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Mael Imirizaldu is a regional officer for Pacific and French-speaking countries for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, where he helps countries and communities conserve the ocean that they depend on.
Conservation News spoke with Imirizaldu about a life-changing underwater encounter, the indigenous community that helped him connect with his island home and the benefits of being a generalist.
Question: What has growing up on an island taught you about nature?
Answer: When I moved to New Caledonia from France as a child, I was in awe of the amazing landscapes and how much space there was to explore — it covers more than 1.8 million hectares (4.416 million acres), which is larger than Sydney, Australia. And with its size comes its biodiversity: There are around 3,270 plant species recorded on the islands — and three-quarters of them are found only in New Caledonia. The island also holds the world’s biggest lagoon, which is home to more than 2,400 species of fish, including legions of sharks, the elusive dugong and my personal favorite, the manta ray.
Can you imagine a better playground? I was lucky to spend so much time as kid in the waters surrounding the island, gaining a wealth of knowledge about the fish we caught, the coral reefs we explored and the ocean we sailed — all without even realizing I was learning. These hours underwater instilled a deep love of biology in me and a drive to learn about all of the intricate ways that nature is connected. From apex predators such as sharks to the tiny phytoplankton floating in the water, every single species is necessary to keep a marine ecosystem balanced.
When I got to university, I was shocked to find out that this thing that I loved to do for fun was something that I could dedicate my studies to — and eventually transform it into my career.
Q: What is one moment underwater that you’ll never forget?
A: I don’t know if you realize how difficult this question is for me to answer — there are too many amazing moments to count!
One of my favorite moments is actually from when I learned to dive as a teenager. I took my first open dive in the Boulari Channel, which is a famous spot for manta rays. I had always admired manta rays from videos and photographs, but I never imagined that I would see one in person. After being in the water for around 30 minutes (and nearly colliding with an ancient-looking loggerhead turtle), I saw a massive shadow heading straight toward me. A manta ray swam up and presented its stomach to me, which is a common way for these majestic creatures to greet each other. I was hypnotized by the manta ray’s fluid movements, but I was even more moved by the intelligence I saw behind its eyes. Later, I learned that manta rays have one of the largest brains in the entire fish world and can recognize and interact individuals — just like humans do.
Q: So that manta ray led you into conservation?
A: That first encounter was certainly a defining moment for me, and it solidified my desire to spend the rest of my life conserving marine species — and the ocean they depend on.
Another reason I’ve dedicated my career to protecting the Earth is because of my island upbringing, where I was strongly inspired by the Kanak culture. The Kanak people are the native indigenous people of New Caledonia. They have a deep cultural connection to their natural environment and consider themselves the customary guardians of nature in this region. Although I wasn’t born into or raised by this community, I had the chance to spend some time immersed in it and I learned to look at nature differently.
As humans, we tend to see nature as a commodity for food, income or entertainment. But Kanak culture has taught me that wildlife, fish and plants are so much more than that: Manta rays have personalities, the river brings water to the community, the soil enables us to grow crops, trees clean the air we breathe. The elements of nature are distinct — they can embody ancient spirits, for example, and they can contribute to every aspect of a community’s way of life.
It took me some time to find my own way that I could also act as a guardian for my island and the ocean, but I eventually realized that conservation was the perfect vehicle to protect both nature and people.
Q: What does your work look like these days?
A: My goal has always been to be a generalist. I have this love-hate relationship with science because I never wanted to specialize in just one thing and I didn’t always feel like I fit in the academic world. But my science background has taught me how to use monitoring tools and research techniques to help support conservation efforts on my home island and the rest of the Pacific, while meeting inspiring scientists and conservationists along the way. Seven years ago, I officially joined Conservation International to help launch a marine program in New Caledonia. This role involved completing field research, developing ocean conservation projects with the people of the island, and building trust and connections with local communities, governments and businesses.
Now that the program is well-established, my role has expanded. As a regional officer for the Pacific and French-speaking countries, I help identify new sites and communities across this area that want to engage in marine conservation and find ways that we can support them. Despite the vast geography these islands are situated across, and their various ecosystems, a lot of these countries and communities are running into the same challenges and external environmental threats, including overfishing, pollution and climate change.
Q: As a professional protector of the ocean, what advice would you give to the next generation of conservationists?
A: Be curious. Even when I struggled in certain academic courses or faced a particularly challenging moment in my career, my curiosity has always driven me to find answers and creative solutions. Another piece of advice: Have an enthusiastic attitude about everything thrown your way. Two years ago, I went on a trip to Futuna Island and had to do a survey on coconut crabs. As someone who prefers to spend their time underwater, walking kilometers around in the bush with mosquitos and red ants to find these spider-like crabs at night seemed like a grueling experience to me. But I was curious and enthusiastic about what results we might find, and was able to provide crucial information to the local community, while learning new skills that have helped me become better at my job. I also built great relationships and have fond memories that bring a smile to my face every time I think of them.
Most of the time you will have to make things happen, but other times opportunities will come your way and you have to seize them. If you don’t push yourself to try new things, you will never know what skills and connections could have grown out of them.
Mael Imirizaldu is a regional officer for Pacific and French-speaking countries for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.
Cover image: Mael Imirizaldu on a research expedition Ouvea island, New-Caledonia (© Conservation International)