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The Fates of our Fathoms

Swarthmoreans’ love of the sea translates into activism

Heather Ylitalo-Ward ’06 was 17 years old when she had her first close encounter with an octopus. 

“I was sitting in a tide pool, looking out at the ocean, when a wave came in and a small octopus swam right up next to me,” says Ylitalo-Ward, who was living with her family in Costa Rica at the time. “It was about the size of a golf ball and it looked as if it had red polka dots all over.” The creature circled her legs for a while, like a cheerful Disney sidekick, before swimming away. 

Over several internships, jobs, and a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Manoa in 2014, Ylitalo-Ward has sought to understand the living octopus in all its complexity. “There is something alluring about their intelligence, their camouflage, and the way they can squeeze their bodies into tiny spaces,” she says. 

Regularly referring to octopods as “the charismatic megafauna of the invertebrate world,” Ylitalo-Ward cites octopuses’ intelligence—their defining evolutionary advantage—as her main draw to the species as a research subject.

Accordingly, their wily ability to adapt and evade has helped the octopus endure for more than 300 million years, despite the fact that their nutrient-rich, chewy bodies are delicious to predators. Octopus cyanea, or the day octopus, which Ylitalo-Ward studied as a Ph.D. student, for example, is at a higher risk from predators than its nocturnal brethren but has outfitted itself remarkably for survival. It can change not only the color but also the texture of its skin, effectively becoming invisible against the backdrop of a coral reef. It releases dense, voluminous, foul-smelling ink clouds to befuddle predators and is known to “walk” along the ocean floor while carrying halved coconut shells as body armor and shelter. 

For years Ylitalo-Ward has studied octopuses in labs and in situ, and she is now as invested in the conservation of the endangered habitats of these canny creatures as she is in the creatures themselves. 

“The ocean covers over 70 percent of the planet, generates almost half of the world’s oxygen, absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, and provides one of the main sources of protein to the world’s populations,” she says. “Conservation of oceans is essential to humankind’s survival.”

Ylitalo-Ward’s Swarthmore classmate Aaron Strong ’06, a Stanford Ph.D. student in environment and resources, is also working to conserve marine ecology, though his research mostly explores questions about how societal ideals factor into conservation. “We’ve too long overlooked the value of conservation and elevated the values of resource extraction and capitalism,” he says, explaining that those long-established precedents are hard to displace. 

As it happens, Strong and Ylitalo-Ward first met long before Swarthmore. 

“Heather and I were best friends when we were 8 years old in Kyoto, Japan,” he says. 

She recalls, “We would run around the temple grounds that were close by and ride our bikes and chase bugs.”

They went to the same international school and then lost touch, only to reconnect as first-years at Swarthmore: They “both showed up in Willets,” says Strong. “I distinctly remember the jaw-dropping moment of seeing Heather’s unmistakable name on the student list and getting extremely excited to surprise her at her door.”

They went on to intern in tandem at the lab at Woods Hole in Cape Cod, Mass., where they shared a focus on climate change, and then pursued parallel doctorates. Strong calls Ylitalo-Ward’s research into the intricacies of octopods “awesome,” admiring its thorough and concrete nature. His work focuses on more abstract notions. “How do we define the next generation of conservation programs? Do we focus on a single species or take a more holistic approach?” he says, adding that it’s not easy for any agency to manage an ecosystem and all its components all at once.

Strong’s work, which he will continue next year as a professor of marine policy at the University of Maine, focuses less on individual organisms and more broadly on changing regulations to benefit individual organisms. 

“These days, I’m not a biologist; increasingly I’m not even a scientist,” he says. While at Stanford, he has helped develop California’s new climate change policies as part of a technical working group advising the California Air Resources Board on its cap-and-trade system, and he looks forward to doing more in Maine, where he will work on state initiatives to implement the recommendations of its Ocean Acidification Commission. He describes his role as being “on the less charismatic side of science and policy-studies: water pollution, the role coastal ecosystems play in controlling climate change, and what can we do about ocean acidification.” And the situation is dire. According to recent research, he says, “even if we do a decent job and stabilize things by the end of the century, our models suggest that two-thirds of all coral reefs around the planet will be degraded.” 

Acidification is also a concern of Ylitalo-Ward’s. Many octopuses dwell in and rely on the intricate ecological universes of coral reefs, which climate change is leaving bleached and weakened.

A research team led by the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre, whose findings were published in the journal Global Change Biology, found a direct link between climate change and reduction of life on the sea floor, writing, “The weight of the marine creatures that will be lost is greater than the combined weight of every person on Earth.”

“When it comes to sustainability and conservation, science doesn’t tell us what to do,” says Strong. “We have to decide what we want to do.” 


FORTUNATELY, WORK LIKE Ylitalo-Ward’s—which balances academic cephalopod research (how the female rock octopus, for example, decides which of her various mates should father her children) with the practical (how fisheries make profits without devastating cephalopod populations)—can inform decisions about the best route to conservation. 

Only a few short years after Ylitalo-Ward came face-to-face with her first octopus in Costa Rica, she decided to focus on octopods while studying abroad at the School of International Training in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Ylitalo-Ward spent her days there observing and interacting with octopus spear fisherman on the tiny island of Misali. The experience sparked her realization that effective, locally led conservation efforts can enable hunters to make a living while still respecting their prey, especially through the use  of low-tech and low-impact—rather than newer, more destructive—hunting methods. Recently, Ylitalo-Ward put her realization into practice as a fisheries data consultant for the organization Blue Ventures in Madagascar, which works with coastal communities to create sustainable hunting habits for hunters and octopods alike. More and more fisheries in the area are now following the same model, the aquatic equivalent of letting the ground lie fallow, increasing their ultimate octopus yield by refraining from fishing for discrete periods of time. 

As for Strong, he points out that different interest groups often have disparate priorities and occasionally conflicting viewpoints about dynamic ecosystems, such as oceans: Some people rank conservation most highly while others value regulation of hunting or the tourism industry. And as he segues into teaching, he seeks to balance them all in his work.

“I want to make a difference in the way human beings negatively affect the natural world,” he says.

Both Strong and Ylitalo-Ward are optimistic that progress can be made and that the fate of the octopus, and other species like it, can be improved. After all, a well-functioning marine ecosystem is in the best interest of all animals, humans included. 

“Thanks to the ocean, we are constantly finding new uses for biological compounds in treatments for everything from a stomach ache to leukemia,” Ylitalo-Ward says. 

It continues to provide her with inspiration, as well. On a diving trip to Borneo last October, she was treated to “one day that was particularly spectacular in terms of cephalopod sightings,” featuring everything from giant cuttlefish to pygmy squid, as well as a tiny, blue-ringed octopus, “a notoriously difficult animal to spot in the wild.” 

The experience left her humbled and firmer than ever in her commitment to her field. 

“I left that day compelled to keep working with cephalopods, in whatever capacity possible: protecting their habitat, ensuring sustainable fishing practices, researching their behavior in a lab,” she says. “These animals have captured my curiosity, my imagination, and my heart.”