Reef Encounters

Reef Encounters
Reef Encounters
By Sacha Zimmerman

Ben Charo ’14 has dedicated his life to coral—with some help from Sidwell Friends.

Whether he was swimming at the beach as a kid or devouring documentaries about sharks later on, Ben Charo ’14 has always loved the ocean. So much so that he became a marine biologist dedicated to protecting the planet’s coral reefs. And for that, Charo credits his education at Sidwell Friends. 

“I started getting interested in coral reefs while I was still at Sidwell,” Charo says. After his sophomore year, he did a summer study abroad program at the Island School on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. “It was focused on tropical marine conservation, and I had a feeling I would really love it,” he says. “But it wasn’t until I got in the water and saw a coral reef for the first time that I was just totally overwhelmed by what I was seeing in terms of the diversity of life and the colors.”

Today, Charo is a program coordinator at Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a nonprofit devoted to keeping coral reefs healthy so they can adapt to climate change and survive for generations to come. CORAL is one of the largest global nongovernmental organizations focused exclusively on protecting coral reefs. Charo is quick to point out that reefs are a hugely important ecosystem: “25 percent of the world’s marine species are found in association with coral reefs and half a billion people benefit from reefs in some way.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion while providing populations with food, income, and new medicines.

Charo can trace his work today back to insights gleaned while a student at Sidwell Friends. After attending the Island School, as the idea of marine biology and conservation crystalized for him as a career goal, Charo found that “my Sidwell education played a major role as well.” He says Melanie Fields, the late Upper School biology and life sciences teacher, made a real impact on him. “Getting a primer on what research would look like, even as a 15-year-old, was really amazing,” he says, “and it pushed me forward on that trajectory.” But for a 15-year-old with a passion for the ocean, he also saw connections to the marine world in less expected courses, like romantic literature. Assistant Head of School Min Kim, then an Upper School English teacher, introduced Charo to the concept of “nature as cathedral.” The idea grabbed him: “I realized I had a love for nature writ large, and it was something that I definitely wanted to pursue.”

Upper School history teacher Darren Speece’s environmental history class also provided Charo a different perspective on the natural world. “That class illuminated for me how the ways in which we talk about nature can obscure and obfuscate historically important facts,” he says. “For instance, the idea of describing a natural space as ‘pristine and untouched’ might negate entirely the historical presence of indigenous groups who might have been there at one time and were removed to create this empty-seeming area that in fact has an extensive human history.” The class sparked an epiphany: Conservation is inherently about people. “That’s something that I carried into college and beyond.”

Based on the satellite images, we potentially have a tool that people all around 
the world could use to estimate the diversity of corals and therefore protect reefs that are more likely to survive climate change.Ben Charo '14

He attended Swarthmore, where he did another study abroad program in the Caribbean. Then, upon graduation, he received a Watson Fellowship, which funds independent projects outside the United States. Charo used his fellowship to embark on a yearlong journey to explore the consequences of coral reef decline on coastal communities in Australia, Micronesia, Palau, Tuvalu, and Belize. He conducted more than 100 interviews with scientists, fishermen, tour operators, artists, and others—because he already understood that conservation is about people.

At CORAL, Charo continues to use the links between people and nature to effect change. For example, one of the projects he is working on now involves the Allen Coral Atlas, which uses satellites to map the world’s coral reefs. It also allows scientists like Charo to monitor how coastal ecosystems are faring in the face of global climate change. “Based on the satellite images, we potentially have a tool that people all around the world could use to estimate the diversity of corals and therefore protect reefs that are more likely to survive climate change,” he says. This strategic approach is part of CORAL’s goal of prioritizing the protection of the more diverse reefs to optimize the chances that organisms can survive the warming waters created by climate change. “The hope is that such organisms could repopulate and the reef might be able to recover,” he says.

Of course, for Charo personally, satellites will never match the power of observation while diving. “If you zoom in on a reef in the Caribbean,” he says, “you can find these little areas you’d never find from five or 10 meters above the reef.” Charo enthusiastically describes cleaner wrasses, small fish that exist in a symbiotic relationship with larger fish. The large fish come by these cleaning wrasses’ stations, which Charo likens to car washes: “The larger fish will open up their mouths; the smaller fish will jump in, clean it out, and get a free meal. The larger fish gets cleaned up from parasites and is off on its way. That’s insane!” Charo says the more time he spends underwater, the more he realizes 
his purpose. “To actually jump in the water and see that in real time is just really overwhelming,” he says. “On an emotional level, it really is a lifelong passion.”

Charo plans to pursue a PhD to take his work to the next level. “I want to study not only marine conservation ecology for coral reefs but also the ways in which human and ecosystem health are interrelated,” he says. “That social thread is something that I’ve taken with me since Sidwell Friends.” Something else he took away from Sidwell Friends is his love of Meeting for Worship: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Meeting for Worship played a role in my trying to find the same kind of feeling out in nature,” he says. “Because in the water, I definitely value having that quiet."

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