Marine biologist. Newly appointed faculty member at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
Those titles and the achievements they represent, lofty though they are, aren’t enough for Octavio Aburto-Oropeza. Not nearly enough.
The Mexican native is a member of an emerging generation of scientists who feel that publishing research papers, while vital to the advancement of science, isn’t enough if the results only come across the eyes of other scientists. Pushing science to connect with public citizens and non-scientific communities is a goal that drives him on a daily basis.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if you do very good research; if the public doesn’t know about it, that becomes part of our failure of communication and part of the problem in areas such as exploiting natural resources,” said Aburto-Oropeza, who has become a highly skilled—albeit late-blooming—nature photographer by capturing scores of stunning wildlife images. “I belong to a generation that is trying to break some of the old structures in terms of the entire scope of responsibilities as a scientist. So just publishing papers is not enough—it’s not all we should do.”
Born in Mexico City, Aburto-Oropeza’s childhood years were spent bouncing around multiple addresses with his family in various Mexican states due to his father’s career as a civil engineer. His early exposure to the allure of the ocean world included inspiration from Ramón Bravo, a Mexican Olympic swimmer and underwater filmmaker who infused Jacques Cousteau-like enthusiasm to his audiences. Family snorkeling adventures to tourist destinations, before they were overrun by commercial expansion, also stoked his enthusiasm for the marine environment.
All of that inspiration was burning in the back of his consciousness but didn’t move to the forefront until his teen years. Aburto-Oropeza was 17 when he decided that he’d like to become a marine biologist. During his work earning a master’s degree at CICIMAR (El Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas) in La Paz, Aburto-Oropeza met Enric Sala, then a postdoctoral researcher working with renowned Scripps Oceanography marine ecologist Paul Dayton.
Their connections led Aburto-Oropeza to enroll as a graduate student at Scripps, the oldest American academic institution that has been studying the Gulf of California. It also was the beginning of a long-term observation program surveying key locations within the Gulf of California’s coastal ecosystems. That effort continues today, led by Aburto-Oropeza and his colleagues, and has advanced assessments of the health of Baja’s marine resources.
It was also during Aburto-Oropeza’s education in La Paz that another door opened in his life. Working on a project for Birch Aquarium at Scripps, a research group that Aburto-Oropeza worked with was charged with documenting activities related to the collection of Gulf fishes. The professor coordinating the project put a call out to the group: Who would like to take the lead on collecting video footage and photos of collection activities? No one in the group volunteered. The recordings were not trivial, as they would be provided to Birch Aquarium and to administrators in the Mexican government. Anyone? Still no one spoke up.
“Nobody volunteered, so I finally raised my hand,” said Aburto-Oropeza.
He took the visual arts seriously from that moment. He dove in and never looked back.
“Something happened inside me,” said Aburto-Oropeza. “Suddenly I was immersed in the world of photography and then with video and editing as well. I have been working very hard to take these skills to another level. Now I’m working with several international photography organizations. This is something I want to develop further. I’d like to push science and photography in ways that serve as effective tools for science communications.”
Photography as a means to communicate his research has been useful in Aburto-Oropeza’s efforts, whether it’s working with Gulf fishermen to translate the importance of massive fish spawning rituals or imaging the dazzling success of one of the world’s most effective marine reserves.
But his hopes go well beyond eye-catching pictures. His research and multimedia tools are also a means to make an impression on policymakers and other decision makers and help them understand why marine resources, including the fragile habitats that Aburto-Oropeza studies, are vital to conserve and protect against commercial expansion and other threats.
And shrewdly translating his research into the lingua franca of the business world, Aburto-Oropeza and his colleagues have calculated the economic value of habitat protection, from mangrove forests to lagoons that serve as wintering grounds for ducks and other waterfowl for the hunting industry.
To help drive such efforts, Aburto-Oropeza has been active in the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, which emphasizes science communication training across disciplines and publicly to non-scientists. He also joined with Scripps scientists Phil Hastings and Brad Erisman, and Exequiel Ezcurra of the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS), to launch the Gulf of California Marine Program, an organization aimed at applying science with a mix of public and private groups to promote resource management and sustainability.
“Outreach is something very important that we can use to break the old ways of thinking and solve many of the environmental problems we have, especially in terms of natural resources,” said Aburto-Oropeza.
Aburto-Oropeza’s photography and research will be featured at Birch Aquarium at Scripps beginning June 28, 2014. The exhibit, Mexican Seas | Mares Mexicanos, takes visitors on an intimate photographic journey to four unique biodiversity hot spots in Mexican waters and offers stunning views of the marine life that thrives in these protected areas. The imagery, and the stories of conservation they tell, demonstrate "the art of science" and seek to inspire ocean stewardship by exploring what’s possible when people work together to protect wild places.
-- Mario C. Aguilera