Uli Kunz and the fascination of the sea – DW – 06/08/2023

“For me, World Oceans Day is 365 days a year,” says Uli Kunz right at the beginning of the DW interview with regard to the UN World Oceans Day on June 8th. He’s just out Mozambique returned to where he was on behalf of TV series “Terra X” the animal protection organization “Marine Megafauna Foundation” visited and observed sharks and guitar rays. The latter can only be seen in a few places in the world. Off the coast of Mozambique, they survive thanks to a rigidly enforced “no-take” zone, a marine reserve, from which no animal may be removed. “What happens then is enormous, because then this whole diversity spreads out again,” says Uli Kunz enthusiastically.

The marine biologist is a well-known advocate for marine flora and fauna. He is a welcome guest on television and talk shows. In the broadest sense, you could describe him as an adventurer: the Hamburg resident has been a research diver since 2005, diving under arctic ice and surrounded by humpback whales and killer whales swam herring hunts, rapped down dark wells and tracked down Mayan skeletons in water-filled caves in the Mexican jungle. Sometimes he travels alone, sometimes with his colleagues from the research diving group Submariswhich examines certain species of fish or the marine fauna off Heligoland on behalf of state offices or research institutes.

Diving in the ice: Nothing unusual for Uli Kunz eitherImage: Claudia Ruby

biodiversity and species decline

His clients include this Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar ResearchGreenpeace, the WWF or that GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research. The trained marine biologist undoubtedly has one of the most exciting jobs imaginable, but he never had a career plan: “I once wanted to be a doctor, but I realized during my studies that I don’t just want to get to know one living being, but a lot of them. After that it went into the free-flowing.” After two semesters of medicine at the University of Freiburg, Kunz went to Kiel, where he studied oceanography, ecology and oceanography and completed his training as a research diver.

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In addition to research and his work as a TV presenter, Kunz has been on tour in German-speaking countries since 2012 and gives lectures at universities, schools and institutes. There he presents his fascinating underwater photographs and talks about the threatening changes in the ocean. In his photos and videos, he not only documents the abundance of species, but increasingly also the decline in species, overfishing of the oceans and the influence of climate change and destruction through environmental pollution.

A diver photographs sharks circling him
Uli Kunz among sharksImage: Alina Opris

Ambassador of the Seas

When Uli Kunz shares his enthusiasm for the big and small wonders of the water world, you immediately listen. He is a gifted storyteller, and he is well aware of that: “What suits me is collecting this knowledge and conveying complex problems in an understandable way. Because marine biology can be presented simply.” With a lot of passion and extremely vividly, Uli Kunz disenchants false myths about the sea in his lectures and instead shows what is really fascinating about marine flora and fauna. And how fragile both are.

A packed room and a screen showing a diver and a humpback whale
Uli Kunz at one of his lecturesImage: Damian Poffet

When asked about the current state of the oceans, Kunz gets serious. This was “catastrophic”. “We are in the process of threatening numerous animal species. Climate change is affecting the underwater world. This is a huge problem that will keep us busy for many decades to come.” During his active time as a diver, Uli Kunz observed how thriving coral reefs became black heaps of rubble in which life is no longer possible. While he saw a lot of eels on night dives in the North Sea 20 years ago, they are now almost threatened with extinction “because baby eels are being fished out in the Atlantic to sell them on the Asian market for a lot of money”.

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Environmental protection is self-protection

In his opinion, we humans should finally be aware of one thing: “It’s about ourselves. It’s a purely selfish approach when you protect nature. If we manage to treat it better, we survive much better than it is currently the case. If we continue as we have been, the damage will be immeasurable.” As far as biodiversity and climate change are concerned, there will be a lot of very bad news in the near future. But none of that is a reason to stick your head in the sand.

A man in a wetsuit and hard hat lies in shallow water amidst seaweed and takes photos with lots of gear
This is also part of everyday work: photos of algae in the mud on HeligolandImage: Uli Kunz

So what gives him hope? “I hardly ever use the word hope. It would be presumptuous to rely on it,” said Kunz. Instead, everything is our own responsibility. “I want young people to have the perspective that you can make a difference in marine protection, that you continue to educate yourself to understand this world. Because only if we raise awareness might we have a chance.” Going back and putting society on a “sustainable path” – not just as a buzzword – those are the keywords. Then Kunz enthusiastically talks about an algae farm in Norway and how much space in nature could be freed up if we curbed a large part of factory farming. “A screw that we could easily turn. The facts are on the table. It just takes an incredibly long time for us humans.”

A boy in swimming trunks and a swimming cap is standing on a jetty with flippers and a snorkel
Fascinated by water even as a child: Uli Kunz on Lake ConstanceImage: Winfried Kunz

Kunz himself owes his fascination for nature and his sense of its fragility to his father. He kept taking him on kayak tours and snorkeling on Lake Constance. “If you are led into nature as a small child, then you will automatically treat it with respect. And the more you see what problems there are in the world – but also what great projects, then you cannot ignore them.” When asked what he still wants to experience or see, Uli Kunz replies resolutely: “I haven’t seen everything yet, but I don’t want to see everything either. I don’t have a bucket list. I’m happy every day with what I experience may.”

Here you can see all episodes of “Terra X” with Uli Kunz.

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