Dr. Helen Scales is a freelance writer, broadcaster and marine biologist based in Cambridge, UK. She earned her doctorate degree from Cambridge University and studied the lives and loves of a fish called the Napoleon wrasse or humphead wrasse, a rare and endangered giant on coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Helen usually interviews me, so I have been wanting to turn the tables for some time. I think she is one of the very best environmental reporters around; she does film, radio and print media, she blogs and tweets, practically lives on FaceBook AND she is a marine biologist! How cool is that! Learn more about Helen here and about her internationally best-selling book Poeidon’s Steed here.
JB: Lets get these out of the way (submitted by fans on one of your fan pages): married or single, beer or wine, Mac or PC, Edward or Jacob?
HS: (1) Happily married. (2) Both – especially belgian beers and french wine. (But not in the same glass.) (3) Mac (for sure, there’s no going back). (4) If only I understood the question (am I missing out on something here …?)
JB: Thank goodness your not a PC. But, hello, Twilight?!
JB: 2) Any pets?
HS: There’s a frog we call Brian who lives in our garden pond. Does he count? I’d quite like to keep fish, but I know I’d spend my whole time fish-gazing.
JB: Note to readers: Helen talks and writes with a proper British accent. Listen here.
3) What is your favorite online shopping retailer?
HS: I get all the seeds for my veggie garden from The organic gardening catalogue. They have an awesome range.
JB: 4) You’re English; did you go to one of those Harry Potter-like English grade schools in a castle where all the kids wear uniforms?
HS: Sadly no castle or robes at high school. I did wear a uniform though. It was a nasty shade of purple. But I’m pretty sure my Cambridge undergraduate gown would have passed at Hogwarts. We had to wear them whenever we dined in hall – which also looked kind of Hogwartsy. (Sadly no quidditch though.)
JB: I hear that in England, professors and students are not allowed to eat together!
5) When did it first occur to you that you could be a marine biologist?
HS: I first got hooked onto the idea of being a more general ecologist around the age of 13. For a long time I thought I was going to save the rainforests. I became vegetarian because I didn’t like hearing about the Amazon being cleared for cattle ranches, and bugged my school friends about eating meat (I must have been a real pain). Then I learned to scuba dive aged 16 and my attention shifted permanently to what goes on beneath the waves when I realised it’s far more awesome down there.
JB: God you sound just like me.
6) What are your three simple rules for a better world:
HS: 1) Think more about where your food comes from – especially the fish you eat. 2) Ride your bike more. Leave the car behind 3) Use less plastic.
JB: 7) Few marine biologists (or scientists) ever go on a book tour. What was that like?
HS: The idea of it scared me silly. I could hardly eat for days before going on the Diane Rehm Show (I mean seriously – a one-hour broadcast live to the whole of America! Are you kidding me?!). I’m kind of the same doing talks and presentations. I feel nervous as hell beforehand, but then once it gets going I always end up having a blast and wishing I could carry on.
JB: WOW! The Diane Rehm Show! For a liberal American, that is like being knighted!
HS: The best part is when people ask questions – I love that bit. Especially when they’ve been listening and thinking about what I’ve said. Worst is when people ask questions when they obviously weren’t really listening – one lady at the Royal Geographic Society in London had clearly been dozing through a large part of my talk, but that didn’t stop her putting her hand up at the end:
Lady: “Do they breed seahorses in captivity?”
Me: “Uuuuh, yeah, they do as a matter of fact” (Me thinking “YOU WEREN’T LISTENING THROUGH THAT WHOLE 15 MINS I DID ON SEAHORSE FARMS!!”). It was embarrassing for both of us.
JB: 8) I live in a country where most people own several guns and at least one very large car. But you live in a country with a queen and a royal family. Who is worse off?
HS: Oo, that’s a tough one. I’m definitely glad we don’t have too many guns over here, but honestly, I’m not too hot on the royals either. I didn’t even watch the royal wedding. But the queen mother once visited my college at Cambridge when I was an undergrad – she flew off in a helicopter and she seemed like a nice old lady. But guns or royals? I’d have to flip a coin.
JB: 9) Any advice for young marine biologists?
HS: Don’t get put off when people tell you it’s difficult being a marine biologist. It is, but that’s no reason to not go for it. I’ve met so many people who’ve said to me “I was thinking of studying marine biology” and no matter what other cool things they might be doing with their lives, they all have that same glimmer of regret in their eyes.
JB: I experience that all the time too. And my high school guidance councilor told me it was really hard to be a marine biologist and that I didn’t have the required talents. Based in part on that insightful recommendation, I waited five years after graduating high school before pursuing what I always wanted to do. Thanks a lot Mr. Williams!
HS: Don’t listen when people tease you for wanting to spend your life hanging about on beaches. They are just jealous. Sure, there are sometimes beaches involved and chances are, if you play your cards right, you’ll get to visit some of the most incredible places on the planet. But in reality being a marine biologist is not the same as being a beach bum – for starters, it’s way better.
JB: For example, beach bums don’t get to spend all day doing email.
HS: Learn to scuba dive or free dive/snorkle and spend as much time as possible in the water. It’s the only way you’ll find out if you really, truly love studying ocean life.
JB: 10) What else should we know about you?
HS: Things that are still on my ocean to-do list: free dive with whales (preferably blue whales), see a great white shark, swim alongside a leatherback turtle, visit the Galapagos Islands, witness a coral reef mass spawning event, dive some of the ultra-remote islands in the Pacific or Indian Oceans, dive a kelp forest, dive under sea ice, go on a long voyage by sail boat.