Post by Clarisse Sullivan
“What is more dangerous? The rogue wave, the pirate, the hurricane? Or staying tied to the dock?” Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society asked the audience this question during the National Ocean Exploration Forum, All Hands On Deck, at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In November 2018, this 2-day forum spearheaded by Katy Croff Bell brought together ocean enthusiasts from various backgrounds including science, film, arts, policy, and industry to reflect upon and address the need to protect our ocean biosphere through exploration, research, education, and community involvement. As an Ocean Discovery Fellow, I had the privilege to be a part of that conversation. I participated in highly interactive and inclusive panel discussions and workshops during the forum, as well as the Boston Ocean Day activities at the New England Aquarium. These discussions and workshops were unique opportunities where people representing many different specialities brain-stormed solutions to better educate and engage the public through the themes of play, imagine, immerse, create, explore, and connect.
Engaging in play can be a powerful way to spark curiosity and creativity in both children and adults. So how can we promote curiosity and deeper learning for our oceans through play? Andre Fountain (Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program) and Reece Pacheco (World Surf League) suggest engaging the community through recreation. Play in the water and start from there! You can teach your friends and family how to swim or surf (or point them in the direction of those who can) so they can learn more about their local waters. If you don’t have an ocean in your backyard, you can incorporate hands-on activities like marine themed Lego projects, knot tying or maybe even nautical board games and escape rooms! Both kids and adults will be, in the words of Reece, even more “stoked” to learn and care about the oceans when they are engaged in play.
What about imagination? Our imaginations can run wild once curiosity sets in and this workshop focused on harnessing imagination to generate creative solutions to current ocean issues. Ella Al-Shamahi, a paleoanthropoligist at UC London and a stand-up comedian, uses humor to do just that. Her suggestion: make fun of the issue and use sarcasm to enlighten and educate people. You can demonize many of the problems we face including overfishing, using single-use plastic, deep sea mining, and other detrimental anthropogenic activities that contribute to climate change, through light-hearted comedy. Steven Gould and Steven Wendland (Technicolor) suggest the use of science fiction in movies and tv, respectively, to further amplify the human imagination about the ocean and stimulate engagement.
Another way to foster engagement is through immersion. Vikki Spruill (New England Aquarium) reiterated that aquariums are the ultimate immersive experience as they bring the ocean, or at least a piece of it, to the public, which is especially important for those who have never been to the ocean. A different, and more accessible immersive way of instilling that excitement can be through film and documentaries that feature amazing clips of the ocean biosphere. Carlos Toro, an underwater photographer and filmmaker (Steer Digital) hopes that these open-access clips are used to bridge the privilege gap as not everyone can afford to go to aquariums or pay for ecotourism excursions.
After the immersion session, I attended the Transmedia Storytelling workshop, which broadened my perspectives on the use of creative storytelling. Effective use of media and technologies can turn facts and figures into a digestible narrative, so that your audience can tip toe, wade, and eventually completely dive into your story. I had a blast thinking of innovative ways of recreating the joy of ocean discovery through immersive experiences during the Shared Exploration Beyond the Screen workshop. Our group suggested the creation of a virtual reality microbe experience where guests would walk into a first room, which we termed Zoom Level 1, featuring a coral reef display drawn and painted to scale with additional facts on the wall about coral reef ecosystems. This hypothetical exhibit would continue into a second room (Zoom Level 2), that essentially would allow the public to see the environment at an even higher magnification, bringing them closer to microbe level where free-living and coral-hosted microbes would again be drawn to scale. The room would have a scale bar so that guests could compare their height to the length of the microbe and feature microbial fun facts to help them better visualize and understand marine microbes. The workshops were indeed a great way to spend the second half of the first day of the forum!
The second day kicked off with a panel discussion on the importance of channeling our creative tendencies through art. I, for one, am a visual learner and saw the value in using tangible media as a way to teach concepts and maybe even learn a new skill. Atmospheric chemist Dr. Hansi Singh demonstrated how that is possible by knitting sea critters and sharing her passion through her how-to knitting books. But why stop there? The marine world can be manifested in many artistic ways such as through sculpture, which is what engineer-turned-glass blower Whitney Cornforth has done through his ocean themed glass sculptures. But if knitting or glass blowing intimidates you, you can try other creative outlets like painting, drawing or making music as your medium for teaching about the ocean biosphere. All creative tendencies are encouraged to better connect with and impact our diverse communities.
After the create panel discussion, the focus shifted to engaging participants in relation to ocean exploration and highlighted the technologies that currently exist like submersibles, depth profilers, ultra high definition cameras, and mapping technologies, which allow researchers to discover and study wider and deeper expanses of the ocean and the organisms that dwell there. The panel was optimistic that with increased scientific inquiry and technological advances, more cost effective, open-source, and user-friendly tools for communication, optical sensing, and data storage and distribution will become available and widely accessible. This would hopefully create more opportunities for public support and participation through citizen science, by allowing the public to explore their own marine (or freshwater) backyard!
The last, yet not least, theme of the forum was connection and the presentation that impacted me was from Margarita Mora’s (MIT Media Lab and Nia Tero) talk on the importance of securing indigenous guardianship of ecosystems. Local groups rely on ancestral knowledge to steward and protect their homes and key ecosystems for food, environment, and freshwater security. Since we are all connected by the oceans we too rely on the security of these resources so it serves everyone well to support and learn from their ways if we are to collectively create more sustainable solutions to climate and environmental issues.
The All Hands On Deck festivities culminated with Boston Ocean Day at the Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium where both kids and adults were treated to a special viewing of select episodes from “The Deep”. This new animated sci-fi series reveal the wonders of the deep sea biosphere through the eyes of the Nekton family as they explore and investigate nautical mysteries rooted in natural phenomena. What made this event even more special was the post-show Q & A with oceanographers and marine science experts where audience members further dove into the topics discussed in “The Deep”, which ranged from whale entanglement and deep sea volcanoes to the twilight zone.
To reiterate Nainoa’s sentiments, I believe that what is most dangerous is staying tied to the dock and passing up the opportunity to explore, learn and act. The 2018 National Ocean Exploration forum, All Hands on Deck, was truly an amazing experience and a call to action that serves as a reminder of our shared humanity and responsibility for the very thing the connects us all: the ocean. All Hands on Deck reinvigorated the dialogue on ocean preservation, education and outreach by incorporating the themes of play, imagination, immersion, and creation through art, exploration, and connection. I am thankful to Katy and the MIT Media lab for organizing this event and to NOAA, the National Geographic Society, Schmidt Ocean Institute and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for making this experience possible.
This blog post was written by Clarisse Sullivan in the Rappé lab, a graduate student in the Biological Oceanography M. S. program at UH Mānoa.