Oceans TED Talks

Living and diving: An exclusive interview with Richard Pyle

Posted by:


To say that Richard Pyle is a multifaceted personality is an understatement. He is a world-renowned diver, evolutionary biologist, dive technology pioneer, database developer and author. But all his talents have grown to facilitate one love — fish. His 2004 TEDTalk¬†shows¬†how he pushes the boundaries of diving in his endeavor to document new species.

In an interview with the TED Blog on Friday, Richard shared his environmental convictions, his life philosophy and an intimate story on losing a friend. He says: “In human history, we are the equivalent of a bunch of kindergartners running through the Library of Congress, not realizing the true value of its books. 100 years from now, we’ll be in high school and understand the difference between “See Spot Run” and Shakespeare. But, if extinction rates continue, we may not learn to read properly before it’s actually gone.”


If you were to give a TED Talk today, years later, would your talking points be any different? Is there something you would add?

The theme would be the same, but TED helped me to develop a bigger-picture mentality. I came to see the value of biodiversity in a more profound way. It would be much more about biodiversity in the planet’s future and history.

My epiphany was that biodiversity represents the greatest library the Earth is ever going to have. As a trained evolutionary biologist, I realize that every living thing is the endpoint of an unbroken chain of information. So, what is life? It’s information.

Life is constantly changing over millions of years. The organisms today are the 0.01 percent that have survived a four-billion-year process. Four billion years of editing.

In human history, we are the equivalent of a bunch of kindergartners running through the Library of Congress, not realizing the true value of its books. 100 years from now, we’ll be in high school and understand the difference between “See Spot Run” and Shakespeare. But, if extinction rates continue, we may not learn to read properly before it’s actually gone.

You see, something much much bigger is going on. Biologists are floored by it. I would make it a higher priority.

Also, I’ve got funnier videos now.

In your talk you refer to life as a balance between one’s self-perpetuation and pursuit of joy. Is your life still balanced in this way? Is diving over 200 feet using relatively new technologies balanced behavior, in your opinion?

At the time I only mentioned it to tie in with the theme of TED. But really, since I was a teenager I’ve had this philosophy about what life was about, and as I get older, the more reinforced my life view is.

Everybody wants to perpetuate, and once you master that, everything else is happiness. I mean, what else are you going to do with the rest of your time? If you’re not spending your energy in pursuit of either of these two goals, you’re wasting your time.

That’s the only talk I’ve ever shown that slide in, of my friend who died literally 30 seconds after the picture was taken. That’s a reminder of how tenuous this all can be.

I think it’s a fundamental truth. It’s still my guiding light.

Have there been new advances with regard to diving with closed-circuit rebreathers since your talk? If so, can you elaborate on any personal experience with it?

In 2005, I became part of a development and design team working on the next generation of rebreathers. It’s taken 15 to 20 years from the first generation of rebreathers to now, the sixth. The lead engineer on this sixth generation is my good friend Bill Stone. I’ve spent the last three to four months test-diving it.

Popular Science picked it as one of the best products of 2008. It will have a non-trivial impact. After using rebreathers for a while, you begin to hate going scuba diving. People don’t realize that. It actually turns regular old shallow-water diving into a more pleasant experience. In fact, this particular generation is specifically for shallow diving.

Can you elaborate on the term “Pyle stops”?

In technical diving circles, these are relatively well-known. Or, at least, by a handful of people around the world who needed to go beyond the regular limits. People invented on their own how to do this. We had to reinvent everything for deep diving.

After some dives, I would feel totally fatigued and tired, and on other days, I was completely fine. So, being a scientist, I wanted to figure out what was the difference. The only difference I could find was that if I caught fish, I felt great, and then if I didn’t, I felt crappy. Now, when I did catch fish, I would have to stop about halfway up for a few minutes and stick a hypodermic needle in the fish to release excess gas pressure. So, I began to stop my ascent earlier for an extra two or three minutes, and I would feel great.

Usually, your first stop would be at 40 feet, but I added this extra stop at about 120 feet — far, far deeper. I started researching the physics and physiology, and realized that there was a foundation here. I told my close dive buddies and they thought I was crazy. But I stuck to it.

Eventually, evidence came to light and I wrote an article. I came up with a method to introduce these deep, deep decompression stops. They got branded as “Pyle stops.” I wasn’t the first to discover them, I just got my name associated with them.

In 2004, you stated that you and your team were discovering, on average, seven new species of fish per dive. Has that number increased, decreased or continued rather steadily since that time?

Actually, it’s now getting closer to 12 on average. On our last expedition to Fiji, for practical reasons we had to dive the same spot over and over, only about 15 meters of the reef, and we still made that number. If we went to a really good dive site, I don’t know where that number would stop.

Our expeditions are normally in conjunction with filming projects, and so we’re not operating at peak efficiency. But still, we got 24 new species total in our last project with the BBC.

Where the action is now, is really marine invertebrates. The numbers are amazing. For each new fish species, we estimate that there are eight to ten new species of invertebrates.

Since your talk, has research on this area of the coral reef expanded? Also, are you still as fascinated with this area, or has anything else piqued your interest?

Right now, I’m at the center of three major revolutions. I’m an engineer working on the rebreather, a database person getting biodiversity information mobilized, and a part of the technical division of the Encyclopedia of Life, which is a huge part of the biodiversity informatics world. My last major expedition, as a diver, was last April.

NOAA has now discovered the importance of deep coral reefs, and features them on their website. The journal Coral Reefs will soon have an issue dedicated to deep coral reefs. They’re now at the forefront of a lot of people’s priorities. The deep reef is really taking off. The only possible problem is the abysmal state of fiscal affairs. So far, at least, the priority seems to be staying.

Do you feel that that there have been improvements with regard to global awareness and activism for conservation of ocean life? Could you suggest where you see room for improvement in this area?

I echo what Sylvia [Earle] said in her TED Talk. She articulated the same thing I would articulate. I think Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is one of the most important things to happen in my lifetime. Although he didn’t touch on coral reefs in the feature film release, he makes up for it in the DVD.

Coral reefs are really on the way out. There’s this great book, A Reef in Time, that’s ostensibly a history of the Great Barrier Reef, but morphs into a call to arms. I recently saw the author, Charlie Veron, give a talk that just floored me.

I was at a conference in New Caledonia in 2006, and there were a lot of different camps on a lot of different issues, but the same group unanimously agreed that what’s happening is real and human-induced. Now, what do we do? It’s very depressing. A lot of it is past the point of no return. It gives the sense, to some people, that there’s no point in trying to save it.

We also need to study reefs that are not dying, and find out why.

Conservation’s focus is like being at the Library of Alexandria while it was on fire and trying to save the great books. There are those that haven’t burned yet. Grab what we can before it’s lost. There needs to be a balance between that and throwing water on the fire. We need to spend time looking at the hope spots and making sure those survive for future generations.

This year, Sylvia Earle won a TED Prize to increase public support for marine protected areas. Could you comment on her mission, and can you name any areas that you believe to be in urgent need of protection?

Sylvia asked me the same question before her talk, and I started rattling off a series of places — but really, what are the important parameters? Should they be five similar places, or five different places?

At an event for a BBC project, I got into a similar conversation and said, “With a finite number of bio-dollars, you have to be very careful where you spend them.” All of a sudden, a familiar voice came out of the shadows, saying, “That’s exactly what I said!” It was David Attenborough. I hadn’t noticed him before, but I recognized his voice immediately.

On the other hand, when I told my wife about this question, she said, “Oh, that’s easy, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean … ”

I also want to say that as I’ve gotten to know Sylvia, I’ve realized that people like her and Al Gore play such an important role. They are the gateways between science and the world. I think they are underappreciated by the scientific community at large. Al Gore is getting the big picture across, even if every once in a while some of the scientific details are a little bit off. And that’s more important, I think. Sylvia plays that role so well and so sincerely.

Also, what do you think of the Google Oceans project? What do you see as potential problems, advantages and/or consequences?

I have been involved in the project, so I want to warn you that I don’t have an unbiased opinion.

I think it’s a great tool. The power of video is extraordinary. It may be more precious than collecting specimens for harvesting data quickly. One of the biggest bottlenecks is that high-resolution video is not easily streamed over YouTube or Google Video, so we have been trying to get that video not streamable, but downloadable. Google Ocean is the perfect platform for this.

The real tool is desktop software that allows us to add metadata to video clips. You know, NOAA holds mountains of footage with no time to catalog it. The same is true of amateur videographers. We need to come up with a way to make this an open-source tool so that everyone can use it. I would consider this the perfect tool to build Google Oceans. We can extract from these video clips ample data and images. That would turn this into a viral, community-driven thing, and all we need is a little bit of infrastructure.

Lastly, how are the sharks? Your footage was peppered with sharks — has the diving continued to be that lively shark-wise? And do you ever really feel comfortable in the water with creatures so large and so powerful?

Yes, we still see lots of sharks, very routinely. They’re not a threat. My dive partner just got back from Fiji, diving Shark Reef, this place where you can find absolutely huge bull sharks. He was in there with these monsters, and up swam a tiger shark, which is sort of the great white of the tropics, and he was just a pussycat compared to these bull sharks. It was just amazing.

There’s another shark story, but it’s not really light. In my talk, I showed that picture of a good friend, who died only 30 seconds after the camera was off. Well, after that, we had to recover the body. We knew he was out there, but he could be drifting at sea or hung up on the reef. So we organized a string of the most experienced divers we could find, at different depths. I was at the greatest depth, where I could see the ocean floor, probably deeper than I should have been, but we had to find him.

I drifted into a school of incredibly large thresher sharks, and back then I had only met one person who had seen them before. They’re sort of one of the Holy Grail of things to see underwater, and I was in the middle of 10 or 12 of them, each about 20 feet long. Their eyes, because they live in such deep water, were as big as dinner plates. And it was such a frustrating moment, because I was going through the most difficult experience — searching for a friend’s body. I just couldn’t enjoy it.

Credit: TED.com

Watch Richard Pyle’s 2004 TEDTalk >>