Two weeks ago, I was awakened on a Saturday morning by an urgent message from one of Ocean Conservancy’s scientists, Marine Debris Specialist Nick Mallos.
Nick had spent the past three weeks in Japan surveying tsunami damage and participating in cleanups along the coast. The next morning, he was scheduled to depart on the Algalita/5 Gyres Tsunami Debris Research Expedition heading to Maui along the path of the tsunami debris.
But Nick had suddenly become seriously ill and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. “I’m so sorry to let you down,” he wrote, “but I won’t be able to join the expedition.”
His words were immediately heartbreaking and terrifying. It was my first day and first test as Interim President and CEO. I assembled a crisis team of staff, who stayed up around the clock to do everything we could to take care of Nick from thousands of miles away.
Accepting inherent risks
The truth is there are always inherent risks in sending scientists out into the field, but the return on that invested risk is knowledge that helps people and nature. Without knowledge, we can’t provide the solutions that are needed to protect the ocean, which gives us much of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.
But Nick isn’t our only staff person who accepts risks to protect the ocean for future generations. Fieldwork during the Exxon Valdez spill provided our scientists with the expertise needed to deal with the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean Conservancy staff members have also braved rough seas to learn about fish populations, navigated frigid waters to help establish marine protected areas and tracked debris on beaches all over the world.
When we were presented with the opportunity to send Nick out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to study marine debris, the decision was difficult but obvious – with Nick rightly bringing the opportunity to our attention. In the end, we took a calculated risk in an effort to serve the greater good and to further our scientific knowledge in pursuit of protecting what we, and you, love.
Taking care of our own
On the Saturday that I got the urgent message from Nick, our worst-case scenario for his participation in the expedition became a reality.
Within minutes of receiving the news, staff members were making phone calls, sending emails and reaching out to our expansive network. From International Coastal Cleanup coordinators and Japanese journalists to partner organizations, Ocean Conservancy board members and well-connected friends, our contacts helped us get Nick to the hospital, learn about the Japanese medical system, secure translation and transportation services, and communicate with the American Embassy.
Within 12 hours, we had arranged for a senior staff member to accompany Nick’s fiancée to Japan and connected them with translators who could help interpret for Nick and his Japanese physicians at the hospital. Throughout the process, we kept cool heads and worked together seamlessly, despite the difficulties of language barriers and time zones, to get Nick the help he needed.
Keeping our commitment
Nick’s full recovery remains our top priority, and I’m happy to report that he is improving every day and expects to be discharged from the hospital in Japan this weekend. As he continues to get better, the rest of the Trash Free Seas’ team is working in full force to address the important issue of tsunami debris and its potential effects on our ocean and shorelines.
While Nick is not physically on the boat, we are committed to supporting the expedition and will focus our efforts where we can be the most helpful. We’ll be tracking the results of the expedition, monitoring shorelines for debris, participating in on-the-ground cleanups, and advocating for the resources and education needed to tackle debris in the water and ashore.
I’m thankful that Nick was able to complete the first phase of his research trip, seeing and hearing firsthand accounts of the tsunami aftermath and participating in cleanups along the Japanese coast. Nick describes these experiences as life-changing, and those stories — some of which he has already shared here — will help us increase awareness and understanding of the tsunami’s impact on people and the ocean.
And you can remain confident that Ocean Conservancy will continue to pursue difficult science and policy decisions even when there are risks involved. Our commitment is to do our very best to protect this one ocean of ours. Thank you for your continued support.