How to be good to the ocean: an interview with an ocean expert

Jul 13

As a child, a day spent swimming, splashing around in water, was certainly a day like no other. More than likely, the memories of an afternoon spent at the pool or the beach, filled with burgers and birthday parties, were the highlight of past summer seasons. For many of us, a day spent in the water was a day well spent.

However, as an adult, there’s no reason why spending the day swimming can’t have a similar, rejuvenating effect.

“I think it’s kind of a fundamental aspect of us as humans. We come from the water and the water is part of us, so we definitely have a connection that I think it draws us in,” said Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza, executive director of Ocean First Institute.

McComb-Kobza is a shark biologist with a Ph.D. in integrative biology. At Ocean First Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation through enrichment and education, McComb-Kobza takes on many roles, such as advocate, scientist and educator. Her passion and dedication to the ocean and wildlife takes on many forms, which is obvious from the moment you hear her speak.

A swim at the beach, in a river, or a lake, is a summer-must and though as hard as it may be to have zero impact on the surrounding wildlife, if there is an opportunity, we encourage people to view it as a challenge to be more conscious of the places we visit. As we go into different environments, it’s crucial we recognize the sensitivity of the ecosystems. Everything we consume, from our choice of beverage container, to the lotions and screen protectors we rub on our bodies, has a direct impact on the future of the ocean.

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In the following Q&A, McComb-Kobza talks to Klee about the significance of the ocean, minimizing impacts and swimming with—you guessed it—Great white sharks. Read on to learn more:

Why is it beneficial for people to go to the beach? To go out and spend time in water?

Our connection to water is so important, I think we all kind of crave the water and to be next to the water. There’s a guy you might want to look up, Wallace J. Nichols. He wrote a book called Blue Mind. His whole idea is that by being near water, it helps us rewire our brain and gives us an instant calm that connects us. We come from the water, that’s our home. When we’re babies, inside our mothers, we’re in water. There’s just a primal, natural connection to water. I think it’s calming. It’s something that we crave, it’s in us. I think spending time by the water has a relaxing element to it. I just feel like when people go to the water, they get something out of it. You can spend time with your family, you can connect and slow down. You can look at each other, put phones down, have real connections with each other. It’s just a time to just stop and connect.

We’re in the midst of summer and people are looking to cool off, maybe at a river, lake or a beach. Can you tell us the ways in which our visits impact the environment?

I think one of the concerns that has come full circle now is we are a convenience society now and we rely so much on having everything accessible and easy. When we visit the beach, a lot of times we take things with us that we maybe shouldn’t. We leave behind a lot of things we shouldn’t. I think that’s one of the things that we’re seeing now, it’s that our impact on the rivers and oceans are just huge. When we go to the beach, that’s one of the things I would try to encourage people to consider, to take everything you bring with you, to make sure you take it back with you. When we do cleanups, we find so much. It’s just staggering and pretty unbelievable.

What are some of the ways people can minimize that impact?

Some researchers have discovered that sunscreen products, unbeknownst to all of us, have been impacting the health of coral reefs, which are the apartment homes for basically all the fish and other organisms down there. That’s a big one. A lot of companies have embraced mineral sunscreen and those that don’t have harmful chemicals in them. We definitely recommend reef-safe products and there are a lot to choose from now, which is great, we just need to do a little bit of research. It is so critical for people to know when they’re slathering a lot of chemicals on and then go right back into the water immediately.

I can tell you firsthand. I was doing research on sea turtles in Akumal, Mexico, and it’s an area where the tourists come in every day in a number of about 300. They would go out and sunscreen up and then back in the water. After years of this happening, they started to see the decline of seagrass and the nearby coral reef. [It was] from the sunscreen and having many people in the water. The turtles started to move out and the health of the system deteriorated. What we put on really matters.

An easy solution is to wear a rash guard. That’s what I do when I go out into the water. I wear a long sleeve rash guard and then you don’t have to worry about sunscreen. Well you put it on your face, but you don’t have to put it all over your body. There are workarounds, things that you can do that are so easy to try to help. It kind of leads into a whole other mindset that I think is vital in thinking about not only what you bring into the water on your body, but also what goes into the watershed. Thinking about when we’re at home and thinking critically about the things we put down the drain. Even things that we pass from our own bodies. It’s fascinating to think about the estrogen that comes out of our bodies when we go to the bathroom. It doesn’t get filtered out at the water treatment plant and that goes right out into the environment. We’re seeing some alteration of frogs and fish from all these excess chemicals going into the environment. Heart attack pills, erectile dysfunction medication – those hormones have a massive impact on wildlife and we’re just now starting to discover that.

What do you feel like gets overlooked or forgotten in a marine environment? We think of the ocean as a whole, are there any elements that you think people forget about or don’t even think about?

I think one of the important things to consider, and I can use Florida, as a really good example, I lived there for over 20 years. In Florida, everything is connected. You have an area that has been developed over the last 50 years and you know it used to be that Florida was a wetland that had flow of water all the way from the Everglades south into Florida Bay, which is a seagrass meadow and out from the islands of Florida Keys, onto the reef, so it was a very dynamic working system and as we started to develop Florida and bring in channels, started to fertilize crops that we were building and putting out into the Everglades, we started to change the very nature of the flow of the water and the content in the water.

That bad water quality that occurred in the channel dramatically impacted the seagrass and the coral reef system. It was extreme. That’s something that I think is important to consider. It’s a system that’s all interrelated. Even the water in Colorado can impact the ocean. Who would have ever thought that that would be possible?

When we talk about the ocean, we talk about the fact we need to change our habits. Considering that, are there are any changes that are positively influencing the way we care about the ocean?

It’s all about awareness and education. In an area like Boulder, Colorado, a lot of the people I’m surrounded by think a lot about the environment, about the outdoors. When you are in that kind of environment, it’s kind of a spillover effect. You start thinking about “Am I getting plastic forks and knives with every meal? Am I recycling? Am I getting plastics straws that I use for 10 minutes or less and then throw away?” I think there is a way to change behaviors and I think it comes through individuals and from businesses. I think they bear the responsibility of the industry. Having a big company like McDonald’s say “We’re not going to have plastic straws anymore.” There are many different approaches to the issue and problem and there are many solutions. I think the industry that is creating all the waste should also be responsible for coming up with alternatives, and there are alternatives, they just need to be implemented and there needs to be a real understanding of the cost, that the cost is worth bearing to switch over from these very cheap plastics.

How can people become better stewards of the ocean?

I think education is really paramount and getting people to understand the issue and that there are gyres of trash out there, swirling in our ocean because we’re being careless. Understanding the problem is the first step. Then coming up with ways to embrace solutions. Becoming a better steward, I think, is understanding the issue but I think it’s also falling in love with the ocean. You have to love something and understand it in order to protect and preserve it. I think for us at the Institute, we want to get people connected to nature. Young people connected to the ocean and what’s happening so that they feel a connection. Because if you don’t have a connection, I don’t think you’re ever going to care and you’re never going to try to make a difference. I feel that connection piece is just so critical.

What has the breathtaking thing you’ve seen under water while on the job?

I’m a shark researcher, that’s my passion. I’m a fanatic, when it comes to sharks. I have been able to be underwater with Great white sharks and to see a Great white shark come out of the beautiful blue where you don’t see them, then you can start to kind of see their form coming out of the blue. To be able to see them and to have them swim by you, to be able to see that animal that you know has such a long history on our planet as a predator – is a tough predator – to be able to look them in the eye and to just see them in the wild is breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking. What you take away from it is that there is an intelligence there, there is a curiosity behind that eye and there is a real struggle to survive, to make a living underwater is hard. They’ve gotta eat, they’ve gotta mate, they’ve gotta find food. It’s not easy. You look at that animal and you could appreciate all that is happening and that it’s not easy to make it through the day. Just a lot of awe.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I feel like it’s an important time right now for people to really care, to stand up for wildlife. I think we’re in an interesting climate right now, politically. I feel like it’s really important for people to develop empathy and really understand that it’s not just our planet, we share it with so many other species. We just have to move beyond ourselves and look at things a little differently.  

Guadalupe Triana Guadalupe is the Lead Content Creator for Klee. She is a writer based in Austin, TX and enjoys talking about all kinds of music, social justice and protecting the environment. In her spare time, she enjoys a strong whiskey sour and writing with a reliable ink pen.