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One superyacht owner's mission to save the seas

Ernesto Bertarelli’s family established the Bertarelli Foundation to provide crucial support for innovative science. Claire Wrathall talks to the philanthropist about his desire to save the oceans by building bridges

At the centre of the reception area of Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Ernesto Bertarelli’s London office stands a large mirror-finish stainless-steel globe. Created by the yacht designer Rémi Tessier, who also designed the interior of Bertarelli’s 96-metre superyacht, Vava II, it is a striking piece, the subject appropriate to a citizen of the world. But look closely and you’ll see that the oceans are picked out in relief and stand proud of the land: a warning, perhaps, that our planet is in trouble. Sea levels are rising and, as an aide notes as we pass en route to his office, in Bertarelli’s view, the oceans especially are urgently in need of protection. And the best way to effect that is through knowledge.

“I have always had an afinity with the ocean,” Bertarelli tells me. “I had my genealogy explored recently and it confirmed that, as I thought, I’m very much from around the Mediterranean. So it must be in my genes. I’ve never lived away from water. We had a house in Switzerland in the hills but, for me, it did not feel right and we had to move to a new house by the side of the lake. I need to be near water!”

Born in Rome in 1965, Bertarelli’s family moved from Italy to Switzerland when he was seven, and he learned to sail on Lake Geneva and on holidays in Porto Ercole. “I was given a boat before I got a moped,” he recalls. “I was about 12, 14 maybe, and freedom in my teenage years came from the water, not the road. I was at liberty to take the boat and go exploring. Parents seemed to give children a lot more freedom then than we are able to do these days.”

He became an accomplished sailor and went on to found – and compete as a member of – his Alinghi team, which won the America’s Cup for Switzerland in Auckland in 2003 (with Bertarelli as navigator) and defended it in Valencia in 2007 (as an afterguard, runner trimmer and grinder).

But it was as a diver and frustrated fisherman that he really came to realise the plight of the oceans. Returning to the places he’d spent holidays in his youth – “Elba, Giglio, Ponza and the Argentario peninsula” – it struck him that marine life was becoming depleted and he “started to comprehend” how “drastically, the Mediterranean was changing for the worse”. Thankfully he was not the only one to reflect on this and “groups and governments along the Mediterranean made the same realisation and now there are many initiatives in place to reverse this long decline; many, I’m pleased to say, led by Italy.”

His songwriter wife, Kirsty, who co-authored All Saints’ 2000 international hit Black Coffee, helps to inspire the family’s philanthropy and has spoken of a memorable dive they did together early in their relationship off the coast of Baja California in the Sea of Cortez. A decade later they returned to exactly the same place, hoping to repeat the experience. “But when we got in the water there was nothing,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “Everything we’d seen before had gone. That’s when I knew we had to do something.”

Hence the philanthropic work of the Bertarelli Foundation, which supports a range of causes, not least ocean science. “You learn a sense of responsibility on the water,” he continues. “You have to look after not only yourself, but also others – whether they’re people or places or living creatures. Maybe that sense of personal responsibility was born of being at sea.”

Over the past decade the foundation, led also by his sister, Dona Bertarelli, has been instrumental in creating nearly 2.4 million square kilometres of marine-protected areas in the South Pacific (around Easter Island, Pitcairn, French Polynesia and, most recently, New Caledonia), the Caribbean and perhaps most importantly, the Indian Ocean. Covering an area of 640,000 square kilometres, the British Indian Ocean Territory includes the 58 mostly uninhabited islands of the Chagos Archipelago, and contains more than 220 species of coral and at least 784 species of fish – from Nemo-like striped clownfish to species of shark, tuna, marlin and sailfish, whose populations have been depleted by intensive fishing across the Indian Ocean.

In 2010 the foundation, along with others, advocated for its designation as a reserve and “no-take” Marine Protected Area where fishing is prohibited. Working with the British government, the foundation identified an opportunity to fund a boat to patrol the reserve and also invest in trialling new technologies to monitor and enforce the reserve more efficiently and economically. Since then, dozens of illegal fishing vessels have been apprehended by the British administration, which acts as an important warning to other fishing boats tempted to fish illegally in the reserve’s waters.

While access to the territory is strictly limited, Bertarelli has taken part in scientific expeditions there on Vava II, the Devonport-built yacht, which he took delivery of in 2012 and which has been deployed for three research expeditions by scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and other research universities from around the world. While there aren’t, he says, purpose-built laboratory facilities on board, there is sufficient space to set them up when needed. “My wife and I had had a romantic idea that we would raise our three children at sea, so we planned a school room. It’s easily turned into a floating laboratory and the deck space can accommodate the scientists’ equipment.”

Bertarelli has supported numerous research projects into shark tracking, seabird ecology and coral reefs, both in the Chagos Archipelago and beyond. And in 2017 the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science was formally enshrined, an initiative that within its first full year already attracted 63 scientists from more than 20 institutions in seven countries. Its object is not just to support research but to encourage scientists to share research and work collaboratively.

“What’s particularly novel about the programme is the interdisciplinary nature of it,” says its director, Professor Heather Koldewey of ZSL. “We’re teaming up seabird ecologists with coral-reef scientists; people who tag and track sharks around the world with oceanographers; people who are interested in the deepest ocean with those who work in the shallow waters and terrestrial ecologists working on islands. By considering this whole system and how its constituent parts interact with each other, by combining disciplines that often work in discrete silos, we’re able to find new ways of looking at the ocean and new ways of doing things.”

In essence, the programme brings different groups of scientists together to tackle problems with their own particular expertise. “Many of these scientists would not be working together if it was not for our programme,” says Bertarelli. This ‘knocking heads together’ approach, which fuses expertise from many disciplines, has “proposed answers which would not have been imaginable if we hadn’t fostered these new collaborations”.

“This is pretty much the end of the era when scientists and academics competed by building walls and trenches,” says Bertarelli. “People still compete of course, probably harder than ever, but now it’s about who can build the best bridges. Who can connect to the best labs, the best institutions and the best departments. Academia isn’t less competitive; it’s potentially more competitive. But the way people compete is collaborative and more focused on team-building, which suits my approach.”

He talks excitedly about two recent projects in the Chagos Archipelago, both the subject of presentations at last year’s inaugural Bertarelli Foundation Marine Science Symposium at the Royal Geographical Society in London last September. One, by Professor Nick Graham, chair in marine ecology at Lancaster University, established the deleterious effect of rats on coral colonies. That’s right: land-dwelling rodents cause havoc on coral reefs.

Put simply, rats cause seabird populations to die out by eating their eggs. If seabirds, which feed on fish out in the open ocean, stop nesting on an island because of the rats, there will cease to be guano, nutrients from which seep back into the ocean thereby providing nutrients to the coral. Fish have also been observed to grow faster and larger near islands with lots of seabirds and no rats. By comparing the reefs around six islands with rat populations and six that had never been invaded, it was possible to demonstrate that if rats can be eradicated, ocean life will flourish.

“That was a really striking experiment,” Bertarelli says. “It would have been very difficult to do it so thoroughly anywhere else in the world.” (The comprehensive research was based on findings from a dozen uninhabited tropical islands, six with rat populations, and six without.) But in the Chagos Archipelago, where the closest continental land mass is the southern tip of India 1,500 kilometres away, “you have a unique situation. That’s why I think the territory is such an important place for the planet.”

He becomes yet more animated when he describes research by the University of Plymouth’s Dr Phil Hosegood, an oceanographer concerned with the physics rather than the biology of the oceans and how internal wave dynamics attract silvertip sharks. “People who spend time on the ocean and go fishing have always known that you find more life around seamounts,” says Bertarelli. “But nobody really knows why.”

Thanks to two fieldwork expeditions to the Chagos Archipelago, which has about 300 seamounts, Hosegood was able to establish that it is wave patterns that cause fish to congregate over a particular rock formation called Sandes Seamount. As Bertarelli encapsulates it, “The tide creates a suction mechanism like a syringe that drives the cooler, deeper, nutrient-rich water up over the seamount summit as it flushes up and down.” These currents stir up the water, causing the fish living over the seamount to school, attracting predators that are able to hunt easily among the dense patches of fish. “I thought that was fantastic,” he says. “It was so profound. It had not occurred to me – but perhaps we had not asked the right question before. There’s a lot of that in science. More and more I’m seeing that in scientific discovery, something that seems obvious turns out not to be.”

Not every scientist involved in the Bertarelli Programme is a professor – or, at least, not yet. “What’s particularly exciting is that many of these scientists are at an early stage in their careers,” says Koldewey. “We have 12 PhD students and five Master’s students already in the programme. So not only are we delivering world-class science, we’re also training the next generation of marine scientists.”

This is another subject close to Bertarelli’s heart. “It’s possible that the very rigid hierarchy that exists in academia can hinder youthful ability. As a young, smart PhD, you can get out of academia and create a company which will hopefully be as successful as Google or Facebook – but we don’t want all the smartest people to become entrepreneurs. We need some to stay working in academia, pushing the boundaries of our understanding.”

Education is not, he stresses, just what goes on in universities. “I spend almost three months of the year sailing somewhere in the world and wherever I go I think it’s very important to spend time with local people. Wherever my family has been, I’ve found that people who live by the ocean have a great affinity for visitors – perhaps because the ocean has always been our greatest means of transport and exchange. We once spent almost a year in Indonesia, and it was easy and really interesting to engage with local communities. We found out how their fisheries were doing, how they spent their time, what their concerns were.” That way, too, he says, it’s possible to highlight certain behaviours – the discarding of fishing nets, for example – and explain “gently” how they are problematic and how they might change or adapt. “It’s really a lot more fun to engage with the places you visit and to understand how people live their lives. I think philanthropy has to be personal, and our family’s approach is to always make it so.”

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