Q: Tell us a bit about yourself: what’s your educational background and interests/what kind of path did you take to get where you are today?
I’m a bit of an odd duck in the ocean health arena — or at least I think I am. I hold my Ph.D. not in marine biology, but in psychology, which is why I think I’m so focused right now on how we communicate about ocean health issues and the importance of leaning heavily into collaboration. This is partly why Lonely Whale is gearing up to create more campaigns and messaging content that drives the change we seek as quickly as is needed.
I also grew up landlocked and didn’t dip my toe into the ocean until I was 15. I do think my upbringing has a lot to do with my focus on a healthy environment. Up until age five, I was raised by my single mom near Fairbanks, Alaska in a one bedroom cabin with no running water or electricity. We raised vegetables, geese and turkeys and I helped harvest fish from the river and gather firewood. My early years living this sort of pioneering lifestyle really shaped my perspective on a healthy environment and the importance of being connected to your surroundings.
Q: What personally connects you to the ocean?
Growing up landlocked I developed a healthy fear of the ocean. I love swimming, but until 17 years ago, I couldn’t stand swimming in the water. I know, sounds crazy, but it’s true. I love the feeling of being weightless and gliding through water, but was terrified of what was beneath me!
That all changed when I was fortunate enough to learn to scuba dive and see what was beneath me. While off the coast of Belize, I had one of those life-changing experiences of watching a huge spotted eagle ray flying effortlessly through the water. It took my breath away and I immediately recognized how special and rare that moment was given that rays are being hunted to extinction.
During that same trip, my husband and I began the process to adopt our son, Rye, and I became committed 150 percent to ensuring he was able to have a similar experience in the future.
Q: What motivated you want to bring your talents to Lonely Whale and their fight against plastic pollution? And what are some of your goals for the near future?
First and foremost, I am the mom to a 26-year-old girl and three-and-a-half-year-old boy. It’s my responsibility to protect their future, and that has to include creating and preserving a healthy ocean. But, that is easier said than done.
I spent quite a bit of time thinking about ocean health while at the helm of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Philanthropy. My team created really impactful initiatives like Global Fin Print and Human Assisted Coral Reef Evolution, but realized that until humans are connected to and care for the ocean no amount of philanthropic dollars will address the system causes of ocean health decline.
Our co-founders, Adrian Grenier and Lucy Sumner, and I share a passion to foster empathy for marine animals and bond people to the ocean. We believe the best way to start to accomplish this is through the one thing that connects us all everyday to the ocean — our use of single-use plastics.
We’re working to tackle the growing issue of marine litter with initiatives like Strawless Ocean and #StopSucking to eliminate single-use plastics by beginning with the straws. Straws are the one thing that directly connects our human experience to our ocean impact. We’re also working with major companies to help them incorporate ocean-bound plastics into their supply chain efforts to reduce plastic waste at scale.
Q: How have you seen the marine environment that you study change in your lifetime? And how do you think this compares to the larger timescale?
I didn’t have much experience with the ocean until I was 15 — that was more than 30 years ago now. Over the years I’ve watched coral reef decline, I’ve searched for sharks while diving in places they once were, and I’ve been startled while swimming when a chip bag “attacked” my leg. I know I also find myself seeing more trash on beaches and next to rivers and lakes than I remember as a kid – even though I was one of those committed Girl Scouts who participated in the annual clean up day.
So a lot has changed in my 30 years of connection to the marine environment.
Q: What do you believe is the biggest threat to the marine environment? And why? (Climate change, overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, development, invasive species)
The biggest threat, simply put, is our carelessness and lack of caring.
Humans are responsible for all of the aforementioned problems plaguing our ocean but we are also capable problem solvers for each. However, with so many issues to tackle, it is tricky to know where to begin and to feel like you’re making an impact, thus creating another problem — inaction. That is why we are hyper-focused on creating a new narrative for plastic pollution and providing tangible solutions for businesses, governments and individuals to take measurable steps towards supporting a healthy ocean.
Q: What’s the biggest roadblock that you face (or that we as society face) to solving this threat?
As I mentioned, inaction is one great roadblock we face. Another critical roadblock is a lack of true collaboration. That is why Lonely Whale’s mission statement is one of radical collaboration. To ensure we are all working together in the most strategic and effective manner, we are committed to working with a minimum of one organization (collaborator) on every one of our initiatives or campaigns. We firmly believe that together, we can go further, faster.
Q: What’s one everyday thing that you believe any individual could do better to conserve the marine environment?
Stop sucking. In the US, we use an average of 500 million plastic straws a day. Most of those end up in the ocean. It sounds so simple, but saying “no thank you” to a single-use plastic straw at restaurants and bars can make a difference. If you’re someone who really loves straws, there are a number of really great and eco-friendly alternatives (like paper or glass) worth trying out.
Q: What would you suggest people can do in parts of the world where less alternatives to single-use plastics are available? Because of limited resources or the political environment?
Quite honestly, there are few alternatives to single-use plastics everywhere. Just walk the aisles of your grocery store, go into your favorite neighborhood Starbucks, take a ride on your favorite airline — single-use plastics are everywhere and presently we don’t have many alternatives available at scale.
I applaud the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as they put forward an innovation challenge to address the lack of available alternatives. We need more capital and more R&D into alternatives that are truly marine degradable if we are going to solve for this problem at scale.
How I Sea is a new effort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.