Rhian Waller

Deep-Sea Ecologist

National Geographic Society/Waitt Grant, Global Exploration Fund—Northern Europe Grant

Picture of deep-sea coral entangled in what was a silver mylar balloon

Photograph by Rhian Waller and the DASS05/IFE/URI/NOAA_OE crew

Picture of Rhian Waller in the field

Photograph by Dann Blackwood

Birthplace: Bristol, England

Current Home: Damariscotta, Maine

What work did you accomplish with the grant from National Geographic?

The grant I received from National Geographic has allowed me to set up yearlong coral monitoring stations in three locations in the northern Patagonian fjords, Chile. I've recently returned from the expedition, where we used scuba to find usually deep-sea corals (species that usually live in over 1,000-meter depth live here in just 20-meter depth!); place temperature, salinity, and light monitors; take photographic transects; and collect specimens for reproductive analysis. We set up three locations: one in Comau fjord, one in Renihue fjord, and one right next to a commercial salmon farm pen. The goal of the project is to understand how this species reproduces in the fjords, a process vital to the sustainability of populations and to recovery from anthropogenic damage.

What project will you work on next?

There are always more projects! My interests and passion is understanding animals that live in extreme conditions, such as deep-sea or polar ecosystems. How did they get there, how do the populations continue to live there, how do these species disperse across ocean basins, and more importantly, how are they surviving anthropogenic influences from human impacts and climate change? In short, I spend a lot of my time in cold and dark places!

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Being a marine biologist definitely crossed my mind when I was younger. I remember sitting on the couch with my dad when I was really little, watching the National Geographic special on the discovery of hydrothermal vents. I thought that was the coolest thing ever—the submersible Alvin, the bright red tube worms, the superhot water. How awesome would it be to be able to do that! Of course many other careers crossed my thoughts too: veterinarian, microbiologist, nurse, the army, school teacher. I've been lucky enough to be able to follow my passion and do a job I really care about.

How did you get started in the field?

I've had many fantastic mentors over the years, and I can definitely attribute many of my major life changes to them. I did my undergraduate in marine and freshwater biology and had the intention of finishing my B.Sc. and going into primary school teaching. I had a great tutor in college who steered me towards a Ph.D. program, and I ended up doing a thesis on deep-sea corals. The training I had during that Ph.D. set me up for a career in deep-sea ecology, and I've never looked back.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to coral reef conservation?

I guess my inspiration to keep on going is the hope that I can provide a small piece of the puzzle that will help us understand and conserve these species living on the edge. The more we learn, the more we're realizing just how important deep-sea ecosystems are to life up here on land. I also get a lot of inspiration from working with my collaborators—there's nothing more satisfying than working with people who are as enthusiastic about science and understanding ecosystems as you are.

What's a normal day like for you?

One of the biggest joys in my career is that no two days are ever the same. I go from sitting at my desk writing papers and proposals, to being in the lab helping students get data, to being in Alaska scuba diving among corals living in 33ºF water, to the back deck of a large research vessel in the Antarctic looking at the haul of specimens we just retrieved from 2,000-meter depth. It's a wonderful feeling to collaborate with amazing people to write proposals to do great science and see that realized—from start to finish, proposal to paper.

Do you have a hero?

I grew up with natural history programs, and even today I still feel a tingle of wonder and excitement when I hear David Attenborough's voice. I still remember watching Life on Earth and The Living Planet, and the orcas surfing up an Argentinian beach to catch seals in The Trials of Life made me terrified and amazed all at the same time! His obvious love for wildlife and the greater planet have definitely inspired me to want to know more over the years and do my part.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

There have been so many amazing moments for me in the field that it's hard to pick a single favorite. When you work in places such as the Arctic, Alaska, Pacific, Atlantic, and Antarctic, you rack up more than a few favorites! Recently it has to be this Chilean expedition. This is a species I've been working with for ten years, yet being able to scuba dive around corals I'd only ever seen through six inches of Plexiglas or on a computer monitor was just amazing. It was a little hard to focus on the work at times rather than stop and stare.

My most challenging has definitely been the scuba diving. I never got around to learning to dive until I got funding to go on an expedition to the Alaskan fjords in 2010, another area where deep-sea corals come up shallow. I knew there was no way I was going to stay on the boat when others got to swim in a "deep-sea" ecosystem, so I jumped right in and have gone from zero to technical dive master in three years! I've thoroughly enjoyed diving, but going from an open water certificate to diving in 33ºF water, moving at 2 knots, low (to no!) visibility, and nothing but 500 meters of water below you in less than three years has been a (fun) challenge!

What are your other passions?

I enjoy being outdoors, mostly in the ocean kayaking or scuba diving, but also in the mountains, hiking, backpacking, and taking in the scenery. Climbing a mountain reminds me of how small I really am in this great big world, so it's something I like to do on a regular basis. We are just small specks on this grand planet.

If you could have people do one thing to help save coral reefs, what would it be?

There's one photo we took on an expedition to the Corner Rise Seamounts, an area in the North Atlantic that is about as far away from land as you can get. We found a coral at 3,000 meters with something wrapped around it. It was a foil balloon, like those they fill with helium and give out at kids' parties (photo above). It's a stark reminder that everything we do on land is connected to the ocean and is connected to the atmosphere. We're all in this together, so we all have to change the way we treat this planet of ours.

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In Their Words

My inspiration to keep on going is the hope that I can provide a small piece of the puzzle that will help us understand and conserve these species living on the edge.

—Rhian Waller


  • Photo: Rhian Waller, ice water diver

    Rhian Waller, Ice Water Diver

    Rhian Waller studied deep-sea corals for ten years through portholes and on video feeds sent from robotic submarines more than 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.


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