Chris Johnson coordinates WWF's Antarctic conservation program connecting science to policy outcomes such as establishing Marine Protected Areas at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
“I never thought I could be working to protect our oceans for future generations one day.” Chris Johnson is a marine scientist with expertise in technology and science communications. He lives in Melbourne but grew up in the United States, where he used to read his grandfather’s National Geographic Magazines and dream about unexplored seas. Years later, Chris and his team made dreams come true. For the first time ever, they managed to tag a minke whale to identify its feeding and breeding areas. We were fortunate enough to speak to Chris and today, he shares his story.
Hi Chris, before you tell us more about your Ocean Witness story, we’re very curious to hear what it was like to tag a Minke whale?
Earlier this year, I was working with scientist, National Geographic explorer and WWF collaborator Ari Friedlaender and his research team in Antarctica studying humpback and minkes whales. The aim was to deploy digital recording tag that attach to whales temporarily with suction cups, to study where and how they feed on krill. We were on a voyage with One Ocean expeditions, a polar tourism operator who hosts scientific teams to help them gather data that would otherwise be too costly to get. When tourist go out, the research team deploys a zodiac, a small inflatable boat, from the vessel, and searching for whales for 2-3 hours at a time. That day, we were scheduled to go out at 3pm but all of a sudden, the alarm sounded early. There was a breaching minke whale 10 meters off the port side of the ship. Ari yelled down that I needed to get my gear on right away. We wear many layers of clothing and waterproof equipment to work in the extreme cold. The team raced down the halls to gather the research gear and to board the zodiac. In the meantime, the whale kept breaching over and over again and was swimming right underneath the ship. Some of the tourism boats were out on the water. Everything and everyone went quiet as we got into place.
Quickly, yet cautiously, we approached the minke, logging on the surface. And then, before we knew it, there as a loud ‘pop’ from the suction cups. The tag was on. With almost 100 people watching us in action, a massive cheer erupted as if a last-second goal was scored in a World Cup soccer match. The sound of the cheering was explosive amongst the cool and quiet stretches of the Antarctic. It was actually my first encounter with an Antarctic minke whale and I was in awe about how inquisitive it was. It was so quick and effortless in its aquatic moves, turns and dives. It almost seemed as if the whale was more interested in us! It regularly raised its head out of the water to have a look – a behaviour called ‘spy-hopping’. It stayed with us for a while, before returning into the deep, cold waters of the Antarctic.
“It was actually my first encounter with an Antarctic minke whale. It almost seemed as if the whale was more interested in us! It regularly raised its head out of the water to have a look at us – a behaviour called ‘spy-hopping’. It stayed with us for a while, before returning into the deep, cold waters of the Antarctic.”
What is your earliest memory of the ocean?
Growing up in the United States, the ocean is a big part of the culture in New England. I loved spending time at the beach, looking out and dreaming about what seemed like an endless, untamed sea. As I grew up, it was only when I was older that I learned how little we understand it and how much it influences our daily lives. In my teens, I was incredibly inspired by Jacques Cousteau documentary films and the remote places he would take the Calypso to explore the unexplored seas. I would spend hours engulfed in my grandfather’s epic collection of National Geographic magazines tucked away on numerous shelves in his basement. I never thought I could be one day working to protect our oceans for future generations.
What does the ocean mean to you today?
Our oceans provide incalculable wealth to humanity. Economists have modelled that they contribute more than $500 billion to the world’s economy. More important is the clean air we breathe. Did you know that the ocean produces more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere and absorbs most carbon from it? It provides the water we drink, the food we eat and the goods that are transported by the sea. New science shows that the ocean even has a positive effect on our mind and happiness, as highlighted in the recent book Blue Mind. Although the ocean is wild, it is also fragile, and we are stressing it to its limit. I am privileged that my work at WWF involves trying to protect our oceans and its incredible diversity from the great whales to tiny krill.
What changes are you witnessing in the ocean?
I have spent many years at sea, working in some of the most remote parts of the world studying whales. I have witnessed first-hand some of the stark environmental changes in areas of ocean few people have ever visited. From 2000-2005, I took part in a global research expedition studying sperm whales and ocean pollution. At sea, we witnessed our impact on marine life. This included everything from whales being scared by ship propellers, to sea turtles hopelessly entangled in discarded fishing gear, to remote reefs decimated by extreme ocean warming events. But from spending 5,5 years working at sea, two problems seem to be getting much worse. The first one is plastic pollution; recently 30 kg of plastics were found in the stomach of a stranded sperm whale. Plastics are literally choking our ocean wildlife. We call it ‘the deadliest predator in the sea’ and we’ve come across it everywhere we went, from remote islands hundreds of miles away from humanity, to ports in growing cities like Colombo, Sri Lanka; Genoa, Italy and Boston, Massachusetts. I am hopeful that the plastic tsunami hitting our oceans can be solved, but we have to do this right now.
The second problem that is getting worse are the impacts of climate change. Visiting the Antarctic Peninsula earlier in the year, research demonstrates that is an area being impacted from afar by our actions and increased carbon emissions. The oceans surrounding Antarctica are warming, affecting worldwide heat and sea levels. Most important, they are home to more than 9,000 marine species, more than half of everything seen anywhere else in the world. But eventually, the loss of sea-ice and ocean acidification will put them at risk.
“Plastics are literally choking our ocean wildlife. We call it the deadliest predator in the sea.”
And what do you do to personally (or in a community) contribute to shifting this change in a positive way?
To contribute to positive change to our oceans, I work for WWF. We work with the science community to design innovative solutions and then promote the value of protecting our ocean to industry, business and Governments. Part of that is doing exciting work in the field, like working with research teams tagging the minke whales. Most important is to being a voice for wildlife and science, to achieve meaningful change.
In 2030, what does the ocean look like according to you?
I cannot think about a world where future generations only know whales and penguins from pictures in books. I want to leave our oceans in a better state for my 8-year-old daughter Lily, her children and her grandchildren. This is what inspires and drives me to work long hours each day. I am hopeful that all of the actions by Ocean Witnesses will be an important step to achieving this before it’s too late.
“Establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is the best way to help the marine environment. MPAs are based on sound science and are a vital part of delivering effective biodiversity conservation. They are the best tool we have right now to protect our oceans.”
What do you think are good solutions for better conservation of the ocean?
The oceans are in trouble. Time is running out for us to act now to implement important solutions for our oceans. First, we need to reduce our carbon emissions at home – climate change is affecting our last wilderness areas such as Antarctica. Second, we have to stop plastic pollution from getting into the ocean and eliminate single use plastics from our lifestyle before it is too late. New research shows microplastics are in the remote Southern Ocean. Lastly, we have to aside areas of ocean that are critical habitats for marine wildlife: areas for feeding, breeding, socialising and migrating. Establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is the best way to help the marine environment. MPAs are based on sound science and are a vital part of delivering effective biodiversity conservation. They are the best tool we have right now to protect our oceans.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, you’re an Ocean Witness now. You have inspired so many people around the world. What would you like to tell them?
Working in ocean science and conservation is incredibly rewarding, but also very challenging. I have so much respect for people who dedicate their lives to protect our oceans for future generations. To do so often requires great sacrifice, and I have incredible respect for anyone who tries to make a difference.
Chris Johnson is originally from the United States, but has been living in Melbourne for the past 23 years. He is a marine scientist with expertise in technology and science communication. In his free time he enjoys being near or on the ocean, surfing, swimming and photographing/filming wildlife. The last 20 years, he has worked with a variety of international non-profit and government organizations including WWF, Oxfam, NOAA, American Museum of Natural History, National Geographic and BBC. Nowadays, Chris is the Senior Manager of the WWF Antarctica program based in Melbourne, Australia. He coordinates WWF’s Antarctic conservation program connecting science to policy outcomes such as establishing Marine Protected Areas at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Chris has studied whales, their habitat and the impacts on them (ocean pollution, climate change, entanglements and ship strike) in more than 25 countries. Chris aims to creatively communicate science-based solutions to the general public and policy-makers to achieve conservation outcomes.
Click here to see the video of Chris’ mission to tag a minke whale and the video of the result. The grandson of Chris’s idol, Fabien Cousteau, also talks about taking better care of our oceans to ensure it for future generations, read what he has to say by clicking here. Want to read more about how climate change and emissions are a serious threat to the health of our oceans? Click here to read the story of our Ocean Witness Peter from Fiji.