A Look at Malpelo and Azores with Pristine Seas Expedition Leader, Paul Rose

When I was growing up in Colombia I had the privilege of learning the art of how to be a diver. I became a skin diver amidst the coral reefs of San Andrés island, a scuba diver whilst exploring the crystal waters of Providencia Island, and I earned my advanced scuba license with one of my childhood best friends in Barú, near Cartagena.

But there is still a place I have never dived in, even though it’s just off the Western coast of my home country. In my mind it has always been the image of what a pristine sea is. This place is Malpelo Island.

Now, I’m the digital producer and editor of the National Geographic Pristine Seas project presence online and the 25th expedition of Pristine Seas in Malpelo. The team partnered with Sandra Bessudo’s Fundación Malpelo and the National Parks of Colombia to carry out an expedition to the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in order to study the intact—and critically important—marine environments in this area, which form part of the tropical Eastern Pacific marine corridor.

Photograph by Alex MuÑoz

Back in 2008, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala created the impact project Pristine Seas with the mission to explore and help save the last wild places in the ocean. Since its inception, 26 expeditions have helped create 18 marine reserves, and protected more than 5 million square kilometers of our marine ecosystems.

Pristine Seas 25th expedition to Malpelo, which wrapped up in May, was the most comprehensive investigation of this remote pristine island to date. It was carried out by a team of 17 members, led by Paul Rose, the vice president of the Royal Geographical Society and the expedition leader of National Geographic Pristine Seas project.

Courtesy of Paul Rose

Paul Rose is an active explorer, a television and radio broadcaster (with appearances, presentations, and reports in the BBC), a field science expert, and a published author. Rose was also the base commander of Rothera Research Station, Antarctica, for the British Antarctic Survey for ten years and was awarded Her Majesty the Queen’s Polar Medal. For his work with NASA and the Mars lander project on Mount Erebus, Antarctica, he was awarded the U.S. Polar Medal. Perhaps most interesting, he also has a mountain named after him in Antarctica.

But in addition to his storied career, Paul is also an affable British man, with a lot of stories to tell that are always infused with a sense of humor and simplicity.

I caught up with Paul via telephone from Portugal’s Azores archipelago where he was waiting for the rest of the Pristine Seas expedition team while, as he said to me in an email, “embroiled in a massive pile of emails and phone calls regarding our ship, the Portuguese Navy ships, the fishing boats, tons of diving gear shipments, bait freezers, media communication plans and, of course, I’m surrounded by a good and happy pile of diving gear.”

Here is a transcript of the interview I conducted with Rose in preparation for his next expedition, the current Pristine Seas expedition to Azores. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Camilo Garzón: Paul, thanks for making this happen. I wanted to ask you, where did you grow up?

Paul Rose: I grew up just east of London in a place called Romford. And it’s a funny place because it’s a very old fashioned and industrial area a long way from nature, certainly a long way from the city, and a long way from nature. Romford is a pretty good hub for those kinds of wild places, but it’s a long way from the actual wild places, if you know what I mean. I grew up in a council flat, which is what we think of as social housing, and when I got to be about ten I couldn’t stand to sleep in the bedroom and so I moved my mattress from bed out onto the balcony and I slept on there.

Camilo Garzón: Seeking adventure always.

Paul Rose: Or just to be out, just to be out, yes.

Camilo Garzón: I understand that you’ve been exploring and leading expeditions before, and always striving to inform the public. But how did Paul Rose become an explorer?

Paul Rose: Oh yeah, great question. For me, this life started really with a dream when I was only 11 years old, and I had the feeling that in me, deep within me, [that I] was an ocean explorer of some kind. And so I then went on and became a diver as a young man, [getting] the diving skills to travel the world as a diving PADI instructor in 1979. I then went into mostly polar exploration. And my life as a true explorer really began in the polar regions working in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey, and later on in the Arctic as well. I discovered that I loved something called science support. I loved working with scientists who had a very ambitious hypothesis. And I still really enjoy that challenge of taking an ambitious hypothesis, you know, a scientific idea and turning that into ships, and airplanes, and divers, and submarines, and cloners, and pilots, and people that will actually make the thing work.

Camilo Garzón: That’s really interesting because, Paul, in a sense what you are saying is that there’s always these hypotheses, these ideas, or observations that people like scientists, researchers are starting with, but you’re trying to bridge them, you’re trying to just make them happen in a pragmatic way that actually can be done in the field.

Paul Rose: Yes, I absolutely love it. You know, I remember when I first met these scientists I realized that they need people like me, they need, you know, scientists need ships, captains, divers, climbers, cooks, plumbers, electricians, drivers of all kinds. And there’s a lot of us out there doing science support, where we’re like an army there in support of scientists. And I absolutely love running these teams, I find it very very satisfying indeed. And that same language of converting a science idea and turning it into something practical is the same skill that I need when I’m presenting television, or presenting National Geographic programs. It’s that, you know, I need to be able to take this complex idea and put it into an easily understandable one. And that’s the same thinking process that works with influencers, decision makers, and politicians too. A leader might ask: Well, why should I protect my ocean? Why are these sharks important? Why should I care about a clean ocean? And I can then take these science reasons for them to support a clean bill, helping these sharks, in establishing marine protected areas, and in turning that into the sort of language that the decision maker or politician or leader can understand. So I like that part of my job very much. I find it very satisfying, and then I’ve been working with running marine and polar expeditions for most of my life.

Photograph by Manu San FÉlix

Camilo Garzón: Fulfilling and meaningful too. Also, for those reading that don’t know this, how did your relationship with Pristine Seas start?

Paul Rose: I met Dr. Enric Sala, who is the man who started Pristine Seas, in London. I was running an event there for National Geographic called the Great Energy Challenge (GEC) all about Arctic energy and what we were going to really do about oil and gas in the Arctic. Could it be extracted? How do we protect the Arctic properly? And I stayed in London after this to host a very high standard evening for Pristine Seas at the Royal Society that Enric had organised with British politicians, members of Parliament, and leaders in the British overseas territories to launch the Pitcairn Project. The Pitcairn is a UK overseas territory in the Pacific and Enric had led an expedition there to get it protected. And my job in this event was to run an evening to sort of help research a call to action to get the UK government to say, wow, this place we have fell in love with, let’s get it protected. So I ran that evening and as soon as I met Enric I thought, wow, this guy is great, and we got along great together. And then he left for America and I carried on with my other projects. So then I was off the coast of Ireland a couple of months later and the telephone went and I saw it was Enric. And I remember that I could barely understand what he was saying, what he was asking me, but I said yes. He was basically saying that Pristine Seas is growing, and he asked if I would like to join the team. And Enric and I often laugh about that because he tells people: I knew Paul couldn’t hear me properly, and I knew he didn’t quite understand, but he said yes anyway, and that’s why I love him.

Camilo Garzón: A yes man, for sure. That’s a great anecdote! Let me ask you a couple of questions regarding the Malpelo expedition. From what I’ve been told you saw a prickly shark there, the first ever to be seen in Malpelo. Is this correct?

Paul Rose: Yes we saw a prickly shark. We certainly did! In fact I was very lucky because I was on that submarine dive when we first saw the shark. And it felt like we were going to land on him as we were descending and we had the lights on and I looked and I said, wow, I think that’s a prickly shark. He swam around us for a good good long time and it was a delightful thing to be there to record the first prickly shark ever seen in Malpelo waters.

Camilo Garzón: That’s fantastic. I know that Malpelo was a unique expedition to the team as it had been protected before at the request of the Colombian government for a deep sea scientific survey of the area, and later became a UNESCO world heritage site. So I wanted to know what are some of the takeaways or lessons you learned and what are some successes?

Paul Rose: Well, my main lesson was that for us, we’ve worked in all kinds of places all over the world in all kinds of different circumstances, but we have never worked inside somebody’s 30 years life’s work and that’s what we did with Sandra Bessudo and it felt fantastic. All the beautiful fish we were seeing probably wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Bessudo and her team. And that was a significant thing for us to remember every day we dived. Second thing we learned was that it was some of the best pristine life we have ever seen. And then the next thing that we learned was that we had heard that the water is very active. As you know, from the North comes the California current, from the South comes the Humboldt current, and when it hits the Malpelo Ridge the energy makes big upwellings. And of course the upwellings are replaced by down currents. There’s lots of current running side to side. There’s a lot of changes in the water column so we’ve heard that every dive can be pretty exciting. We made 309 dives in Malpelo, and each of them was unbelievably beautiful.

Camilo Garzón: 309 dives! Even for expert divers that’s quite the number. Especially in 10 days!

Paul Rose: It is, yes! We did 309 scuba dives. We made 19 submarine dives. We made 29 drop camera deployments and 85 pelagic camera deployments. So we really did great. This was a very high rate of work, and considering the challenging conditions I was extremely happy with what we made there.

Photograph by Alex MuÑoz

Camilo Garzón: That’s impressive!

Paul Rose: Yeah, that’s really great (laughter).

Camilo Garzón: The overall numbers are great. And just me even imagining the level of nitrogen or nitrox or whatever you guys were using in your brains after that many dives makes me feel like a novice.

Paul Rose: We did use mixed-gas rebreathers (laughter) and the numbers in the expedition were great. The good thing is we’ve got a great team and we were working with Bessudo and her team. So it was a terrific project all around.

Camilo Garzón: One last question before I let you go Paul, what are you looking forward to now in Azores? I understand as you told me that right now you’re just waiting for the team, but what are you looking forward to in this new expedition, the 26th for Pristine Seas?

Paul Rose: Well, yes, we’re very excited about working here in the Azores because we have a Portuguese Navy ship and she’s working ahead of us. She’s going over all of these previously unexplored seamounts and then she’s about two weeks ahead of us sending us the data, and we’re then going to go over the top of these seamounts and use this to accurately position all of our work. So we again are going to do a lot of shark and tuna tagging which includes sixgill sharks which are amazing. We’re going to be looking at whole water columns above the seamounts. We’re going to do a complete comprehensive survey of the nearshore marine biology in the western Azores. And finally we’re then going to put all this together as a complete package of science and media for the Portuguese government to make an informed decision on the marine protected area. So it’s a very exciting three weeks at sea for us.

Camilo Garzón: That’s really exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Paul Rose: Yeah, great. You’ll have to come and dive with us one day!

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Camilo is a digital editor, multimedia producer, and staff writer at the National Geographic Society. He is often writing about our human journey, our changing planet, our wildlife, and the Explorers that are helping us reach a planet in balance. Some of the topics that he is interested in often appear in his pieces, such as: exploration, science, humanitarian aid, social justice, human rights, conservation, international affairs, international education, teaching, comparative literature, music, art, semiotics, philosophy, and religions.