Reflections from the We Are Ocean Summit

In late January, over 140 people participated in the We Are Ocean Summit to discuss the blue heart of our planet: the ocean. The jam-packed morning covered a range of topics including diversity, how to build a more ocean friendly and literate society, and climate action.

Healthy ocean = healthy planet

One of the biggest challenges facing the ocean is climate change. But what many people don’t know, is that the ocean is one of the major buffers to the worst elements of climate change. For a healthy planet we need to build understanding about the links between climate and the ocean.

“We need to inspire the public with radical hope and show where climate action can happen at scale.” Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage

The Summit marked the start of the ‘Ocean Decade’ (United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development), of which ocean literacy is a key theme. Ocean literacy means understanding our impact on the ocean and the ocean’s impact on us. 

The Foundation is part of the Ocean Conservation Trust’s UK working group on Ocean Literacy. The working group recently published a review which aims to encourages scientists, NGOs, governments and teachers to include emotional connection as an Ocean Literacy development tool.

Ocean Connectedness

Several of the sessions touched on the need to understand individuals’ personal connections to the ocean. The morning began with an exercise that encouraged people to close their eyes and remember the first moment that they fell in love with the ocean. Answers ranged from snorkelling on foreign holidays, first dipping toes in frosty water and witnessing the rawness of crashing waves, to summer holidays and ice creams at the seaside.

Emily Cunningham, Trustee for the Marine Conservation Society, stressed the importance of inclusivity in community projects. We should reach out, listen, and learn about peoples’ values, vision, memories, emotions, and connections to the ocean. This echoes the Values Based Approach, which has been championed by the Marine CoLAB. Emily challenged participants to put equity and diversity at the centre of their conversations to achieve ocean literacy.

In addition to creating emotional connections to the ocean, it’s important to recognise the socio-economic challenges that many UK coastal communities face. Sacha Bedding spoke about the need to truly understand community (dis)connectedness to nature and creating a political space for them.

New Narratives

Nurturing ocean optimism at a time when urgent environmental action is needed can feel challenging and even counterproductive. However, it is crucial to flip the narrative from ‘eco grief to eco belief’ to prevent apathy. Wild Labs’ Dan Burgess advised replacing horror stories with love stories that foster the connection between humans and nature.

The We Are Ocean collective launched an Ocean Communications Toolkit, with the acronym of WAVES: focusing on Wisdom, Awe & Wonder, Viewpoint, Experience, Story. Our work with the FrameWorks Institute also has lots of helpful guidance on ocean framing and messaging.


Lockdown has brought a number of challenges for marine NGOs. Olly Reed (Ocean Conservation Trust/National Marine Aquarium Plymouth) spoke about the need to evolve and adapt approaches to bring the ocean to those who can’t physically get there.  

But it’s not all bad news. Over the past year, there has been a growing awareness of the positive impact of nature – including blue spaces – on mental health and wellbeing. From coastal walks to meditation sessions with ocean playlists, blue spaces have had a restorative effect for many people during this challenging period. 

Ocean Decade

As we begin the Decade of Ocean Science, ocean literacy will be a valuable tool and approach for securing ocean sustainability. The We Are Ocean Summit highlighted the importance of communication, community engagement and breaking down barriers to achieve a more ocean literate society.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK branch) has been supporting organisations to test new ways of communicating why the ocean matters to help build communications capacity and create a new ‘sea story’ in the UK. We are currently exploring how we can boost public engagement on climate change and influence policymakers to take urgent action on environmental issues. 


Updated on 04 january 2022

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