Why the ocean matters and why we should talk more about how awesome it is…

This week I attended the CommOcean 2016 conference in Belgium. CommOcean was all about marine science communication and what the best ways are for marine scientists to interact with the general public. Science communication is about more than just reaching non-scientists, but also about making an impact and transforming how people perceive the ocean, it’s about making a positive change. But why would anyone really care about the ocean, or even more, change their day-to-day behaviour for it? A question particularly relevant if you live far away from the sea or don’t have a taste for fish.


The CommOcean2016 crowd in front of the beautiful conference venue in Bruges

The thing is, the ocean matters big time, for everyone, everywhere. On a global scale, the ocean produces more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe (more than trees!). If breathing isn’t your thing, the ocean also provides other trivial things such as food, cures to certain cancers and other diseases, a way to transport most goods around the globe (90% of international trade), and so much more. Current human impacts such as climate change can and will have effects on everyone, even those living furthest away from the sea.

For the people fortunate enough to live close to the coast, the ocean is even more important. Over 1 billion people depend on the sea as their main source of protein, which explains why overfishing is such a big issue. Besides food, the sea also provides a way to make a living as fishermen, through trade, industry, or tourism (muck diving being only one example). For people living on low islands, rising sea levels are a very real and very large threat. Entire countries might sink below the ocean and will have to move elsewhere. Countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati are already negotiating with Australia about possibilities to move their entire population there. Popular holiday destination Maldives has even gone further and is already buying up land in other countries to prepare for relocating its people.

Communicating ocean science is often challenging when people aren’t faced with the ocean in a way the Maldivians or other islanders are. Not being able to see what is below the waves might be the biggest challenge to get people to care about our oceans. It is hard to comprehend  just how amazing life in the sea can be without diving in it, or without the help of talented filmmakers and photographers to show us.

The fact that many scientists are still perceived to live in their “ivory tower of knowledge”, without interacting with people does not help either. The issues facing the oceans are often more complicated than those on land and often seem overwhelming. If the only news people hear about the oceans is bad news, they won’t be keen to listen to the yet another doomsday talk. Most marine scientists are not trained to be communicators and are often too worried about oversimplifying their message, resulting in nuanced, scientifically correct communication that is unfortunately understand by nobody else but scientists. Lastly, in a world where Twitter, Facebook, etc. are increasingly the main source of information for people, it is hard to get attention with a science message. After all, who wants to read about weird fish, if you could be reading about what a Kardashian had for breakfast or that your favourite soccer player went wild on a party last night?


Rita Steyn explaining the ins and outs of Twitter

So what is the solution? How do you get the message across that the oceans matter? I’m in no way an expert, but luckily there were experts around at CommOcean. The first step is to adapt you message to the people you are talking to, don’t go wild on the crazy science talk, have a clear message. (in case you forgot: “Oceans are awesome! Get the news out there!“). Ideally try to interact directly with the people to whom your research is important, stop talking over people’s heads and listen to what they care about. Using social media is a good thing, but do it right and don’t get stuck on just one method. Not everyone uses Twitter or visits websites about science, many people don’t have smartphones and might prefer written media, etc. Don’t forget that humans are visual animals, presenting your message in a more attractive way than dry text will get more attention.


Lastly, maybe most importantly, don’t forget to give the good news. There might be a load of bad news out there, but the ocean is still a beautiful place, something I feel everyone should know about too. Telling people about the beauty that can be found and offering practical tips on how to do something about protecting it can go a long way.

In the long run, what we really need is ocean science to become ingrained in all levels of education. As one of the most important ecosystems in our world, the ocean deserves more attention. After all, as long as people are not aware of the importance of the ocean (and the issues facing it), they cannot change their attitudes about the ocean and they will definitely not change their behaviour to preserve it.


PS: In the spirit of using different communication channels, crittersresearch is now also live on twitter as @DeBrauwerM.

PS: All photos sourced from the CommOcean2016 Facebook page


Photo Story: Hidden Treasures Amongst the Muck – Guestblog by Luke Gordon


Time to kick of December with a new guestblog, this one by none other than my good friend and science hobbit Luke Gordon! Luke is a very talented photographer whom I’ve been having ocean adventures with for many years. He is currently based in Canada, but continues his photography work there. Increasingly he uses his art as more than mere beautiful pictures, but instead uses it to tell important stories about ocean conservation issues. You really should have a look at his site, but until you do, here is an introduction to his most recent story.

Diverting the majority of my photography work towards conservation photo journalism has been an incredibly rewarding experience so far. I am very lucky to have met various people & organisations over the years which has now allowed me to get up close and personal to certain issues such as, establishing sustainable fisheries in Fiji, and now looking at salmon enhancement projects in British Columbia, (and of course Maarten, the first person worldwide to be dedicating a PhD solely to the soft sediment world & the creatures living there).


A ‘barren habitat’ could not be further from the truth, life here as evolved in the most intricate of ways, mimicry is the name of the game on the muck slopes. Species such as this Giant Frogfish (Antennarius commersoni) have evolved near perfect mimicry of sponges as they sit in wait for unsuspecting prey.

The critters of the muck for me, and I am sure for the large majority of photographers who have experienced this world, are the perfect definition of evolution and beauty of the natural world. Everything about this underwater paradise captivates me. From the story of its discovery to the most elusive of its organisms, muck is a magical world.

Let us start at the discovery, muck was discovered by chance by Bob Halstead, a man credited for pioneering the liveaboard industry and diving in Papua New Guinea, the story goes that whilst on a liveaboard in PNG the boat had moored up in Milne Bay for the night where it was calm, Bob Halstead still wanted to go for a night dive and despite the attempted dissuasion from local dive masters they went for a dive right beneath the boat. As the dive masters had predicted the bottom was just endless sand (soft sediment) from where the name of ‘muck’ originated, however the dive masters were wrong about one thing, and that is that there was no life down there, quite the contrary, what they found were creatures that looked like extra terrestrials, creatures that even the like had never been seen before, muck diving was born.


A tiny, recently settled juvenile Ornate Ghost Pipefish hangs above a crinoid. Even though this little critter doesn’t know it, the large ‘creature’ in the background is paving the way forward for future research into this unique habitat.

This all happened in the 1980’s, the diving community took a while to catch on, but boy has it caught on, muck diving now is a booming industry which supports thousands of people across Southeast Asia, as Maarten’s research will soon shed more light on. Divers and photographers (and now researchers of course) alike will travel half way across the world just to glimpse these weird and wonderful creatures, and these creatures are not behemoths like the African mammals, no, they are tiny critters which have evolved perfect mimicry and other adaptions to survive in a sandy desert, perfect photography subjects.

So how does a photo story fit into all of this?

Luckily enough for me (well not that lucky, I am referred to as a science hobbit by Mr. De Brauwer, yes, there is an earlier blog about this!) I was able to help Maarten with a large proportion of his fieldwork in North Sulawesi & Bali, Indonesia and on Negros, The Philippines. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to tell a story about this industry and now, the research being conducted. Currently it is quite staggering how many divers travel to muck locations around the world and it is equally staggering how little we know about the ecology, abundances and diversities of these creatures and the threats they face. This is a huge problem, as I have already mentioned thousands of people now rely on the jobs created by the industry and the money the industry brings into countries such as Indonesia and The Philippines. On top of this there is also no baseline data outlining the abundances and diversities of the creatures that have traditionally existed in these habitats, we have no way of gauging how these habitats are responding to the huge increase of direct and indirect anthropogenic pressures.


Arjay Salac is a dive master and one of the figure heads for Atmosphere Resort & Spa’s dive centre. Arjay is from a family of fishermen who live on the adjacent plot of land to the resort, after initially being employed as a landscaper when the resort first opened Arjay took a keen interest in the dive world going on. Enthusiasm and work ethic allowed him to move into a boat crewman position. Through continued excellence in the role he was offered the opportunity of being put through the resorts PADI dive master scholarship. Needless to say Arjay excelled and six years later is now one of the most respected dive guides in the area, eagle eyes are a description which fit Arjay perfectly.

This story is a way for everybody, diver or not, to understand how and why these organisms are so special, the pressures they face and how these tiny organisms have changed the lives of so many people across coastlines in Southeast Asia, and now, what research is being conducted to answer the many, many unanswered questions we have.


A Juvenile frogfish is measured after being caught in one of the S.M.U.R.F‘s. Frogfish, like many of the cryptobenthic organisms, are still unknown to science, this particular individual is most likely a new, undescribed species of frogfish (Antennatus sp.). Note from Maarten: this animal was returned to the ocean alive and well

This blog shows a few small extracts of the story, please visit my site for the full photographic story.


The future generation of instructors, dive masters and dive guides.