Dr. Erika Woolsey
“how do we care about something we never see or experience?”
Dr. Erika Woolsey has a hunch: if you share the insane wonder and going-ons of our ocean and sea life with others, those others will eventually embrace the need to preserve it all. which is exactly why she launched The Hydrous, a non-profit org of fellow researchers and filmmakers and preservationists who create award-winning virtual reality films about the ocean. (think, put very simply: virtual SCUBA dives!) (does anything sound better — especially now?) here, she shares some of her own experiences of navigating the unknown — whether it is deep below the ocean surface or making the most of day 983987 in quarantine.
you live in San Francisco, a city very much affected by the current health crisis. how are you spending your days?
“i try to get outside everyday, especially around the Embarcadero (maintaining a safe six feet from others). moving around outdoors, especially by the water, is so valuable for my physical and mental health. i have found a great yoga app to practice sequences at home.
i’m also talking with friends and family every day, via phone or video chat, and in some ways feel more connected than before. these uncertain times have prompted me to reconnect with friends and family who live far away.
generally speaking, though, i am passing the time by helping with virtual education programs (at The Hydrous and elsewhere) and writing a grant application!”
have you always lived in the Bay Area?
“i actually grew up in Marin, left to study biology and art history as an undergrad, and then on to Australia for my masters and PhD, where i worked on the Great Barrier Reef. it was a huge privilege to spend so much time on island research stations, on research vessels, and underwater. i learned from some incredible scientists and was lucky to have amazing mentors and collaborators.
and now i’m back. San Francisco is the perfect place for the work i do: combining ocean science with design and emerging tech. and i love being with my family again.”
tell us about your work.
“i want to generate ocean access and connection. throughout my career in science, i’ve noticed a general disconnection between research, public understanding, behavior, and policy. the ocean itself is overexploited, under-protected, and out of mind. i wanted to make the ocean more visible, accessible, and understood. so my co-founders and i started The Hydrous to translate scientific discovery into broad understanding and empathy through real and virtual experiences.”
what does that look like in practice? (usually, that is.)
“i usually travel often to teach and do some filming. a highlight of any trip is taking people on virtual dives with me. after someone comes out of the VR headset, the look on their face is usually one of joy, surprise, or even sadness. once they’ve felt that presence in a different kind of space, amazing conversations tend to follow. it’s a powerful experience. a new way of connecting.”
quick: something weird and wonderful you’ve learned during your research.
“coral animals are magic. they reproduce sexually and asexually, can turn seawater into rock and build habitats that house tremendous biodiversity. they replenish themselves during annual mass spawning events, known as the most synchronous sex event in the whole animal kingdom.”
is there one change everyone can make when thinking about sustainability?
“use the Seafood Watch guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to decipher the crazy world of sustainably sourced seafood. it’s free online; i use it on my smartphone. thinking about the way you eat — and using your power as a consumer — goes a long way in protecting our blue planet.”
when you aren’t working, you are….
“thinking about how i can get back underwater!”
last book you read?
“The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson.”
the époque évolution you wear most, and why?
“the orion II legging. so comfy and love the details. plus they’re quick drying! (i should go diving in them.) i also love the one crop top and pencil skirt in that gorgeous green color. (ed. note: our olive!) i could live in that material — it feels like a second skin.”
all-around life hack you swear by?
“don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
“a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”