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A tale of ocean literacy: increasing humanity's connection with the ocean

Written by Yolanda Sanchez, Marine Educator and Edinburgh Ocean Leader

Yesterday in La Paz, México, I had the immense fortune of witnessing a humpback whale dance in front of me, its massive tail peeking out repeatedly as it waved, seemingly greeting anyone passing by. While its gestures were undoubtedly for the female whale swimming alongside it, the scene moved me deeply. It was the first time I had experienced something like this in my 12 years as a marine educator.

Our boat was captained by a local fisherman who guided us to the spectacle. He told me that just a few months ago, he began to explore the difference in the value of catching fish versus observing them, this was inspired by a group of young women from a local NGO called ORGCAS. ORGCAS are implementing a marine conservation project called Proyecto Tiburón that merges science, education and community empowerment to promote the economic transition from shark fishing to other economies such as tourism.

Both of us, the captain and I, were captivated by the whale, each with our own background, interests, and context. For me, that moment was the epitome of the term "ocean literacy," let me tell you why.

Yolanda Sanchez is an ocean educator and author who's work is dedicated to improving humanity's connection with the ocean

For this fisherman, whale watching is now one of his sources of income, and although his face lights up with surprise each time their giant bodies break the surface, his newfound vision of conservation has developed due to his recent understanding of the value of these animals. How strong is his connection to the ocean? It's just as strong as a scientist who SCUBA dives to observe tiny but crucial changes, or an artist who spends hours watching the waves to recreate them in a painting, or an activist who lives kilometers away from the sea but participates in a protest against pollution. Ocean literacy is the understanding of our individual and collective impact on the ocean and its impact on our lives. Ocean literacy can arise through many avenues, from emotional connection, knowledge, interest, and tranquility, to even fear and respect. At the end of the day, it is the same for all of us: a connection with the ocean.

In the United Nations Ocean Decade, a challenge has been highlighted to change humanity's relationship with the ocean and I believe that improving ocean literacy through education will be a critical pathway to achieve this goal. 

However, the word “education” is burdened with numerous stigmas. Traditionally, it may conjure images of an all-knowing, wise figure imposing knowledge from a pedestal onto eager minds seated obediently at desks. It too often envisions hierarchy of knowledge, authority, and above all, boredom.

Fortunately, the landscape of education is evolving. I have found that education has a ripple effect that propagates something truly remarkable. Nevertheless, for this to be true, there are principles that we must consider each time we lead an educational activity. Allow me to share some insights that I have gathered on my journey as a marine educator. 

Thanks to the observation and curiosity of educators worldwide, it has been proven that the traditional hierarchical methods of education are not effective. First and foremost, education must be horizontal, from one person to another, whether they're three or forty-three years old. Because every person brings different ideas, reflections, and experiences . Whether through knowledge, experience, or values this variety is the basis for collectively building new connections with the ocean.

Can you recall the moment you fell in love with the sea? Every time I pose this question, I discover new ways we can relate to the ocean, or even (surprise!) encounter people who aren't yet in love with the sea (my favourite challenge). These responses always serve as the starting point for designing my ocean literacy activities in which I seek to promote conservation through experiences that foster a connection with the sea.     

Creativity is essential for ocean education . Image: Yolanda Sanchez

For me, education is meaningless if it is not enjoyable and interesting, and to achieve that, one must be attentive to the people participating in every activity, understand their concerns, aspirations and their unique perspective - in essence understanding their context. This is one of my essential tools for designing any type of educational activity. 

Once I understand the context, I design an activity that not only fosters the exchange of knowledge but also evokes emotion, curiosity and interest. I am not only referring to educational activities for children but for adults too. Adults learn through fun also and as educators, it's our responsibility to make each activity enjoyable and interesting enough for those who participate to understand that we value their time and participation regardless of their age.

Hands-on learning about ocean creatures. Images: Yolanda Sanchez

Within any activity, I emphasise applicability. In other words, what good is new information if we don't know how to use it? We must seek activities that put the use of new content into practice to make conservation-promoting decisions.

To make an activity truly well-rounded, I’ll incorporate communication and leadership tools. This presents a challenge because we're accustomed to education being a single leader dominating discussions. Conducting a workshop where the educator guides as opposed to dictates requires a shift in approach. It requires patience; one must give space in the sessions, allow silences to reveal fresh perspectives, yield the floor, step down from the teacher's pedestal, and help build strong foundations for participants that promote empowerment.


I want to share a beautiful example of this type of activity. Some years ago, a local NGO in Cabo Verde called Biosfera invited me to work with the local school. I dedicated the initial sessions in the school to get to know the interests, knowledge and ideas of the students in the group. With that information, I was able to design and adapt some ocean education activities. Some of the tasks for the students involved identifying the marine biodiversity of the area, the threats, and possible conservation solutions for their territory, all through games, challenges, photographs and maps. The participants designed informative posters the following week and hosted a group of adults in their school, inluding of their parents and ocean professionals from the Edinburgh Ocean Leaders programme. The young people were able to share their workshop learnings and demonstrate their newfound communication and leadership skills. The students also created a quiz game using a roulette wheel and held a contest to assess the adults' learning after participating in the activity. Can you imagine the empowerment they felt realizing they possessed marine knowledge that the adults did not? They named the group and designed a logo to give identity to this new cohort of young marine education leaders. Today, two years later, the group is still alive, growing, learning and being ocean educators in their own community.

Marine education in Cabo Verde. Images: Yolanda Sanchez

The powerful impact of the work in Cabo Verde was both unique and reminiscent of a workshop I organized in Ghana with the NGO Hen Mpoano. In this workshop, we invited a group of 10 women on a boat for the first time to visit an island they saw daily from the beach but had never visited before. Following the one-hour sail, their reactions were centred around overcoming their fear of the ocean and feeling a deep connection as they experienced the sensation of the salty water on their faces. How simple, but, at the same time, how impactful was this activity focusing on understanding context, connections and interests.

I believe the ratio between time, participants and costs is crucial for marine education. Smaller, impactful workshops often foster more personal connections with the ocean compared to large lecture theaters. However, this aspect is often overlooked due to the conventional belief that having more people in a workshop equates to a larger impact. 

This misconception underscores the importance of networks to support and enhance marine education exemplary practices. This was my motivation to start the Latin American Marine Educator’s Network (RELATO), where we advocate for the design and implementation of marine education projects aligned with our collective expertise and vision, aiming to reshape the human-ocean relationship and achieve our transformative goals.


Reflecting on the fisherman introduced at the outset of our story, I attribute the success of his transformation into a remarkable leader in marine education to the efforts of the young women leading ORGCAS. Their commitment and time to understanding his context and interests, dedication to forging connection, promotion of empathy to grasp his needs, and innovative and flexible approach to designing activities connects perfectly with my idea of education in ocean literacy to promote conservation. An example of this is the fisherman, who now shares with the world his incredible encounters with whales from his fishing boat, embodying the essence of effective marine education leadership.


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