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“Academy Awards of the Sea” Returns for 7th Year

By David Helvarg What do a former Secretary of Defense, a Saudi Prince, a sailor who ran into a massive garbage patch and a 16-year-old who bakes cookie for sea turtles have in common?  They’re among the 7 winners of this year’s Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.   The world’s preeminent honors for ocean conservation, sometimes...

By David Helvarg

What do a former Secretary of Defense, a Saudi Prince, a sailor who ran into a massive garbage patch and a 16-year-old who bakes cookie for sea turtles have in common?  They’re among the 7 winners of this year’s Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.


The world’s preeminent honors for ocean conservation, sometimes called ‘the Academy Awards of the Sea’ this year’s awards ceremony will take place this Friday, May 30 at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  This year’s Master of Ceremonies will be ‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ cartoonist Jim Toomey.  Joining this year’s winners will be guests including National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle, race car driver Leilani Munter, the heads of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the National Aquarium and the Aquarium of the Bay.








For Excellence in National Stewardship – EU Commissioner Maria DamanakiAs Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries for the European Union, Greek politician and author Maria Damanaki has initiated major and enforceable efforts to end Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) pirate fishing both in the EU and across the globe.  She has also focused on a more balanced ‘Blue Economy’ for Europe.  Her award will be presented by former NOAA Administrator and marine ecologist Dr. Jane Lubchenco




For Excellence in Science – Dr. Steve Gaines


Steve Gaines is Dean at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara and a Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology. His work building sustainable fisheries, effective marine reserves and ocean wilderness parks and addressing climate change impacts have proven vitally important to the health of our blue planet.   His Award will be presented by Hopkins Marine Lab Director Dr. Steve Palumbi




For Excellence in Policy – The Honorable Leon Panetta


Leon Panetta was born and raised in Monterey California where he later became a member of Congress before going on to become Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House and CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under the Obama Administration. In 2002 and 2003 Panetta chaired the Pew Oceans Commission, the first blue ribbon panel to report on the state of our public seas in over 35 years. That report helped inspire numerous efforts to protect the health of the ocean.  As a member of Congress, Panetta also played a keystone role in the establishment of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  His award will be presented by Representative Sam Farr of Monterey.




For Excellence in Media – Gabriela Cowperthwaite


First time documentary director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has created a powerful work of investigative reporting in 2013’s widely seen Blackfish. It’s caused consternation at SeaWorld Entertainment (owned by the Blackstone Group) by raising issues of worker safety, corporate duplicity and the treatment of captive whales following the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, killed by an aggressive bull orca named Tilikum that had been in captivity for 30 years.   Her award will be presented by Academy Award winning Director of ‘The Cove’ Louie Psihoyos.




For Excellence in Exploration – Prince Khaled bin Sultan & The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation


In 2000 Prince Khaled bin Sultan of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an avid scuba diver and conservationist, established the Living Oceans Foundation as a non-profit research organization around the concept of “Science Without Borders.” In the years since its major research vessel ‘The Golden Shadow’ has explored many of the world’s coral rich seas producing new and detailed maps of coral reef ecosystems, creating valuable new databases for science, promoting a new generation of coral researchers and new sensing and mapping technologies.  This award will be presented by Jenifer Austin, Manager of Google’s Ocean Program.




Christopher Benchley Youth Award – Casey Sokolovic


16-year-old Casey Sokolovic is the founder of Love a Sea Turtle (L.A.S.T.). She first became active at age 8 when her class took a field trip to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital in North Carolina. To help out the injured and sick animals she began baking and selling turtle-shaped cookies. Soon she was selling t-shirts and holding 5 and 10K trail runs as fundraisers and inspiring other efforts. Casey has also created a summer camp program through the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Carolina to connect students from the watershed to the sea.  Her award will be presented by ‘Stow-it-don’t Throw it’ and Ocean Conservation Youth Summit founder Sean Russell.




Hero of the Seas – Captain Charles Moore


Charles Moore grew up in and on the Pacific Ocean sailing from a young age. In 1997, returning from a yacht race between California and Hawaii, he veered from the usual sea route and saw an ocean he had never known. “Every time I came on deck to survey the horizon, I saw a soap bottle, bottle cap or a shard of plastic waste bobbing by…there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic.” He founded the Algalita Marine Research Institute in 1994 “to protect and restore the marine environment.”         After discovering “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” Algalita developed protocols for monitoring marine and beach micro- plastics now in use worldwide. His book, Plastic Ocean was published in 2010.  His award will be presented by Daniella Russo, Executive Director of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.




Among 41 previous Benchley award recipients are Presidents Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Anote Tong of Kiribati and Macky Sall of Senegal, U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Ed Markey, Washington Post reporter and author Juliet Eilperin and retired Navy Captain and deep sea explorer Don Walsh.    


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