I did not grow up with one foot in the ocean, like so many of my colleagues in ocean conservation. I am unequivocally from the mountains of western North Carolina. As a kid, the body of water I was most familiar with was a mountain stream. My family vacations consisted mainly of camping trips to places with names like Cataloochee, with a few beach trips here and there. I always saw the ocean as something “else” – something beyond my reach, however big and amazing and awesome it was.
But all that changed about a decade ago when I started working in marine conservation. I haven’t really looked back since – the more I’ve learned about the ocean and its diverse life, the more I want to learn. And the more I want to help other people see and understand how so much of what we depend on – health, food, air, enjoyment, inspiration – comes from this body of water that can be equally amazing and terrifying, depending on the day, hour or minute.
That’s why I was so excited and honored to meet the Tarpon Springs, FL Chapter of SCUBAnauts International while they were visiting Washington, DC for Capitol Hill Ocean Week. Young people 12-18 learn to scuba dive, conduct scientific research and develop conservation projects — all with the goal of fostering a greater understanding of our underwater world through hands-on experience and personal development. The SCUBAnauts have been diving for years – most of them since they were 12. I just learned to dive two months ago in Australia, and my first thought as I went underwater was, ‘why did I wait so long?’ (I could see this same question in the ‘nauts’ faces as I relayed this information). Even though I know, logically, that there is a whole other world beneath the waves, seeing it up close and personal brought it home for me in a way I can’t describe. These young people are experiencing that underwater magic at an age that can influence their entire view of the world.
The SCUBAnauts and I talked about ocean acidification, a growing problem that is putting what they care about at risk. As we emit more and more carbon pollution into the atmosphere, from factories, cars, power plants, the ocean absorbs roughly a quarter of those emissions. When this much carbon is being absorbed by the ocean, a chemical process occurs, turning the ocean more acidic. Oysters, clams, mussels, coral and other animals have trouble building the shells necessary for their survival. It’s a problem that is already impacting coastal communities and businesses. The SCUBAnauts asked what they can do about ocean acidification. My response: “talk about it to your friends and family. Learn about it. Share stories about acidification on facebook, twitter. Make it the topic of your research.” To solve the problem, people first need to know about the problem.
There are so many huge challenges facing our ocean – acidification, overfishing, pollution. The root of many of these problems is a lack of understanding of how much we all rely on the ocean. From those of us who grow up in the mountains, to the Midwest, to the coast – we all need a healthy ocean. It provides us with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the places nearest and dearest to our heart. The SCUBAnauts give me hope that we can tackle these problems. They are ocean ambassadors for the next generation.