The Ocean A-List: Meet the heroes and heroines of ocean conservation

Cristina Mittermeier

Co-founder and president of SeaLegacy

Cristina Mittermeier/Paul Nicklen

With the ever-increasing threats facing the world's oceans, protection and conservation is a task for the many not the few and where the heroes and heroines of ocean conservation lead, the rest of us would do well to follow. By Olivia Falcon.

Cristina Mittermeier

Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen are both photographers and marine biologists who harness the power of the lens to show the real story about what’s going on underneath the ocean. In 2015 this talented duo launched SeaLegacy, a collective of highly acclaimed photographers and film-makers who share their images and films with scientists, conservationists, policymakers and selected media partners to spread their ocean-saving mission. This inspirational group of storytellers is on the front line and sees first hand the damage that is inflicted on marine life. “When there is an emergency, like an oil spill or a hurricane, we are able to deploy a team of photographers to the site immediately so that they can document the crisis and we can share the images with partners and the media,” says Mittermeier.

With a social media reach of more than 70 million and National Geographic as a partner, this group of snappers is punching well above its weight and proving that pictures speak louder than words.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Actor and founder of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation

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Donating his megawatt celebrity and more than $30 million to date to help advance UN climate negotiations and protect coral reefs and endangered marine life (most notably sharks and rays), Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to and passion for protecting our planet has galvanised everyone from politicians to millennials. As a keynote speaker at the Our Ocean Conference in Washington DC last year, DiCaprio reported on his first-hand experience of the horrors of coral bleaching. “I saw this with my own eyes while filming my new documentary Before the Flood. Marine scientist Jeremy Jackson led me underwater in a submersible to observe the reefs off the coast of the Bahamas. What I saw took my breath away – not a fish in sight, colourless, ghost-like coral, a graveyard.”

DiCaprio is also focusing on using innovative solutions. Tackling the problem of overfishing, his foundation has partnered with Google, SkyTruth and Oceana to launch Global Fishing Watch, a website that invites the public to track fishing vessels, with data collected by satellites, thus making fishing practices transparent, and politicians and fisheries accountable to us all. “I am consumed by this,” DiCaprio has said of his work to protect the planet. “There isn’t a couple of hours a day where I’m not thinking about it.”

Adrian Grenier

Actor and founder of the Lonely Whale Foundation

Lukas Waterman; Adam Slama

"Sadly, I became connected to the ocean late in life,” says Grenier, who set up the Lonely Whale Foundation in 2015 to develop a community of ocean advocates through education and interactive social media campaigns. “I grew up in New York City but never thought of myself as living near the ocean, even though I was. When I finally learnt to scuba dive, I quickly realised how much I had been missing.” Grenier’s new passion led him to co-produce 52: the Search for the Loneliest Whale, a documentary that chronicles the quest to find the mysterious and solitary 52 hertz whale, a mammal scientists believe calls out at a frequency that no other whale can hear.

Grenier also navigated choppy waters when he was challenged last summer by Richard Branson (pictured above) to swim the Strait of Messina to raise awareness for World Oceans Day. “My training for that race took me to waterways all over the world, from the dead zone off Mississippi, to the second largest shipping port in Singapore. I’ve seen and swum through different levels of environmental degradation of our waterways.” Grenier is mindful of his own personal choices at home, too. “My house has an open door policy to my friends and family, with one exception: no plastic bags allowed! I have also committed to saying no to plastic straws and sharing their detrimental effects on our ocean with the restaurant industry.”

Education is also at the core of the Lonely Whale’s work. “We are particularly proud of our kindergarten to fifth grade marine science-based education initiative. We’ve partnered with the Academy for Global Citizenship on the southwest side of Chicago to build a unique education initiative that is rooted in empathy [co-developed with practising scientists and marine researchers, children learn about seven sea creatures and the polluting challenges they face]," he says. “The biggest threat to our oceans right now is non-action. Our oceans are resilient but only if we take collective steps towards protecting and rebuilding them. We need to protect 30 per cent of our oceans by 2030. Today, we’ve protected just three per cent. We have a long way to go but I’m ready for the challenge and the opportunity to engage a new community of environmental leaders.”

Alexandra Cousteau

National Geographic Emerging Explorer, film-maker and founder of Blue Legacy International

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Having led countless expeditions across six continents and produced more than 100 award-winning short films about water issues, Cousteau is dedicated to continuing the work of her renowned grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau and her father Philippe Cousteau Sr. In 2008 she founded Blue Legacy International with the mission of empowering people to reclaim and restore the world’s water supplies, one community at a time.

“The ocean has always been a part of my life. I was seven years old when my grandfather taught me to scuba dive in the South of France, but climate change, ocean acidification and overfishing mean the waters my grandfather introduced me to don’t exist any more. This year I’ll be filming in the Philippines, the USA and Peru, and joining Oceana for some deep-sea exploration in Canada. I have also been working on a documentary about how we can save the oceans and feed the world. Just 30 countries control 90 per cent of the world’s fisheries. If we can work with them on policy solutions that will end overfishing and expand marine protected areas, we could have an enormous impact by rebuilding populations of marine life to close to their historic levels. It’s ambitious and bold and I love it. We need big, hopeful solutions right now.”

Sarah Kauss

Founder of S’well water bottles

On a mission to rid the world of plastic bottles, S’well founder Sarah Kauss has turned an inspired idea – reusable bottles that keep drinks cold for 24 hours and hot for 12 – into a multimillion-dollar business that has supported many eco-friendly charities including WaterAid. With approximately nine million bottles sold globally, limited edition designer collaborations with artists such as Gray Malin and Yoon Hyup, and celebrity fans like Tom Hanks, a S’well bottle has become the "it" accessory. “Prior to creating S’well, I learnt of the Pacific garbage patch, which is a patch of plastic waste in the ocean that’s something like the size of Canada and in places one mile deep,” says Kauss. “This plastic will never biodegrade. It will just become smaller bits that will eventually make their way into our food system. In creating S’well, I set out to convert the non-converted and to encourage others to stop using single-use plastic bottles. I’m so proud to have been able to turn an eco-conscious item into a fashionable one.”

Anisa Kamadoli Costa

Chairman and president, the Tiffany & Co Foundation

"People often wonder if the inspiration behind the work of our foundation is our brand colour, Tiffany Blue, which recalls the beauty of the sea,” says Kamadoli Costa, who heads up the Tiffany & Co Foundation, a philanthropic initiative established in 2000 that is dedicated to helping preserve the world’s most treasured seascapes and landscapes. “We are, in fact, driven by something much bigger. The ocean is a critical resource for all of the world’s people and yet many are still unaware of its plight.”

The foundation awards grants to a wide range of non-profit organisations, from Sailors for the Sea, which engages sailing communities in ocean conservation with its Clean Regattas programmes, to Oceans 5 and Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy, which protect coral reefs and create new marine protected areas. The foundation also focuses on education and last year helped finance Valen’s Reef, an underwater virtual reality film that transports viewers to Bird’s Head Seascape (one of the planet’s most biodiverse reefs) in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. “We hope this will inspire younger generations to become future champions of oceans,” says Kamadoli Costa. “There has been noteworthy progress in the last few years, notably in the Coral Triangle in the western Pacific. My experiences always remind me that we are at a crucial tipping point with our oceans, but that it’s not too late.”

Prince Albert II of Monaco

Founder of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and patron of Blue Marine Yacht Club

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It has been just over a decade since Prince Albert II of Monaco followed in the footsteps of his great great-grandfather and visited the Arctic, reaching the North Pole to explore the effects of global warming on the weakening ice. In the aftermath of this expedition, the Prince created his eponymous foundation, which is dedicated to environmental protection and focuses specifically on projects in the Mediterranean Basin and the polar regions and on identifying the richest and most fragile areas of biodiversity in the least developed countries. These include areas such as Cambodia, where the foundation has helped to implement new initiatives to manage fisheries.

Bryan Adams

Rock star, photographer and co-founder of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Preservation Fund

Rex Features

"I had been working as the chair of the environmental committee on Mustique for four years, when I became aware that the issues facing the island were just a microcosm of the entire region,” says Adams, who set up the St Vincent and the Grenadines Preservation Fund in March 2015 with funding from many of Mustique’s homeowners.

The singer, who has been holidaying on the island since 2002, has witnessed coral bleaching, overfishing and works to protect endangered species. “I’d say the biggest threat by far to this region is overfishing. It’s done on an industrial scale, by commercial and pirate fishermen and the knock-on effects are catastrophic for local fishermen. The lack of fish is putting the reefs under stress and causes larger predators such as tiger sharks to come into shallower water when deep-sea fish are scarce. The main thing we are focusing on with the fund is the protection of turtles and whales, and educating people that killing off these rare and beautiful creatures is killing off the ecotourism that is the backbone of the future local economy.

It’s counter-intuitive to the government’s plan to develop tourism – having just spent millions developing a new airport. There needs to be a shift towards greater conservation. These islands are like the Caribbean Galápagos. They have a rich biodiversity from the seabirds, marine life and amazing leatherback turtles – there is so much to see. There are signs that there is a shift towards more conservation, and that is very encouraging.”

Blue Marine Foundation

Charity dedicated to creating marine reserves and establishing sustainable models of fishing


In the six years since BLUE began its quest to protect 10 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2020, it has inspired and united governments, scientists and celebrities to take action and raise awareness of the crisis currently facing our seas. Making waves around the globe, BLUE worked alongside the Great British Oceans coalition to persuade the government to create a blue belt of protected waters around all 14 British Overseas Territories, from Bermuda to the Pitcairn Islands. It is currently working to help St Helena and Ascension Island secure marine protected areas in their waters, too.

BLUE has joined forces with inventive campaigns such as one by Fishlove, using its striking image of Helena Bonham-Carter hugging a tuna to keep the core issues of overfishing and marine protection in the limelight. Simon Le Bon supported a 1,500km charity bike ride from London to Monaco and the charity also aims to engage the privileged few via the Blue Marine Yacht Club, which encourages superyacht owners to protect the oceans by committing to a “conservation code”. It has also partnered with Boat International for the annual Ocean Awards ceremony.

“We are excited about the year ahead and the wonderful possibilities that are opening up for us to do some great work in Antarctica after news of the landmark international agreement to create the world’s largest marine park in the Ross Sea,” says executive director Charles Clover. “We also continue to be committed to projects closer to home, where we hope to replicate the success of the sustainable fisheries programme we instigated in Lyme Bay, Dorset, in 2012 with a similar initiative in the Solent that we hope will restore the population of native oysters to the area.”

Pharrell Williams

Musician, designer, co-owner of G-Star RAW

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Here’s another reason Williams can make you happy: when he’s not filling dance floors with feet pounding to his catchy tunes, he’s turning recycled ocean plastic into some pretty nifty threads. As the co-owner and (try not to smile) Head of Imagination of G-Star RAW, the pioneering Dutch denim brand, he was pivotal in the RAW For the Oceans denim collection.

This used recycled ocean plastic, integrated into a high-tech “bionic yarn” that was carefully woven into jeans making G-Star RAW one of the key fashion brands helping save the oceans. “We are not shoving it in your face,” said Williams. “If you’re wearing it, you’re supporting our issue to be sustainable – [the cause] is in the clothes.” In the three years since its launch, the project used an estimated two million reclaimed plastic bottles and almost 1,000 tonnes of plastic debris in its products. The label is following the project with a commitment to using sustainable or recycled materials.

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