Helen Scales

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About me

As a writer, marine biologist and broadcaster my work combines a scuba diver’s devotion to exploring the oceans, a scientist’s nerdy attention to details, a conservationist’s angst about the state of the planet, and a storyteller’s fixation with words and ideas.

I write books and articles and make radio documentaries; I search for stories about the oceans and the natural world, of the wonders of science and people; and I do my best to spend as much time as I can in, on and next to the sea.

I’ve recently returned from a nine month trip to ten different countries, where I’ve been researching and beginning to write my latest book Eye of the Shoal (due out from Bloomsbury in 2018; you can keep up to date on how I’m getting on by signing up to my new newsletter). In this book, I’m casting my net wide to reveal the fascinating, surprising and dazzling lives of all of the fishes, or at least as many as I can cram between the covers.

This follows on from Spirals in Time my book about the wonders of seashells and the animals that make them (published in 2015 by Bloomsbury Sigma). It was chosen as a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, a book of the year by the Times, the Guardian, the Economist and Nature and short-listed for the Royal Society of Biology’s book award.

Here are some things people have written about Spirals in Time.

Before that, my first book Poseidon’s Steed (Penguin 2010) was about seahorses, the only animals in which it’s the males that get pregnant and give birth and the only fishes that have a neck. Here are some radio interviews I did talking about these peculiar little creatures.

Besides my books, I also get out and about, making radio documentaries and writing features for magazines and newspapers. My recent trips include paying a visit to an underwater research station in Florida for my documentary The Life SubAquatic on BBC Radio 4 and diving with bull sharks in Fiji for Inside the Shark’s Mind on the BBC World Service. For the Guardian, I visited Swansea Bay to find out how oysters are being brought back from the brink, a century after they almost vanished for good. And I explored remote mangrove forests in Madagascar and wrote about them for Hakai magazine.

Here’s a collection of my writing and radio programmes I’ve made.

I also take part in lots of live events, festivals and lectures. Among of my favourites, and available to watch again online, are my Lost Lecture in an abandoned lighthouse and my talk about seashells and molluscs for a young audience at the Royal Institution.

Here is a schedule of my upcoming speaking engagements. Do get in touch if you’d like me to come and give a talk or take part in an event.

I also teach marine biology and science writing at Cambridge University and lend my services as scientific advisor to the marine conservation charity Sea Changers.

You can hear me regularly on BBC radio, on programmes like Inside Science, Shared Planet, Outlook and Weekend. I was also on Saving Species and Home Planet on Radio 4, which are both now off the air but are archived on the BBC iplayer.

Here are a few highlights of my radio appearances and reports:

If you’re interested in other things that I’ve been getting up to along the way (and want to check out my scientific credentials) then keep on reading…

On becoming an oceanographer (in a very literal sense)

O`cean*og”ra*phy (?), n. [Ocean + -graphy.] A description of the ocean.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913

The very first time I dipped a fin beneath the waves as a brand new scuba diver I became hopelessly addicted to the oceans. That happened in my teens but frankly it had been a long time coming. Foundations were laid throughout childhood holidays to the Cornish coast; gazing at beach-stranded jellyfish, loosing myself in rockpool worlds and throwing unheard yells into wild, wintertime waves.

Tempted by the lure of the deep I became a marine biologist.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a chance to follow my obsession around the world, living and working in some incredible places. I’ve catalogued the rich marine life surrounding a hundred Andaman Sea islands; I’ve tagged blue sharks in California’s Monterey Bay; I’ve felt the squeeze of a wild seahorse’s tail holding on to me while I measured his tiny dimensions.

I studied for a Masters in Tropical Coastal Management at Newcastle University and went to Tioman Island in Malaysia to research how well the marine park is protecting the fringing coral reefs. And for my PhD at Cambridge University I spent four years, on and off, in waters around Borneo chasing after giant fish called Napoleon Wrasse trying to figure out why they are disappearing.

For 10 years (with my PhD somewhere in the middle) I worked as a marine science consultant specialising in protecting fragile marine habitats and controlling the international trade in endangered species, with various conservation organisations including WWF, IUCN, TRAFFIC, and Natural England. My research has been published in peer-reviewed journals including Science, the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and Progress in Physical Geography.

Here’s a list of my academic publications.

It was really only in more recent years that I discovered a love of words and stories. I was busy being a marine biologist when out from inside me climbed a writer and speaker. As well as diving into and learning about this extraordinary ocean realm myself, I began to feel an urge to tell people about it.

That was when I became not just a marine biologist but perhaps an oceanographer too, in a literal sense of the word: I write about the oceans; I describe them; I’m an oceanographer.

Being on and under the water

Diving continues to be a major obsession for me.

After more than a decade of scuba diving, I trained as a free diver. I went to Dahab in Egypt, held my breath for almost 3 minutes, swam down into the blue to 20 metres (60 feet), got my AIDA** certification, and got well and truly addicted. I’ve written here more about my experiences  beneath the waves with nothing but a breath of air

There’s still plenty I want to see and places I want to go. I’ve not yet dived through kelp forests, never dived with a whale (free diving would be especially nice), and I’ve never dived under ice…

I’m also learning to ride longboards so you’ll sometimes find me on top of the waves too.

 

 

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