Changing Planet

Even the Ocean Has Grass Roots

This weekend in Washington, D.C., the Blue Frontier Campaign is hosting the 2011 Blue Vision Summit, a celebration of the ocean, its wildlife, and the work people are doing to protect it, as well as serious opportunity to get more work done. As founder David Helvarg said during the official opening of the summit last night at the Carnegie Institution for Science, people are not here just to look at ocean disaster photos, “we’re going to talk about real solutions.” Particularly, they’ll be taking smaller, grass roots solutions that are working, and figuring out how to scale them up for even wider success.

Helvarg kicked the night off with a few choice words, reminding everyone how much we get from the sea, and how 97% of the living habitats on earth are based on saltwater. Keeping those habitats healthy is obviously then a big job. “We don’t know if we’re going to turn the tide,” he said, but we certainly won’t “if we don’t try.” Here trying this week are NG Explorer in Residence Sylvia Earle and NG Fellow Barton Seaver.

Making a Splash on the (Really) Big Screen

Next up on Friday night though was Greg MacGillivray, producer/director of more than 36 giant-screen documentaries, including “To Fly!” which has played at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum since 1976. MacGillivray discussed his latest project, to produce some 13 films over the next 5-6 years focused on educating people about the plight of the ocean. His goal there is to “drive attention to the ocean so that people fall in love with it, and thing about it every day.”

He also has more specific goals: 1) to get 10% of the world’s oceans marked as marine protected areas, 2) to get people to make smarter choices about seafood they eat, and 3) to clean up the incredible amount of plastic refuse in the ocean. NG Fellow Sylvia Earle has said that when dealing with the ocean, “the biggest problem is ignorance.” MacGillivray and his films are certainly doing their part to fix that. Based on the footage that was shown of his upcoming IMAX film “To the Arctic,” many more millions of people will soon be better informed.

Jacques Cousteau There in Spirit

Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of the grandfather of undersea exploration himself was also there, presenting two innovative performances by artists inspired by the ocean. She introduced them by saying how all around the world, people of many professions and walks of life tell her what an inspiration Jacques Cousteau was to them, and for the centennial of his birth, she wanted to celebrate that diversity. Being an environmentalist doesn’t have to be a job, she said, it’s a way of seeing the world and living in it. “You can be anything, and you can be an advocate.”

And so with those words she introduced first Halsey Bergund, in a red Jacques-Cousteau-inspired knit cap, who has created a tribute to the ocean combining audio clips of children and others speaking about the sea–what they love about it, what thoughts it inspires in them, what the world would be like without it. With these clips playing in ever-moving surround-sound, Bergund and three other musicians used cello, violin, guitar, keyboard, and even a marimba to produce a rich but subtle musical accompaniment, while projected on a screen were hypnotic, immersive, long, slow segments of film footage from beneath the surface of the ocean. At the start of a three-day ocean conservation conference, it’s hard to imagine a more striking way to get into the subject.  You can view a sample of it from Halsey Bergund’s website.

After a brief resetting of the stage, Cousteau introduced another artist, Kristin McArdle, who performed with two others a dance she created called AquaBorealis. You’ve likely never seen anything quite like this. The lights went out completely. Ocean sounds mixed with music came over the speakers. Then suddenly a waving light flashed on from the back of the theater. Then it was out. Then another wave on the other side, further up. Then it too was out. Now three sets of lights, flashing and flowing in the dark, weaving together on stage in a dance that brought an entire audience from their seats to the pitch black depths of the sea, where bio-luminescent creatures communicate not with calls or scents, but with flashes of light moving like a Hubble Space Telescope photograph set in motion.

Jacques Cousteau said, “People protect what they love.” It’s hard to get people to love ocean statistics. Artists like these are hoping perhaps they can fill in some of that gap.

Next Up

The rest of the weekend will feature panel discussions, awards, and presentations. Then on Monday, the inspiration and education built up will be put into action. During “Capitol Hill Ocean Day” some two hundred people “will meet and educate [their] congressional members on solutions for a healthier ocean.” The Blue Vision Summit team will be providing them with “all the materials and guidance [they] need to participate in a day of successful meetings.”

Combining productive think sessions, inspiring art, political action, and community building, as strange as the metaphor sounds, Blue Vision Summit is showing just how strong grass roots can be in the ocean.


Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. He is currently beginning a new role as communications director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish.Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010.He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history.
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  • John436

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