Brazilian Luiz Rocha is the Follett Chair of Ichthyology and Co-Director of the Hope For Reefs Initiative at the California Academy of Sciences. He has spent over 6,000 hours studying fishes underwater and published scientific articles and books about the evolution, conservation, taxonomy, and community ecology of coral reef fishes. In addition, his work has been featured in many popular media outlets and supports conservation efforts across the globe. Currently, his main interest is the exploration of little-known deep coral reefs (between 60 and 150m depth) using technical rebreather diving, and his work has mainly focused on describing the fauna from those depths and advocating for deep reef protection. He recently won a Rolex Award for Enterprise for this research.
I grew up in a coastal city in Brazil (João Pessoa) and have wanted to stay close to fishes and explore the oceans for as long as I can remember. I loved exploring tide pools during low tides, started snorkeling as soon as I could swim, and diving as soon as I could hold a tank on my back. That was all driven by curiosity and the need to explore. And when we talk about the ocean, the deeper you go, the more interesting the exploration becomes. That naturally led to trying to learn how to dive deeper, and trying to explore the most remote places I could. I never had the personal means to do it, and quickly learned that what I needed to fulfill my desire to explore was a profession that supported it. So I became a biologist to keep exploring.
But very early I also learned that human activities were deeply impacting the oceans, both at the local and global levels. When I was in high school I wrote a proposal to create a marine protected area in my favorite snorkeling spot along the coast. That didn’t become a reality back in the early ‘90s, but other people from my local community continued the effort and today the area is protected. So conservation always walked hand in hand with my desire to explore and understand the oceans. Today I use many different tools, ranging from basic taxonomy (species descriptions) to community ecology, to cutting edge molecular biology, aiming to produce data that can help coral reef conservation efforts worldwide.
“When we talk about the ocean, the deeper you go, the more interesting the exploration becomes.“
Diving to the depths that I do (150m or 500ft) requires a lot of training, preparation, and the right mindset. The risks are high, and small mistakes can have severe consequences. Logistics involved are very complex, a lot of equipment needs to be moved, and consumables (for example the helium we have to breathe at those depths) are hard to find, especially in remote locations (which invariably are the most interesting). In addition, because of the risks and high costs, funding through traditional scientific granting agencies is almost impossible to get. All of that makes deep reef exploration by scientists very rare: I estimate that there are no more than 10 scientists diving to the same depths that my team and I dive worldwide.
The ecosystem is so unknown that we find new species of fish on almost every dive, and when we start sampling other groups of animals, the number of undiscovered species will grow to the hundreds. So that is how I am pushing the boundaries, taking scientific exploration through technical diving deeper than ever before, and training more scientists to do it. And more importantly, all of that is done in the most public possible way. I do publish in academic scientific journals, but the last thing I want is for my science to stay locked inside the ivory tower. So sharing my findings with the public is also one of my top priorities.