The Great Ocean Tank, the largest habitat at the South Carolina Aquarium, served as the backdrop for the fourth Holland Lifelong Learning lecture. David Helvarg, Executive Director of an ocean conservation group called Blue Frontier, was given a warm Charleston welcome. Today, Helvarg organizes Blue Vision Summits, which bring together ocean conservation leaders to meet with the Administration and Congress, and he organizes Writers for the Sea, which unites ocean authors from around the globe. He has also written six books that focus on ocean and coastal conservation including 50 Ways to Save the Ocean and Blue Frontier. Helvarg has not always been an ocean enthusiast. On the evening of February 12, he regaled tales of how his path was forged.
The seed of interest in conservation may have been planted during a childhood experience at summer camp – getting a chance to look at tide pools, stargaze and even see hammerheads. This interest was dormant as Helvarg pursued a career in history and journalism. He worked as a war correspondent in Northern Ireland and Central America and covered a range of issues from military science to the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, Helvarg realized that “there will always be war, but there may not always be coral reefs.”
He shifted his focus and began to report on the many challenges the ocean and environment face like overfishing, habitat destruction, agricultural run off, loss of wetlands and salt marsh, and climate change. When he started reporting, there were only 140 identified dead zones, areas of extremely low oxygen levels that don’t support ocean life. These low oxygen levels are caused by nutrient run off that feeds algal blooms. These algae mats block the exchange of sunlight and oxygen in the water. When the algae sinks to the bottom, it consumes remaining oxygen to break- down or decompose. Today, there are close to 500 major dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Many people like Helvarg are more frustrated than despaired because “we know the solutions to fix problems”.
When he was young and growing up during the cold war, the space race was on. Today, the ocean is the new frontier. It’s a largely unexplored and challenging environment. Helvarg said, “We’re just beginning to understand it, as we’re putting it at risk.”
Helvarg smiled and declared, “Every time I go in the ocean, I get optimistic.”
When he went cave diving recently, light was shining down from the ceiling and looked like a cathedral. It’s in these everyday moments that we are reminded of the miracle that we live in. Throughout this season of Holland Lifelong Learning, attendees have learned about the individual actions that they can take to save this blue frontier, from researching the chemical composition of products that will be washed down the sink to reinventing the way we look at plastic waste. Helvarg encourages us to make an impact on a greater level by letting political leaders know how much we care about the ocean. Please join the efforts, as ocean enthusiasts wear blue and march for the ocean on June 9, 2018. Learn more about the March for the Ocean in Washington, D.C.