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Nat Geo Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala swims with a green turtle off Cocos Island in Costa Rica in the course of conducting research for the Pristine Seas project. (Photograph by Octavio Aburto)

Travel Lens: Ocean Hero Enric Sala

Enric Sala is a man on a mission. Leaving behind a tenured position at prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the audacious marine ecologist showed up at Nat Geo’s doorstep to outline his vision for protecting the last wild places in the ocean.

That was more than five years ago. Today, with support from the Society as an explorer-in-residence, Sala remains the dynamic driving force behind the Pristine Seas project, an epic effort to establish marine reserves–underwater national parks–around the world.

I recently got the chance to chat with the accomplished diver and travel enthusiast about quirky underwater dwellers, his hometown in Catalonia, and his favorite place in the world. Here’s what he had to say:

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Sala presents his work at Nat Geo headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photograph courtesy Enric Sala)

Megan Heltzel: What inspired you to become a marine ecologist?

Enric Sala: Watching the TV shows of Jacques Cousteau. My dream was to be a diver in his famous boat, the Calypso.

MH: You were a professor at Scripps before you showed up at Nat Geo, dream in hand. What made you decide to take that risk?

ES: I felt that studying human impacts in the ocean alone was like writing the obituary of the ocean. Meanwhile, the places I loved so much were less and less alive. I wanted to do something to bring back marine life.

MH: How does the Pristine Seas project “work”?

We explore, survey, and document the ocean’s wildest places [in hopes of inspiring] local leaders to protect them as marine reserves.

MH: What can travelers do to support ocean conservation when they travel?

ES: It’s very easy: Visit protected areas, dive in marine reserves, and tell your friends to do the same. Bringing your dollars or euros to places that are protected will inspire other destinations to protect their oceans as well. If people understand that conservation can be good for business, then we are on the right track.

MH: What’s your favorite spot in the world and why?

ES: Ha! That’s a tricky question. There are so many wonderful places, but my favorite is Millennium Atoll in the southern Line Islands in the South Pacific. It is the wildest, most pristine coral reef I’ve ever seen, full of sharks and large fish that swim over a healthy coral garden. It is like getting in a time machine and going back a thousand years.

MH: What do you never leave home without while traveling?

ES: My passport, a credit card, my Fifty Fathoms dive watch, and dark chocolate.

MH: Why is traveling important? What has it taught you?

ES: Traveling opens up your mind; it is a phenomenal way of learning about everything. Seeing different cultures [has] also made me more tolerant. Finally, seeing some of the wonderful things on our planet left me in awe, which [has] helped me develop a spiritual connection with all types of life.

MH: What’s your favorite thing about scuba diving?

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Sala searches for monk seals on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. (Photograph by Zafer Kizilkaya)

ES: It makes my mind forget about all the troubles above the surface. It makes me feel [as if] I’m flying in a world where everything is calmer and slower.

MH: You’re originally from Girona, in Catalonia. Do you have any local recommendations for people traveling to that region?

ES: I could spend hours talking about Girona and environs! Visit Girona’s old town–a gorgeous medieval city. The Dalí Museum in Figueres is also well worth seeing. Finally, make sure to spend some time exploring Cadaques–the “Greekest” of Catalonia’s coastal villages–and diving at the Medes Islands Marine Reserve.

MH: What’s your favorite thing about being based in Washington, D.C.?

ES: It’s full of brilliant people from around the world, but it’s also only three hours away from New York by train!

MH: Which animal is most fun to observe underwater?

ES: The octopus, which changes color according to its surroundings and can disappear–at least to the untrained eye–in a fraction of a second.

MH: What was it like to interact with the green turtles on Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica?

ES: Magic–so curious and gentle. They were aggregating to reproduce, but could not resist the temptation to check us out.

MH: National Geographic Expeditions and partner Lindblad Expeditions are donating funds raised about the National Geographic Orion and National Geographic Explorer to Pristine Seas. Are there other ways people can help support the project?

ES: We are now building a platform to allow citizens from around the world to help us protect these ocean gems forever. Stay tuned!

Marine ecologist Enric Sala is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Follow him on Twitter @EnricSala

Megan Heltzel is an associate producer on National Geographic Travel’s digital team. Follow her on Twitter @MeganHeltzel.

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