Jack Moyer

Conversations with Jack
     A web search will bring up quite a few sites with information about Jack Moyer. I have listed what I have found in the LINKS section.  Some have his writings, others discuss his life and accomplishments.  What I intend to do here is put down the content of some conversations we had during a few days in Hayama and a five-day summer school on Sado Island. I hope what follows shows something personal about Jack and why he was so respected here.
     I had seen Jack on NHK, the national TV channel,  a couple of times, but I was unaware of his reputation or work when I first met him at Yoshiaki and Yoshiko Unno's house in June of 2003. I was still a little apprehensive about how he would relate to me and my son Gen though. It turned out that Jack had no trace of the loftiness I constantly encounter with typical academics. He also related to Gen, 15 years old at the time, in a very warm, natural way.  Jack had been a middle school science teacher for many years.
     He had just come back from the Philippines where his wife and two children lived, and was feeling the distance very strongly. He talked about them and the difficulties his wife was having in setting up a marine sanctuary there. They had bought a fairly large piece of coastal property in Cebu, and had cordoned off the reef in front of it.  The local fishermen were angry about the loss of fishing grounds and were moving politically and even physically to remove the buoys. This weighed heavy on Jack's mind and most of our conversations then revolved around that topic.
     The next time I met Jack was at the Sado-ga-shima Summer School, a 5-day marine biology camp for kids from the island and all over Japan. Jack had been doing camps such as this one for 32 years. I had volunteered to help out. Over the course of 5 days we developed a close friendship, which was easy to do with Jack. I was reading Carl Safina's "Eye of the Albatross" and lent it to him for the duration of the camp. Jack was originally an ornithologist and had gone to Midway Island the year before to observe the albatross population there. We talked about his meeting with Safina. I mentioned that Safina wrote about him in his book "Song for the Blue Ocean"and recommended he read that as well. The section on Jack and his wife would be the subject of a future conversation.
     Since there were regular breaks in the camp schedule, there was time to talk. I asked him about his research on Miyake Island and how it was funded. He said he had funded it himself. He had taught at the American School In Japan and went out to Miyake on the weekends and for the breaks. He did it because he wanted to and loved it.  At that time he was introduced to SCUBA. There were few places to learn then, so he strapped on a tank and without a flinch went down to 30 meters. He said he developed a nosebleed that first time and was surprised when he saw a green liquid floating around in his mask.
     He later bought a compressor and set up his lab in a house the island people gave him. He began his research on lionfish and would go out by himself around sunset to observe their mating behavior. As it grew dark, he had to watch them by starlight. This involved keeping his eyes constantly on the fish.  If he looked away, his eyes would lose their sensitivity and he would lose the fish. He told stories about how he sometimes got lost and would head out to sea rather than back to shore. He said that if he hadn't realized his mistake, no one would have been the wiser because he was living alone.
     One time he was trapped by a tiger shark and had to hide behind a rock until it moved on.   Another time he came back to the lab and felt dizziness and pain.  He grabbed a tank and jumped back in the water when he realized he had decompression sickness, something he would experience three times in all.  At that moment in the conversation he paused and sighed, "Boy, those were good times."
     He wasn't always alone. He had students whose research he again would fund himself. They found new species and published in journals. Those articles brought him to the attention of some professors at Tokyo University, and they invited him to take his Doctor of Science degree there. He had published enough by then so all they required was for him to write a monograph on his research and defend it. He said the questions were very rigorous, and the wait until the decision was excruciating. The Ph.D was something he hadn't really wanted then, but was very helpful in his later  environmental work.  Tokyo University doesn't confer many advanced degrees to foreigners.
     He said he was no longer interested in the hard science though. Many of his former research locations had been destroyed by development, and he saw his role now as trying to save what was left by educating those who were most receptive - the children. Outdoor education programs in Japan are mainly oriented towards catching something, not observing and respecting the ecosystem. Jack's research on anenome fish had shown him that the loss of even one fish had a surprisingly strong effect on the other remaining fish.  This had led him to institute a "don't touch just watch" policy for his summer schools, and this sometimes led to friction.
     The site of the summer school, Sado Island, was the nesting area of the last Crested Ibis in Japan. These birds were once so plentiful as to be considered pests, but the advent of pesticides virtually eliminated them. The last nesting pair was protected by an elderly couple in a remote part of the island. One of the pair died and a mate was donated by the Chinese government. Now there are over 100 pairs in captivity, soon to be released into the wild again. During the summer school, we were led on a walk to the last breeding place, the proposed site for their release.  It was a beautiful mountainside overlooking the sea and the absence of telephone and electrical wires was refreshing. The rice paddy owners were now practicing organic farming in preparation for the Crested Ibis' return.
     Our guide had bought 20 butterfly nets with his own pocket money so the school students could do what all other students in outdoor education programs do - collect specimens.  Jack stood his ground and forbade the students from collecting anything.  He allowed them to catch, but ordered them to release as soon as they had seen what they wanted to. This was the cause of some head scratching and dropped jaws on the part of our hosts.
     On the walk back down the mountain, Jack caught up with me and began to tell me about his dilemma. He said he understood the guide's good intentions and felt bad about stopping him. Yet, Jack felt if he had wavered on this point, it would have set up a bad precedent and would have gone contrary to the message of the school. I told him that I felt it was the only thing he could have done, and that he was the only person who could have done it.  Those people respected him enough to try to see his point of view. I could see that he felt isolated and needed some support.  He told me the next morning that he had thought about the incident all night and felt depressed about it. At the morning lecture, he tried to explain his position to the kids again. I felt they all understood and agreed with him. After all, he was Moyer Sensei. That alone was enough to move them beyond their usual way of thinking. I have never been with a group of kids in Japan more receptive or inclusive to me as a non-Japanese. It was certainly a result of the Moyer mystique.
     A few weeks after returning from the school, I got a call from Jack in the evening. He said he had read the section on him in Safina's "Song for the Blue Ocean" and had got quite angry about it. He wrote me an angry email, but had changed his mind on the issue and wanted to explain. He said that what he and his wife Lorna had said to Safina was said in private, and he felt it shouldn't have been been brought out in the book. He felt it might interfere with their efforts in the Philippines for reasons I won't relate here to respect his wishes. I admitted that I was just as ignorant of the ramifications as Safina probably was, and that I thought he used it to show them in a positive light. I realized at the time how Jack straddled many cultures and how locked I still was in the western viewpoint.
     Which leads to the quality of Jack that had a strong impact on me.  While we were talking one day in the foyer of the school building where we were all staying, one of the younger girls stopped on her way out the door to ask if we were both Americans. I responded matter-of-factly that we were. Jack shifted in his seat and seemed a little put out by my answer. The girl seemed satisfied, and we returned to our conversation.  Later he said that he didn't really feel as if he had a "nation". He had lived in Japan for 50 years, had no family left in the States, and had a home and family in the Philippines.  Jack had also spent enough time studying the ocean environment around the globe to see that there is only one ocean. The name of the organization he and Yoshiaki Unno founded "Ocean Family" seems to sum up his ideas very well. I began to see that his nationless viewpoint was something we all have to develop to some degree to avoid an environmental disaster.
     The news of his death was quite a shock. There  were many other things I wanted to talk with him about. Though the topics of our conversations ranged widely, what was constant was Jack's love of his work and his dedication to it.  Anyone who has  had a conversation with Jack can attest to that.