The Sea of Hope and Future of Marine Conservation: A Conversation with Owen Pyle and Chloe Wetzler

by Chloe Wetzler

Anyone lucky enough to attend EarthEcho’s Youth Leadership Summit during the summer of 2020 may remember Owen Pyle from the screening and panel discussion on the Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures documentary. Owen is featured in the documentary alongside the legendary Dr. Sylvia Earle and his father, ichthyologist and deep-sea diver, Dr. Richard Pyle. Sea of Hope was released in 2017 and is now streaming on Disney+ for anyone who has not yet seen the documentary. Over the holidays, I interviewed Owen about what has changed since the making and release of Sea of Hope — both in the world of marine conservation as well as his own life.

Owen Pyle diving on O’ahu. Credit: Richard Pyle

First, I was surprised to learn that joining his father in the filming of Mission Blue’s documentary in 2016 was one of Owen’s first major forays into the marine world. I would have guessed that growing up in Hawai’i and having two marine biology buffs for parents would mean a whole childhood spent diving, snorkeling, and exploring the ocean. Yet, Owen explained that his parents wanted him and his sister to find their own passions and tried not to push them into anything in particular. He also noted that the waters right off the main islands are not the pristine marine paradise many people, who have never been to Hawai’i, imagine them to be. This fallacy, unfortunately, is the result of environmental degradation from heavy tourism and high population density.

Thus, when he had the opportunity to dive on reefs off of Lehua and Midway Atoll for the film it was an incredibly eye-opening experience. These smaller islands are farther from the concentrated human influence of the main islands, so their reefs are impressive and flourishing. Not only was the wildlife amazing, but so was being around such a knowledgeable, curious, and truly passionate leader — Dr. Sylvia Earle. Owen described how “infectious” her love for the ocean is. He also reflected that after traveling with a National Geographic film crew, the prospect of returning to routine tenth-grade life was pretty dull. Not only that, but once he understood how urgent marine conservation was, he had trouble devoting energy to courses that were seemingly unrelated — and thus unimportant. So, he is very grateful that his mother, a teacher, convinced him that finishing out high school strong was key to being able to attend college and pursue his goals.

An Ocean-loving Engineer
Jump forward to 2021, Owen is studying mechanical engineering at Cal Poly. Mechanical engineering is not a field I immediately associate with ocean lovers; but Owen plans on using mechanical engineering to expand the possibilities of deep-sea research and exploration. He also expressed that while he enjoys taking part in events like beach clean-ups, he is drawn to more systematic, comprehensive approaches to addressing the climate crisis. Not that isolated restoration efforts are unimportant, just that they alone cannot accomplish large-scale change. Finally, engineering allows him to capitalize on his strengths in math and science while working towards marine conservation goals.

This is a really mature outlook. Often, younger teens forget that people in any field can create a meaningful change for our planet. Becoming an expert in environmental science or marine biology is not the only viable career path to protect the ocean. Each of us can find our own niche — just like the diversity of species in the ocean. In fact, an interdisciplinary effort can tackle the issue from multiple angles, which is important considering that climate change has contributing factors across all disciplines. Thus, when making education or career choices, looking for the intersection between conservation, advocacy, or environmental education and a certain skill-set or passion you have can be a good place to start. For example, while Owen wants to design the equipment and technology which would broaden deep-sea research capabilities, I want to go into the policy side of conservation to establish more Marine Protected Areas and subsidize renewables to slow the greenhouse effect. Thus, the same passion for protecting the planet and marine life can fuel different actions based on peoples’ unique skills and interests.

Addressing the Environmental Crisis
I love the metaphor Owen and his father use to explain different approaches to the climate crisis and its implications on biodiversity. They suggest thinking of biodiversity, or all of the species on the planet, as books in the Library of Congress. Like books, each species is a valuable source of information. Individual species give scientists insight into topics like the history of evolution or the universal genetic code. Right now, that library is up in flames; so, the logical response is to be a firefighter or a reader.

The firefighters try to put out the flames or solve the problem. In terms of climate change, this could include spreading awareness about the importance of conservation, advocating for a carbon tax, or constructing renewable energy operations to reduce carbon emissions. The readers, on the other hand, try to absorb all the information possible before the books burn.

Owen’s father, a scientist and deep-sea explorer is trying to read all the books, or species, he can before they disappear forever. While sad, unfortunately, this image is accurate. Dr. Richard Pyle focuses on the section of the ocean called the Mesophotic Zone. This stratum ranges between 200 and 600 ft. and its name translates to “middle light”. Here he has discovered and documented hundreds of new fish species. Now, I am a certified open-water diver but usually only venture to about 60 ft. below the ocean’s surface and use a traditional regulator. I make one safety stop, at about 15 ft. for 3 minutes, on my ascent, but the rest of my time can be spent at 60 ft. This is very different than the protocol for a deeper dive. Going further down comes with additional obstacles because of the increased pressure and how it interacts with the chemical composition of air and the human body.

Dr. Richard Pyle on a Poseidon rebreather. Credit: Luiz Rocha

Owen explained that on a closed-circuit rebreather, the apparatus used for deeper dives (and shown in the photograph above), divers have limited time to spend at their deep, target depths. Often this allows only 10–15 minutes to collect data, which compared to the several hours they must consequently spend at the surface for decompression, is clearly quite inefficient. This limit is only true due to current technology and is something Owen wants to change.

He has a vision for complexes analogous to the International Space Station but underwater for deep-ocean researchers. These could have special pressurized chambers which could allow divers to stay down longer in the Mesophotic Zone, where the ocean has been studied least. Or to continue the metaphor, to be able to read more burning books. He also detailed the potential of human researchers working with robots or submersibles. Some ROVs, remotely operated vehicles, have 3D bathymetry — a technology that maps the topography beneath the surface of bodies of water. Technology like this can scope out areas worth sending researchers down to explore, thus increasing their efficiency.

Mesophotic coral ecosystem guide (source: Richard Pyle)

The challenges of deep-sea diving merit solutions because of the value of knowledge about our ocean. There is substantial evidence suggesting a healthy ocean is going to be one of the most powerful weapons we have against the effects of climate change. Owen referenced the 30x30 campaign that EarthEcho International, along with many other environmental organizations, governments, scientists, and youth leaders are promoting. He explained that while it is important to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, the specific 30% we protect is just as decisive. This is because some ecosystems are more critical than others, based on the species they support.

Another really cool concept Owen introduced was dynamic parks. Instead of the traditionally fixed Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, key regions could be protected only during part of the year. These would shift based on factors like animal migration routes, the seasons, or population health. This could help increase the total amount of marine areas that are protected but allow for fishing and other economic activity during specified periods of the year. Though he points out that this can only be accomplished successfully with sufficient knowledge of the areas and the ecosystems affected. Again, another reason to support further research into marine ecosystems.

Looking to the Future

Photo from the Sea of Hope premiere in Washington D.C. (From left, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Gary Knell (former National Geographic CEO), Owen, and Dr. Richard Pyle holding Toisanodes obama, a species of fish endemic to Papahanaumokuakea named in honor of the President after he expanded the monument. Credit: National Geographic

My favorite moment in the documentary is the triumph when Former President Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2016. For scale, it is now more than double the area of Texas. Owen described how thrilled everyone was when they heard the news before the film’s premiere. I was very pleased to find that this protected area was not reduced during the Trump administration. MPAs are a fantastic policy solution because they take advantage of nature’s own healing and regenerative powers. MPAs do not involve expensive infrastructure or controversial geoengineering like other proposed climate change mitigation strategies. One drawback of MPAs is they can be tricky to regulate given their commonly remote locations and sheer size. However, Owen revealed another technological solution to address this: using satellites already in orbit to monitor protected regions.

The ideas Owen and other conservation-minded engineers have for the future highlight just a few ways in which the ocean can be a source of hope for us as we tackle the effects of a changing climate. Remembering that the documentary’s title is Sea of Hope, I asked Owen how he has managed to stay hopeful despite the long and arduous process that is protecting nature today. I was eager to hear his response as I often struggle with feeling hopeless due to the overwhelming apathy and inaction I see in our government and industries. Our politicians have been aware of climate change and the resulting threats for decades — so education is not the hindrance here. It is lobbying from fossil fuel companies and other major corporations who stand to benefit from continued disregard for the environment. This is especially disappointing because climate change is not just an environmental issue but an ethical one. The consequences of climate change are going to alter the quality of life for many, but these effects are not going to be spread equally. Sea level rise is not uniform across coastlines, nor are the anticipated temperature and precipitation changes. Some areas expected to be hit the hardest have contributed the least to the greenhouse effect and not every person has the financial ability to cope with changing conditions.
In reply, Owen quoted Dr. Sylvia Earle’s, “No child left dry” motto. He shares her belief that if more people experienced the majesty of the ocean, we would see increased support for marine conservation. He realizes that this is tough especially for people who don’t live close to a coast, which is one reason why documentaries like Sea of Hope can help increase accessibility to the ocean and coral reefs in a virtual sense. Even if access to water is out of the question, getting outside, or in touch with nature, will invigorate one’s fight for the environment. Going back to the sentiments he felt after filming, Owen reiterated that being a full-time student during this climate crisis can cause some feelings of shame and frustration. It can be difficult to accept that as students we cannot devote all our energy to saving the planet. This is not because we are abandoning our goals, but because we recognize protecting nature to the best of our ability, entails acquiring skills and qualifications in school as well as continuing to learn about the complexities behind conservation politics and environmental justice. So while today Owen might be studying for engineering exams, he can maintain his motivation because ultimately he is striving toward a better future for the ocean.

I came away from our conversation feeling uplifted and reassured. I had never heard of dynamic parks, 3D bathymetry, nor dreamed of an underwater station for deep-sea researchers. It is encouraging to hear about new ideas because it reveals how many opportunities we have for action. It also reminds me that even when things in the government and industry arena look bleak, there are people, non-profits, and grassroots groups who care about the future of our planet and ocean. This is a similar sentiment to the one I get after our EarthEcho conferences! Finally, the fact that I learned so much speaking to a fellow college student is amazing. So other young ocean-lovers, take note: do not be afraid to start taking action! Owen encourages teens to be vocal about environmental issues and to get involved. Volunteering and spreading awareness are direct, helpful actions young environmentalists can take today while still in school. Being a student and an ocean activist are not mutually exclusive! Climate change is going to influence the course of our lives, so each and every one of us deserves to be heard and have a place in the fight for a better future.

Chloe Wetzler is a third-year student at the University of Virginia double majoring in Environmental Thought and Practice and Spanish Literature. She is a Senior Water Challenge Ambassador for EarthEcho International and grew up in Virginia Beach where she first fell in love with the Ocean. Chloe hopes to pursue a career in Environmental Policy to protect marine ecosystems and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Owen Pyle is a third-year mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly. He grew up in Kaneohe, Hawaii and has always liked the outdoors. However, he really became passionate about ocean conservation and research when he got to travel with the National Geographic film crew for the Sea of Hope film in 2016.

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