Ocean evangelist Wallace J Nichols’ 2014 classic book ‘Blue Mind’ put into words what many human beings feel when they encounter water: that the wet stuff, whether ocean, river or lake, has an infinite capacity to heal us physically and mentally, and that, as a semi-aquatic creature, humankind has a profound connection with it.
Nichols’ work sparked huge international interest and has been joined by a growing body of evidence that further underlines the many benefits water can have on human health and wellbeing.
With the oceans facing ever graver threats from human activity, the revelations by Nichols and others could not come at a more critical time. Somehow, despite the daily images we encounter of bleached reefs, garbage-strewn beaches and plastic-choked sea-life, shocking though they are, we have so far failed to take the necessary action to stop and reverse our ongoing destruction of the world’s oceans. Perhaps our growing understanding and appreciation of the benefits of the oceans to human wellbeing will provide the momentum required to take better care of ocean environments; if we cannot do it for the sake of the millions of species that live in, on or next to the sea, then at least we might do it for our own.
Today is World Oceans Day, and as well as serving as a celebration of our oceans, it is also a vital annual reminder of just how perilous a state they are in, to the potential detriment of all who depend on them – man, beast and plant.
To mark this year’s event, we have asked four prominent ocean advocates to reflect on what the ocean means to them, why connecting with it is so important and what we can best do to safeguard it for generations to come.
Working together to save the oceans
Ellen Cuyllaerts is an underwater photographer, co-owner of Ascension Island Adventures and a curator of the 2019 World Oceans Day photo contest.
The oceans are our life support, we depend on them. To me personally they offer me lots of healing and I want to give back by raising awareness and making people care.
My first real strong memory was playing in the waves on a summer day at the Belgian coast (North Sea), I was 2 or 3 and my brother and grandmother were with me. Suddenly a wave rolled over my little boat and I never saw it back, I cried to my brother to get out of the waves because I feared losing him. I always thought that I feared water until I started diving well into my forties. I always needed to see the bottom of the ocean while swimming or have a safe haven. But I discovered it was more an extreme respect for the elements, for the powers of nature. And knowledge about them is crucial.
The oceans are key to our health and wellbeing. Almost 50% of our oxygen is produced in the ocean. It’s proven that being close to the ocean slows your heart rate and brings you peace. To me, entering the ocean takes me away from daily troubles.
I believe that ‘metro sapiens’ are the first ones to feel a connection with water and the calming effects when they get in touch with it. Rivers, rain, snow, extreme weather… it all connects to the ocean. I believe education is the key to conservation. I’m a believer of facts and of sharing stories and facts. I also believe that educating our next generation and their actions have a more and faster impact on non-believers; speaking up for their future creates a ripple effect. They are consuming too and ask questions, and governments and manufacturers will have to listen and change business models to a blue economy.
The big stressors of the ocean, like plastic pollution, overfishing, ocean acidification, warming sea temperatures, it’s time we stop pointing fingers and expect only big solutions from governments and companies. Be the change you want to see: use your refillable water container, reusable bags, reusable coffee cups. Refuse single-use plastic and in general try to diminish waste, build in meat-free and fish-free days. Even if you don’t want to be a vegetarian, skip animal-based protein out of your diet for a few times a week, you’ll feel the difference and you’ll reduce the stress on our planet.
There are so many little things we can all change in our daily life, but it looks like we don’t want to give up convenience, fast consumption. We’re all in this together and we all create demand together. In order to create change, you have to be the change!
Exploring Oceans and Human Health
Easkey Britton is a surfer and researcher into the links between the ocean and human health.
I’ve been in love with the sea for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the north-west of Donegal I felt an intimate connection to its raw, wild, hard edges. The sea is where I come most alive, get lost, learn, rise to challenges, work out and relax – and it has always been this way. The sea is the single greatest influencer in my life and for me surfing is this playful medium that allows me to indulge in that passion and which has also allowed me to build a career. People may think it is utter madness, chasing storms and getting excited by bad weather, which is when we get the good waves in Ireland, but I like to think of it as a good addiction, a healthy addiction that gets under your skin. I can’t not do it.
My academic side is born of a real curiosity that comes from having grown up being immersed in the outdoors and nature. Every day you are meeting new surprises and learning new things. ‘Oceans and Human Health’ is a new and emerging field of research. What’s exciting about it is that it helps create a greater sense of connection to something that often feels ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the sea. It allows us to understand how the health of the ocean is linked to our health and wellbeing. That’s a powerful mobiliser and reconnecter. The root of this environmental crisis is loss of a deep emotional connection to the natural world. We need to rediscover the aliveness we feel when immersed in nature, an aliveness that is amplified by water. As an island nation, the ocean has such a powerful influence on us, its constant rhythmic pulse shapes our lives. Yet we don’t recognise that enough. I think if we constantly find ways to be curious, ask questions and be reflective, we can find ways to make an impact.
'Oceans and Human Health’ is a new and emerging field of research. What’s exciting about it is that it helps create a greater sense of connection to something that often feels ‘out of sight, out of mind'
Here are three things to help reconnect with our ocean:
- Get wet! Just a few minutes spent outdoors is enough to restore our attention and boost our self-esteem. Better yet, find a spot with a view of water which helps soothe our nervous system. And if you take part in an activity by the coast or at sea the EU-funded SOPHIE project is also seeking to better understand the health and wellbeing outcomes of direct experiences with our ocean and would love to hear from you! You can complete our survey online at teamupwithsophie.eu
- Just breathe. With about 70% of the oxygen we breathe coming from the ocean, each breath connects us with the ocean. And focusing on our breath helps reconnect you with your own natural ebb and flow.
- Do good, feel good – 97% of our waste ends up in the ocean. Turn part of your commute to work into a two-minute street clean or do a two-minute beach clean every time you visit the beach. Emerging research shows beach cleans are good for your wellbeing too! #2minutebeachclean
Speaking up for ocean literacy
Linzi Hawkin is an ocean advocate and entrepreneur.
For me, the ocean just feels like home. There’s an immediate sense of calm, like the equivalent of taking a long deep breath. It’s where noise disappears and I’m shifted into a space of awe and wonder. It makes me feel humble and small, and I love that. It’s hard to describe the relationship I have with the ocean, but all I know is that it’s a vital one.
As a kid my mum used to take my to the beach before school – just for a few minutes. She says I would open the car door, run down to the water’s edge and just stand there for a few moments, before heading back to her saying, “Ok, I’m ready for the day now.” It feels like that was the start of this deep connection, and growing up on an island where the ocean was my backyard, it makes sense that it has shaped who I am today. I spent many happy years running a surf school here in Jersey, and it was during that time that there was a shift from simply being in love with the ocean to recognising the need for its protection.
The crazy thing about Blue Mind is that for so many of us, who surf or paddle, dive or swim, we’ve known the impact all along. Intuitively we’ve been aware of the influence spending time in, on, under or near the ocean has on our physical and mental wellbeing – for me, it feels like it has it’s strongest pull when I need it most. There’s a sense of, “I have to get in the sea!” that feels beyond my control.
And so now, in this age of constant noise and screens and consumerism, the majority of the population are totally disconnected from nature, and unaware of the incredible impact it can have on their wellbeing. With 40% of the global population living within 60 miles of the coast, we have access to this unbelievable blue space that has the capacity to make us healthier and happier and, most importantly, more connected to the natural world. This connection, in my opinion, is what will be the catalyst for change in terms of ocean conservation.
'With 40% of the global population living within 60 miles of the coast, we have access to this unbelievable blue space that has the capacity to make us healthier and happier'
I think ocean literacy (understanding the oceans’ influence on us, and our influence on the ocean) needs to take priority in terms of education – for all ages. We also need to facilitate ocean experiences for those who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity, and also remember that we don’t just need to focus on ocean – that spending time by a river, a lake, a stream is just as powerful, and in many cases much more accessible.
Start with one thing and go at it! In the last 18 months protecting our ocean has become a trend – and whilst that’s amazing, it sometimes worries me that people would rather post pictures and words on Instagram about protecting our ocean rather than actually getting stuck in and doing the work. It’s actually incredible the impact one human being can have when they commit to something (just think of Greta Thunberg!), and the best place to start is at home, in your local community. There are so many amazing organisations out there who need support on the ground and from whom you can learn more about what role you can play. The protection of our ocean is beyond urgent now – so remember that your actions speak louder than your words; choose one thing that you can start doing and begin there.
The freedom of the oceans
Oliver Beardon is founder of Sail Britain, an initiative that aims to inspire positive change for the oceans through sailing www.sailbritain.org
The ocean is the ultimate symbol of freedom – out there on the blue you have to rely upon your skills, your senses and your companions. It’s just the best feeling!
Like most, my first experiences of the ocean were early family holidays in the West Country. I’d row off the beach at Budleigh Salterton in a small rubber dinghy. For hours, as a child, I would lose myself in that same freedom which I now understand better as a professional yacht skipper and ocean advocate, but essentially it’s still the same.
I believe the oceans are a wonderful force for health and wellbeing, not just providing oxygen for every second breath we breathe, but for the sense of balance and connection across cultures they inspire. And on a sailing boat, for the wonderful way they bring people together.
“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” Sir David Attenborough is right, and we urgently need to reconnect with the oceans. It has been a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for too long. I run a sailing project, Sail Britain, which strives to do just that – to allow everyone to get out there on the water, travel with the power of the wind, and hopefully come back to land with a renewed appreciation of the beauty and importance of the oceans and a very special personal connection.
'No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.'
As a society, we need to be embracing the ocean as part of our human habitat and our essential planetary life support system. That means considering the impact our everyday lives have on the sea. We need to urgently address the way we live, the carbon emissions we generate, the plastics which we consume and our demand for fish and chips! We have enormous power as individuals, both to act, but also to inspire with our own stories. And I’m hopeful that if we all pull together we will have the power to drive change.
For more information on World Oceans Day go here.