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12 winners of The Ocean Awards

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Emily Penn
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Winner — FitzRoy Award: Emily Penn

For — her expeditions in 2014 and 2015 investigating the amount of plastic in the oceans

Photo of Emily Penn by Harry Cory Wright

The Ocean Awards has recognised Emily Penn with the FitzRoy Award. Named after the captain of the Beagle, on which Darwin made his famous voyage of discovery to the Galápagos, this award is for the adventurer or explorer who achieved the most to further ocean conservation in the past 12 months. 

The youngest and only female recipient of the RYA Yachtmaster of the Year, awarded by HRH the Princess Royal, Emily Penn describes herself as being “dedicated to studying environmental challenges in the most remote parts of our planet”. 

As an undergraduate studying architecture at Cambridge University she undertook an “amazing journey” across Russia, Mongolia and China to get to Shanghai to write her dissertation on “the environment and sustainability in architecture and eco cities”. The next year she travelled to Australia, “hitching rides on boats”, crossing the Atlantic, the Caribbean and Pacific, which opened her eyes to the plight of the world’s oceans. “I was seeing the collapse of fisheries, sea level rise, and just could not believe what I was seeing. And not really anything was being done about it.”

She is now director of Pangaea Exploration, an organisation with a two-part mission: to strengthen the health of marine life through exploration, conservation and education; and to inspire and develop a new generation of leaders in conservation science, communication, education, art and policy leadership. Among its main concerns are acidification, toxins in the ocean, pollution by plastics and the amount of floating debris in the world’s oceans. “Plastic is entering the ocean at prodigious rates, carrying with it all the threats of both physical and chemical pollution. The debris – toothbrushes, straws, toys, bags and unrefined pre-production material called nurdles – is accumulating all over the world’s beaches and in great concentrations at sea in areas called gyres formed by the great oceanic currents. The Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic is probably the best known of these for its ability to trap ships.

“The team is now on a mission to bring to light the much larger issue across the world’s oceans. We search out areas with higher than normal loads of garbage, as well as trawling a fine mesh net and analysing the plastic content of the trawl. The floating plastic project also includes counting debris on beaches, cataloguing the types of plastics and extrapolating the distance it must have travelled. With this we can estimate the amount of plastics covering the surface of our beaches.”

Among the recent expeditions she skippered are two dubbed “eXXpeditions”. In 2014, she took a 14-woman crew across the North Atlantic, from Lanzarote to Martinique, on a 22 metre sailing boat, Sea Dragon, “specifically designed for science”, as part of Jimmy Cornell’s Atlantic Odyssey. Last year they sailed the South Atlantic. “A team of 14 women,” she says, “scientists, activists, designers… but most importantly mothers, sisters, daughters, friends; women who hope for a healthier future.”

Highly commended — Lewis Pugh, Endurance swimmer, maritime lawyer, environmental campaigner and UN Environment Programme Patron of the Oceans

For – the completion, in February 2015, of five swims in the Antarctic, where the water temperature was -1C and the air temperature -37C. He uses the publicity he attracts to draw attention to the declining health of the world’s oceans and to encourage nations to create Marine Protection Areas.

Highly commended — James Delgado, Marine archaeologist and director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

For – helping create Marine Protected Areas around shipwrecks such as Titanic, Mary Celeste and, most recently, for persuading the NOAA to increase the size of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary by more than 250 per cent, and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary by a similar proportion.

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