In this episode, I speak with Dr. Steve Gittings, chief science officer for NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. In addition to overseeing science at all 14 United States Marine sanctuaries, and being on numerous boards for ocean environmental organizations, he lives one of the most eclectic lives I know.
As an example, he spent time recording and studying humpback whale songs off Hawaii with National Geographic photographer, Flip Nicklin; became a self-identified garage-ineer as he created a deep water trap for invasive lionfish; and he's even spent substantial time as an underwater aquanaut in the undersea research center, Aquarius. He's even recently become a member of the Explorers Club after being nominated by none other than Sylvia Earl.
But even with that resume, the reason I did this interview with Steve was because he is just one of the best guys you could meet, and we spent a few nights carousing in a dive industry convention, and just kind of hit it off.
When we finally did our interview, Steve spoke about where his deep passion for the ocean started, why he loves piloting submarines, and an incredible evening dive off Little Cayman to watch a massive grouper spawn.
Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.
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Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi, and welcome to the Big Deep Podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of this series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with an explorer and scientist whose life of work and adventure takes him deep underwater around the world. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep Podcast.
Jason Elias: (00:52)
Today, I speak with Dr. Steve Gittings, chief science officer for NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. In addition to overseeing science at all 14 United States Marine sanctuaries, and being on numerous boards for ocean environmental organizations, he lives one of the most eclectic lives I know. As an example, he spent time recording and studying humpback whale songs off Hawaii with National Geographic photographer, Flip Nicklin; became a self-identified [garageneer 00:01:19] as he created a deep water trap for invasive lionfish; and he's even spent substantial time as an underwater aquanaut in the undersea research center, Aquarius. He's even recently become a member of the Explorers Club after being nominated by then Sylvia Earl.
Jason Elias: (01:35)
But even with that resume, the reason I did this interview with Steve was because he is just one of the best guys you could meet, and we spent a few nights carousing in a dive industry convention, and just kind of hit it off. When we finally did our interview, Steve spoke about where his deep passion for the ocean started, why he loves piloting submarines, and an incredible evening dive off Little Cayman to watch a massive grouper spawn.
Dr Steve Gittings: (02:00)
Well, my name is Steve Gittings. I work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and I'm the chief scientist for one of the programs in NOA, called the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
Jason Elias: (02:10)
Well, Steve, your resume says scientist, but that term can sometimes bring up images of people in lab coats doing research with beakers and spreadsheets of data. But you've mentioned to me before that the science you and your team do is not what you call pure science, but instead focused more on being out in the world. Why is that type of science so important to you?
Dr Steve Gittings: (02:32)
So we actually call it conservation science. The reason we call it conservation science is because it's applied. The sciences we do are not generally pure sciences, where they're just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The knowledge we try to gain is applied in some way to the management and protection of resources, whether they're living resources or archeological artifacts or habitat quality. So our people, they're more like naturalists than they are lab scientists. You're more likely to find somebody dressed in scuba gear or muddy pants on a beach, picking rocks up or counting birds from the deck of a ship. I'm a federal employee, but another name for that is civil servant. We're very proud of the fact that we chose a career path that directly helps the public. Yes, you do it because you love it, but it just so happens that so does the rest of the world.
Jason Elias: (03:23)
Okay. So you've definitely manifested that in your multitude of life experiences. So what is it about that? Is there some sense of adventure you're continuously seeking? And if so, when did that start and how did it first relate to getting in the water?
Dr Steve Gittings: (03:43)
I grew up in a blue collar town on Lake Erie, and our house was just about seven blocks from the lake. We had a boat on the lake at the OT club and I spent every minute I could down there on that boat. My parents were really great. They would let me stay on the boat all summer without even coming home. To me, it was a kid in search of adventure on Lake Erie, looking for things to do, and I always seemed to find that adventure somehow on that lake.
Dr Steve Gittings: (04:12)
I had a little 11 foot sailboat, styrofoam thing. I recall going offshore with it, as far as I could possibly go, to where I could just barely see the tips of the smokestacks on the Niagara Mohawk power plant at the edge of the harbor. That was probably several miles out in a small sailboat all alone, and my parents would've killed me if they knew I did that. But I did it because I just always seemed to be seeking some kind of adventure, and I couldn't say no to things like that.
Dr Steve Gittings: (04:45)
Especially as a young person, the adventure of it really drew me. As I grew up, that didn't go away. And I had a life-changing moment when a professor named Clarence Harms took us to St. John and St. Thomas, and five minutes after getting off the plane, I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. We had to drive to the end of the island and then take a ferry to St. John. And it was literally on that ferry, the joy of being in that beautiful tropical setting, I didn't feel it, I knew it instantly. There was no feeling about it other than there's no way I could turn my back on that. I went back to college after about a month. I took every course I could that had anything related to water in it, and there was no turning back.
Jason Elias: (05:31)
Yeah, I love those simple but profound moments that are so telling in our life, but to the outside world would seem so inconsequential. It kind of feels like a special secret that no one else gets to know. And it seems like that started you on your path of exploration, adventure, but what is it about the adventure of the ocean that draws you? What's the underlying motivation about getting in the water? Is it the sense of discovery or wanting to understand something? And how do you find yourself pursuing that?
Dr Steve Gittings: (06:05)
When it started, it was trying to find excitement in life. But as I look back on it, because I've had a few experiences that were these things I call Eureka moments that really make you a different person than before that moment happened, I feel like every time I go in the ocean, I take a dive, jump in a submarine, go to Aquarius, any experience on the ocean is always a potential Eureka moment. The fact is those Eureka moments are lucky moments. It's just that if you put yourself in enough positions, the odds are you're going to have one. And I think item one of these people that doesn't say no to moments that I think could be special.
Jason Elias: (06:47)
Yeah. It's so crazy sometimes how just saying yes to something can lead to so many other things that you never anticipated. For you, with all the and explorations you've been on and the underwater science projects you've done, which one's the most exciting for you?
Dr Steve Gittings: (07:05)
I'm really proud to say that I have a lot to choose from, because I have been really lucky to be invited on so many things over the years, and submarines has to be near the top of that list.
Dr Steve Gittings: (07:19)
I got my first ride in a submarine because a super generous major professor of mine in graduate school, Tom Bright, was doing some submarine work in the Gulf of Mexico to characterize the reefs and banks of that region so they could protect them from the impending development of oil and gas offshore. And my first offshore expedition at Texas A&M University when I went to graduate school was with him. He was getting ready to get in a small submersible called the [inaudible 00:07:47], a two-person submersible. And Tom said, "Hey, you want to take my spot on this dive?"
Dr Steve Gittings: (07:55)
Like you know, I only have one answer. Next thing I know I'm taking off my shoes and climbing submarine to go down to a couple hundred feet or so to look at an incredible place called the East Flower Garden, Brine Seep, which was a pool of salt water under the ocean that's seven times saltier than normal seawater. So it looked like a lake, when you're down there, with a white rim around it, which was bacteria. Super salty water, high in hydrogen sulfide. Nothing lived in the water itself. And my job was to collect rocks so that I could study the hard bottom fauna, little animals that live on the rocks, around this brine seep. I collected all the rocks I needed for my masters in one dive, but I didn't tell Tom that.
Dr Steve Gittings: (08:43)
I don't know how it happened over the years, but I got invited to go on the NR-1, which was a Navy submarine, to do deep water, Gulf of Mexico surveys for deep brine seeps, 2000 feet deep. But then, the real payoff was when Sylvia Earl asked me if I wanted to become a sub pilot to drive a one man sub for a project that we had with National Geographic called Sustainable Seas Expeditions that she was in charge of, that I was going to be the chief scientist from NOA. To be able to go into a marine sanctuary by yourself in a submarine was just a magical experience. And I remember the first time getting in it, when they brought me it back up on deck, I remember saying to them, "I have got to get me one of these."
Jason Elias: (09:37)
Yeah, that makes sense. So you've been around the world and had multiple life-changing experiences in the ocean, these Eureka moments as you call them. But now I want to ask you to tell a more personal story, some moment in the ocean, something that you can point to where you felt a deeper, personal connection to being in the water, something that still deeply resonates with you today.
Dr Steve Gittings: (10:10)
I was invited by some good friends of mine, Bryce and Christie Simmons. They had a project that Little Cayman to study overfishing of Nassau grouper. Their numbers are very low and there are very few places where you can still find Nassau grouper spawning. But they found one in Little Cayman where they all show up only once a year for a few days. 100% of the fish on the island show up at one spawning site at the end of the island. The population had been devastated even by that point from maybe 10,000 down to about less than 2000. Bryce and Christie and others started doing studies on populations there, and they invited me to come down and help.
Dr Steve Gittings: (10:52)
Boy, they get you right off the plane in the water on that project. They don't give you any time to get your gear ready. "Just put it on the boat. We're going out diving." And we did. We went out diving. And of course, the first couple days, not much is happening, except there are a lot of groupers swimming around. Seems unnatural in itself because you don't see that many grouper usually together. And then a few days after a full moon, they start changing color. They go from kind of a striped pattern. They have these bars that come down the side of the fish. But as the time of spawning gets closer, almost all of them become this really dark top and really white belly. And when that starts to happen, you know they're getting ready to spawn.
Dr Steve Gittings: (11:42)
When it finally happened, we were out there at about 6:15 or so at night, these fish get super active, and one female who's already super fat because she's full of eggs, and the eggs become what they call hydrated, where they get really swollen. And then the males start clinging onto her and just swimming really tight up against the female, maybe a dozen or two dozen males, and multiple females sometimes. So these groups can be dozens or dozens of fish altogether. These are not small fish. They're good three feet long, some of them, all swimming in circles and tornado-looking things. And then they shoot up toward the surface. And as they're doing it, they start to release eggs and sperm into the water column, just clouds streaming from behind these fish, pulsating as a group, up into the water column. And then they'll all shed off each other as they reach the top. And then they'll all swim back down into the group and then do it again.
Dr Steve Gittings: (12:38)
The water gets filled with the [inaudible 00:12:42] from the fish to the point where there are times when you're swimming and you can't see a thing, and fish will be running into you, hitting you. Then occasionally a shark will come through and try to catch a grouper and hit a grouper. The amazing excitement of watching nature take its course and these groupers creating the next generation. But if you have your eyes really open in a place like that, as soon as you're done being amazed by it all, you realize that there are only a thousand or 2000 fish here doing this. What did it used to be like? It's just a shame to have to remember that in the midst of watching this amazing natural event take place.
Jason Elias: (13:38)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to, what does the ocean mean to you?
Dr Steve Gittings: (13:49)
The ocean is Earth, and literally does connect us all, and it is still does. The ocean is the ultimate commons. It's unowned by anybody. And to me, Earth is blue says something about not just the ocean, but about our planet and about us.
Jason Elias: (14:14)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep Podcast. Next time on Big Deep.
Jason Elias: (14:31)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes and comments really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone we should think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep website as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.