Biologist Aaron Hirsh intersects science and storytelling in Telling Our Way to the Sea: A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez.
You’ve been taking college students to Baja California with the Vermilion Sea Institute since 1998. What did you encounter on this particular trip that made you decide to write a book?
One [discovery] was the brown sea cucumber that my wife Veronica brought the students on one of their first dives. The animal was changing before their eyes—it literally blew itself up as a defense. That made me think about what’s happening when we use our stories to make nature accessible and valuable. The other [experience] was seeing a black coyote while approaching the beach. I learned later that it was black because of interbreeding with domestic dogs. This wild animal that had been very powerful was corrupted because it was now less wild. We’re going to have to find a way to study nature that allows us to continue thinking it’s really beautiful and worth engaging with, while acknowledging that we’ve completely transformed it.
Is it a challenge to combine storytelling with science?
One thing the book is trying to achieve is integrating science and literature. But it was difficult to read a hundred scientific pages and not think about doing science, and instead try to tell the story in a literary way. The process of writing this book may have changed my description of myself—from “biologist” to “writer.”
You use the phrase “the long stairway downward” to describe our current path of ecological destruction. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the Sea of Cortez over the years?
Things disappearing. My first year when the shark fishery was still in full swing, you’d find shark carcasses on the beach missing just their fin, because that’s the part that goes to market. They all but disappeared in the course of four or five years. Also the [giant] Humboldt Squid has replaced all the large predatory sport fish. When the big predators were knocked down by fishing, the giant squid took over. This kind of “regime shift” may be irreversible and it’s happening in ecosystems all over the world.
What’s next for you?
One project is a novel that involves a lot of science. Another is a book on how we can put in place institutions that are going to succeed in fixing the ocean—not just the right regulations, but the right institutions to make and enforce those regulations. And there’s some science I’ve put aside for five years—I might make my way back to that.