WORDS by Austin Humphries PHOTOGRAPHY by Marilyn McClanahan Bray and Emily Darling
It’s a difficult task to describe Tim McClanahan. He is a passionate man who lives, works, and plays in oceans all over the world. He is a father, husband, ecologist, surfer, conservationist, social scientist, saxophonist and fluent Swahili-speaking American. Tim lives in Mombasa, Kenya, where he conducts research on coral reefs in a profound effort to prevent their destruction as well as improve the livelihood of fishers and coastal communities. Having a long wrap sheet that overflows with accomplishments, Tim has authored over 100 scientific papers, written or edited 5 books, supervised over 35 graduate students (me being one of them), served on countless boards and committees internationally, and is an adjunct professor at universities on multiple continents. These credentials, however, are not what fascinate me most about Tim. I’m drawn to his freedom from stereotypes and fresh outlook on large, global environmental problems. I sat down with Tim to ask him a few questions about his journey becoming a marine scientist, what he considers to be the biggest problems we face today, and his philosophy on failure.
Tell us a bit about your background and your first memories of the sea.
I grew up on the east coast until I was 12 years old, and my family spent every summer on Cape Cod where I was on the beach every day. Also, my dad bought a Cal ’22 (sailboat), and we sailed in the New Haven harbour when I was a kid. I remember learning how to sail on these trips. I guess that’s where I began to fall in love with the sea. Then, we moved to California, and I began spending lots of time on the beaches of Ventura County and Santa Monica. That’s where I began to surf. The idea of surfing was absolutely fascinating to me so I spent every weekend surfing and sleeping on the beach. No doubt by that time, it was a passion.
Was this connection to the ocean through surfing the reason you pursued marine science as a career?
I knew if I didn’t go to college on the ocean where I could surf that I would not go at all. This limited my search and I hitchhiked to Santa Barbara with a tent, a surfboard and a fishing pole. After a week or two in Santa Barbara, surfing mushy conditions at Rincon and the areas around UC-SB, I decided to go check out Santa Cruz. The waves were pumping when I got there and I loved surfing Steamer Lane. I thought, “this is the place for me,” and I enrolled at Santa Cruz. So, yeah, surfing played a big part of choosing a college.
Did you know then you were going to be a marine scientist?
At that point I thought it was completely insane to be able to get a job in marine science and make a living—I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever. In my family, the typical idea of a job was being a doctor, lawyer or something conventional like these. I didn’t know there were many other options. In fact, I remember reading an article in Science magazine that had all the salaries of scientists, and marine scientists were the lowest of all paid salaries. The income was $12,000 a year. I wondered if I could really live on that. That article kind of convinced me that I had to do something else within the environmental sciences.
How did this play out in college?
At UC-Santa Cruz I began to take marine science courses, and I really liked one professor, John Pearce with whom I still stay in touch. He was particularly inspiring. It dawned on me then that I could maybe be a professor of marine science and make a decent living. However, I actually wasn’t obsessed with marine science at this point, and I took a lot of diverse courses. Marine science classes were just a part of it because I was also interested in other environmental disciplines, as well as languages.
How did you land in Kenya initially and what made it become your home?
I originally went to Kenya to study terrestrial wildlife in college. Here I met Nyawira, my future wife, who had grown up on the beaches in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). She had a very romantic view of tropical Africa and the beaches, and shared a vision of being a coral reef scientist with me. I thought that was cool, but can you imagine being a white American guy in Africa trying to be a marine scientist? After going back and forth from the US and Kenya to do a master’s degree and PhD at the University of Florida, the idea of marine science had really caught on for me. But Nyawira was working on the coast in Kenya, so I needed to find a way to get to her. I contacted an old friend who used to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society and said that I wanted to job, and that I’d like to work in Africa and begin some marine programs. I presented a seminar and at the end of it I was working for them. So I went back to Kenya and started the Coral Reef Conservation Project. This was in 1990.
“I think food security is going to become a larger issue and is the area where we will all have to settle in to find common ground—the left and the right, the environmentalists and the developers.”
What do you think are the biggest problems we’re faced with solving in not only marine ecosystems, but also the environment as a whole?
Climate change—it’s a different beast altogether. Many work hard at the local management levels and make some headway. But, the reality is…we don’t know how much we can do in what feels like a short period of time. For example, yesterday I was at a ‘tengefu’ (community-managed protected area where fishing is prohibited) in Kenya where a great deal of effort has been given to establishing this protected area. After all this effort to get the protected area started, I stood there counting bleached (dead) corals from increasing ocean temperatures, wondering how long these corals have to survive even in this protected area, and wondering if there are enough fish in the area to prevent seaweeds from overtaking corals. What I’m saying is that we are trying to make changes locally from a management perspective here in Kenya, but I wonder whether these actions will make a difference in a broader context. So for me, the most important thing is to get the management in places where we expect the coral reefs to survive climate change—refuge areas. We need to find where these places are and get the systems and management in place now to set these reefs up for success. This is essentially my day-to-day working program, as well as my long-term vision.
Are there specific areas of research you think are particularly important for the future, or that you’re becoming more interested in?
Global conversations, narratives, and debates change over time. I think that climate change has become a ‘no go’ conversation that has polarised people. Whenever I see polarisation, I think you need to change the language and the narrative a bit. What I’m saying is that I think we need to look for a way to find a language that accommodates everybody’s perspective on things. And, I think food security is going to become a larger issue and is the area where we will all have to settle in to find common ground—the left and the right, the environmentalists and the developers. I think this because food security covers issues of poverty, climate change, and all the different value systems people have. I see the issue of food security as bringing people together which is why I am particularly keen on researching marine food security. I think it will be one of the principal revolving issues. If we can use this as a vehicle and language to help us see future problems, we’re going to get more support locally and globally—and from all sides of the spectrum. This is why I am becoming more interested in what the effects of globalisation of markets are to the poor. I don’t think we know if these effects are generally good or bad. I am interested in developing ways of evaluating food security and how adaptation to climate change will or will not affect food security issues. All of this is currently emerging. We, as a group of scientists, have made a lot of progress on issues around climate change. Now, what does this mean for the people and food security? And, what are we going to do about it? This ultimately requires managing fisheries in the context of climate change and social adaptation.
What motivates you as a scientist investigating such massive, complex global issues of climate change and food security?
I like to be engaged in what I do. I realised pretty young that I’m happiest when I’m actively involved in things that matter to me. What I mean by that is that I don’t back away from things I think are important; rather, my approach is to get engaged in the process as much as possible and see if I get some movement with my actions. I get involved and actively engage because I am driven by curiosity. I also approach my work in a non-judgmental, hopeful and constructive way, as opposed to trying to take charge and change the world in a forceful way. I’m not really driven by changing the world, but I am just trying to move the conversation and the actions in a direction that I think will end up in better adaptation for people and the environment in the future.
“I see success and failure as part of a continuous movement through life, testing your resolve, adjusting your approaches, and working veins of success when you find them.”
Of which accomplishment are you most proud?
I’m most proud of my son and my relationship with my wife. And, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to hold it together for so many years in a very unconventional lifestyle. I think that I not only hold it together, but I think I thrive under what might be seen as difficult or stressful conditions. It’s more than thrive, it’s make a difference. I would also say that I’m proud of all the good relationships I’ve had over the years. I’m very proud of the fact that most of the people that work with me seem to do well in life, and they go on to do interesting things. I’m proud that I’ve been a mentor to a lot of people in showing them a way to lead a somewhat unconventional life and make a living out of it and do good at the same time, mostly being all the while fairly independent of economic forces.
I find that I learn a lot from the tough moments too. Can you talk about failure or whether there are one or two things you wish you could do again and differently?
I have problems with these types of questions because I don’t rank life experiences. I see success and failure as part of a continuous movement through life, testing your resolve, adjusting your approaches, and working veins of success when you find them. I also don’t dwell on problems—when I find difficulties, I tend to move around them or work on alternatives rather than focusing on the lack of success. Failure is a continuous process of moving towards success or fulfilling one’s creative potential. It pays to remember that the human mind has evolved to focus on problems and failures, that is part of our success as a species, but one has to make an effort to not do this excessively in order to avoid a life lived over-focused on the negative. I think it helps to remember what your idealistic goals were as a young person, and ask yourself if you are still working on these visions and principles, or if you have made compromises that your young self would not approve of. This is part of living from the heart, a connecting to a more innocent self and heart that would like to live a vibrant and meaningful life. Then, as an adult, one can look back and honour the desires of your younger self—how true have you been to your more innocent self?
And lastly, what is your most nagging thought currently?
I most worry that people will not meet their full potential and engage in solving key problems of human creativity and adaptation. That is, connecting to their fully creative and open–minded selves, or that I won’t fully do this before I complete my life. So far, however, I seem to be staying on that connected and creative path and would like to see more of us do the same.