World Ocean Weekly

World Ocean Explorer: A Virtual Aquarium and Exploration Experience

An ambitious new project to create a free virtual aquarium and ocean exploration experience centered around STEM-based ocean literacy for students ages 10 and up

If you ask most oceanographers and marine scientists of my generation how they became aware of and committed to their life’s work the answer seems always to come back to the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, the first and still unrivaled television account of the exploration of the ocean worldwide, broadcast in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, so personally communicated by Cousteau, enabled by the technology of scuba and underwater camera that changed the perception of the ocean for a generation.

That magic has continued in the form of many similar documentary products that has sustained indeed amplified interest to the point that marine science and ocean exploration have continued to grow with specific vocational interest and general public fascination. The growth of aquariums around the world during the ensuing decades is also a most remarkable outcome of this impetus. In the US alone, there are some 50 aquariums of various sizes with attendance numbering in the tens of millions. These are viewed as conservation, educational, entertainment and economic development drivers and are designed to provide access to ocean creatures, to understand ocean processes, and to use the tools of display, audio-visual technologies, special curricula, and the on-sight experience to stimulate and explain the vast ocean world. Most of us have no real encounter with the ocean at all; some of us have the privilege of access on a rare vacation; some of us must accept the aquarium as the best reality available.

The manned submersible which will take users on dives to a polar sea, a tropical coral reef, a hydrothermal vent, an environmental disaster site, or a submerged cultural artifact. Users can maneuver to observe, to collect samples and data, and export findings for the classroom.

Beyond television, the Internet has also become a means to provide access to the underwater world. Various private research organizations are now making their research expeditions available, sometimes in real time, through internet broadcasts streamed to screens tablets and phones. In addition, other underwater vehicles, robots and fixed research technology are enabling public access to data and visualization that was impossible even a few years ago. In many cases this distribution of ocean information is accompanied by a personal narration: the voice of the scientist or operator describing and exclaiming, much as Cousteau did to humanize the experience.

What’s next? How can we maximize the technology, organize the information, and present it in a format that is open to all participants, structured for teaching and learning, and maintaining the enthusiasm for knowing and feeling the miracle of the ocean world?

Last week, the W2O launched a crowdfunding campaign for the completion of a virtual aquarium and exploration experience. Called WORLD OCEAN EXPLORER, it combines a simulated visit to an aquarium that displays creatures that physical aquaria cannot, linked to detailed scientific explanation. Further linked to STEM-based standards for ocean literacy. It also recreates a submersible vehicle that any participant can maneuver to observe, to collect samples and data, and to research various ocean habitats: coral reefs, a deep ocean vent, an underwater accident, or a submerged cultural artifact for example.


It is not as sensual or vivid as being in the ocean itself; it is not of the physical scale of a 400 million dollar aquarium space, but it will cost nothing to enter, and it will provide comparable information and simulation of an expeditionary experience available to classrooms, home schools, environmental organizations, other educational institutions, and curious individuals worldwide. It will be a virtual aquarium without glass walls, without fees, and without the physical and programmatic limitations of aquariums that have gone before. It will be a powerful educational, and informational tool for public engagement. Above all, it will be a democratic place, as wide, deep and dynamic as the ocean itself. We are inviting each of you to help us build it, by going to our Kickstarter campaign and to make a contribution in any amount to our construction goal. It will be your aquarium, your expedition, your science, your experience, your investment. I urge you to join WORLD OCEAN EXPLORER; together as world ocean aquanauts we can share the wisdom, promise, and magic of the ocean and its connection to us all.

Learn more and support EXPLORER today by visiting our Kickstarter campaign


WORLD OCEAN EXPLORER is an educational gaming experience, free for use in the classroom and at home by ocean enthusiasts ages 10 and up. Simulate a walk through a deep ocean aquarium, find marine species rarely seen; engage with ocean systems; click through to educational content and curriculum; and board a manned submersible for exploration of a variety of ocean environments. Aboard the submersible, complete goal-driven mission scenarios or conduct free-play explorations. Choose a locale: a polar sea, a tropical coral reef, a hydrothermal vent at the deepest depths of the ocean, a shipwreck on the seafloor, an oil spill at an offshore rig…all the while gathering samples and data for use in the classroom! <<LEARN MORE>>

Biomimicry: Providing a Framework for the Future

As I consider this new year, 2018, I wonder about the ocean agenda, its substance, momentum, and role as a solution to so many challenges faced by the world. We are living in a retrogressive political time, with a deliberate strategy for reversal, indeed, for the dismantling of the environmental progress we have made since the mid-1970s when individuals, organizations, and governments realized that indiscriminate growth in the name of consumption was despoiling the glories and utilities of Nature. We have come so far, only on the threshold of another year to understand that all that progress is to be willfully denied and subverted unless we stand up and resist in the name of ourselves, our communities, and our ensuing generations.

While reading this morning I came upon this thought: optimism is an ethic, not an attitude. I confess I had never thought of my personal bias toward the optimistic perspective was anything more than an innate condition. But this statement made me understand that it is more than just a world view, rather as a certainty with compelling moral dimension. The realization gave me both pause and strength as I continue to search for the framework by which to outline the shifts in value, structure, and behavior regarding the ocean, freshwater, and all the inherent derivative benefits for food, energy, health, security, community, and civil engagement among the peoples of the earth, indeed for the future of human survival. That is we do at the World Ocean Observatory: we advocate for the sustainable ocean through responsible science, cultural insights, education, and public engagement.

The framework I now believe is correct and logical is based on Life’s Principles as identified by the Design Lens of Biomimicry 3.8, an organization dedicated to “learning from the natural world for solutions, solved in the context of the earth-life’s genius.” What this vision does is provide an architecture for responding to our present situation by emulating natural processes as based on the following nine principles:

~ Nature runs on sunlight
~ Natures uses only the energy it needs
~ Nature fits form to function
~ Nature recycles everything
~ Nature rewards cooperation
~ Nature banks on diversity
~ Nature demands local expertise
~ Nature curbs excesses from within
~ Nature taps the power of limits

Each of these is a quiet but absolute contradiction of our past principles as constructed post-Industrial Revolution and the presumption that humankind is superior to Nature and can manipulate it at will through extraction, pollution, and exhaustion. Well, look where that has gotten us. We’re so smart that we have with premeditation and method poisoned our land, impoverished our population, and subverted our highest aspirational values by greed, inequity, and indifference. It is a sorry plight, and it’s time to reject this system categorically lest we put our entire being in jeopardy.

If you think about the Biomimicry Principles, however, you can sense an obvious path forward using the best of our hopes and achievements, though the power, efficiency, and right economy of the natural world — through the use of the sun, through limited consumption, through re-design of our questions and answers, through the re-cycling/re-use of everything we make, through cooperating not exploiting one another, through self-regulation of our unrestrained and subversive excesses, and through the understanding that limited growth in the name of sustainability is the way forward out of the historic morass in which we are now imprisoned into a world conducive to harmony and life.

What the Biomimicry Life Principles provide is a new vocabulary for us to understand the virtues of Nature that we can adopt as guidelines for adapting our bankrupt conventions to new convictions, organizations, and actions. As the World Ocean Observatory considers next steps for the ocean, we will do so within this new framework, relying on the ocean and her systems to lead us. And we will surely apply a tenth compelling Principle by asking: Is it beautiful?

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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 also hosts World Ocean Radio, the weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Roads and the Future of the Arctic

The Arctic is distant and impenetrable. Its place in the world, like its sister pole to the South, is to be apart. The people who, uniquely, inhabit the north have long lived within parameters of separation, from a world history that has unfolded manically below them, a stasis frozen in time and indifferent to the noise of civilization. In that vast silence, over centuries, they have adapted and devised a wisdom of how to live in harsh places. Theirs in an inner-directed society, based on survival; with animals enduring there alongside, providing, through perseverance and good hunting, food, water, energy, clothing, medicine, and other materials by which to shelter and thrive.

A 2017 report on transportation prepared by the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Canada is entitled The Sea is our Highway and argues unequivocally “that life in the Arctic is dependent on movement,” freedom that enables inhabitants to move and exploit the richness to sustain generations. No one can argue that it was, and remains, nothing but a hard life, but it was their life celebrated by achievement and rich cultural traditions passed through generations. In essence, the sea ice was the first Arctic road down which this history traveled.

The larger world found the place apart nonetheless — the arrival of explorers and scientists who appropriated their findings for themselves in the form of knowledge exported to the lecture halls and natural history museum of Europe and the United States. These were followed by the exploiters, looking for wealth as gold or oil or fish, indifferent to social consequence in the intruded places.

The 1974 construction of the Alaskan Dalton Highway that connected the oil fields of the Arctic to the processing and consuming machines to the south was a transformative moment. The engineering perseverance of building such a link across such a vast and unwelcoming landscape was well-compensated by the facility that followed: tanker trucks, and pipelines, that descended from the north to the big consuming engine to the south, crossing and disrupting habitats, animal migration routes, and the stability of indigenous society. As with the Caribbean and Africa, these were de facto connections of colonization, designed to take away the spoils while bringing new values, co-opted governance, disease, drugs, alcohol, marginalization, broken communities, and disrupted traditions. All in all, this second road seems in retrospect much like a one-way street.

This year, a third road was completed by virtue of a 128-kilometer extension between Inuvik, an administration hub and largest town in Canada’s Western Arctic, that reaches Tuktoyaktuk, a small village of 900 on the shore of the Bering Sea. But this one is perhaps different. According to Cyropolitics, a very informative series of blog entries by Mia Bennett, an author and dedicated Arctic observer, that through her conversations with the residents of these towns, “it became clear that the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is, at its heart, a local project. The new link… is a result of years of tireless, strategic lobby by members of the Inuvailuit community, one of the indigenous peoples living on the lands that the highway cuts across.” Bennett suggests, “their project was really about building a road between two communities in order to provide much-needed jobs, stimulate economic activity, and hopefully lower the prices of things like groceries and fuel.” The distinction here is that, while the funds and intentions might be defined by distant government aspirations, the actual road was supported, built, and used for the benefit of the people who actually live in the region.

But here’s a cautionary note: with the possibility, yet again, of permitting oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, we are faced with these constructs as “roads to resources” and all the good — and bad — that has been shown to entail.

The saddest aspect of this story of Arctic roads is the present day rapid melting of the sea ice, the first road that connects across the Arctic in multiple directions and multi-layered dimensions of meaning. No matter the success of roads two and three, if the first road is gone, how much will be lost, and how can those people survive in a place now again apart?

This essay first appeared as a audio episode on World Ocean Radio. Peter Neill is host and author.

How Do We Fix Major Ocean Problems?

Some estimates suggest that if we recycled all the plastic on earth today, we would never have to make another piece of plastic again…

I have a good friend who sends me links to technical ideas directed at fixing major ocean problems such as acidification, plastic trash, and pollutants in our air and sea that represent clear and present danger to global health and security. These ideas are mostly big geo-engineering proposals – iron filings to adjust ocean pH, harvest of the enormous islands of plastic bottles and other debris found in the Pacific and most recently in the Caribbean, or huge air handlers to suck in and filter large volumes of air to cleanse them of detrimental emissions, the output of the burning of coal and oil to meet the increasing demand for global energy no matter what the source. Indeed, recent news reports indicate that the use of such fossil fuels continues to reach record levels, indifferent to the rapid shift to less polluting alternatives.

These friendly exchanges ask that I think again about my own ideas about such things, and to articulate the arguments that counter their practicality – mostly the extraordinary demands of scale and capital costs invested in strategies that have no certain outcome and may exacerbate the problems as much as solve them. It is a good exercise, but it brings me back again and again to our propensity to fix things by actions that do not address the root cause of the problem at hand and may indeed have even worse consequences than the original situation presents.

It is also qood to ask, who benefits from these ideas? Simply the enthusiastic engineers and inventors and investors who will bet on the next big thing? Or perhaps those with vested interest in the existing system who see any distraction or simplistic hypothetical as a means to prolong the effect, and profits, of the status quo?

What bothers me most about this is the resolve not to address the problem itself at its source.

Over the past two decades we have been well aware of the destructive public health consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. The debate has been serious and intense, to the point that we have engaged in military adventures to protect or possess oil and gas reserves abroad, advanced technologies such as fracking to poisonous effect as a means to extend the value of the resources we already have, bend our geopolitical agenda and behavior in support of policies and actions directly against our long-term benefit, and attempt to undermine alternative technologies even when they are proved economical and transformative.

So let’s look at what might be a simpler, more direct, point source to solution to some of these issues. With regard to acidification and toxins in air and water, the best possible action would be to regulate or stop such emissions altogether and pursue new, proven technologies such as solar or geothermal energy production that is already providing clean, economical power for many individual homes and factories, some prescient cities, and indeed, some nations. If the United States wanted true energy independence, it would emphasize and incentivize aggressive change over to such technology at every level. As have been suggested, what if we built large-scale solar farms on public lands, using public funds for construction and connection to a new “smart” grid distribution system? Some estimates suggest that such a strategy would provide every erg of energy required for an expanding US economy with a return on investment that would far exceed the profits of the recalcitrant energy companies fearful of change. What if we just accept that our existing system is strategically bankrupt and financially counter-productive, holding our economy and employment back, and make a revolutionary shift to the future using knowledge and capital readily available if we decide to invest it?

And what about plastics? Well, there may be a short-term benefit is harvesting and re-cycling plastic waste where it is available in large concentration – at sea or at the local dump – and recycle? What holds us back from that action now? Presumably price. But who benefits from the need to make more and more plastics? Right, the fossil fuel industry. Some estimates suggest that if we recycled all the plastic on earth today, we would never have to make another piece of plastic again. Or, what if we simply stopped buying plastic containers for our products and water, and used recycled paper containers instead? What’s the difference other than a re-allocation of investment to support a better alternative? Indeed, such products exist but are circumscribed in the market because there is no public groundswell for a fresh, less polluting, new employment, practical idea.

Finally, there is the role of the individual as the most common denominator in the market. If we boycott plastic, shift our investments in regressive product and production, legislate against it use as is being done in many locales, and demand alternatives in all instances against the continuing ill-effect of associated toxic waste and pollutants, we can take back our air and water and health and governance from those who do not have our best interest at heart.

We are the ultimate geo-engineers; we are the point men and women; we are the ultimate solution.

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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, our weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Who Owns The Economic Rights to Arctic Resources?

Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker YAMAL. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, an ice-breaking tanker carried a single, symbolic barrel of oil from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean through the Northwest Passage. This set off a lively dispute between the United States and Canada as to who owns that water. Was it a Canadian internal waterway or non-territorial ocean subject to universal right of passage? Thus began a debate focused not so much on the transportation route itself but more so on what might lie under that water in the form of exploitable resources. Suddenly, national interests were at stake.

A similar such debate was generated in the United Nations in 2007 when two Russian mini-submarines planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole near the Lomonosov Ridge which Moscow claimed was directly connected to its continental shelf and established new outer limits beyond 200 miles as a vast area rich with economic potential subject to its territorial possession. Denmark and Canada immediately responded; the Danes asserting that the ridge was an extension of Greenland and the Canadians making a comparable link to its own geology. Scholarly studies ensued, conclusions were justified, maps and documents were submitted, and the 21member UN arbitration panel took the question under advisement.

In 2007, Russia planted a titanium flag on the Arctic seafloor at the North Pole. “Our task is to remind the world that Russia is a great Arctic and scientific power,” said the leader of the expedition.

In 2014, Denmark filed its own claim for some 895,000 square kilometers in the region of the ridge, citing evidence of geological movements from the late Paleozoic, Paleocene, and Eocene eras many thousands of years ago that presumably were exclusive enough to preclude the Russians from at least some part of the vast area for claim. There was talk of negotiation and partition, perhaps a dividing of the spoils. However, in August of 2017, the Russians announced that in the next session of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf they would again file a revised bid as a result of changing membership, new appointees who might be persuaded by better arguments. The Russian Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying that the Russians were looking for “recognition of exclusive economic rights to about 460,000 square miles, estimated to hold five billion tons of hitherto unexploited oil and gas”. The Telegraph continued, “Vladimir Putin has described the Arctic as a region of Russian ‘special interest,” and has expanded military presence in the high north to secure it claims in the region. The Russian government plans to spend 2.8 billion pounds on Arctic development between 2015 and 2020.” Meanwhile in the Arctic Council, the group of nations contiguous with the Arctic, the conversations continue, genial and general, as if this underlying tension does not exist as an expression of geo-political conflict can undermine it all. Stay tuned.

Sometimes, national aspirations can appear positively absurd. For example, at the Arctic Circle meeting in 2015, Brazil hosted a break-out session to discuss its claim for Arctic involvement. When I asked what was the legal or logical principle on which their argument was based, I was told that “the fish migrate from Brazil water to the Arctic and return, thus they represent a connection by which we justify our claim.” The presence of Brazilian fish, it would seem, is comparable to a geological connection of land mass formed over eons of time, But what if the fish were Arctic? Would that justify an Arctic claim on Brazilian resources, its oil and gas, minerals, and fisheries? I am afraid I asked the follow-up question to no reply.*1Vz53BetUikE9Q1czmhn0A.jpeg

Source: Wang Qian, China Daily

And then there’s China. At the past Arctic Circle meetings in Iceland, the Chinese have arrived in full force with a major policy statement, new research initiatives, aggressive icebreaker construction program, and other insinuated actions that signal they are players in the future Arctic whether or not they have a territorial claim. This energy and financial investment is intimidating when you realize the limits of other national engagement and the challenge to budgets, particularly in the United States where financing for scientific research, environmental studies, and other Arctic investments are being curtailed. It is amazing to watch how the Chinese presence and American withdrawal have changed the levels of influence in all aspects of the Arctic conversation.

When you consider all the time, energy, skill, and funds tied up in these machinations you being to question where the true interest lies. The imbalance of investment becomes clear, and that clarity informs the true agenda of all the players, either to expand or defend access they already have and to assure their part of the spoils should all the best intentions fail and the Arctic become an area that no one nation, no international agency, no collective of cooperative interests, or no court of law can protect.

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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, our weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.