According to Arnaud Boetsch, Rolex’s Director of Communication & Image, “Rolex has long recognised its responsibility to play a part in creating a sustainable planet, a Perpetual Planet.”

Indeed, this is something that as “guardians of the future”, Rolex Awards Laureates like Luiz Rocha go beyond merely venturing into the unknown and discovering uncharted lands, this new breed of scientist-explorers are committed to protecting the planet.

Luiz Alves Rocha is the Curator and Follett Chair of Ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences. Rocha is a frequent visitor to the ocean’s mysterious and seldom-visited “Twilight Zone” whose wondrous corals and strange life remain unexplored.

So named because sunlight does not penetrate the hundred metres or more beneath the ocean surface in the Maldives, it is here that Rocha casts light on the subject as he studies the ecology and evolution of coral reef fishes.

The sea has filled Rocha’s imagination from his earliest childhood in coastal Brazil and eventually driving him to master the highly technical diving required to reach depths 150 metres below the surface. In this crepuscular realm, unknown life thrives, including great forests of coral that provide both a nursery and pasturage for a host of unknown fish and other sea creatures.

Globally, shallow coral reefs are dying from the stresses of climate change. With its national income dependent on coral tourism and fishing, the Maldives government is keen to learn how to protect this precious national asset and discover whether deep reefs can serve as a haven for surface corals and the sea life they sustain.

Luiz Rocha 2021 Rolex Awards Laureate

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion, provide jobs for local communities, and offer opportunities for recreation. They are also a source of food and new medicines.

Over half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income and protection. Severely threatened by ecological threats like diseases, predators and storms, other man-made threats including pollution, sedimentation, unsustainable fishing practices and climate change, have been raising ocean temperatures and causing ocean acidification.

The last major inflection point was during the 2014-2017 coral bleaching event which affected 70% of coral reef ecosystems worldwide, causing tremendous damage to the Great Barrier Reef. In 2020, a study found that the aforementioned Reef has lost more than half of its corals since 1995.

In a pioneering diving expedition, Rocha plans to survey these deep reefs to find and describe new species and make the case for their protection while talking to Augustman about the important work he’s doing.

In all your years studying and exploring the oceans, what is the most interesting fact that surprises people the most?

I always use a lot of images when I share my research with the public. And since I study deep reef fishes, I always share photos I take of them. When I do this, what surprises people the most is how colourful many fishes we find in deep reefs are. The water functions as a filter to sunlight; the deeper you go, the less light there is.

Many fishes at the depths I dive in (100-150 metre depth) have beautiful red, pink and yellow patterns. Here is where it gets interesting: There is no red, pink and yellow light at those depths, meaning that in theory they can’t see those colours. So why be so colourful? We still don’t have a complete answer to that question, but we think that it has to do with camouflage (they are hard to see if their bodies have colours that are not reflected by ambient light). It’s super interesting and a question that I always get when I show pictures of deep reef fish.

We explore space more than we do the oceans in our own backyard…why do you think that is?

A number of different reasons. First, governments in general invest much more in space exploration than they do in ocean exploration. The “dominance” of space is still something in the top of many military minds, so many countries invest a lot on it. Second, there are many more space exploration movies than ocean exploration movies, and that causes the public to become very comfortable with the high amounts of funding that governments dedicate to space exploration.

Third, there is a sense that there are more potential financial gains to be reached in space than in the ocean. For example, the exploration of rare metals can be more profitable in space than the ocean. I, for one, think that we should be investing in both space and ocean explorations, but if it were up to me, I would invest much more in ocean exploration than what we currently do.

What opportunities are we missing not exploring our oceans?

The ocean is key to understanding how life evolved on earth, and how we can survive here in the future. We depend on the ocean for food, medicine and enjoyment, and when we don’t explore it, people tend to ignore it and eventually destroy it. So by exploring the oceans more (and talking about it more), we can directly lead to people loving and respecting it more. And if we do that, we ensure the survival of not only species that live in the ocean, but also our own survival.

Are some oceans more important than others? Why choose, for instance, the Indian Ocean?

I chose the Indian Ocean for this project specifically because, when it comes to reefs between 100-150 metre depth, this is the least explored region in the world. The little information we know about deep reefs comes from studies done in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and the Indian Ocean is the forgotten area. During my first Rolex expedition to the Maldives, we found nine species of fishes that are entirely new to science.

This is the newest species we found in one trip, and we explored a very small area, so there is still a lot more to discover! We also chose the Indian Ocean because we received full support and combined forces with scientists from the Maldives Marine Research Institute. They are also very interested in learning more about what inhabits their deep reefs,

Witnessing bleached corals first hand, you often confront doom and gloom personally – it must be hard to stay hopeful or optimistic…

Yes, sometimes it is very hard, and seeing dead or dying coral reefs has almost pushed me into depression. But we always find reasons to be hopeful. Everywhere we go, local communities are fully invested in making sure their reefs don’t die. Mass coral die off events usually don’t kill every coral on a reef, and the survivors tend to come back.

Nature is very resilient, and if you are able to find and apply the right solution to the right place, nature comes back. For example, back in the 1950s the United States conducted several nuclear weapon tests in Bikini Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. That destroyed many of the reefs in the area. In 2006 I went there and had a chance to dive very close to the Bravo Crater; that’s the crater left by the largest nuclear explosion ever caused by humans.

And the reefs that I saw were some of the healthier reefs I have ever seen. All that was needed was for the reefs to be left alone for 50 years to recover. That’s certainly not the solution for all places, but it was the right solution for Bikini.

Has becoming a Rolex Awards Laureate added a new dimension to your work?

Absolutely yes. The reefs I specialise in studying (100-150 metre depth) are almost completely unknown, by both scientists and the public. Becoming a Rolex Awards Laureate not only brought me the funding I needed to explore these reefs in the Maldives, but it is also raising the visibility of these reefs to the public.  More and more people are getting to know these reefs. The more they know about them, the more they love what they see, and the more they want to protect them.

We understand your long-term aim is to survey deep reefs to find and describe new species and make the case for their protection. How has this been possible with the Rolex Award?

Luiz Rocha works to explore and protect mesophotic coral reefs and their biodiversity in the Indian Ocean, and to strengthen conservation of these largely unknown ecosystems.

The first species we described from the Maldives, Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, received a lot of attention from the media. One of our co-authors in the description [was] Ahmed Najeeb, our main partner at the Maldives Marine Research Institute, and this is the first time that a fish from the Maldives is named by a Maldivian scientist with a Maldivian name (finifenmaa is the name of the Maldivian national flower in Dihevi).

So because we conduct our research in full partnership with Maldivian scientists, they immediately take ownership of these species. And when they feel that the species belong to their country and to their culture, they instinctively want to protect it. This is happening now in the Maldives.

Have you heard about the proposed Earth300 science vessel? As a multi-disciplinary research ship similar to what you might find on Star Trek, what are the fields of science most related to yours and do you think we can make a bigger impact as a community of unified scientists? Could you share how relationships with like-minded people have helped or inspired your work since joining the community of past Rolex Awards Laureate?

Yes, I’ve heard about it, it seems like a great initiative! We need much more attention dedicated to ocean exploration, and if this is done right, it can be very powerful. I think it can bring a lot of great technology closer to our field sites and accelerate discovery. Usually, scientists take data and samples in field sites, then go back to their laboratories to analyse and write results.

This process can be very lengthy. If we have high-tech laboratories onboard the ship (like it will be in the Earth300 vessel), we can make scientific discoveries much more quickly and share them with the public in real time. I’ve had many great opportunities since joining the Rolex family. For example, I am collaborating with a group called Under the Pole; Rolex made the connection and we are doing quite a bit of work together.

Finding other groups that do technical deep diving competently is very hard as there aren’t many in the world. So these connections are very important and productive.

Fictional shows like Star Trek inspired many to study space, is there an equivalent to study the oceans? Do any works of art or popular culture inspire you personally?

Luiz Rocha

Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas is one of the fictional works that inspires most marine biologists I know. And actually it also inspired ocean technology. For example, the submarine Nautilus described in detail in the novel inspired the development of the electric submarine. As far as art goes, there is a lot of literature that inspired me. For example, books by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Rachel Carson are fantastic reads for any ocean lover.

In your opinion, what can we do to bring more awareness to the importance of the oceans to life on earth?

We need to talk more about it. Senegalese forestry engineer Baba Dioum once said that “in the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught”. Similarly, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau said that “people protect what they love”. And they are both absolutely right. The best way to bring awareness to the importance of the oceans is to share its wonders with as many people as possible so that we all can fall in love with it.

What do you feel is your most important contribution to the conversation on eco sustainability and climate change?

I think we have to be very clear in pointing out that we need to do two things to move forward in a positive way: 1) personal change, and 2) restructuring the system. Personal change (for example, decreasing your personal use of plastics or buying an electric car) is excellent and needed but doing only that is not enough. To really revert the current trend, we need a deep restructuring of the systems we depend on, at a very high level. We need to vote the right people in to make these changes, and we need to support corporations making these changes.

Lastly, we need to re-evaluate our relationship with nature. Humans have to stop seeing nature as an endless supply of resources and start seeing it as a partner with which we have to share this planet. If nature perishes, humans perish; but if nature flourishes, humans flourish. So we need to do everything in our power to walk side by side with nature through our journey on Earth.

(Photos: Tane Sinclair-Taylor)

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