“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Of all of humanity’s evolutionary gifts, perhaps the greatest is curiosity. It’s the foundation for all of our discoveries and advances. The urge to know led early humans out of Africa, eradicated disease and landed rovers on Mars, and it’s what turned Carole Baldwin ’86 (M.S.) into a globetrotting, sub-diving ichthyologist who has discovered dozens of new species of fishes in the waters of six countries.
As the chair of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology and longtime curator of fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., Baldwin is one of the world’s leading experts on the “twilight zone,” a little-studied area of the ocean from 200 to 1,000 feet. After earning her Ph.D. from William & Mary in 1992, she became an inspiration to little girls everywhere when she starred in the 1999 3D IMAX documentary, Galapagos. She has published more than 100 scientific articles about her research, and even has a whole genus of fishes named after her, Baldwinella.
“What I love most about my work is the thrill of exploration and discovery,” she says. “While this sometimes means getting in a submersible and descending hundreds or thousands of feet into the ocean, it can also mean finding a small anatomical feature while studying fish specimens under a microscope that strongly suggests an evolutionary connection – or discovering DNA sequences that strongly suggest that one fish species is actually two.”
It’s complex science, to be sure, as indicated by the “Interrelationships of Aulopiformes” and the “Phylogeny of the Epinephelinae”: the titles for two scholarly articles she co-authored with her longtime Smithsonian colleague and collaborator, Dave Johnson. He has known Baldwin since they first met at the Marine Resources Research Institute (MRRI) at Fort Johnson on James Island, South Carolina, in 1982. Her strong work ethic, attention to detail and really sharp mind were quickly apparent to him.
“Some people have the talent for this, and it was clear to me right off the bat that Carole had it,” he says. “It’s a game of discovery. Every day you may find something that nobody else is seeing, it may only be important in a big-fish-in-a-small-pond kind of way, but it’s still exciting. She’s really good at it, and she’s so damn smart.”
And adventurous. She’s logged more than 1,000 scuba dives in places like Belize in Central America and Tonga in the South Pacific. For the last 10 years (at least pre-COVID-19) she’s been making bimonthly flights from D.C. down to Curaçao in the southern Caribbean to explore marine life on deep reefs, which science knew little about before Baldwin began her Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP) excursions in the Curasub.
“If you’re an explorer at heart like I am, being in the sub is just about as fun as work can be,” she says. “You’re constantly looking, looking, looking, and – although I’ve now done more than 100 sub dives – I don’t think I’ve ever been on a dive in which I didn’t see something I’ve never seen before. But collecting organisms is challenging. Imagine, for example, trying to collect a 1-inch goby fish with a 2-ton sub. There’s a lot of high-fiving when we capture something difficult.”
No Place Like Home
Baldwin is sitting at a picnic table on the dock of her waterfront home in Beaufort, South Carolina, on one of those perfect October days the Lowcountry does so well. She’s got crab traps in the water to make a crab and mushroom pasta she’s cooking for dinner – she already foraged for the chanterelles earlier in the day.
In addition to being a renowned scientist, she’s also a really good cook and gardener, along with a very accomplished pianist who used to compete in classical competitions and has even written her own compositions. She runs or walks 20 miles a week and looks as fit as she was in college at James Madison University (JMU), where she played intercollegiate volleyball (and earned a bachelor’s in biology in 1981). She even makes jewelry out of sea glass she finds on the beach for crying out loud. You would just hate her if she weren’t so damn nice and disarming with an easy laugh and engaging personality.
“Carole is so interesting,” says her identical twin sister, Camille, a former physiologist turned chef. “She’s a brilliant scientist, without question. She’s a fabulous cook, great athlete and very, very accomplished pianist. Growing up, she was always a little bit better at everything – in school and piano, she was a lot better. People would ask me, ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m just proud of her.’”
And thrilled to be spending a lot more time these days with her big sis (by nine minutes) after decades apart. COVID has allowed Baldwin to telecommute most of each month to the Smithsonian in D.C. from the brick ranch along the Whale Branch River that she bought in 2015 and which she shares with Camille and two of Camille’s three boys. (Home in D.C. is a third-floor apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, filled with treasures from a lifetime of exploration.)
“This is home,” she says, gazing out upon the placid river. “My work-life balance down here has been so much better because I live to go to work up there. Between meetings here, I can go out and weed the garden or throw in a fishing rod.”
Her love of the outdoors comes from her late parents, Dave, a chemist, and Alice, a registered nurse, which is why she dedicated a book she co-authored on Caribbean fish to them – A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: Bermuda, Bahamas, and the Caribbean Sea – due out this year. It’ll be her second book following 2003’s One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish: The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook, which includes more than 150 recipes from 100 chefs.
One of four children, Baldwin grew up in Hampton, South Carolina, about 30 miles inland from Beaufort, but the family would take summer vacations to marine environments like Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and Sanibel and Captiva islands on Florida’s west coast. Dave taught Baldwin and her siblings how to catch fish, shrimp and crabs, and harvest oysters and clams, as well as how to bodysurf, waterski and even hunt birds. Alice taught them how to garden and cook healthy meals with fresh ingredients. When Baldwin was in college, they moved to a marshfront home in Beaufort right down the street from her current home.
“I had a lot of other influential people in my life, especially Norlyn Bodkin at James Madison, Bill Anderson at CofC and Dave Johnson,” says Baldwin. “But my love for all the things I’m most passionate about in life started with my parents.”
Baldwin had so many different interests in high school that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life until she met Bodkin, her freshman biology teacher at JMU. He was a peripatetic botanist whose students had to really race to keep up with him as he ran around the Virginia campus educating them about every tree and shrub. Fortunately for Baldwin, she ran track in high school and had an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
“I could walk across campus and knew what I was looking at,” she recalls. “There’s something very empowering about understanding your surroundings.”
She had been thinking about going to medical school when two things happened: First, Bodkin called her into his office at the end of the semester and told her she had a 10-point higher grade average than any of the other 99 people in the class. “Have you considered majoring in biology?” he asked her. Then, a family vacation to Hilton Head that summer caused the proverbial light bulb to go off: She wanted to become a marine biologist.
After earning her biology degree, a family friend helped land her a summer job at the MRRI at Fort Johnson, where she helped Dave Johnson with a study on the larval stages of gag groupers. “She was just so good at anything I asked her to do,” recalls Johnson, whether it was removing tiny, calcified balls from the inner ears of larval fish under a microscope or typing up tables with incredibly detailed data. “There was no question to me that she was going to go places if she would go ahead and do graduate school.”
She didn’t need to go far since the College’s Grice Marine Lab, where she went on to pursue her master’s in marine biology, was also part of the Fort Johnson complex. Her thesis on the larval stages of fishes related to groupers and sea basses eventually led to a new genus of fishes being named after her in 2012 – Baldwinella. Not long afterward, in the Curasub a few hundred feet under the sea off of Curaçao, Baldwin’s eyes widened as she came across a beautiful sea bass that looked very similar to the only known species of Baldwinella in the Caribbean.
“The color pattern was different,” she says. “After studying it, I was like, ‘Yep, we’ve got a new species of Baldwinella.’”
Making a Splash
Baldwin earned her Ph.D. from William & Mary in 1992 and then went to work at the Smithsonian as curator of fishes, focusing on ocean exploration and the evolution of tropical marine fishes. A big part of her job is outreach and educating the public about the work the Smithsonian does. Perhaps the best example of that is the Galapagos documentary, which turned out to be a huge stage for her and the Smithsonian (and still streams on Hulu).
The producers had been looking to diversify the typical male cast when Baldwin came to their attention, and – although famed underwater photographer Al Giddings caught her in dramatic situations just for the camera where she was surrounded by hammerhead sharks, barracuda and moray eels – she did some real science, too, discovering dozens of new species of fish and invertebrates in a submersible that could go down to 3,000 feet.
“It was a biology bonanza in terms of new species of life that we found,” she says. “I was just confronted with the fact that, wow, most of what we saw we didn’t recognize, and we’re talking about 3,000 feet – not 12,000 or 20,000 feet – so it was extraordinary.”
She traveled the world promoting the film when it came out, talking to thousands of students, many of whom wrote her letters afterward with “future marine biologist” underneath their names.
“I tell people, ‘If you’re ever having a bad day, come into my office in D.C. I’ve got drawers full of letters from kids, and they are priceless,’” she says. “My favorite one came from a little boy who said that his father was a space engineer with NASA, but that’s boring compared to what I do.”
Another big outreach project was curating the ocean exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall, a $49 million endeavor with 12 different sections and a 1,500-gallon tank that contains more than 70 marine species. It took Baldwin five years to curate all the different collections of modern-day fish before it opened in 2008, derailing her research projects.
She started making up for it two years later when she got a call out of the blue from Dutch Schrier, a Curaçaon resort owner and aquarium business owner who had just added a $2.2 million submersible to his tourist-excursion business on the island off the northern coast of Venezuela. A treasure hunter at heart, Schrier had started seeing fish he didn’t recognize below 250 feet. He found Baldwin through a contact and invited her down for a dive. He also made the Curasub available for her research – and, before long, she had secured a grant from the Smithsonian and formed DROP, which has involved about 40 Smithsonian scientists and postdocs and more than 100 dives since 2011.
“You can literally fly out of D.C. in the morning and be in the sub in the afternoon,” says Baldwin, adding that – because the drop-off to deep water is right offshore – they can just roll the sub out of a garage, plop it in the water with a crane and climb in. “You hit 1,000 feet pretty close to shore. In an area that’s about 1,000 square feet, we have found 60 new species of fish. It’s been a fabulous project.”
In a 2018 Nature’s Scientific Reports article titled “Below the Mesophotic,” Baldwin and her co-authors upended the traditional notions of reef biology. Before she began her research, marine biologists assumed that fishes from the mesophotic (“medium light”) zone gave way abruptly to deep-sea ones at around 500 feet, but she discovered – after making 4,500 distinct depth observations of more than 70 species – that wasn’t the case. The “rariphotic zone,” as she dubbed it, is a community all its own. (See documentary below.)
The dedication to her career hasn’t allowed Baldwin any time to start a family of her own, but telecommuting the last two years has allowed her to bond with her nephews who range in age from 17 to 21. As a female coming up when she did, she had to be all in on the science.
“If I had had children, I wouldn’t have succeeded the way I did,” she says. “I come from a big Catholic family, so I can’t believe I don’t have kids, but I tell people I took the easy way since my sister is an identical twin.”
She has another year left as chair of vertebrate zoology at the Smithsonian, then will take another year to wind down her research before retiring to Beaufort full time. She’s not sure what she’ll do in retirement, but, among other ideas, she’d like to start a dolphin watch program.
“We know nothing about their movements here,” she says, looking out at the water. “Sometimes you see one, sometimes you see five.”
A curious mind, after all, never retires.
Documentary highlighting Baldwin’s work in Curaçao.