A Lifetime Under the Waves
THE WORD “LAB” may suggest white coats, microscopes, and petri dishes. But for Jon Witman and the members of his lab at Brown University, the word has a completely different—and wetter—connotation.
The group of 10 spends much of their time together as a lab in the field, most frequently in the iconic Galápagos Islands.
“I work closely with all my students underwater,” says Witman, a marine ecologist, who has been a member of Brown University’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department since 1994 and whose research focuses on seafloor communities such as corals, mussels, and urchins.
“You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone this far along in their career that spends as much time underwater as he does,” says Robbie Lamb, Witman Lab Ph.D. candidate, who studies fish communities that live in the water column.
Witman, who began diving off the coast of New Jersey when he was 16 years old, has worked under six of the Earth’s seven oceans. (It would only take Antarctica’s Southern Ocean to complete the set.) He also lived in an underwater sea base for two weeks, studying corals and sponges on a deep-sea reef.
“Since I’ve joined the lab, he’s taken me on some of those adventures,” Lamb says.
A LONG-TERM PERSPECTIVE
For the last 18 years, Witman and his students have spent at least three months a year studying marine biodiversity in the Galápagos, which Witman says has the highest functional diversity level in the entire world. The members of his lab say they’re lucky to be able to use the island chain as a living laboratory.Witman and a changing group of students have gone to the same 12 sites every eight months since 1999.
In some of their most-studied areas, Witman and his students have set up permanent quadrats. Placed randomly within an interesting habitat, scientists can identify and record the different species in the area, gaining a representative sample.
“You can investigate the way ecosystems should work in the rest of the world,” Lamb says of the Galápagos. Coming back year after year has allowed these researchers to watch the pristine ecosystems shift and change as the entire Earth shifts and changes.
Lamb says that you can’t really call anything baseline in the Galápagos. “It’s just too dynamic,” he says. “But we have Jon’s long-term perspective to draw on. He’s really got a sense of what’s normal, what patterns are repeating, and what’s never been seen before.”
Since 1999, Witman has followed the Galápagos ecosystems through three full El Niño-Southern Oscillations, ENSO for short. ENSO is a naturally occurring climate pattern across waters in the tropical Pacific. It comprises a warm phase (El Niño) and a cool phase (La Niña). ENSO may be naturally occurring, but the magnitude of the variability is getting larger as Earth’s climate warms.
(Above) Jon Whitman in his lab. Photo by Dana Smith
The question becomes how far outside of the mean can these observations go until they are no longer able to recover.
Witman recalls the first time he saw the devastating effects of bleaching on the reefs he knew so well during a research trip in January 2008. “Seeing the first large-scale coral bleaching in the Galápagos, in places that I knew like the back of my hand, absolutely blew me away.” Witman says the reefs looked like “a snowfield underwater.”
AN UNDERSEA LIFE LONG-TERM PERSPECTIVE
The Galápagos weren’t Witman’s first experience with a troubled ecosystem. As a New Jersey high school student, he volunteered at the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory. During the 1960s, it was legal (and commonplace) to dump sludge and sewage off the New York and New Jersey coasts.
“Starting from six miles out, the water would go from olive green to black as far as you could see,” says Witman. “There was a place called the acid grounds that would dry the monofilament [single-strand fishing line] to white.”
Inspired by these experiences, Witman started his college career at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania but left to conduct a year-long independent study in New Zealand. He studied animal-sediment relationships in New Zealand’s Blueskin Bay Estuary. That year stuck with him.
“This experience taught me how to do science, and it helped develop my world view of ecology and sense of belonging to a global human community,” he says. After that, he took a long break from his undergraduate studies, using the academic hiatus to work and dive on underwater salvage operations.
“When I took a year and a half off, I was young, and I was exploring,” says Witman, adding that even if he wasn’t sure what form his future career would take, his path was “always directed toward the ocean.”
Witman went on to finish his undergraduate career and go straight through to complete his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire.
Marine iguanas, which live only in the Galápagos, are threatened by climate change. Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak
PROTECTING ANOTHER WORLD
The graduate work took him closer to home in waters off the Northeast United States. Cashes Ledge is an underwater mountain range and kelp forest located in the Gulf of Maine, about 80 miles off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It boasts an enormous amount of biodiversity. Scientists believe the area was formed by the same geological event that created the White Mountains.
Marine biologist and conservationist Sylvia Earle calls Cashes Ledge, which comes within 30 meters of the surface, the “Yellowstone of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Witman started working on Cashes Ledge in the mid-80s, a time he calls the “Sputnik Era for marine ecology.” There was a big funding push by the federal government to use ships and submarines to study offshore and deep areas in the Gulf of Maine. Today, although there are significantly fewer funding opportunities than there were in the 1980s, Witman still studies on Cashes Ledge, getting there at least once a year, and he tries to bring students with him.
“I believe there’s a trend for fewer graduate students working underwater. It takes longer to get your data and it’s harder,” says Witman. “But it’s great to bring students to a marine location and show them how to work underwater and how to ask the questions and get the answers about what’s important to marine life.”
Fiona Beltram, a Brown University senior who has been a member of the Witman Lab since her first day of freshman year, has joined the research teams in the Galápagos twice so far. “It’s just such a cool experience to be able to have,” she says. “When suddenly that piece of random classroom information becomes relevant when you’re underwater… that’s really, really important.”
Lamb, too, has been lucky enough to benefit from Witman’s drive to bring students to the field. In addition to joining him in the Galápagos, Lamb has visited the waters near the remote Easter Island and the rich Cashes Ledge area.
“Going down through this murky water, I see this fluid, wavy movement, and I see this kelp forest that stands about 15 feet high,” says Lamb, describing the first time he visited Cashes Ledge as “descending into another world.”
Witman has been working for years to get the U.S. government to list the Cashes Ledge area as a National Marine Monument—the equivalent of a national park in the ocean. “A farmer doesn’t harvest their seed crop,” says Witman. “We need these refuges, we need areas that are permanently protected.”
A protected area in the Gulf of Maine could be especially important. Where ocean temperatures worldwide have risen at an average rate of 0.12oc every decade since 1980, sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are warming 99 percent faster than those on the rest of the planet.
BURNING THE LIBRARY
Trying to get Cashes Ledge declared as an underwater monument was “very much a politically active process, which as a scientist, you’re sort of averse to,” says Lamb. But, Witman says, “with all of the human impacts, it’s like we’re burning the library of ocean biodiversity before we even know what’s in the books. We need more exploration.
To really manage the oceans properly, Witman believes we need to understand three key things:
- Which species are the keystones of the community?
- How does biodiversity affect how ecosystems function?
- And perhaps most importantly: How is this all being altered by us as humans?
He recalls that when he was advocating for the protection of Cashes Ledge, people were amazed at the photos of the area’s biodiversity. “It’s kind of astonishing … People had no idea that there was all of this spectacular marine life just 100 miles away,” says Witman.
“We don’t really know what the biodiversity of the ocean is,” he says. “And my God, that’s ridiculous!”
That passion for exploration, and the importance of sharing your knowledge with those outside of science are things he passes on to the students in his lab. “What’s the point of your trying to improve our relationship with nature and the world and creating a sustainable planet if no one is informed by your information?” he says. “It’s much better to hear it from someone who is passionate about it than to read about it in a textbook.”
THE TUNA & THE WHALE
When he started his undergraduate work in marine ecology, the type of work he was drawn to—environmental and anthropogenic—was frowned upon. At a time when the field of ecology focused on ecological theory rather than human impacts, Witman’s kind of research was referred to as “applied ecology.”
“Luckily the field has come full swing to realize that working on human impacts on the marine ecosystem is tremendously important,” says Witman.
It’s a message he works hard to pass onto his students. Work in the field, he says, is not always an easy road. “But I always tell my students that to find something you’re passionate about and reasonably good at … if you can line up those two axes, you’ve absolutely got it made.”
Witman calls himself lucky. Not just for the places he’s traveled and the work he’s done, but for being able to share that work with his students. “I’ve had a wonderful career I’m passionate about,” he says. “And I just love being on the ocean and underneath it.”
Witman’s approach has certainly had an effect on his students. Lamb describes Witman’s mentorship with a metaphor from marine biology. On one end of the continuum, he says, is the tuna that puts out 200,000 tiny eggs, of which only a few will survive. On the other end is a whale that has one baby every few years, but it puts tremendous energy into the development of that baby.
“Jon is the whale,” says Lamb. “He’s willing to sacrifice perhaps some of his own professional legacy in the volume for the quality of having well-developed, well-trained scientists coming out of his lab. I’d say that’s his calling card.”
– By Emily Greenhalgh