All Hands on Deck: A (sea)grassroots approach to ocean exploration

By Jessica Perelman, PhD Student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

“95% of our oceans have never been explored.” This is a statistic that I hear regularly, and it holds a pretty strong message. What’s out there beneath the surface? How is the ocean changing? One of the greatest challenges in conveying the significance of the oceans is effective communication that goes beyond highly technical, hard-to-understand scientific literature. Science and public engagement are not mutually exclusive, and the value of great discoveries can only be realized if this connection is sustained. As humans we are natural story tellers, artists, musicians, inventors, and explorers. This is the toolbox that will foster enthusiasm and educate the global community about why the oceans are worth exploring- and protecting.

This idea was the premise for the 2018 National Ocean Exploration Forum, All Hands on Deck. Spearheaded by Katy Croff Bell and Jenni Szlosek Chow of MIT Media Lab, and additionally sponsored by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration & Research, National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and several other organizations, the Forum brought together a diversity of people (scientists, artists, filmmakers, industry professionals, and ocean explorers) from across the globe to brainstorm and develop new ways to inspire and connect people with the oceans. Through storytelling, games, panel discussions, and interactive workshops, the Forum created a lively space for everyone to bring their unique expertise to the table and work together to ignite curiosity and optimism for the future of the world’s oceans. With the generous support of The Safina Center, I had the opportunity to participate in this incredible conference which was easily one of the most unique and encouraging events I have ever experienced.

After a wonderful welcome address by Katy, the chair of All Hands on Deck, the Forum kicked off with a series of speakers and panel discussions around the themes of ‘play,’ ‘imagine,’ and ‘immerse.’ We discussed how to better connect kids to the ocean through water-based sports and promoting playful learning through LEGO® education. We heard from science fiction writer Steven Gould about instilling the ‘wow’ factor of the oceans in our storytelling, and from archaeologist and stand-up comedian, Ella Al-Shamahi, about the power of comedy and adventure to solve the ‘communication problem.’ In my opinion, this was one of the Forum’s greatest takeaway messages; how can we use humor to capture attention and poke fun at major ocean issues like over-fishing and plastic pollution? With so many doom-and-gloom stories about humans destroying the planet, it’s easy for the conservation message to become lost and somewhat exhausting. So why not make fun of these issues- find the absurdity! We had a chance to practice this counterintuitive approach in a transmedia storytelling workshop, and it turns out to be quite an effective tactic. People often respond best to stories of adventure and comedy, and humor sparks positive, emotional connections. The oceans are not a tragedy, and it’s our responsibility to create an image of optimism for their future.

New technologies provide exciting opportunities for ocean exploration. We had the chance to pilot a new LEGO® marine exploration vehicle in the Charles River (left) and chat about new, lightweight ROV’s and camera systems allowing for wider community participation in deep sea exploration (right). Photos: Jon Tadiello

One such image is that of Hōkūleʻa, a classic Hawaiian voyaging canoe that recently completed a worldwide journey to share the art of Polynesian voyaging with the world. Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, gave a raw and powerful keynote address tying ocean exploration to its roots in navigation and wayfinding to start off the second day of the Forum. There was something so genuine and pure about Nainoa’s speech, about the revival of ancient Polynesian navigation and its lessons in sustaining the ocean’s resources, which needed no rehearsing or added effects to convey his love and respect for the oceans. The audience’s tearful standing ovation was evidence that tradition, culture, and voyaging continue to bind many of us with the oceans and instill a sense of wonder.

A profound keynote address by Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging society, brought the room to tears as he described the connections between the art of ancient navigation and sustaining the ocean’s resources. Photo: Jon Tadiello

The panel discussions that followed were centered around the themes of ‘create,’ ‘explore,’ and ‘connect.’ We met knitted sea creature creations by artist Hansi Singh and discussed citizen science opportunities through National Geographic’s new Open Explorer platform, which allows people to share their stories of science and exploration as they unfold. During one of many afternoon workshops, I engaged in a discussion about new, low-cost technologies that are empowering deep-sea exploration through a project called, ‘My Deep Sea, My Backyard.’ With the development of lightweight deep-ocean camera systems and ROVs that require minimal expertise and resources, stake holders and students in less economically developed areas (i.e. Trinidad and Tobago) are enabled to conduct their own underwater surveys and encouraged to explore their local deep waters. The exciting part about these workshops was that they brought together a wide range of experts and placed us on the same level by providing tasks that were new to everyone: write a story about passion, brainstorm a use for new technology in your home town, design a future aquarium experience. The events and discussions held over these few days fostered so many new connections between like-minded, passionate people with vastly different skillsets. By the end of the second day, there was undoubtedly a new, widely expanded sense of what it means to explore and connect with the oceans.

Left: These curious sea creatures are a creation of Hansi Singh, who shared with us her passion for ‘knitting the ocean’ and providing opportunities for people to construct their favorite ocean animals- including a bioluminescent anglerfish (my favorite!). Right: Among many other art forms, it’s easy to see the ocean’s beauty in these glass-blown pieces by Whitney Cornforth of the MIT Glass Lab. Photos: Jon Tadiello

After two days of brainstorming and developing new ways to connect with the public, the Forum culminated in the inaugural Boston Ocean Day at the New England Aquarium. This day of free public events at the aquarium’s IMAX theater included underwater photography from Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, screenings of a new animated TV show called, The Deep, Q+A’s with scientists, and a live interaction with the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer. Families had a blast participating in these events. I had the opportunity to present as a scientist and engage with the audience about animals that live in the ocean’s twilight zone after an episode of The Deep, and I was thrilled to discover a lively crowd with non-stop questions from kids (and parents)! My presentation, along with other discussions about undersea volcanoes and marine mammal acoustics, filled me with excitement in knowing that we had provided an inviting space for emerging explorers to ask questions about a world they may never have known existed. This enthusiasm was the greatest proof that people are naturally curious and inspired to learn about the oceans. With the right approach and a sense of optimism about the future of the world’s oceans, we can strengthen these connections and inspire continued exploration of that remaining 95%.

On the final day of the forum, I lead a fun discussion about the ocean’s twilight zone with an enthusiastic crowd during Boston Ocean Day at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX theater. Photos: Samuel Mitchell & Clarisse Sullivan

For more information and photos from All Hands on Deck, click here.

Author Bio: Jessica Perelman is pursuing her PhD in Biological Oceanography at the University of Hawai’i. As a member of the university’s Deep-Sea Fish Ecology Lab, she aims to better understand the biology and behaviors of midwater creatures, to be an effective science communicator, and to continue exploring deep-ocean habitats.

This post also appears on National Geographic’s Human Journey blog, posted November 19, 2018.This post also appears on National Geographic’s Human Journey blog, posted November 19, 2018.

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