Today for World Oceans Day I did a Google Hangout with school kids in Canada and the US. It was hosted by non-profit Exploring By the Seat of Your Pants, which aims to connect students with guest speakers to give them "virtual field trips" around the world. The founder, Joe Grabowski, calls it "knocking down classroom walls." This World Oceans Day they broadcasted 12 hours (6am - 6pm EST) of ocean-themed talks. You can watch my full talk here, or see the snippets from Q/A below.
I'll also be talking at Somerville College in Oxford as part of their "Will Power Lunch" on May 21st.
... and again at Somerville College, on May 23, as part of a series on emotional well-being in research and fieldwork. Please message if you'd like more details.
SUMMARY OF OUR VISION
Here are some facts that struck me emotionally from former trainer John Hargrove's article "I trained killer whales at SeaWorld for 12 years. Here's why I quit."
SeaWorld's predicament and the ethical issues it faces are highlighted in the documentary Blackfish and subsequent media focus. The film isn't perfect, however; it has been criticized in this Medium article by Isaac Wadd and SeaWorld refutes the film's claims. That said, SeaWorld must make changes in order for it to not only remain a viable business, but also stay true to its mission of providing inspiring, exciting, and educational experiences to its visitors.
Thanks especially to the University of Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, especially its deputy director, Clair Linzey, for helping us prepare. Also thanks to Professor Tom White, author of In Defence of Dolphins, for his inspirational talk last November at the Centre for Animal Ethics.
I wrote the following piece for TerraMar; it's published online here.
I’m sitting in the St. Thomas airport waiting for my flight to Heathrow. Toting a hiking bag stuffed with salt-encrusted clothes, I search for an outlet to charge my laptop; it’s been dead nearly three weeks. My hair is still wet from this morning’s dip in the ocean.
“You get off a boat?” asked the man ahead of me at check-in. I wondered what gave it away. Was it my freckled skin and I-don’t-care ponytail? My callouses? My travel partner joking about peeing in a bucket?
As I sit down to write this blog entry, I find reflecting upon the last 22 days somewhat overwhelming. In that time we, eight friends, sailed a 65’ boat across the Atlantic. Every aspect of my daily routine changed dramatically and abruptly during those days at sea. I was pleasantly surprised that, apart from friends and family, I didn’t miss land much. It feels as if a year, or several, passed in those days. It was an adventure of a lifetime.
For me the journey started about three weeks before we left port. While out in London at a celebration, I received the following text from a friend:
The friend is the founder of a non-profit called <SailFuture>. The reason behind the last minute request is a somewhat of long-story, see <previous blog post>. We chatted details, but all I could say initially was “still trying to work out logistics; haven’t forgotten.” Finally it worked out, in large part to the encouragement of my friend Elizabeth (“Bizzy”) Walton, and the support of other friends and family.
Before I explain the sail further, let’s get some “FAQs” that usually come up in conversation out of the way.
I really trusted our Captain, Mike. One of the first things you see below deck is a handwritten sign reading “No Bullshit” taped in the galley. When I agreed to join the crossing, I trusted him not only to lead us safely across the Atlantic, but also to pull together a competent crew with good group dynamic. Here’s a story from our fourth day at sea that confirmed our faith in the Captain; it’s taken from an excerpt of my journal entry three days before Christmas.
People make the boat.
We had no Internet or contact with the “outside” world during our crossing, apart from a satellite connection reserved for emergencies. This meant that all of us onboard couldn’t hide behind our phones or laptops; we had to hang out old-school style. It took perhaps two or three days to shake the habit of wanting to check my phone for updates. It took us no time to get to know each other. I guess hours and hours of uninterrupted conversation does that to people. If there was ever a lull during a night shift we’d play “would you rather” or go around telling stories. When our phones were all dead and unchangeable, we sang songs totally out of key.
We got on like a house on fire. Thank goodness, because this would be a very different crossing if not. Maybe the circumstances forced us to get along, but I don’t think so. We actually did all get along. Mike, the one who brought us all together, must’ve had a feeling we all would.
People dynamics have the potential to make all things sour when you’re living confined in close quarters 24/7, everyone out of their comfort zone in some way or another. If one person is in a funk it quickly infects the group.
There was only one day that I felt we got anywhere close to the “Mutiny” scene in Life Aquatic. I won’t go into the details, as they are mundane and have lost context; but we got over it by listening to each other and saying nice things before the evening meal.
There’s an unspoken rule for me when living in any form of inescapable tight quarters: If a person has headphones on or has retreated to a spot on the boat away from others, leave them alone. On land if you saw your friend sitting at an edge of a café you’d of course approach them even if only for a quick hello. On the boat there is zero private space. There are times when you feel superfluous, question your usefulness, and become insecure. Other times when you, rather vainly, think what would this boat do without me?
We’ve plenty of sea stories. I kept a detailed daily journal. Nearly all of it I wouldn’t publish. It’s personal, but also needs a good deal of context. Maybe I’m just a bad storyteller, but chatting with friends I quickly realize only a few of the stories really click, even if they weren’t the most telling for me. Here’s one of them: On Boxing Day, I woke up in the middle of the night from what I thought was me falling asleep at the helm. I tried adjusting the wheel to the heel of the boat that I felt, but it was pitch black. We’re use to sailing in just moonlight, a small light illuminating our heading on the compass. I woke up the crewmember sleeping next to me. “Turn on the compass and windex lights! I can’t see anything! The boat isn’t responding!” They were confused. I was dreaming, of course, a very vivid dream. I laughed, relieved, once I realised I was in my bunk. Two days later another helmsman had the same dream. It became a recurring phenomenon.
Family and friends were the only things I genuinely missed about land. I especially missed my sister on her 18th birthday. She was playing squash for Team USA at the British Junior Open for squash (yes, she’s impressive) in England and I was supposed to be there. I wondered if she was going out for a drink since she’d be legal in the UK. I wondered how she was feeling about her game. I wondered if she was mad at me for missing her. Thinking more about it made me sad.
I also reflected on the high seas from a geopolitics perspective, something related to my PhD work. Appropriately, the week before departing I attended a workshop on the high seas sponsored by the <Global Ocean Commission> at my college in Oxford. All the proposed suggestions had a very tangible meaning now that we were out here on the high seas.
Many have likened the high seas to the Wild West. It’s true that you can get away with anything out here. There’s no one around. It is lawless. Check out the <New York Times’ fantastic expose on “Lawlessness on the High Seas">. On one side of the debate, there is the beautiful dream that the high seas could be a place, indeed an opportunity, for international peace and cooperation. But humans largely need a sense of ownership to act responsibility. I’m no exception. I remember sharing a bedroom with my sister when we were younger. She’s messy and I’m neat. There was a line in the room, dividing messy from neat. I never cleaned her side although she wouldn’t mind it. I’m also thinking of the high seas in terms of the game we often played on nightshifts. Would you rather have to respond to a radio call from a government every time you entered a country’s territorial waters, and perhaps even pay a toll for sailing across their waters? Or, would you rather have total freedom, but allow the ocean decline from overexploitation? What’s the balance? This issue begs for a longer discussion in a separate piece.
The thing I most wondered about before the trip was, how would it feel to be completely surrounded by nothing but ocean? For 22 days we saw nothing but ocean to all edges of the horizon. There was no reference for size or location. You could easily go crazy. If you didn’t trust the compass or maps you’d wonder, have we moved at all? Never have I seen so many consecutive sunsets and sunrises. Every day the sky put on a different show, between sunset, moonrise, and sunrise. Bizzy, a keen eye, saw nearly three-dozen shooting stars during the voyage.
My six-hour flight back to England over the same ocean was surreal. I’ll never look out the window during one of those crossings and view that ocean the same way.
Here’s a “FAQ” to end with:
Q: Would you do it again?
Jan 24, 2015 Many thanks to Stuart Young (@STUARTLIVEART), founder of Illustration Station, for creating this illustration during my TEDx Talk last weekend.
Feb 16, 2015 Teen Vogue ran a profile after the talk; full piece here.
Dec 15, 2015 The talk is finally live! Check it out at out on the TEDx YouTube channel:
Grace is an MIT ocean engineer, aquanaut, and scientist with Cousteau's Mission 31. She's currently a PhD student at University of Oxford and scientist for the Pisces VI deep sea submarine.