it). Nichols goes even further by exploring why rafting, kayaking, surfing and water therapy is increasingly being used to treat a variety of disorders.
Neuroscientists have studied how everything from chocolate to red wine affects the brain, but they've somehow overlooked the single greatest feature on the planet. Experts at Nichols' Blue Mind annual conference have explored how being near the ocean can achieve the same stress-relieving effects of meditation and how the ocean ignites our emotional senses.
Nichols' office is a 1954 Airstream trailer parked at in a green space area off California Highway 1. He claims the "Earth" was misnamed.
"Some 72 percent of Earth is covered in water," he explained "From a million or even a billion miles away, it looks like a glistening blue marble."
Which brings us to his Blue Marble Project. It began on Jacques Cousteau's 100th birthday in 2010 as a simple way to make his ocean message true and memorable. At his ELC presentation Nichols stood at the door passing out blue marbles to each attendee. Quizzical looks abounded.
"Hold it at arm’s length,” he said to the audience. "That is what the Earth looks like from a million miles away—a water planet. It's very much in the spirit of Carl Sagan and Stuart Brand. Today there are more than a million blue marbles being passed person to person around the globe. Now think of someone who’s doing good work for the ocean. Hold it to your heart: think of how it would feel to you and to them if you randomly gave a gift of this marble as a way of saying thank you. It feels good to be given a blue marble, and to share it forward."
Through social media for the past several years, Vero Beach's Julia Thompson has been in touch with Nichols and his message.
"He's changing the perception of what water does for us which is so relevant since we live close to ocean and the sea turtles that come ashore," she said. "I'm excited for the information Dr. Nichols is sharing. He is consistently inspiring, offering examples of how to make a real difference. He's a waterman in the truest sense of the word."
Nichole is working on a sequel, "Go Deeper," a book that explores all of the benefits of healthy waterways and oceans at each of the seven stages of our lives from birth through death.
One of his heroes is Archie Carr, the father of sea turtle research. At the ELC Nichols paid tribute to Carr and his book So Excellent a Fische. The Archie Carr Wildlife Refuge, stretching from Vero Beach into southern Melbourne Beach, sees more loggerhead turtle nests than any place in the world.
"Sea turtles were routinely being slaughtered and Archie was just one man, so 40 or 50 years ago he was really up against it. I can relate back when I went to talk with turtle fishermen in the Baja, that wasn't cool. But over time they turned around, too.
"Here's the thing. Archie had this immense emotional connection to these magnificent creatures which made him unstoppable."
Emotional connection is at the core of Nichols' message. When people experience that passion, they can be unstoppable in their commitment to oceans, waterways and sea turtles.
"If you ever go to a turtle release and see that awe and joy in those young kids, that emotion is contagious," Nichols said. "When I look at ELC I see a school of awe, wonder and the solitude of sitting quietly alone with nature. We need more of the science of awe."