Barbara Block, center, is among five recipients of the Rolex Award for Enterprise. The winners were announced early Wednesday. Here, Block is seen tagging tunas in North Carolina in 2007. (Courtesy of TAG A Giant)

Five individuals who explore, conserve, heal or catalog the natural world and its denizens have just come into money and a very nice watch — 100,000 Swiss francs (roughly $105,000) and a Rolex chronometer, to be precise.

They are the five winners of the 2012 Rolex Global Awards for Enterprise. Twelve judges selected the recipients from more than 3,500 applicants from a variety of disciplines, including medicine, education, conservation, exploration and entrepreneurship. The winners were announced in Geneva early Wednesday, joining a group of 115 laureates from 42 countries.

This year’s recipients are Sergei Bereznuk of Russia, Erika Cuellar of Bolivia, Mark Kendall of Australia, Aggrey Otieno of Kenya and Barbara Block of the United States.

Bereznuk works to protect Siberian tigers as director of the Phoenix Fund. Cuellar is a conservation biologist training others to preserve the Gran Chaco wilderness, which spans parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Kendall, a bioengineer at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland, is developing a “nanopatch” to eliminate syringes and needles in vaccinations. Otieno is in the process of increasing access to obstetric care for pregnant mothers and babies by creating a “telemedicine centre.” And Block, who has frequently been featured in The Post for her discoveries and observations, continues to work on increasingly sophisticated tracking technology to monitor marine predators off the North American Pacific coast.

I caught up with Block, a professor Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences School of Biological Sciences and a 1996 MacArthur Fellow, via e-mail.

How do you plan to use your Rolex Award for Enterprise?

Block: My objective with the Rolex award is to build technology to accomplish two things. First, I aim to establish real-time connections with marine predators in hot spots through cell and satellite networks. We’ve spent the past 10 years deploying electronic tags in the Pacific. We learned where sharks, tunas, seals, cetaceans, turtles and sea birds use the open sea, and the main gathering spot is right off North America’s West Coast. In essence, now that we know where they are, we want to use the knowledge of California Current hot spots to monitor the predators — to connect with them when they are here.

Second, I’d like to connect the public with marine predators in “Wi-Fi predator cafes.” Simply put: When the animal carrying a tag acoustically pings to the underwater receiver, it goes  via satellite to our mobile phone. We will create an app that links the acoustic number from the shark carrying the tag to our rich database we have built from our decade of tagging these species. This will allow us to distribute data sets that we have accumulated from our Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP), during which we placed sophisticated tags on six groups of marine animals for a total of 4,300 deployments.

In some cases, such as for white sharks, we have a decade or more of recording individuals, or a track from a satellite technology that shows the animal ranged thousands of miles to Hawaii and then came back. Or a Salmon shark we tagged in Prince William Sound may be down off California and, by wiring up the place it aggregates to feed (Prince William Sound), we can acquire information and transmit it remotely and then link the public up to the database we have on this species.

Overall, by doing a better job monitoring, observing and building applications that distribute the knowledge, we hope to make people more aware of their ocean realm. Ultimately, our team’s goal is to inspire protection of this vast oceanic wilderness through creation of a “large marine ecosystem-scaleWorld Heritage site. Finally I’ll be working to establish a test site close to my lab in Monterey Bay that demonstrates the technological means for fixed (buoys) and mobile monitoring platforms (automated gliders) for observing predators in marine protected areas (sanctuaries). We envision a day with sophisticated undersea observing capabilities that not only tells us about the physics of the ocean but the biology too.

Ultimately, we’re building technology to wire up the oceanic wilderness region documented during the TOPP project and demonstrating the utility of listening in on sharks, tunas and turtles so we can observe the animals, monitor their well-being, count them, and interact. We’re trying to better “listen in” on the world of marine animals in the sea to build the knowledge required to protect them.

What about your research do you think caught Rolex's eye?

I believe it was charismatic megafauna — the bluefin and yellowfin tunas, sharks such as white sharks, their sister taxa the makos and the salmon sharks, and sea turtles and the need to protect them.

The ocean remains one of the few places we are still not completely at home in. And we do not understand the basics, such as how the ecosystems really work. The ocean is intricately coupled to our atmosphere and will drive the future of our planet’s climate. It’s quite important, given the role humans have on the planet and our capacity for overexploitation, that we solve the problem of overfishing and build more strategic management based on technological knowledge. The fact that we have one coast (the California coast) almost completely intact with healthy shark populations and protected marine mammals means that, with some effort internationally, we could help to maintain an intact, Yellowstone-like region off our coast.

My goal is to bring this message more clearly to the public and learn why the area — our California Current Ecosystem — is still so robust. By knowing this, we may be able to help anticipate how best to protect large marine ecosystems in the ocean.

What discovery in your research has most surprised you?

We’re most surprised by the knowledge we’ve garnered that indicates we have a blue Serengeti off our shores — a place teeming still with sharks, tunas, seabirds, marine mammals and even endangered sea turtles. Monterey Bay and the region beyond are as rich as the Serengeti in Africa. It’s the ocean equivalent of Yellowstone. But we hardly understand how this ecosystem works. We need to protect this region before it’s too late, which is why we’re proposing to recognize the area as a World Heritage Site region. This will bring recognition to its uniqueness and help encourage global protection.

I’ve also been surprised by the distances that bluefin tunas and sharks can travel, and the fidelity these highly migratory species have to a place (homing). I can tag a giant bluefin tuna in Nova Scotia and it goes precisely to its spawning ground in the Gulf of Mexico,  to an oceanographic feature we can now recognize from satellite and then come back a year later to the area where we tagged the animal in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We tag white sharks at the Farallones right outside Monterey Bay and they swim all the way to Hawaii (thousands of miles away) and back. We can see they are able to come back to within 500 meters of the location we tagged them, without a GPS, a compass or any of the tools we use. I’d get lost outside of Monterey Bay within five miles without the right equipment, so it makes me wonder where the chart and compass is in the brain the size of a walnut.

Barbara Block (The Rolex Awards)

Populations of fish, such as tunas, are not infinite and humanity’s appetite, in the past 50 years, has created huge demand on ocean predators. We’re taking the wildlife out of the sea at a rate that exceeds their capacity to reproduce in many cases. We’re in need of radical solutions — larger oceanic protected areas that recognize that fish or sharks from one nation swim to another’s economic zone.

We need investments in sustainable aquaculture, a blue revolution to meet the marine protein demand people are putting on the ocean’s resources. We’re acidifying their environment with global warming and we need solutions for this. We’re taking nature for granted, and we must be more thoughtful about how our generation uses the ocean so that our children will not have an empty sea, and the ocean continues to have the capacity to buffer Planet Earth.

What innovation are we most desperately in need of when it comes to studying fish?

Fish and chips that we can afford! In other words, we need cheaper tags and technology to follow the animals and tags that help follow the human predators (carcass tags to track the traded commodities — e.g. bluefins, to eliminate illegal take).  Potentially, the larger communications companies could consider investment in environmental initiatives such as sponsoring conservation research that realizes the objectives of $5 to $50 fish tags.

Currently, there is a great deal of discussion around how to spark interest among and retain women in the sciences. Where do you think the education community is going wrong, and what fix would you propose?

We need to engage women and men at the earliest education stages. Nature is something you have to grow up with. The curiosity, exploration and discovery or sense of wonder that define a good scientist are not innate. It comes from an upbringing where your parents allowed you or gave you the opportunities to explore the world around you and helped build your confidence and inquisitiveness with rich opportunities to explore the outdoor world. I grew up with access to swimming, skiing, and hiking and loved sailing as a youngster. Swimming in a mountain stream or lake, long afternoons on a beach, fishing for the unknown fish — I did what most kids growing up in New England did.  We must assure that children are still being introduced to nature so they do not have a nature deficit about Planet Earth at this time when we will need bright ideas and innovation the most to assure our future.

In school (middle and high school) we need to improve experiential learning opportunities and improve science education.

Can you describe what “innovation” means to you? Do you believe it still has a place in general discourse?

Innovation for me is the creation of better ways to deliver information from the boundaries of knowledge — in my case, the sea. We are trying to discover what occurs on two-thirds of Earth. The submerged sea we cannot see, as it is not transparent, does not give up its secrets easily. So that has been the challenge. And we’re creating the capacity with electronic tags to understand how animals work in the sea.

It also means facilitating discovery, or helping to develop technology that transcends the mysteries of nature.

Read more about Barbara Block and her research from the Post’s Juliet Eilperin.

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