As a skincare company based on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, the ocean is always present in our thoughts and close to our hearts. In honor of World Ocean's Day, we spoke with Shayna Brody, the Director of Media & Communications for the Waitt Institute, to learn about her organization's work to conserve our oceans, hear about her travels to island countries around the world, and best of all - share her stunning photos of marine wildlife.
In Conversation With: Shayna Brody
Describe the NGO you work for, and your role within it
I am the Director of Media and Communications for an ocean conservation non-profit called the Waitt Institute. We work with island countries around the world, specifically with the Azores, Barbuda, Bermuda, Curaçao, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, the Maldives, Samoa, and Tonga. Our ultimate goal is to protect at least 30% of the oceans worldwide while working to benefit people, communities, and the local economy.
We work with island nations around the world, so a highlight of my job is visiting diverse places, getting to learn from brilliant people working on ocean conservation, and being immersed in each vibrant culture, environment, and history. When I’m in the field you can find me flying a drone collecting aerial footage, in a government meeting, filming a media interview, planning and running events, or scuba diving to get underwater photos and videos. When I’m in the office, I could be writing a media strategy, editing a video, drafting a press release, or designing a poster. All of these work towards increasing the awareness and action to protect the ocean.
No matter where you are in the world - the ocean is a key part of your life. Every other breath you take comes from the ocean. The ocean regulates our climate, it puts food on our plates, and it’s home to incredible life that we are only beginning to understand. Protecting the ocean is protecting ourselves. This is truly a critical moment in history where we have a small window in time to make some big changes to protect our planet before it’s too late, and we’re one of the organizations working to make those changes.
What if any are some of the unique challenges that climate change/unsustainable extraction practices/marine pollution in general pose to island communities?
The unfortunate reality is that island nations are usually the first to feel the effects of human-caused impacts like climate change and plastic pollution, but they are among the lowest contributors to those problems. These countries are not responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing unprecedented storms and hurricanes, rising seas, and warming waters, nor are they producing the plastic pollution that is overtaking their pristine beaches.
While every country I work with is completely unique, islands around the world are all facing these problems. The people we work with are so capable of creating solutions but don’t always have the capacity or platform to make big changes on the global stage. These places rely on their ocean for their economy, often through tourism and fishing. With the pandemic halting tourism for the past two years, countries were left without steady sources of income pushing small countries further into debt to larger countries. This cycle strong-arms small countries like islands to rely on income from unsustainable extractive practices like overfishing or seabed mining. Through my work, we are hoping to protect ocean spaces while also helping countries diversify their economies in sustainable ways so that they are more resilient to our changing world.
Can you share some of the most profound or impactful experiences you've had in the ocean?
To me, being underwater is like being transported to a different planet. Coral reefs seem like bustling alien cities or Dr. Seuss books that have come to life. Every experience I have in the ocean is transformative in some way.
One of the most memorable moments I’ve had in the ocean was in the Maldives. I had been on a scientific expedition to study coral reefs for over a month - we were diving every day, which is fun but can get tiring. It was our last night before leaving, and around 11:30 pm we heard a bell ring on the boat. We knew this only meant one thing, a whale shark, the biggest fish on the planet, had come to our boat! When we ran to the edge of the boat, we learned it was not one, but four! We were able to encounter these giant beings, one of which was at least 25 feet long, watching them peacefully glide around the darkness. It was so eerie and magical, I’ll never forget it.
I was recently in Palau - a small island country in the Western Pacific Ocean, the landscape there truly feels like you’ve walked into a screensaver, islands carpeted in tropical plants rise out of a pale clear blue ocean full of multicolor fish. In the middle of one of these islands, is a rare saltwater lake that is connected to the tides. Thousands of years ago, a few jellyfish got trapped in this lake and they have been there ever since, today there are over a million jellyfish living in the lake. They follow the sunlight around the lake throughout the day, and they have been in this lake so long they have lost their defensive stingers. Unlike their ocean counterparts, these jellyfish are harmless to touch so you can drift through a lake full of these creatures completely safely and comfortably - and it’s like floating through an actual dream. It was a true bucket list experience for me and it did not disappoint.
Are there any initiatives, organizations, individuals, or even movements that have been inspiring you or given you hope for the future of ocean conservation?
People who care about the ocean are some of the most unique, charismatic, and well-rounded people I know. I am truly in awe of the energy, passion, creativity, hope, and drive of every person I work with - and their true dedication to enjoying life along the way. It’s really inspiring to see so many people around the world responding and rising to the challenging times we’re in with strength, action, and embracing the wonderfully weird fun moments in between.
Recently I’ve gotten to spend some time with Tongan musician and songwriter Mia Kami at the Our Ocean Conference in Palau- her storytelling and vision of hope really keeps me going and is stuck in my head pretty much 24/7. Check out her song here, it’s worth it.
One of the most important movements I am a part of is the global target of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. Protecting 30% of the world’s oceans will not only protect important environments like coral reefs and mangroves but also ensure that we help to mitigate the effects of climate change, as healthy ecosystems are carbon sinks and help protect coastlines from large storms like hurricanes. Keeping parts of nature intact helps us live in harmony with the planet rather than in opposition to it.
Also, a few of my close friends work for the Surfrider Foundation - it’s a US-based organization that mobilizes grassroots efforts to protect the oceans, waves, and beaches; and preserve fair and equal access for all people to enjoy the ocean. It’s really inspiring to see a volunteer-based organization create so much momentum for change both on a local and global scale. Especially in states like California and Hawaii, the rest of the world watches how the ocean is managed and looks to these places for inspiration.
Do you have any books, documentaries, creators/scientists to follow on social, etc. that you'd recommend people check out if they're interested in ocean conservation or ocean sustainability?
I of course am a forever fan of Blue Planet documentaries, they really show the magic of the ocean. However, one thing I think is missing is compelling, accessible media that showcases the intrigue and mystery of the ocean. We know less about the bottom of the ocean than the surface of the moon, and there’s so much left to discover, but there isn’t a ton of interesting media that helps bring the human experience to the ocean.
In our parents' time, they had Jacques Cousteau, an “ocean aquanaut”, who sailed around the world having fantastic adventures centered around the ocean. These days we see a lot of documentaries that showcase amazing pristine places, or we see news stories about how we’re messing everything up, but what we don’t see is people coordinating with nature, truly enjoying it while also taking care of it. My goal is to help create media that truly tell people’s stories and brings that connection back to the ocean in a way that is gripping to the average person, no matter where they live.
But of course, there are plenty of amazing examples of people doing this work fantastically, they just don’t always reach the mainstream! That’s why I recommend you check out the Save the Waves International Ocean Film Fest, as well as the International Ocean Film Fest- both have virtual components and showcase really fantastic people stories that relate to the ocean. I also really enjoy the survival TV show ‘Alone’ which shows what it really means to live from the land and live in harmony with it, as a part of a dynamic balance with the planet.
Where can people find you, if they want to follow you and keep up with your work?
Follow along at @shaynabrody and @waittinstitute. You can learn more about my organization at waittinstitute.org and my work at shaynabrody.com