Sea Change: A Conversation with Adventurer, Filmmaker, and Environmentalist Jon Bowermaster
National Geographic filmmaker and writer Jon Bowermaster has long chronicled the declining health of the world's oceans. He has traveled the world by sea kayak, seeing first-hand troubling environmental changes in places as far-flung as Antarctica, the Aleutian Islands, South America, Vietnam, French Polynesia, Gabon, Croatia and Tasmania
Bowermaster recently spoke with us via satellite phone from a beach in the Maldives, a group of low-lying tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. He told us about us about the threats this island nation faces from rising sea levels and pollution--and why other nations like the United States should care about them. Environmental crises on distant shores can herald environmental, social, or political crises at home.
Bowermaster argues that his work holds critical lessons for educators and students. Why learn about the Maldives? Their present may well be our future.
Listen to highlights from our conversation here (6 minutes):
A transcript of these highlights appears below.
You can also listen to the entire 10 minute interview here.
Public School Insights: What brings you to the Maldives?
Bowermaster: My long-term project is continuing to explore the relationship between man and the sea around the world. This brings us to this island nation here in the Indian Ocean, with over 1,200 islands. [These islands] run about 500 miles, located off the tip of India, and they're very, very small islands. One square mile is a big island. Most of them rise just about three or four feet above sea level. So if you want to take a look at a place that is being impacted by climate change and rising sea levels, this is a place to come and have a look.
Public School Insights: Do you have any sense that the sea levels have already been rising? Are [Maldivians] already feeling that impact?
Bowermaster: Yes, certainly there are examples of small little islands that have completely disappeared or are largely underwater now. Part of that is due to current and tides, and partly it's due to warmer sea temperatures, so it's a combination of things.
But the great concern is, even kind of pessimistic expectations are that the sea levels around the world could rise by three feet in the next hundred years. If [sea level] rose by three feet--if it rose by one foot--these places would be in big trouble.
The newly elected president of the Maldives has made climate change and the impact of rising seas on this place a priority of his new administration. Just a week ago he came out and claimed that he wants the Maldives to be the first carbon-neutral country by 2020. We visited a school a couple days ago, and the school kids were all talking about what they can do to try and lessen the impact of climate change on their island.
Public School Insights: So it's interesting to see what happens when environmental change hits you at home so directly.
Bowermaster: I'm standing on the beach in the Maldives, and every day the surf is taking away more and more sand, in part due to warmer sea temperatures and in part due to incremental increases in sea level around the planet.
The other thing that they're suffering from here is that the coral reef, which was very beautiful, [has been] greatly impacted by warming seas. About ten years ago it got very badly bleached out because the sea temperatures rose so much. So despite the fact that it looks like paradise here, they are dealing with a handful of pretty serious environmental issues.
Public School Insights: You've been in hundreds of different countries around the world and you've actually, I believe, traveled around the world by sea kayak and documented your experiences along the way. Have you drawn any major lessons from these experiences so far regarding the relationship between humans and the sea?
Bowermaster: I think the most interesting thing that we've discovered is that whether you live in the Maldives--live near the sea here--or you live near the sea in Vietnam or you live near the sea on the coast of Chile, you're impacted by a lot of the same environmental issues, particularly climate change, which is raising the sea levels and increasing the number of storms that people see. But also, everywhere we go we've seen evidence of over-fishing and shoreline pollution. Those three things we see everywhere.
Public School Insights: Even in a place like the Maldives?
Bowermaster: Unfortunately, even in a place like the Maldives.
Public School Insights: How do you connect the work that you're doing in the Maldives and that you've done around the world to the work that we have to do in our K-12 schools here in the United States?
Bowermaster: The schools in the U.S. are not so different from schools here. [In both places] they're doing a really good job of teaching the kids about the impact of environmental harm out in their backyard.
Here one of the issues, and we saw it in the schools, is that the population is increasing here in the Maldives, in part due to just more kids, and [in part because of] people moving from the big towns out to the islands because there's a better quality of life. But when they want houses they have to build, and when they build they need cement. When they need cement, they need sand. And the [result is that] a lot of sand has been taken from the beach, which continues to encourage this kind of coastal erosion.
But in the schools we saw examples of [drawings] the kids had done. These young kids, first and second graders, had done drawings about the proper uses of sand and the improper uses of sand. So like in the U.S., I think oftentimes the kids are way ahead of their parents in regard to environmental consciousness.
Public School Insights: Are you connecting the work that you're doing now and that you have done through documentaries like your series Oceans8 to schools in the U.S. so that educators can use this?
Bowermaster: I do lots of talks in schools, though I was once told by a publisher, whose company shall remain nameless, that kids weren't into adventure.
I think that's absolutely false, and we use adventure. I'm out here now exploring the Maldives by small boat and by diving and snorkeling and things. We'll bring those pictures back, this video back, and show it in a variety of places, including classrooms. I think kids get really turned on when they see you out in the world and helping them connect the dots.
Public School Insights: And you've got online resources as well, right, so anyone could go ahead and have a look at those almost in real time?
Bowermaster: Yes. Actually, we started, about five days ago, doing really fun and beautiful dispatches from the Maldives. That's the beauty of high technology--we’re able via satellite phone and small satellite to send back pictures and text and even some small video from this place.
Public School Insights: So what's next on the horizon for you?
Bowermaster: My main interest is in continuing to travel around the world and go out and tell these stories about how man relates to the world's oceans. So we're on a two-month whirlwind tour here in the Maldives. Then in a couple weeks we head over to the Seychelles, and then down the coast of east Africa towards Madagascar. Then I'm back in the United States.
We recently finished a big beautiful film about Antarctica, so in the later spring and into the summer I'll be traveling around the U.S. showing that film about Antarctica.
We're pretty lucky. We're out here exploring the world and being able to bring these stories back and then share them, which is quite fun for me.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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