A New Approach to Nature Shows

Courtesy Steve Palumbi

As harbor seals slap the calm, aquamarine waters of the Monterey Bay cove, Steve Palumbi is envisioning the ocean as it was two centuries ago—teeming with gray whales, tuna, swordfish and giant squid.

The fact that we can no longer see most of those but can still look out on the ocean "doesn't mean the ocean isn't suffering," the conservation ecologist says from his perch on the Aileen E. Haderlie memorial bench, overlooking Fisher's Beach. In jeans and tropical shirt, with a tidy gray ponytail, he looks like a songwriter (which he is) in search of just the right, thoughtful phrase. "It is suffering the absence of these animals, and the challenge is to try, in our minds and [computer] models, to put them back in, to understand what the ecosystems typically have been."

A professor of biological sciences at Hopkins Marine Station and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for the Environment, Palumbi is an expert on an aquarium's worth of critters: sea urchins, whales, cone snails, corals, sharks, spiders, shrimp, bryozoans and butterfly fishes. "Yeah, I have a short attention span," he says about his many research passions.

And that, he suggests, is the source of his latest project: Short Attention Span Science Theater. On location in American Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii and the Bahamas, Palumbi surfaces from nameless lagoons, shakes out his diving mask, faces the camera and starts chatting about coral bleaching or the life cycle of conchs. Back in the Mountain View studios of Garthwait & GriffinFilms, the videos are edited down to two or three minutes, at a cost of about $5,000 each, and posted online (www.microdocs.org) and on Stanford's iTunes site.

"Each 'microdoc' is about an important conservation issue, mostly in marine systems, and mostly in really gorgeous, warm-water locales," Palumbi says about his MTV-like, on-the-street-style series. "It's an attempt to give people something short to watch, and then permission to leave and go do something else."

The microdocs grew out of Palumbi's belief that for every person who watches an hourlong documentary on, say, the Discovery channel, there are thousands more who stop, watch briefly and cruise on by. "As a consequence, documentaries have tried to capture viewers' attention and hold them through fabulous photography, or, unfortunately, through high-adrenaline, predation ripping and tearing of organisms—so the huge number of shark shows."

Palumbi, by contrast, will take plumeria blossoms (stand-ins for coral tentacles) and drop them into coffee mugs arranged on a sandy beach, to explain how coral heads form. Or he will talk with a village mayor in American Samoa about why it is important to protect reefs. "Letting him tell the story is so insanely better than me standing up there, lecturing."

Palumbi has produced 20 microdocs, and has a long waiting list of topics he wants to pursue. In between video gigs, he supervises 10 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his Hopkins lab, working on projects as diverse as sea-urchin sperm, larval trajectories and whale genetics.

Palumbi also is working on a book, Back to Life, about how the bay outside his lab windows was transformed, in a relatively short 60 years, from a dumping ground for cannery fish guts to a marine life refuge where sea otters and kelp forests flourish. He is part of the science advisory team that is helping California officials set aside 28 similarly protected areas.

Then there's Palumbi the not-quite rock star—keyboard and guitar player-cum-impresario of the band Sustainable Soul. "It's a set of marine conservation biologists around the world. We were in a room together, once, when we thought of the name. But we have a hard time getting together because the drummer's in New York, the guitarist is in Malaysia and the harmonica's in Australia." Thanks to the forgiving nature of digital music, he adds, the band's signature tunes—including Crab Love—"for all the silliness, have powerful messages."

Palumbi suggests that there aren't "any real fences" between his research, teaching, writing and musical interests. Instead, they all are focused on his intense love of the marine world.

"It is completely, utterly amazing," he says about the ocean realm. "And when you find something like that is threatened, you kind of take it personally, and try to do what needs to be done to turn that around. I'm not a politician or a financier, but one tool I have is information. So all the work tends to be in the guise of, 'How do I learn things about the marine world that need to be known, and then how do I take that information and pass it on?'"

Read a January 2011 update on this story.