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Richard C. Murphy

Marine Biologist/Photographer/Writer
Ocean Futures Society
California, U.S.A.

When you were a small boy, what were your interests and hobbies?

I grew up in Long Beach, California and lived two blocks from the ocean.  My father had been a deep-sea diver, the kind that wore the metal hard-hat and walked around on the bottom with heavy lead shoes.  So I can't even remember my first experience with the ocean because he always took me to the beach to swim with him or play in tidepools when he went fishing.

I remember that I learned to dive at a place where the water from a power generating plant was discharged into the sea.  The water was warm and clear and my dad would throw mussel shells in the water and like a puppy dog I would dive down and retrieve them from the bottom.  It was great fun and gave me confidence about being in the ocean. My dad loved the ocean and was there to answer my many questions about the marine life we found on the rocks or beach.

Somehow I was most fascinated with really strange things and the more I learned the more interesting things became.  Crabs walked sideways, crab mothers carried eggs around under their bodies, barnacles used their feet for feeding, moon snails drilled holes in clams, grunion fish came out of the sea to reproduce and certain kinds of plankton made the waves glow green at night.  These things were so cool that I wanted to know more.

I was a pretty active kid and most of my sports revolved around the ocean.   In the summer I would run down to the beach to snorkel and body surf before breakfast.  When I was older I would spend every summer day either water skiing or surfing.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a marine biologist?

By the time I was in junior high school, I had decided that I wanted to be a marine biologist.  My parents hoped I would study business so I could earn a better living than they did but I preferred to do what I loved than have money be the goal of my career.  My parents supported this but worried that I would not find a good job.

When I went to college, I knew I had made the right decision because science classes were easy and many other classes were hard.  I found math hard but came to appreciate it because much of my science depended on math to figure out the answers to experiments.  While at UCLA I got a job working for the university collecting marine animals for marine biology classes.  This was fantastic because I was in one of the classes and thus knew more than anyone else about the habitats of the creatures because I had found them!  Getting to know the professor helped me get a very good reference for my graduate school application.  I would advise everyone to volunteer to help their professors for two reasons.  It gives you an opportunity to know what science is like from the inside and it gives the professor a chance to get to know you much better than the other students.

What do you do in your career as a marine biologist?

I don’t have a typical marine biologist’s job.  I have worked for Jacques Cousteau (the co-inventor of the aqualung - SCUBA) and his son, Jean-Michel Cousteau (film maker and educator) for over 30 years.  My work has included serving as chief scientist and photographer on filming expeditions taking place around the world.  Those expeditions have taken me to many exotic and fascinating places such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji Islands, the Caribbean, Indonesia, the Mekong River in South East Asia, the Amazon, Sea of Cortez, Australia and New Zealand.  My research focus has been quite varied from looking at the brains of tuna; to exploring how shrimp that live on coral reefs affect the ecosystem; to participating in studies on how people depend on nature in large river basins such as the Mississippi, Amazon and Mekong Rivers.  I have been a writer and editor for various publications and film projects.  In fact, I just published a book on coral reefs that I will describe later.  I am an educator and create educational programs for kids and adults.

What languages do you speak?

I’m terrible at languages and sort-of speak Spanish and French.  My Spanish got a good start when I was in college and hitchhiked from California to Panama.  I lived with and had to communicate with local, Spanish-speaking people for the entire summer during this journey so I learned a lot.  Since I work for a French organization, I have learned some French.  My accent is terrible.  I find it much easier to remember things about the ocean and ecology than normal words in French.  I haven’t given up and still study and struggle with this challenge because it is very, very important to know the language of the people with whom you are working.  It is polite, it shows them you care and it makes communication much easier.

How did you get your first job working for Jacques Cousteau?

After I finished my schooling, I began looking for a job.  Eventually, I met a person who said she knew of a job that might be perfect for me because I liked to do science, dive and travel.  I met Jacques and Jean-Michel Cousteau and had an interview.  I gave them my grades and a list of things I had done.  Although there were other applicants that surely had better grades than I, the job was probably given to me because I had done many different kinds of things, mostly out of doors.  My science involved fieldwork, I had been a competitive speed and slalom water skier, I took underwater photographs, I was a surfer and had traveled to a number of other countries.  What was to have been a job for a couple of years, has now lasted over 33 years.  I feel extremely lucky to have been paid to travel the world, search for answers to important scientific questions, help educate people about the importance of nature and work on projects to show how we can live without destroying our environment.

Once you started working with Jacques and Jean-Michel Cousteau, did you stay continuously with them?

In the late, 1970s, I decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D.  By then I had traveled and seen enough to give me a very good idea of what I didn’t know and what I wanted to learn.  Basically, I was very interested how ecosystems worked, the jobs of key species and how they all worked together to keep the community functioning.  I was also fascinated by how humanity depended on natural ecosystems and how we could live in harmony with nature.  Because we were dreaming of some very large expeditions in the future, the Cousteaus and I agreed that my taking a leave of absence would be a good idea for me and for the organization.

With more knowledge and science experience, I returned to the Cousteau organization and became responsible for research on our expeditions.  During the years that followed we collaborated with experts on a variety of subjects, including studying the importance of the Amazon river to the worlds oceans; evaluating the most effective way to manage the Mississippi River basin for long term agricultural productivity; and determining how good forest and reef management can help the people of Papua New Guinea who live in small villages.

Of all the places you’ve traveled and things you have done, what special memories stand out?

One of my most memorable adventures was in the Amazon with the pink dolphins that live there.  We discovered one of these dolphins in a small bay and put a net around the bay so we could study it.  After spending a day conducting research on its behavior, breathing rate and other things, our dolphin experts left.  Their research was done from land and I wanted to be with the dolphin in the water, in its world not mine.  The water was only about 10 feet deep and relatively clear for the Amazon, maybe 5 feet visibility.  I put on a heavy weight belt so I could just rest on the bottom as the dolphin was doing.  I entered the water and just lay on the bottom next to the dolphin.  It looked at me but seemed totally disinterested.  After a couple of hours of staying close to the dolphin I returned with my underwater camera. I went down and snapped a picture.  The dolphin acted as though a gun had gone off.  It had been acting very sleepy but the click startled it into being totally awake.  After a few more pictures it got used to me again and appeared relaxed.

I realized that the dolphin had not eaten in a full day and asked the team on Calypso to get me some fish.  They came, in an hour or so, with three fish.  The first one I killed and offered to the dolphin by putting it in front of its rostrum (extension of the head with the mouth).  It was not interested.  I returned with a live fish and let it go in front of the dolphin.  The dolphin was very interested and grabbed it quickly.  I came back with the last fish and before I could offer it to the dolphin it grabbed if from my hand.  I was totally surprised and a bit scared because I was afraid it might bite my hand.  Instead it pulled the fish away from me and only after it was out of my hand did I hear the crunch of bones.  The dolphin by then had learned that fish came from my hands and began a frantic search for more fish.  I had none and found myself in a very difficult situation. The dolphin was darting from one hand to the other as I frantically put one hand behind my back and then the other.  The dolphin kept searching and I kept moving my hands away.  I decided this was getting scary and began swimming toward shore.  All of a sudden I felt a very hard smack on the back of my leg.  The dolphin hit me, probably out of frustration.

I waited an hour and approached the dolphin.  It came to me and examined my hands but lost interest and we both lay on the bottom.  Eventually as it passed by to breathe I would put my hand out to touch it. Over the next couple of hours it became more and more tolerant of me and I was able to get some very good pictures of it at close range.

I decided to spend the night on the beach, alone.  Very strange sounding howler monkeys passed by around 2am and I could hear the dolphin breathing out in the bay.  The next morning I entered the water and lay on the bottom next to the dolphin as before.  This time as it passed by and I reached out my hand for a caress, it stopped.  I began to rub the dolphin as you might wash your car.  It seemed to like this and after we both came up for a breath and descended it rested on top of me.  It bent its body until its tummy had wrinkles and I scratched it.  Another breath and we were on the bottom again scrubbing.  I got a great picture of the two of us posing.

It was time to open the net and let the dolphin go free.  I called the Calypso and we untied the net.  Instead of darting off the dolphin just hung out where we had been spending time.  I gave it one last scratch and swam back to the boat.  In a few minutes it swam off and disappeared.

I felt very fortunate to have been given the chance to interact with a wild animal like this.  And I was reminded that if we treat other animals with respect and gentleness, they may come to trust us and our patience may be rewarded with very special moments, moments that will be remembered all of our lives.

What area of your research do you feel has been the most important to understanding our marine environment?  What contribution of your own are you are most proud of?

I have always been interested in the question of how things work and thus focused on big questions more than small questions.  For example, some people are fascinated with the anatomy of shrimps or how worms both breathe and feed with their gills.  By contrast I wonder how does a variety of species on a reef interact and together create a healthy reef community?  How to they avoid fighting and even help each other?  What causes one group of reef creatures to live in one place and a different group in another place?  My research has been quite varied because I have had a chance to work in a lot of different places.  But one study that was fun and provided surprising results to me, took place in a sandy lagoon in the Caribbean.  On the bottom there were shrimp that created a fantastic and weird looking landscape of volcanoes and pits.  There were no shrimp visible, only the pits where they drew sand into their underground chambers and volcanoes where they expelled the sand after they had fed on what came down from the pit.  By the size of the volcanoes, which were 2 feet tall in some cases, I could tell the shrimp were very, very active.  Other scientists said that these shrimp fed on bits of sea grass that drifted by but this didn't seem to me like enough food for all of the work they were doing.  But there was no other source of food I could think of so I was very curious about what was really going on in this strange community.

So I decided to study these shrimp and their feeding.  My experiment added to the strangeness of the sea bottom because I put funnels on top of the volcanoes and attached little baggies to the upside-down funnels.  Whenever a shrimp 'flushed' I would see the baggie get full of water and sand.  I then collected the baggies and analyzed the chemicals in the flush to learn about the shrimp's chemistry.  In addition, I dug way down and collected some of the shrimp and analyzed the chemicals that made up their body.  Whether it is a person or a bug or a shrimp, we are what we eat.  So by analyzing the chemicals of the shrimp and comparing it to the chemicals of the food they were supposed to eat I could figure out what the shrimp eat much more precisely than looking at their stomach contents with a microscope, which I didn't want to do anyway.

To my great surprise the shrimp were not eating the drift seagrass but instead they were eating the microscopic algae living in the sand.  To my eye this was a total desert, no algae were visible at all, but among the sand grains there was a very productive garden of tiny plants providing food for these shrimp.  I had such a feeling of discovery to see that what we had thought was true was in fact wrong and that this strange looking ecosystem was even stranger in terms of how it functioned than I had imagined.  I'm not sure this was a major discovery but I enjoyed the adventure of thinking about a question, designing experiments, working in the ocean and then trying to figure out what the results meant.

The more important projects in which I have been involved have been collaborative, where a number of people all worked together.  My job on our filming expeditions was to work with experts who knew the most about whatever subject that was the focus of our filming.  One of the most important subjects was how important are rivers to the global ocean system.  I had the honor of working with scientists from Harvard and other universities to measure the chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus that are carried from land to the sea.  These chemicals are the fertilizer that enables marine plants to convert sunlight into food that supports the entire ocean food web.  This process is not only important for food production but also involves the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Because so much carbon dioxide is being produced by people from burning fossil fuels and because carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and climate change these studies on rivers, nutrients and the ocean were very important.  Information from these studies was used in creating computer models to better understand and predict these important processes.  See in the plume of the Amazon river where river water meets ocean water.  Notice how green the water is from all of the phytoplankton happily gobbling up nutrients and growing in great green blooms.

How can children make a difference in the world?

Credit: Richard C. Murphy - Ocean Futures SocietyI am spending most of my time creating educational programs for kids where they can go into nature and learn from it.  These programs called Ambassadors of the Environment take place in beautiful natural settings where we can study how nature works, explore what lessons nature has to teach us and then apply these lessons to our own lives and communities.  Our camps are models of sustainable living where we compost our garbage to enrich our organic gardens, where we use solar energy and where we form partnerships with nature.  For example, plants do work for us like providing shade, producing food, and creating products like wood.  These are very sophisticated machines that run on solar energy, repair themselves when damaged, replace themselves when they get old and doing all of this at absolutely no cost to us - very impressive machines indeed.  In fact, I see the coral reef as the most inspirational place to learn from nature and have written a book called, Coral Reefs - Cities Under the Sea, that explores how the reef functions like a city and offers guidance for us in how to live more gently on the planet.  These are the kinds of things we explore in our Ambassadors program.  If you want to know more about our fun and unique approach to education visit our web site at

What different types of careers are available to students who have an interest in marine biology, the ocean?

I believe that anyone who is well prepared, dedicated and persistent can find his or her own dream job.  For those of you who are passionate about the ocean or environment, I urge you to learn as much as you can and carefully research employment opportunities.  Some people become scientists, some get involved in environmental law or policy, and some become teachers or work for companies that conduct environmental surveys.  Businesses that are involved with exploiting natural resources have on-staff environmental experts.  Oil companies, lumber and paper producers, coastal developers and many government agencies need staff who are knowledgeable about the environment.  Knowledge, passion and persistence are the keys to success.

Do you have any inspirational quote that you would like to share with the readers of this interview?

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein, who said,

"Life is too important to be taken seriously."

So let's have fun while we are working hard to make a difference. Who knows? We might inspire others to do the same and together we might save the world.

Murph's Marine Gallery | Q&A
Chat Archive (10 October 2006)

- 10 October 2003


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Last Updated:
29 November 2003

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