Q&A with Jim Watanabe

After 26 years as Hopkins Marine Station’s lecturer and resident expert on the local kelp forest ecosystem, Jim Watanabe retired at the end of summer 2018. Jim has spent an academic lifetime studying, doing research, and teaching in the kelp forests of Monterey Bay – he started as a Stanford undergraduate at Hopkins Marine Station in the 1970s, did his graduate research in the Monterey Bay, and directed the research program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for 10 years before joining the faculty at Hopkins.

I managed to sit down with Jim just before his retirement and get his thoughts on kelp forests, teaching, and the role of marine stations like Hopkins. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What first got you interested in kelp forests?

It’s almost embarrasssing to admit, but the thing that got my attention as a kid was a TV show called Sea Hunt from the 1950s. It was filmed in Southern California, so there would be sequences where they were diving and would swim past the kelp, and that was my first exposure to scuba diving and seeing this really different kind of world. I learnt how to scuba dive when I was in high school, and the main reason I applied to Stanford as an undergraduate was because I knew they had a marine lab. Chuck Baxter was one of the first people I ran into as an undergrad at Stanford and he taught a class that was the precursor to the kelp forest ecology class that I teach in the summer. We’d dive on weekends during the fall quarter and that really got me more connected with who these critters were, how they make a living, where you can find them, and the processes that affect them. And so I just stuck with it for a very long time and managed to see a lot of things that we don’t get to see if we don’t sit in one place for a long time and look at how things change.

What is a key lesson you have learnt from decades of studying kelp forests at Hopkins?

How truly dynamic and changeable these places are. I think in everything we read from when we’re kids to when we’re adult scientists, there’s this underlying assumption of a balance of nature, that all the species are interacting in just the right way, to keep the patterns of diversity at an equilibrium or a steady state. But the eye-opening thing about kelp forests is that they are so dynamic and so affected by weird one-off events, like an extra-big storm, or an El Niño, or a huge settlement of sea urchins like we have now. It makes you realise how complex these places are and how dependent they are on the combinations of other things going on around them. It always gives you something fresh to look for and never fails to surprise you with things you don’t expect.

You have talked about the importance of understanding the long-term history of an ecosystem. Do you have thoughts on how we can maintain that long-term perspective within a scientific system that works on much shorter cycles of grant funding and PhD projects?

It’s really a much shorter-term view that the world makes us take. I think about this a lot because I do know how lucky I’ve been to be able to sit in one place and stare at the kelp forest for as many decades as I have. And I think that in lieu of having everybody have the fortune to do what I’ve been able to do, having places like marine labs gives us a reservoir of institutional and aggregate knowledge, and an opportunity to keep a finger on the pulse of long-term change. And that’s one of the responsibilities of a place that has the luxury of sitting right on the seashore all the time. It’s not only an opportunity but also an obligation of a place like Hopkins to keep a finger on that local pulse because nobody else can do it easier than we can here.

How do you think marine stations and laboratories like Hopkins can best accomplish this role?

This may be biased by my experience and the way I’ve done things, but I think an ideal way is to incorporate it into the teaching that we do. I’ve managed to “enslave” my students to go out and collect data as part of their learning experience. One of the things that I’ve done in my kelp forest ecology class is go out and count kelp plants every year at the same sites, and that’s a good exercise for students to learn how to work underwater and collect that kind of data. But by doing that, every year they provide another data point. When we plot out the data and add the year’s data point to a time series of a couple of decades’ worth of data, the students really get jazzed about seeing, “oh that’s where our point fits in!” If you can show the students that what they’re doing is building this picture of how things have been changing, a lot of times you see that proverbial light bulb go on over their head and they say “oh, okay, what I’ve done actually counts and somebody’s going to care about it.” I think that’s an important lesson for the students to be able to learn too – that because of this long history and long perspective that the institution values, what they contribute is going to be part of that picture forever. And so it really is a win-win when we can set these sorts of things up and just make it part of the culture of the place.

What are you looking forward to do next?

I have plenty of stuff to keep busy with! There’s a whole bunch of data from all the things I made my students do. I think there’s going to be some really interesting stuff from the kelp forest monitoring data – mostly on small- and medium-scale variability. I’ll try and finish those projects up and get some papers out but then just continue to learn new things, and also continue to help drag students out into the intertidal. There’s all these bryozoans and tunicates in the low intertidal that I see all the time and I never really had the time to figure out who they are, so I’ll get to do that too. And there’s all this really interesting stuff going on right now with the sea urchins and the dynamics and recovery of the kelp forest ecosystem, so I’ll definitely be poking my nose into that and keeping an eye on it.