Geoffrey Gearheart's portfolio includes marine biology, marine conservation and short story writing.
Marine biology and ecology
The movements of many large marine vertebrates -marine megafauna- remain poorly understood. In fact, we know more about the biology of micro-algae than about whale migration. This is because you can't scoop up a whale in a plankton net!
Through his fieldwork in West Papua, Geoff has obtained the first data on how leatherback sea turtle hatchlings, born on the last significant nesting site in the Pacific region, disperse throughout the ocean.
This is a long-standing question that no one has been able to answer. After leaving their sandy nests, hatchlings crawl down the beach and enter the water. That is where our knowledge stops. Where do they go?
Geoff developed an acoustic tracking method so he could follow the baby leatherbacks for several hours and look at how they behaved in different current "scenarios". Would they always swim in the same direction? To what extend would near-shore currents carry them away? Would they move faster when carried away by a westward current or by a southeastward current? What influence has current speed on their dispersal? Geoff measured all these parameters during the many hours he spent tracking the turtles. He also released special oceanographic instruments, called Lagrangian surface drifters, to map the currents off the coast of West Papua, one of the remotest regions of the world.
The results, in the form of current maps and a series of "dispersal models" shed new light on the remarkable swimming abilities of leatherback hatchlings, how seasonal current patterns affect dispersal routes, and what this means for survival.
Antarctic animals are fascinating for several reasons. Not the least is their adaptation to the extreme environment. Only Weddell seals and (male) emperor penguins reside year-round South of 75° S, in the Weddell and Ross Seas.
West Papuan leatherback hatchling swimming at the surface. They can swim a sustained 0.3 meters per second, always towards the North. Click here to see the video.
Large female leatherback, heading back to sea after laying a clutch of eggs. West Papua is home to the largest remaining Pacific leatherback nesting population.
Newly hatched leatherbacks weigh around 50 grams and are extremely vulnerable to predators when on land and near shore.
Geoff's field assistant, Oby, ready to deploy a Microstar Lagrangian surface drifter to measure the currents off the Bird's Head Peninsula
For the last 10 years Geoff has worked in marine conservation. Starting off in North Sulawesi, where he led a team of 16 local scientists carry out a social survey on eco-tourism (for USAID), he continued on to West Papua, Indonesia's "last frontier". For a marine biologist, West Papua is the holy grail. It is not only World's epicenter of marine biodiversity but also has the oldest, most mature rainforests. Geoff was asked to lead Indonesia's first satellite tracking project of hard-shelled sea turtles (i.e. all sea turtles except leatherbacks have hard shells). The trip, which took the tracking team all over the Raja Ampat archipelago, had a more meaningful role than just tracking turtles: it marked the beginning of the Piai Island sea turtle conservation program. You can read more about this in the NatureBlog. In subsequent years, when working on his PhD at Scripps, Geoff continued advising the Papuan non-profit that manages the Raja Ampat turtle program.
In 2009, Geoff went to Papua's Bird's Head Peninsula where, with the help of colleagues from the State University of Papua, he carried out his PhD research (see: Portfolio). Leatherbacks, the largest of all extant species of sea turtles, are critically endangered. Even in the wild recesses of New Guinea, the threats are never far away. Off-shore fishing vessels cast driftnets that entangle anything from tunas to dolphins and turtles, while on the beaches nests are plundered by feral dogs and pigs and, unfortunately, humans. Geoff couldn't focus solely on the science without getting his nose in conservation issues, as after all, what sense does it make to know everything about these magnificent animals if by the time we have figured out their biology they have disappeared?
In developing countries, the key to successful conservation is to educate the young generation on the importance of protecting their natural environment. Young Papuans have a cultural advantage as they are still very close to nature. Building on their naturocentric traditions, such as their "sasi" land tenure system, it is not hard to inspire Papuan kids to maintain and cultivate their sustainable lifestyles. Therefore, Geoff together with Elizabeth Johnstone, another Scripps scientist, founded Ocean Positive, a California-based non-profit. Ocean Positive's mission is to support education of young Papuans who live in priority conservation areas, so they can become better stewards of their own reefs and forests. Geoff will be adding stories of West Papua to the Indonesia blog section.
Ocean Positive - Marine conservation in the Coral triangle
Geoff co-founded Ocean Positive, a California-based non-profit corporation that aims to use a community-based approach to help protect a fragile global heritage: the Coral Triangle, epicenter of the World's marine biodiversity. See more here.