With a surname that roughly translates in German as "Man of the Earth," it should come as no surprise that Mark Erdmann has been enamored with natural history and interested in conservation since early childhood. His first love has always been marine rather than terrestrial ecosystems.
"My father used to joke that I was a fish in an earthman's body," Erdmann says.
With this long-standing love of the ocean, Erdmann is at home with Conservation International. As senior advisor to CI-Indonesia's marine program and head of the Bird's Head Seascape program, he works to oversee and guide the implementation of the seascape's complex work plan, and has a hand in a wide range of marine programs within Indonesia. Recently he led a team of scientists that surveyed two important but relatively unknown areas in the seascape. The coral reef expeditions yielded incredible results, proving the need for greater protection for this exceptionally diverse marine region.
Erdmann's life has always centered around marine and freshwater issues. "When I was young, Jacques Cousteau was a main source of inspiration, and I also followed the exploits of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship with avid interest," he recalls.
He wanted to be a marine biologist from the time he was four and first dipped a hand-net into a stream and caught fish and tadpoles. "As a child I spent the majority of my play time at the beach or in the swamps, streams, and lakes of South Carolina, and at the age of eight led a group of boys to confront a local construction company that was dumping waste into 'our' stream."
Erdmann followed his interest to Duke University where he studied biology and primatology, and then to the west coast where he earned his Ph.D. in coral reef ecology at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been with CI for nearly two years.
"Working in marine conservation in Indonesia provides plenty of opportunities for despair as one sees daily examples of reefs destroyed by blast fishing, turtles poached, and sharks continuing to be finned," he laments. "However, Indonesia's reefs are so diverse and vibrant that I find inspiration nearly every time I dive, especially in the Bird's Head region."
Erdmann has been immensely encouraged by seeing the recovery of corals and fish stocks in select Indonesian marine protected areas with effective management over the last decade. "I have been able to see positive changes in the midst of continuing degradation on the surrounding reefs throughout southeast Asia." Seeing the success of these protected areas and new programs that bolster local community involvement in conservation have been a source of great satisfaction for him.
Mark says that CI-Indonesia's marine team often finds itself the lone "voice of the reefs" among those clamoring for rapid exploitation of Indonesia's seas. When he's not busy working to defend the seascape and the coastal livelihoods that depend on its sustainable use, Mark loves spending time with his family and taking his young children swimming, snorkeling, and boogey-boarding. He maintains a deep personal commitment to do whatever is necessary to ensure that his children will be able to enjoy the same "magical moments" he has experienced underwater –such as witnessing spawning jacks, aggregating manta rays, and waters so thick with fish he could hardly see his dive buddy.