Whaling, climate change, habitat loss — these are only a few challenges facing our oceans. Research and preservation may seem like the only steps required to progress — but public awareness and advocacy can build the momentum needed to turn the tide. During EarthXOcean 2020’s virtual session, “Celebrating our Ocean Planet,” speakers showed the role art, education, and love of life play in renewing and preserving the ocean.
A common theme amongst some visionaries who spoke was the impact they have been able to make through their art, advocacy, and ingenuity to diminish global whaling. Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, described the significance whaling has on the well-being of the planet. For one, whale feces feed phytoplankton; the loss of phytoplankton means a diminishment in atmospheric oxygen. Whales also sequester carbon, each providing an estimated $2 million over their lifetime in that ecosystem service.
Captain Watson didn’t hold back — “If the ocean dies, we all die. And the ocean is dying.” The problem isn’t a lack of regulation and treaties, he said, but a lack of economic and political motivation to enforce them.
One way to increase motivation: build awareness. The artist and ocean conservation advocate, Wyland, has painted 101 murals, including life-sized humpback whales and 100-foot blue whales in an attempt to bring the ocean, its creatures and wonders, to people who haven’t snorkeled with mantas or dived with manatees. Art can bring to people the two-sided coin of wonder and peril so needed to instill action. “When an animal goes extinct, we’re all threatened by that,” Wyland said.
What has helped him inspire the masses, children and adults alike, Wyland said, is diving to ocean depths himself. He recommends other artists to do the same to create authentically. Whales are still being hunted today, he added, and they need us to be a voice for them.
In some cases, though, ocean creatures can speak for themselves — and quite effectively! In the late 1960s, Dr. Roger Payne learned the plight of whales in what he described an “indifferent world.” From then, he dedicated his life to learning about whales and shifting the global paradigm. That he did. Dr. Payne soon discovered that whales sing, and he played those songs far and wide to anyone who would listen. In 1970, he published an album of whale songs that was embraced the world over. The “Save the Whales” movement began soon after, Dr. Payne said, and people began whale watching — an industry that now outperforms whaling. Today, the SETI Institute is translating whale songs for all to understand.
Compared to the work of Wyland and Dr. Payne, Captain Watson’s contributions have been more boots on the ground, but no less passionate. In 1977, Captain Watson established the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to intervene in illegal poaching activities using what he calls “aggressive nonviolence.” When Captain Watson began his efforts, around 40,000 whales were being killed every year. Now, that number is less than 2,000. A big part of Sea Shepherd’s success, he said, is the awareness its activities have brought to illegal fishing and poaching.
Bringing awareness to ocean life and issues can take myriad forms. Christophe Bailhache, Co-Founder and Director of Operations for Underwater Earth, has shown that capturing the imagination can be very high tech. To Bailhache, the biggest threat to the oceans is that they are “out of sight and out of mind.” What’s the best way to engage people without throwing them in a scuba suit? Use virtual reality, of course! Underwater Earth has partnered with Google and developed technology to take 360 degree photographs of the most celebrated marine ecosystems of the planet — as well as the most threatened. Virtual reality works. People have been two times more likely to give to ocean conservation after visiting an ecosystem via virtual reality.
Awareness brings love, and, according to Michael Aw, CEO of Ocean Geographic, “love can change anything.” As an artist who is deeply concerned about the effects of climate change on ocean environments and arctic creatures, Aw has dedicated his art to helping global audiences connect with these creatures and habitats. His award-winning photography has made an incredible impact, and even during the coronavirus crisis, Aw has brought artists together to create “Song for the Ocean” to uplift the people of China to action.
By loving the ocean, really our whole ocean planet, these artists, these movers and shakers, have been able to change everything about how we view our global waters and, more importantly, how we care for them. That is certainly cause for celebration.
Written by: Roya Sabri