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What the sea means to me

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Photos: Various

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The sea is something we are drawn to for many different reasons. From Ireland to Tonga, and Canada to Senegal, 5 spoke to people from across the globe to discover the role of the ocean in their lives and find out why it’s so vital that we protect this life-giving resource.

Claire Walsh – Freediver, Ireland

Whether swimming in it, walking alongside of it, or diving under it, for me, the sea creates a complete reset for body and mind. It wipes away what’s happened and soothes what’s to come. It’s a really good place for touching base physically and mentally.

I’m part of a swimming community that meets on the beach at sunrise all year round and what I miss most now with the pandemic are those salty chats. You learn such terrific things about people, in the conversations you have when you’re in the water, with the salt spraying on your face.

“You’re aware that you’re just a tiny speck. It’s a huge change in perspective”

Claire Walsh

I’ve also been freediving since 2015 and am proud to be the first person to represent Ireland in the freediving championships. I’ve set a few national records and can hold my breath for 5 minutes and 59 seconds – the length of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen!

The feeling you get when you’re freediving is incredibly empowering and completely humbling at the same time. You’re in an environment that’s so changeable and you’re aware that you’re just a tiny speck down in the dark. It’s a huge change in perspective.

Any day when you get to see marine life is always a special one but I’ll never forget the time I saw a baby hammerhead shark in the Blue Hole in Egypt. I was so ecstatic, I just started screaming in delight. I’ve been lucky to have dived in some incredible places, but the sea is not an unlimited resource. And the coral isn’t renewable. Anything we value we take care of, so why wouldn’t we do the same for our coast, our coastlines, our beaches, our oceans and everything that goes with it?

Leigh Howarth – Marine biologist, Canada

I currently work for a research agency in Nova Scotia. We provide science advice for fisheries and aquaculture, but I used to study ecology at university. We studied all life forms but it was really focused on land. I noticed that when you add water to life it gets really interesting and when you add the sea to life, it gets completely alien and bizarre – like looking at something from a different planet. So I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on. I learned how to scuba dive and got a PhD in marine biology and have never looked back.

“What’s down there is so fascinating, I never get bored of learning about it”

Leigh Howarth

The oceans are incredibly complex and feed into our lives in so many different ways. They suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and are integral to the Earth’s climate. I always thought climate change was something in the future, but it’s happening right now.

People all around the planet are feeling these changes. In sea levels, in acidification, it’s affecting the scallops they like to fish. For me the ocean offers a sense of adventure and wonderment – but for millions and millions of people it provides food. And it’s also their source of income. It keeps them alive. The oceans require protection to make sure they can keep providing these services for us well into the future.

Khadjou Sambe – Professional surfer, Senegal

The ocean is like my family and the waves are my best friends. The sea is so amazing and important, you have to take care of it, like family.

I started surfing because I love the sea. I would go kayaking and always saw lots of people surfing: black boys, white boys, white girls, but I never saw a black woman surfing. Where were the black women? In my mind I told myself: Khadjou, you have something to do. So I started surfing.

“I love it when you see a sea lion try and take a wave too”

Khadjou Sambe

I’m the only girl in my family who surfs, and now I represent my country, Senegal. I also teach other girls how to surf and I tell them, it’s not just for boys, everyone can do it. I’m fighting for that and the girls I teach feel more free and independent. I explain to them – you have to do what you want to do, no matter what other people say or think. 

When I’m in the water I feel so happy. I forget everything else. It always makes me feel good to see other animals in the water. When I’m surfing here in Senegal, I see fish or turtles. And when I’m training in the US, I see dolphins, whales and sea lions. We don’t get those here. I love it when you take a wave and then you see a sea lion try and take a wave too.

If you’re surfing and it’s dirty, you don’t want to be in the water, so I’m always looking to see if people aren’t throwing things in the water. Every time I see some trash in the water I take it out. There’s not a lot in the water where I surf, but on the beach you sometimes see a lot of plastic. 

I’ve just started training for the 2024 Olympics, inshallah!

Petur Vollanum – Ferry captain, Faroe Islands

Growing up on the Faroe Islands and living so close to the sea, it’s very normal to have a career on the ocean. I started as a fisherman when I was 16, then I worked as a skipper on a trawler and as a captain, I’ve been sailing the world’s oceans for 18 years. I like the freedom, the fresh air and the power of the sea.

Sometimes I would spend three weeks at a time away at sea. It’s a fantastic feeling, being out there on your own, sailing from Central America to New Zealand or from China to the Pacific, and on to the US. You are very far from everything – the nearest coast is a week’s sailing away.

“The waves can reach heights of five or six metres”

Petur Vollanum

Now I captain a ferry from Denmark to the Faroe islands and Iceland. I’ve been doing this for nine years. This route, in the North Atlantic is one of the roughest. You need to keep track of the weather all the time and the waves can reach heights of five or six metres. Seven metres is the limit for sailing out. 

We see dolphins and big pilot whales, as well as lots of sea birds. For sea life, it’s important that the ocean is clean. When I started, there was no environmental awareness. Everyone dumped stuff in the sea: trawlers’ nets, garbage, everything. Today that’s totally changed. You never throw anything out – not even a cigarette. It’s a very big difference.

Mele’ana Moala’eua – Activist, Tonga

In Tonga, the sea is our womb – it keeps us alive. Here in my village, we live next to the sea and our meal today is taken directly from the ocean catch yesterday. It’s not just one person’s meal, it’s shared among the whole community. 

Now there’s a wealthy mining company that’s come to Tonga to convince the government to allow deep-sea mining. They’re hoping to find minerals for tech companies and we are only going to be given a small portion of what they will make in profits. That doesn’t compare to the billions of dollars of damage it could cause our oceans and everything in it – the very things we eat. That’s why the organisation I work for is campaigning for a ban on deep-sea mining.

“It may come to a point when the ocean will take away everything that we have”

Mele’ana Moala’eua

We don’t know how long the damage will take to repair. Whether it will take generations or centuries. But these companies don’t care about our small, poor islands. They have finished mining on land and now they’re moving to the oceans and the parts that have remained untouched – the sea floor.

For us, the ocean has always brought life and fun, but it may come to a point when the ocean will take away everything that we have due to climate change and rising sea levels. I would like to give the next generations the same experiences we had growing up by the ocean.

Main Photo: Courtesy of Claire Walsh Life

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