Turn back the tide

Diver, presenter and educator Paul Rose thinks environmental damage can be reversed if we all set our minds to it, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 10:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 10:21am

Paul Rose’s powerful bearing and wind-worn face make him easy to spot in the crowded lobby. Sipping tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Rose seems like a man from a different time. He has lived his life as an explorer in the truest, most classical sense of the word: scaling undiscovered peaks, climbing, diving and blazing a trail to the very ends  of the earth.

But Rose is driven by more than a desire to discover; he is on a mission to educate. For Rose, travelling to the world’s most forbidding and endangered places is not enough. He wants to save them. Today Rose is a well known and respected voice in oceanic and polar preservation. His work with the BBC, presenting programmes such as Britain’s Secret Seas, Voyages of Discovery, and Oceans, has brought the case for environmental protection into homes all over the world.

He regularly lectures scientists, colleges and corporations to raise awareness about the crisis facing the earth’s oceans and polar regions, and his first book, a companion volume to his work for Oceans, has become a surprise hit. It is now available in bookstores in Hong Kong.

Despite his success in the public eye, Rose has remained a tireless explorer. He has participated in more than 8,000 dives – his work for Oceans saw him diving in each of the world’s oceans often spending weeks at a time at sea – and he has worked on the ground and often under the water in Antarctica every year since 1990, winning him both the US Navy Polar Medal and Britain’s Polar Medal.

Rose’s life has been one of near non-stop adventure, of audacious explorations, each more ambitious than the last. But perhaps his most unlikely journey of all was from a small boy in England failing school and dreaming of adventure at sea, to a life as one of the world’s foremost divers, mountain guides and polar experts. Rose is highly energetic but as he remembers his past he calms and his eyes take on a far-off look “I grew up in a place called Romford, Essex, an urban area just east of London and a long way from the sea,” he says.

Rose spent his days eagerly watching Hans Hass’ underwater documentaries, and Jacques Cousteau travelling the world on the ultimate diving adventure, but most of all he watched Sea Hunt, an action adventure show featuring his ultimate hero, ex-navy frogman Mike Nelson.

“All the beautiful women in the world wanted him to teach them to dive,” he says. Rose struggled at school and consistently failed his exams. He felt out of place and not good at anything: “All I had eyes for was diving.”

But at the age of 14, a geography teacher took him and the other boys who were failing academically to Wales to spend time outdoors climbing, canoeing and hiking. All of a sudden something clicked in Rose; he knew exactly where he belonged.

We should all be worried because on a molecular level our oceans all contain plastic. Every drop of our oceans now has plastic in it
Paul Rose

“I’d never been anywhere like that, and I suddenly realised this was something I could do. Being in nature was where I was at my best.”

One moment stayed with Rose his entire life: “I remember peeling potatoes into a bucket. Cold hands, cold water, sitting outside on a step in the rain, peeling potatoes, never having felt more alive. But it’s a long way from there to how do you do that for a living?”

Ultimately, Rose managed to pass just one class in school – metalwork – and he secured a job as an apprentice to a toolmaker at the Ford Motor Company. The apprenticeship made him a skilled toolmaker, and while there he met a group of like-minded outdoorsmen. On breaks from the factory, Rose managed to teach himself how to climb, how to sail and how to dive.

His work as a toolmaker took him to the US where he gained his official certification as a diving instructor, a commercial diver and a mountain guide. Eventually, he secured diving contracts with Chicago’s police and fire departments.

Then came the biggest contract of all: a stint with the US Navy as director of scuba diving at the Great Lakes Naval Training Centre. He was able to leave factory life behind. His life in the wild had begun.

Although he has worked with some of the world’s foremost environmental scientists, Rose is a guide rather than a scientist. He handles the logistics and leads large-scale scientific projects in some of the world’s most inhospitable places. He is also a natural educator, a skill that was noticed by the BBC.

Rose is the first to admit that nature saved his life, and now, as he sees the damage humanity is doing to the natural world, he wants to return the favour.

In dedicating himself to the ice caps and the oceans, Rose has found himself on the very front line of our changing planet. In the course of his career he has seen the waters rise and heat up, ice melt and disappear, and the oceans begin to empty of life as they fill with rubbish: “I’ve been a diver since 1969 and a lot has changed. There’s a lot less life in the sea now and a lot more plastic.”

Oceans and ice caps are so far from most people’s urban experiences that we forget how important they are. Rose is dedicated to changing that. This is especially true of his Oceans series for the BBC. “That’s the story of my life: trying to put the oceans into a sense of scale so we can understand them. I’m on a mission to bring global ocean issues into urban areas. We don’t live in the oceans. So I’m trying to bring global ocean issues to where we all live.”

We may throw our waste into the seas, but Rose warns that we do so at our own peril. “We should all be worried because on a molecular level our oceans all contain plastic. Every drop of our oceans now has plastic in it. You can go to Antarctica, bring back a water sample and it will have plastic in it.”

The ice caps seem even more remote from our day-to-day experience but Rose reminds us how important ice is. Ice regulates the temperature of the planet, and many countries depend on melt-water from ice for drinking water. Too many people are dangerously unaware of the damage that we are doing in the Arctic. Rose does not mince words: “Within our lifetimes the Arctic will become unrecognisable.”

Rose’s life seems romantic: a lifetime spent adventuring on the high seas and in remote polar mountain ranges. But it also has a tragic element. Here is a man doomed to bear witness to the destruction of the natural world.

But Rose is undaunted by the odds. He is overflowing with a contagious optimism and excitement for the future. Yes, humanity has caused the problem but, to Rose, humanity is also the greatest hope for its solution.

“I’ve been at the front line of environmental change all of my life, and I have seen what a difference raising awareness can really make.”

Rose is convinced that the biggest challenges facing the planet stem from the fact that there are simply too many of us, and that it is too easy to put our impact on the environment out of mind, when we don’t have to see the damage we do.

But his experiences as an educator have made him hopeful. Around the world, in meetings with schools, corporations and governments, Rose sees people becoming aware of our effect on the environment and rallying behind his call that “we’re breaking it, so we can fix it”. He is fond of repeating, “for the first time in history humans are an actual force of nature”.

He thinks there are so many of us that if we changed our behaviour just a little bit, and avoided eating overfished types of seafood, took responsibility for recycling plastics, and moved away from a dependence on fossil fuel, we could save the world. Do nothing and we will almost certainly destroy it.

Another saying Rose returns to repeatedly is that “we need nature; nature doesn’t need us”. But as he pleads passionately on behalf of our planet’s most faraway places, you can’t help but feel that nature needs people like him more than ever.