The nautilus stenomphalus, a softball-size mollusk whose shell is a nearly perfect spiral, hasn’t changed much in the last 200 million years thanks to its stable habitat on sloped sea floor in deep Pacific waters near Asia and Australia. Nautilus, which means “boat” in Greek, stunned collectors in Renaissance Europe who saw their spirals as reflecting the larger order of the universe. But the creature has faced perilous declines in recent years due to growing worldwide demand for its lustrous shell which is sold as a cheaper alternative to pearls. Unlike other species which are hunted for valued materials such as ivory, nautilus shells have no regulatory protections in place, despite their exceptional vulnerability to population decline as it takes them 15 years to reach sexual maturity.
In October 2011, the New York Times published the article “Loving the Chambered Nautilus to Death,” in which Peter D. Ward, Ph.D., a biologist from the University of Washington, warned: “A horrendous slaughter is going on out here. They’re nearly wiped out.”
Enter Josiah Utsch, a 12-year-old boy from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, who was forwarded the New York Times article from his grandmother. Thinking it would be a tragedy to “lose the nautilus after it’s been around for so long…to make jewelry,” Utsch contacted Dr. Ward and asked if there was an organization devoted to helping the nautilus. Ward replied that there wasn’t. Disturbed by the lack of public attention to the issue, Utsch decided to join forces with his friend Ridgely Kelly, 11, to launch savethenautilus.com. The publicity generated by the site has been so enormous (including a feature in Time for Kids Magazine) that the boys were able to take a flight out of Portland to personally hand Dr. Ward a check for $9,000 in his office at the University of Washington. The funds will aid in buying underwater equipment and other necessary research tools.
“They have very much played a huge part in saving the nautilus,” Ward said.
The majority of Save the Nautilus donations have come from kids. A 9-year-old boy from Bloomfield, N.J., sent a check for $12, saying he had raised the money by selling pencils. Sadie, a 12-year-old girl from Florida, sent the boys a list of websites of companies that sell nautilus shells. Her list is now posted on the group’s website under the headline: “Please help by sending letters to these companys [sic] and tell them to stop selling nautilus shell products!!”.
“It’s been a kid-driven thing so far,” Elise Strong, Josiah’s mother, told the Maine Sunday Telegram. “We hope to get the adults involved.”
Ward and other marine biologists are still trying to determine what could be considered a sustainable catch volume for the nautilus; but in the meantime, they are lobbying for protection of the mollusk under United Nations Endangered Species laws.
“They’re cool creatures and all creatures deserve to be protected,” Kelly noted.
In February, Ward will be conducting research in the American Samoa to determine how fast the nautilus can swim and how long it takes for the creature to reach its natural habitat (which can be 2,000 feet below the surface). Utsch and Kelly will be joining him to monitor the creatures via radio transmitters attached to their shells.
“These boys, out of the blue, show up in my life and they’re doing what I hope all their generation does,” Ward added. “Start thinking scientifically.”