Water runs in a desert boy’s blood (Today, Saturday 16 June 2012)


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Water runs in a desert boy’s blood

 

Ng Jing Ying

 

He plodded through the ankle-deep waters in his flip-flops – no tricked-out adventurer’s gear, despite his celebrity status – and his ears pricked up like an eager school-boy’s whenever he hears a ripple in the distance.

 

Marine ecologist Dr Zeb Hogan was clearly in his element exploring the world’s only offshore landfill, which held some surprises for the man who has spent 15 years studying and exploring freshwater ecosystems around the world.

Confessing, after his first recce trip to Pulau Semakau, that he did not expect it to be bursting with “all kinds of life”, the 38-year-old stooped to touch sea creatures and paused to admire the huge corals.

But preoccupied as he seemed with his immediate surroundings, some innate sense was keyed to the deeper seawaters 300m away. “Did you see those swirls?” exclaimed the host of Monster Fish. “Those must be the fishes … I’m curious what’s out there.”

The Arizona native and National Geographic Channel host was here last weekend to film a clip on the Semakau Landfill, in a partnership between the channel and the National Environment Agency. On Sunday, he returned to the island as guide to 40 Singaporeans.

It may seem a mite peculiar for a boy born in a hot desert state to end up doing what he does – going around the world in search of giant freshwater fish. His dad is an economist and his two brothers are bankers.

But Dr Hogan says he grew up loving the water – he was swimming at age two – and never had a doubt about what he was going to do. In junior high, he worked in an aquarium and as an undergraduate served as a research assistant surveying fishes.

At age 23, he went to Chiang Mai University in 1997 as a Fulbright scholar and witnessed the capture of an impressive giant Mekong catfish by a fisherman. Sadly, that was the last year that it was possible to catch such fish in large numbers; their numbers plunged thereafter.

Said Dr Hogan: “What really hit me was that this is probably the world’s largest freshwater fish, and it could easily go extinct without anyone knowing about it.” The assistant research professor at the University of Nevada-Reno has since been studying the giant catfish and other large fish of the lower Mekong River.

While environmental consciousness is inherent in his work, Dr Hogan is a subtle, not strident, advocate. Pressed by reporters for his views on shark-finning, he did not criticise those who eat shark’s fin, only stating that he didn’t. He prefers to speak through his actions, he told TODAY.

He said protecting the environment is everyone’s job, citing the Semakau Landfill as an example: “It got me thinking of the need to recycle … I was throwing away a bottle in my hotel room and I thought about how it would end up in the landfill.”

The life of a NatGeo host requires being away from home for long periods. And yes, there are dangers, like a car crash in remote Mongolia five years ago where he injured his leg and medical facilities were several miles’ walk away. He said: “I don’t take things for granted. It is always a race for time to be around my parents and loved ones more often.”

 

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