When Andreas Merkl graduated from high school in Cologne, Germany, his father gave him 3,000 Deutsche Marks and told him to leave out of the front door of the house and return at the back door, taking the long way around.
Andreas began his “walkabout” in the United States by hitchhiking outside the arrivals terminal of New York City’s JFK airport, eventually making his way across the country to Santa Cruz, California, where he began building a career in environmental conservation.
Earlier this year, Andreas made another long-distance—albeit far less circuitous—trip when he packed up for Washington, D.C., to join the Ocean Conservancy team as President and CEO. He brings with him nearly four decades of expertise in natural resource management and a palpable passion for all things aquatic.
Here he shares his reasons for joining Ocean Conservancy, the challenges he’s most looking forward to as CEO, his experience diving with sea snakes and more.
What is it that drew you to Ocean Conservancy?
I’ve been working in ocean conservation for a long time and have watched Ocean Conservancy very closely, and there have always been two things that struck me: One, you have an amazing, talented staff. And two, you have an uncanny sense of working on what really matters.
Over the last few months, I have interviewed many of the top experts in the field about what needs to be done in U.S. ocean conservation, and for the most part, they agree on the top priorities.
These priorities—protecting and restoring ecosystems in the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific Coast; promoting productive and sustainable fisheries; fighting for trash free seas; ensuring comprehensive ocean planning; and beginning critical work to address increasing acidity levels in the ocean—all fall in line with Ocean Conservancy’s programmatic focal points and provide a world-class platform for growth.
What challenges are you most excited about tackling in this new role?
Ocean Conservancy has made great strides in finding solutions to problems that face the ocean. But our work is far from over. The ocean is at the very center of the central challenge of our time: how to meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us.
In every aspect of this challenge—food, energy, climate and protection of our natural resources—our ability to manage our impacts on the ocean will make the crucial difference in sustaining the resources that we need to survive. Ocean Conservancy should be at the very center of these issues.
We cannot afford to stand still as threats to our ocean increase and the window to preserve the functionality, resiliency and vitality of the ocean closes.
My job as CEO will be to help design, fund and implement programs that help protect a healthy ocean. And I am fortunate to be working with such a great team of colleagues, partners and friends worldwide to help shape a sustainable ocean future.
What has inspired your commitment to ocean conservation?
I grew up in industrial northern Germany on the banks of the Rhine River in Cologne. As a child, I played along the river’s beautiful embankments, in willow thickets and on sandy beaches. But by penalty of a very good whooping, I was not allowed to put as much as a big toe in the water, because the river was, at that time, a chemical and organic cesspool.
When I was 10 years old, people began to take notice and work to repair the environmental damage in post-war northern Germany. I remember being told in 1970 that by the year 2000, there would be salmon in the Rhine.
I grew up during that period of environmental awakening—that incredible struggle to take a deeply industrialized and damaged country and figure out how to bring it back. That’s what I studied and that’s what I’ve been pursuing ever since.
It’s wonderful if you find your thing when you’re 10 years old, and I did. I still don’t want to do anything else.
What is it about the ocean that you love so much?
I’m never happier than when I’m out on the water. It’s been my passion for a very long time. I’m a passionate diver and sailor and surfer, and it just makes me happy. My wife and I have dived most of the world’s oceans.
I don’t know how a Northern European river rat became such an ocean person, but I think you either are or you aren’t. There are desert people and mountain people and city people, and then there are ocean people.
Can you describe your favorite diving experience?
My favorite dive was in the remote waters of eastern Indonesia. This particular dive spot is impossible to get to, so very few people have seen this place and what makes it special is that it’s an aggregation area for sea snakes.
The snakes are incredibly inquisitive, so as you start sinking down, they start coming up. Half of you is just mesmerized by how beautiful they are and the other half is just completely terrified.
My wife and I seemed to make friends with them. They slithered all around us and looked us in the goggles and played with our fins. We danced with them for half an hour, and it was just magical.
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