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Laurence Mee

Oceanographer

Oceanographer

Born February 14, 1951; Died August 13, 2014

Laurence Mee, who has died aged 63, was an irrepressibly enthusiastic marine scientist and oceanographer whose influence stretched far beyond his role as head of the Scottish Association of Marine Science.

As the UK's first professor of marine and coastal policy, he was passionate about investigating the link between people and marine ecological systems and the relationship between science and policy, which led to several major international initiatives in these fields.

His global wealth of knowledge was matched by a vast and charismatic personality, fizzing with ideas, positive energy and an unquenched curiosity, a man who viewed his science and his lifein the widest possible terms, always seeking the bigger picture.

Professionally, it took him to almost 50 countries and countless adventures including stumbling into a Nicaraguan coup, the purchase of some land on a Mexican volcano that later erupted and a trip requiring the KGB's seal of approval. His was an international reach that was reflected in deeply personal tributes from around the world after his sudden death following a stroke. One who had worked with him only briefly summed it up: "Even in the very short time that I have had the honour to enjoy his presence I have learnt a tremendous deal from him, not so much about marine science, but about how to be, how to live and love, and what it means to be human."

Laurence Mee, the son of a railway welder/engineer, was born in Ipswich on Valentine's Day, and spent much of his childhood sailing and playing on the River Orwell.

As a boy he was entranced by two things: the prospect of exploring the world and everything to do with the sea.

That led to a BSc in chemical oceanography from the University of ­Liverpool and his PhD in the chemistry and hydrography of Mexican tropical lagoons that involved research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He spent a decade there, including two years as the university's co-ordinator of oceanographic research ships and was responsible for the construction and operation of Mexico's first purpose-built research ship.

He also acquired his own vessel - a boat he had found tied to a tree on the beach in Mazatlán, on the Pacific coast - and persuaded an acquaintance he had only just met to go 50-50 with him.

The same thing happened with a parcel of land on the Popocatepetl volcano, near Mexico City. Having persuaded friends to go along with the purchase, it all went awry when the volcano erupted in 1993.

But such was his charisma that he could charm people into participating in his schemes, a diplomatic skill that would prove useful elsewhere in the world.

From there he went to Monaco as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Marine Environmental Studies Laboratory where he developed it as the United Nation's only specialist laboratory for marine environmental assessment, conducting research projects which included investigating marine pollution following the first Gulf War.

His next post took him to Istanbul where he founded and co-ordinated the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) Black Sea programme. His work there led, in 1993, to the six-country Black Sea Ministerial Declaration and Action Plan between Bulgaria, Georgia, ­Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. It was the first post-Soviet environmental agreement and subsequently led international efforts to restore and protect the severely damaged Black Sea environment.

He had first visited the Black Sea in 1991 during the break-up of the Soviet Union. Due at an academic institution in Sevastopol, he had flown into the Crimean city of Simferopol where he was met by a minder who suggested going for a drink.

When that dragged on into dinner and a protracted but polite conversation continued to delay their onward journey, he began to suspect all was not as it might be.

On inquiring if there was anything he should know, he was informed that Sevastopol was a closed city and they had to secure KGB permission for him to enter. However, the wrong date had been put on the form resulting in them having to wait until after midnight to be allowed in.

"For those of us nurtured on James Bond films, there was something exciting about entering a closed Soviet city steeped in military history at one in the morning," he later wrote.

He had also managed, on one of his travels, to walk into the middle of a Nicaraguan coup. Discovering that the streets were strangely quiet he continued strolling, blissfully unaware and taking photographs in the deserted community, until someone whispered that there had been a military coup, the country was under curfew and he needed to get off the streets.

After four-and-a-half years in Turkey, he returned to the UK and ultimately to another pioneering post - this time at Plymouth University. In 2000, he was awarded a personal professorship in marine and coastal policy, the UK's first such post, and later became founding director of the university's Marine ­Institute. During his time in Plymouth he also advised the GEF and was a special adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry on investigating the oceans. After having been awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation in 1998 the focus of his research had shifted towards social science and environmental education but when he moved north in 2008 as director of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) he remained an active scientist.

Based near Oban, SAMS is a partner in the University of the Highlands and Islands and as such Prof Mee was instrumental in the birth of the new university in 2011.

He also recently led the 15-country Knowledge-based Sustainable ­Management of Europe's Seas (KnowSeas) project, informing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Professor Geoffrey Boulton, SAMS president, said: "As leader of a successful independent multidisciplinary marine institute delivering research, education and commercial work, Laurence remained a productive researcher specialising in coupled social-ecological systems."

Actively publishing research articles on the science/policy interface, Laurence acted as environmental advisor to the UK Government, the European Commission and the UN.

"His enthusiasm for the societal implications of the changing marine environment was unbounded. His planning horizon was far and wide; his future contributions to science and society are a loss to us all."

That enthusiasm and brio, defined by his infectious smile and habit of bounding everywhere, also extended to his life outside the realm of work where he loved sailing, diving, kayaking and swimming - everything to do with the sea that had fascinated him all his life.

Prof Mee, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by his children Daniel, David, Anastasia and Flora, all imbued with his endless spirit of adventure.

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