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Meet Deepak Apte – Marine Ecologist, Educationist And Conservationist

Tell us about your childhood. How did you choose an offbeat, unconventional and  interesting career such as this?

As a child, I had little interest in formal education. I was born in a small village, Sakharwadi in Satara district, and did my schooling both in Baroda and the village. I moved to Pune to join college, but my dismal performance in the 12th Board exams forced my parents to shift me back to Sakharwadi. I found real purpose in failure. I realised that formal education would take me nowhere. Failing in the 12th was probably the best thing that ever happened in my life!

That’s unusual! Do explain?

Well, I found myself dealing with a two-year gap, with time on my hands and no one to tell me what to do every minute of the day. This was the trigger that reconnected me to wild nature. I soon discovered that our backyard was a treasure trove of wildlife. Wolves, jackals, snakes, and birds of all descriptions were my neighbours and I found myself embracing nature the way any good student would a teacher. By now my parents realised that I was happy and that was enough for them not to force me in directions that were not mine.

You ditched academics?

Not really. I just took time off to think my life out. I eventually did complete my graduation, from Mudhoji College in Phaltan (a town with a history of independent thinking, and freedom fighters who refused ever to acknowledge the authority of British rule). Here I met two teachers, A.R. Gaikwad and S.S. Gaikwad (popularly known as AR and SS), who became my mentors. This was a turning point in my life. They taught me systematic documentation of natural history and allowed me to accompany them on their many expeditions. Thereafter I never looked back.

Ah! So the black sheep returned to academics?

Absolutely. I obtained a post-graduate degree in Zoology from Ruia College in Mumbai, then a second degree in Integrated Coastal Zone Management from Bangkok’s Asian Institute of Technology and a third from Duke University, USA, in coastal and marine biodiversity. Academics took over my life and I went on to get a doctorate from Gogate Joglekar College in Ratnagiri, a coastal town that saw me fall in love with the sea.

What a story, Deepak! Enough to give succour to scores of lost young kids.

It’s true. If I could do this, anyone can. I failed my board exams twice, but overcame the trauma of societal judgement because I knew who I was. I believed in myself. That is why I try to counsel academically-underperforming students not to let depression get the better of them. My own story helps scores of young students understand that following your own heart is the surest way to success, which is not something that society can define for you.

And look at you now… a PhD. guide yourself! Your parents must be proud.

They are and I am. And I inevitably encourage my students to engage with and take on the real world with all its challenges head on.

Were your parents supportive of your quest for nature?

Yes. That is my greatest blessing. It was my mother really who was my inspiration. She loved nature and was an artist. She taught me to identify the birds that visited our home. During my early school days, I began landscape painting and it was she who taught me the use of colours. She would gently explain to my father that my love and passion for nature had to be nurtured and encouraged and that the life towards which I was headed was far superior to the one towards which hordes of young boys and girls are pushed, which often tragically leads to frustration and possibly even drugs and alcohol.

Lucky! Your father acquiesced?

Eventually. After some initial disapproval, my father became a silent supporter throughout my career. Even today, he stands by me and is a pillar of support. Honesty, modest living and devotion to work are qualities that I have inherited from him.

He even embraced your love of animals?

Bittu, our house was a mini rescue centre. During hailstorms, injured birds would find a refuge in our home. I was called in to rescue snakes almost every week.

How did the sea take you over?

Our family home in Sasvane in Alibag was my true connect with marine life. To the day I die, memories of our simple one-acre, beach-front home, will remain etched in my mind and heart as my life’s anchor. This was my living laboratory. Here, with Shyam, an Alsatian dog that was part of my life, I found myself lost for hours, exploring the margins of land and sea. This is where my fascination for marine creatures was born. I still have those old collections with me. They are part of my life and I continue to learn from them.

And then came the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)?

That was purely accidental. Dr. Shashi Menon, who taught at Ruia College, once casually suggested: “If you like nature so much, why don’t you join the BNHS?” The post of Education Officer was vacant. I applied, and was rejected. But during the interview, J.C. Daniel, doyen of the BNHS, took a look at the first draft of my Book of Indian Shells. “I cannot guarantee you a job but the BNHS would like to publish your book,” he said. And my life changed. The selected candidate, fortunately for me, chose not to join and I received a call asking if I was still interested. I will never forget the date… January 17, 1994. JC remained my mentor till his last days. As you know Bittu, I have had several ups and downs in the BNHS, but JC always stood by me. The values he imparted remain the bedrock of my life – honesty, integrity, loyalty, compassion and complete fidelity to the commitment to defend wild nature.