World Ocean Weekly

A Cetacean Protection Challenge

Certain animals capture the public imagination like no others. Whales, porpoises, dolphins – cetaceans are the most evocative of ocean creatures by virtue of their scale, vitality, intelligence, and some innate expression of life to which humans respond with joy and identification expressed in art, myth, and spiritual identification. The great white whale dominates the literary history of America; Free Willy galvanizes political opposition to animals in captivity; the aquarium industry capitalizes on exhibitions and shows that turn these animals into entertainment.

This latter situation is immersed in paradox and controversy. Many of us have attended these shows and marveled at the agility and grace of whales and dolphins as they leap for fish through hoops, with twists and turns that delight. Some of us may have swum with dolphins, in simulated habitat, and found their touch and sight amazing as encounter with animals so close, so personal. Some of us may have had such experience in the wild.

Some of us may object, and there has been a movement to prohibit the commercial exploitation of such animals captive in a controlled environment, even as trade goods, grown for sale to a global industry. The animal rights community objects; indigenous people object; many other individuals object, or at least question the rightness of this all, especially when questioned by their children evermore aware of the issues raised.

In June 2019, the Canadian Parliament amended its Criminal Code, its Fisheries Act, and its Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act. Bill S-203 creates offenses respecting any member of the cetacean order – whales, dolphins, and porpoises - in captivity, specifically identifying an offense for “every one who owns, has the custody or controls a cetacean that is kept in captivity, breeds or impregnates a cetacean, or possesses or seeks to obtain reproductive materials of cetaceans, including sperm or an embryo.” There are two categories of exception: first, for animals involved in licensed scientific research, in care or rehabilitation from and injury, or in the best interest of a specific animal’s welfare; and second, for certain operators to continue the otherwise prohibited programs, but only with a license given by the provincial government affirming the letter of the law. The fines for violation can be up to $200,000.

What is affected here are the aquarium programs, unless grandfathered or excepted, and the breeding programs, particularly for belugas, that exist to generate animals to be sold for exhibition purposes worldwide, thus accounting for the emphasis on genetic materials, tissue cultures, and the like. This market is indeed global, with the major other suppliers located in Russia where there are “beluga farms” to meet the demand, now eradicated in Canada.

There is a continuing action to be taken in the context of this legislative assertion. If Canada is truly interested in the protection and conservation of cetaceans, especially belugas, it has a powerful opportunity to take one more regenerative step beyond prohibition. In Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba, an estimated 60,000 beluga whales congregate in the summer, in the local estuaries and adjacent waters, to breed and nourish. I have seen this myself, and I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of a single animal species anywhere else in the world, a glorious reality and symbol of Nature’s fecundity, of wild animals in the wild. In my case, I joined the beluga brotherhood.

If Canada wants truly to protect these animals beyond corrective legislation, then a national, provincial, and indigenous declaration to establish a global reserve for cetaceans in that perfect place where they subsist now, not yet compromised or depleted by the forces that have destroyed such communities in such places before, would be step to take. And that is just what they did, when in August 2019, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to create a massive marine protected area, the Nation’s largest, just northeast off Baffin Island, a combined area of some 470,000 square kilometers, for the protection of belugas, narwhals, walruses, seals, polar bears and thousands of other species that depend on year-round polar sea ice, a designation that serves the animals, the provincial communities, the local traditions, and Canada by taking conservation action of exemplary global significance. The Hudson Bay area was not included, but my beluga friends will get the message of protection just next door, and perhaps Trudeau will soon, with an inclusive stroke of the pen, add their area next.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Hearts in the Ice

A Citizen Science Adventure of a Lifetime

I am an armchair explorer. Suffice it to say that I have awe and respect for those who attempt to extend our limits and conventions in any direction. As a child, I read fictional and historical adventure, and I marvel still at the accomplishments of those who in the pursuit of knowledge explored the outer reaches of our physical and psychological geography. Survival was not always certain, but its probabilities were always enhanced by knowledge, prior experience, and planning. One such expedition, for which the World Ocean Observatory participates as an advisor and sponsor, is Hearts in the Ice, a project created by two formidable women: Hilde Fålun Strøm from Norway and Sunniva Sorby from Canada who, in 2019, will inhabit the remote, historic trapper’s cabin Bamsebu in the High Arctic, at -78°N. in Svalbard, Norway, located 140 km away from the nearest neighbor, not counting the polar bears.

For 9 months beginning in August 2019 Hilde and Sunniva will live at Bamsebu where there is no running water or electricity. 270 days, 90 days of complete darkness, where they will serve as citizen scientists, collecting data for existing research being conducted in the Arctic. The project will serve as a platform for global dialogue and engagement concerning the changes we are experiencing in the Polar Regions which impact the world and what we all, individually, might be able to do about it. Life at Bamsebu will be broadcast and published via Iridium satellite through social media to scientists, school children, adventurers, and interested citizens from around the world. The World Ocean Observatory will extend their reach through regular updates to our audience through our millions of visitors and followers on social media.

These are two very competent women. Hilde has inhabited the Arctic her entire life. As wife, mother and grandmother, she has lived and worked in Svalbard for 23 years. Suniva’s experience has been mostly in the Antarctic. She was a member of the historic first Women’s South Pole Expedition in 1992/3, leader of the first Canadian Woman Expedition — Greenland Crossing in 1999, and leader of the first Canadian Woman Expedition George Island Crossing in 1998. These women are at home on the ice.

During their stay, they will undertake several citizen science research projects:

  1. Provide measurements, observations and data to The Norwegian Polar Institute and The Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
  2. Analyze the influence that the Gulf Stream has on the west coast of Spitsbergen through The Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
  3. Take observations for NASA that will help their satellites better understand how clouds assist in the overall changes in our climate.
  4. Collect as much plastic trash as possible from the area and neighboring beaches.
  5. Field test cutting edge technology in one of the world’s most extreme environments — from solar and wind energy, satellite communication, to electric snowmobiles.
  6. Discover how to minimize their carbon footprint in the most demanding conditions as a demonstration of methods and inspiration to others to do the same.


They will do science, live successfully without support, and invite us to into their home and activities in the distant, inaccessible High North. This is a unique opportunity for all of us to participate and to learn. So, all you armchair explorers, teachers and students, and everyone interested in knowledge and adventure, let’s share their experience, send our support, follow the project on, at and on social media. Join with Hilde and Sunniva in a spectacular place apart, in the fullness of wilderness and Nature, and in the spirit of inquiry and inspiration to be found in the ice, in the heart of exploration.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.


Underland and Underwater

How often do we think about what lies below the surface of the land, below the sea floor? This week we're thinking about water and our reckless consumption of it for agriculture, industry, and what we consume for both our basic needs and for our survival. How long before we exhaust the supply? How long before a rapidly changing environment demands a response?

A world below surface, what does that look like? More and more it would seem that reality is less than skin-deep, often virtual, photo-shopped, shaped as illusive aspirations, as insubstantial and unrewarding gloss, and indifference to the harsh authenticity and deep meaning that exists below grade, under land, and under water.

How often do we think about what lies below? In some cities, there are underground systems of transportation, connection, and services that enable living without the sight of day. We hurtle through bedrock toward a place of work; we consume the energy extracted from deep within the earth; we hide our waste in forgotten shafts and pits.

Geology no longer fascinates other than those who explore the earth below for oil and gas, gold, diamonds uranium, rare earths, and other fossilized fuels and buried resources to energize and sustain our consumptive way of life. How long before we exhaust the supply? How long before the life sustained through the earth's inside is also rendered extinct?

The last value under is water - the most essential resource required by us all to survive no matter what. Think not just about the surface water that drops from the atmosphere in ever-increasing strength and frequency and that floods and erodes and spreads all the organic and in-organic stuff that we deposit in our expanding cycle of waste, but think also of the aquifer, all that hidden water deep in the center of the earth in caves and caverns and seams and veins in the stone, that invisible water that, because the geologists and engineers tell us it is there, we tap and pump and poison with more stuff until it all drains back into the ocean.

I recently visited southern Greenland and stood in a boat face-to-face with a massive glacial finger extending from the central ice cap to the fjord. As Greenland, like many other places around the world, was experiencing record heat, the already existing warming trends were accelerating in visible real time, with the edge calving in big chunks of dirty ice joining all the other iceberg bits already there. The most telling phenomenon, however, was the opening of a giant river of melt water, releasing millions of gallons dissolved from the ice cap and descending with a torrential roar as if a enormous dam had burst upstream and released untold volumes into a madcap rush to the sea. The sound, and the generated wind, the conflict of wave and water and ice - all mixed and too loud enough as if to shout: pay attention, something powerfully unique is evident here, and you had best accept, understand, and move to higher ground.

It seems far too easy to dismiss or deny climate change as a statistical anomaly or an anecdotal exception. But if you look below you begin to understand that all that underground water, all that precious surface water, is being lost to our use, our food supply, our health, and our survival. Consider this one stunning statistic: in 2015, the United States alone consumed 322 billions gallons of water per day, and of that most was wasted. Consider also that there are major cities today that cannot provide even basic sanitation treatment and drinking water to populations of millions. Consider that we are doing nothing to capture and re-capture water for re-use, nothing to change our industrial and agricultural demand for unlimited water, nothing to extract the additional energy inherent in this hydraulic movement, nothing to limit the price of consumption in terms of real cost, externalities, and critically diminished supply, nothing to understand the drought, the fire, and resultant conflict, nothing to address the declaration, at the face of the glacier, of impending collapse. What will it take?

The most evocative symbolic river is, of course, the River Styx, that biblical boundary water where sinners cross over into damnation. At the face of the Greenland glacier, I was surrounded by antithesis - white, light, clarity and beauty, an evocation more of a Heaven than a Hell - but it was all paradox, an incongruous demonstration of the emptying of the earth, inside out, upside down, and an unequivocal challenge to respond - and soon - with answers.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Outlaw Ocean: Chronicles of the Watery Wild West


This week: the untold stories of what happens at sea, in the context of a forthcoming book by Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Ian Urbina. Titled “The Outlaw Ocean”, this compelling new book profiles the most urgent ocean issues facing us today: illegal fishing, human and arms trafficking, slavery at sea, illegal dumping, piracy, and more.


It is a truism to state how little we know about the ocean. And we take solace in the efforts, increasing every day, to map and study the water column, the ocean floor, the community of marine species, the systems of circulation, weather patterns, and consequence of changing climate conditions. We are aware of the transport and trade aspects of the ocean connection in the distribution of goods, people, and ideas. We may be aware of the communications and financial exchange utility of underwater cables and other evidence of the overt value of the ocean for so many aspects of our lives.

But what we don’t know is the dark side of the ocean, the social involvement of many faceless people the world over who earn livelihood from the sea, build and install the ships and rigs, man coastwise transport and service vessels, and fish the water along shore and on the high seas far from our sight, outside our mind.

As an observer of the world ocean, I am too aware of the shallow spread of our knowledge and understanding of all these involvements: not just the science or the larger implications of globalization on our community living, but also the monetary intricacies of ship ownership, management companies, the use of national flag registries, manning and recruitment, port clearances, insurance, and the resolution of disputes that often take place outside of normal jurisdictions.

But what frustrates me the most is the untold human stories, the invisibility of the maritime worker and his or her life at sea. Where do they come from? Why do they engage in what is surely a most lonely and dangerous way to make a living? How do they find their way to the sea? How are they paid and treated aboard? What happens when things go wrong?

Ian Urbina, a prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, has provided answers to these questions in The Outlaw Ocean, to be published in August by Alfred A. Knopf, as a compelling, informed, sympathetic revelation of a reality in which so many of these workers live, the corruption and criminal indifference, the inhuman physical and psychological conditions, the few safety and legal protections in the face of constant dangers, the physical and sexual abuse, and the violations of contracts, protective regulations and laws, and any basic sense of moral obligation and human rights for any workers anywhere. It is a sordid, sad, infuriating story told by Urbina with thoroughness, responsibility, narrative grace, sympathy, and insight into what is, and what can or cannot be done to illuminate an unknown problem and to rectify an unacceptable situation that underlies every aspect of the maritime contribution to the well-being of the rest of us worldwide.

The contents cover the extent of the problem: a Greenpeace vessel tracking and challenging an outlaw fishing ship in the Southern Ocean; the futility of enforcement even where good laws exist; the invention of an independent sea-based nation; ships and crews abandoned for unpaid bills; smuggling; insurance fraud, wreck thieves and repo men; poachers and conservationists; conflict between deep ocean engineering and conservation interests; sea-bound abortion providers; slavery and human trafficking; illegal waste disposal; violence between ships at sea; piracy; confrontations with whale hunters; and other examples of brutality, exploitation, and criminality in “a floating world where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.”

Urbina bears witness by putting himself in the midst of all this, not as some distant observer, but as real-time participant in events and places where good sense might argue against his need for a story, “a process,” he writes, “that felt both worthwhile and pointless…feeling like an explanation for its own sake: that single abiding certainty at the core of journalism, that there is merit…in giving voice to those who lacked it.” He wonders, “if these were legitimate motivations or professional delusions.” “Still, I clung to the hope that by my putting the information out there, other people might use it somehow to change things.”

Legitimate and powerful journalism, without delusion, is the outcome of The Outlaw Ocean. That these stories are finally, and brilliantly told, is an essential contribution to what we need to know about the ocean and what we must do to protect and sustain every aspect of its human dimension.

Ian Urbina is a prize-winning journalist who has spent the last several years reporting on lawlessness at sea for #TheOutlawOcean project. The Outlaw Ocean, available for pre-order now, is the culmination of that investigative exploration. Ian’s journalistic endeavor is an investigative exploration of the diversity of crimes that occur offshore including the murder of stowaways, arms trafficking, illegal fishing, pollution, dumping, drilling and human slavery on fishing ships, as it occurs on the two thirds of the planet covered by water.

#TheOutlawOcean Project’s goal is to create an increased sense of urgency by raising awareness and broadening the public’s understanding of what happens at sea, both above and below the waterline. Follow along for the collaboration series from The Outlaw Ocean.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Environmental Crime

As we consider the solutions that must evolve if we are to meet the serious challenges to the integrity and sustainability of the world ocean, it behooves of us to remember the decisions that brought us to this moment. With the wisdom of hindsight I suppose, we can look back and identify the actions and decisions taken by individuals in corporations and government to whom we owe the crisis we face.  In retrospect, I dare say these are environmental crimes committed sometimes inadvertently but most times with the eyes of those accountable wide open. Here are five that I consider most egregious:

First, there was the full amplification of the industrial revolution with its reliance on growth driven by fossil fuels, coal then oil and gas. All of us have benefited from this historical progress and it has energized our security and defense, built our economy, and defined our work, our play, and our future. Decisions made along the way can be excused perhaps, the novel short-term benefit and rewards of scale out-weighing consequence, then mostly unforeseen. We established fossil fuels as the engine for civilization and pursued consumption as the essence of our national and international system. How could we have foreseen the negative outcome? How could we know that the release of carbon in various forms into the air that would be revealed as localized smog, then atmospheric distribution, then out-fall into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, then the disruption of water temperature, changing weather patterns, glacial melt, shifting currents, sea-level rise, and all the other outcomes with which we are now forced to deal?

Well, now of course, it is revealed that we did know, that the scientists at the energy companies and research academies were aware of the reality, the extent, and the full implication of what was to come, and they ignored the knowledge, subverted the studies, denied the emerging evidence, and still to this day work against full public understanding of what such action has meant for our health and well-being.  If crime is defined as “an action or incidence of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or the State,” then these decisions qualify as criminal and those who made them should be held accountable.

Second, this first crime was compounded by another: fracking--the continuing effort to reclaim the last value from exhausted wells that has destroyed farmland and farming communities, displaced thousands from their livelihood, created new problems of polluted run-off and waste, poisoned water and sludge that has found its way into watersheds, been secreted in hidden dumps, and extended profits to the industry as a last initiative to offset the reality of social and climate consequence. This decision was even more cynical, the executives and investors acing with pre-meditation, and the regulators subverted by lobbyists and political donations.

Third, fossil fuels also drove the invention of fertilizers, insecticides, and plastic – all now revealed as deadly as evinced by nitrogen run-off, industrial farming, and the manufacture and discard of containers and other stuff that defiles our roadsides, clogs our dumps, streams in our rivers, and deposits useless deteriorating debris the world over that is now ingested as deleterious poison by animals in the water column and by us in our ignorance.

Fourth, there is the cumulative crime of acidification – the aggregations of all this consequence into chemical change in the pH of the ocean that degrades habitats, modifies nutrition, and works up and down the food chain threatening every species on earth with its very survival. And fifth, as if this is not enough, there is the unregulated, often illegal harvest of the “fruits of the sea,” the ocean-nurtured protein on which the entire system relies. All these are connected. They begin not with some kind of big bang accident or divine will, but rather with the overt decisions of every one of us who, willingly or unwillingly, has participated in this syndicate of crime.

Is this over-wrought, as a useless retro-hand-wringing accusation of responsibility and guilt? Some will say so, but I am moved to write this down to make certain that I understand that it is not just the irresponsible executives or greedy shareholders or compromised politicians or uninformed citizens that are to blame; it was and is all of us, then and now, who participate, enable, fail to vote, and otherwise decline to take back and preserve the integrity and sustainability of the ocean as the primary source and system for our future.  To not do so is criminal.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.