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Preaching to the (cetacean) choir: How to talk to people who care about caring even more

By Erica Cirino, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

Sunrise on Monterey Bay. ©Erica Cirino

It’s a cool, dark dawn in Monterey, California, when I board Discovery Whale Watch’s Sur Randy ship. But the calm seas and clear skies after days of harsh wind and waves nearly guarantee a spectacular day for seeing whales (and plenty of other kinds of marine wildlife).

And it is spectacular: We see enormous humpbacks, all fattened up and ready for their migration to Mexico and Central America; Risso’s dolphins, scratched and scarred from scraps and squid hunts; sleek sea lions, rhythmically sipping air as they porpoise en masse on the water’s surface; sea otters, playfully tackling each other; and a variety of sea birds—jaegers, shearwaters, common murres, pelicans and gulls—dive-bombing anchovies.

Humpback whale. ©Erica Cirino

Risso’s dolphins. ©Erica Cirino

Sea lions. ©Erica Cirino

Sea otter. ©Erica Cirino

Sea bird flock. ©Erica Cirino

Sea nettle. ©Erica Cirino

But what’s even more impressive to me is the camaraderie of the people on board. All but two of the 15-or-so people on board had previously gone whale watching out of Monterey Bay. After the trip, which started at 6am and ended at 12pm, the “cetacean people”—people who regularly go out on boats to see cetaceans (marine mammals that include species in the whale, dolphin and porpoise families) gather on the Monterey Bay boardwalk to share jokes, compare photographs and talk about what’s for lunch. It’s quite a sight to see so many passionate people being passionate about the same thing in the same place at the same time.

About 75 such passionate cetacean people attended a lecture on plastic pollution that I gave last week to the American Cetacean Society at the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey. Going into the event, I wondered, why should I tell these highly educated and highly engaged cetacean people that plastic is a problem for whales and other kinds of marine life? And if I should tell them, how should I go about it?

Speaking at an American Cetacean Society meeting. ©Jodi Frediani

I decided I should tell them about whales and plastic, and I decided I would focus on ethics, and back up my ethical questions with facts. These people know many statistics, so I shared those that they perhaps weren’t aware of: more than 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans every year; more than 90 percent of seabirds have consumed plastic at some point in their lives; entanglements with fishing gear is a major cause of whale mortality.

“What is our moral responsibility as human beings on this planet to whales and other animals?” I asked. “If we are harming them by using and disposing of items made of plastic, what is it that we should do to help prevent ongoing harm to them?”

To my surprise, my whale-loving audience members were silent. “What can be done?” one woman in the front row asked. I told her and the rest of my audience what scientists tell me needs to be done: More research to drive policy change on the production and use of plastic and funding for innovation for replacement materials. I told them that one scientists I recently met, Charles Moore, discoverer of two Garbage Patches, told me that we need an entire economic and societal revolution if we are to make sure enough of the planet is preserved to sustain future generations of life.

As I looked into the eyes of my audience members as I spoke, I could see wheels turning. I could see bright minds thinking, maybe changing, maybe becoming even more engaged.

I learned that night that preaching to choirs can be helpful: Discussing science-backed information and ethical dilemmas with people who believe in the truth makes those people the world’s best advocates for truth-based positive change. And right now that’s what the world needs most.

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