Professor David Stoddart: Geographer who championed the conservation of ocean reefs and stopped military bases wreaking ecological havoc


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It is now conventional wisdom that reefs are of huge importance in the ecology of the oceans. It was not always so. If any one scientist can be said to have alerted the world to the significance of oceanic reefs it was David Stoddart.

Stoddart left his Faculty in Cambridge University, part of the brain drain, for much, much more money – in order to fund his various projects, rather than for any personal recompense – and became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. As Sir James Wordie, the Arctic and Antarctic explorer, and Stoddart's Master during his time at St John's College, put it to me sadly: "The Americans poached him. The money available for David's expensive field work and diving in San Francisco was simply not available in Cambridge."

David Stoddart was born in Stockton, the son of an engineer in the overseas construction company of Ashmore, Benson, and Pease. He remembered his father being away for longish periods in his teenage years, helping to build a factory in the Ural mountains, based at Ekaterinberg, and coming home full of stories and theories about the murder of the Tsar Nicholas and his family.

The year 1954 was the first time his Stockton School even sent boys to Oxbridge; his best friend got into Oxford, while Stoddart won a scholarship to read natural sciences at St John's, a college then adorned by great men of science like the physicist Paul Dirac, and the astronomer Fred Hoyle. Among those who took an especial interest in the boy from Stockton was George Briggs, FRS, the distinguished plant physiologist, Professor of Botany, and later President of the college.

After graduation, Stoddart began his studies of coral reefs and islands in 1959 in the western Caribbean; he pioneered much of the work on the Belize reef, then the responsibility of British Honduras. He returned there to do more work on corals and plants, working for Louisiana State University before and after a major hurricane, tracking its effects on atolls and reefs. He gained a PhD from Cambridge for this work in 1964.

He then took a small party to Addo Atoll in the southern Maldives to work on reef and island ecology. They stayed at the RAF station on the island of Gau, which had been used by the military since the Second World War. The same RAF officer who was to take me snorkelling during an enforced stop-off on the way back from an inter-parliamentary union visit to Indonesia told Stoddart of studies that were underway in London of the suitability for use as military airfields of a number of western Indian Ocean islands, Desroches, Farquhar Atoll, Aldabra – the world's second largest coral atoll – and Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago.

Realising from the experience of Gau what military development can do to vulnerable island ecosystems, Stoddart decided to approach the Royal Society with the suggestion that since no scientific work had been done in the islands since 1910 an independent assessment of the ecological importance of the island should be made before work began. By good fortune, the then Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, Sir Ashley Miles, and the Executive Secretary, Sir David Martin, were transfixed by Stoddart's plea.

Miles got hold of me, a graduate of his college, King's College, Cambridge, and then four-years-old as an MP, and together we pressured Denis Healey and his Minister of State in Defence, Fred Mulley, into arranging for Stoddart to be attached to a Ministry of Defence planning group on Aldabra in 1966, and to a joint US Department of Defence and Royal Naval detachment to Diego Garcia in 1967.

Stoddart concluded that with its huge population of giant tortoises, diverse and unique land birds, such as the red-footed booby and flightless white-throated rail, and its large population of sea birds, Aldabra was one of the world's most ecologically important atolls and must not be developed by the military.

Briefed by Stoddart, I conducted my most effective campaign in the Commons, sending all answers to 70 parliamentary questions to leading Americans such as Hubert Humphrey, then vice-president and chairman of President Johnson's Marine Sciences Council, and going to see – in his hotel at midnight as he passed through London – the conservationist Dillon Ripley, who exercised his right as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to take Stoddart's report to LBJ.

Her Majesty's Government caved in: Aldabra was saved as an ecological jewel. Without Stoddart's enthusiasm and determination it would not have happened. The Royal Society built a research station and assured the future of the atoll. The Seychelles became independent in 1976 and responsibility was transferred to the Seychelles Island Foundation, who welcomed Stoddart. In 1981 he narrated the English voice-over for Claude Pavard's film Aldabra: L'île des tortues géantes [Aldabra: Island of giant tortoises]. Stoddart was last on Aldabra in 2007 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its becoming a World Heritage site. It was a place close to his heart, so much so that he named his daughter after the island.


David Stoddart, geographer: born Stockton-on-Tees 15 November 1937; educated Stockton School and St John's College, Cambridge; Professor of Geography, University of California at Berkeley; Founder and first President of the International Society of Reef Studies; OBE 1979; married June (one daughter, one son); died Berkeley, California 23 November 2014.