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Ocean connections; transcending time, cultures and generations

By Gail Sant, Nippon Foundation-University of Edinburgh Ocean Voices Programme

How do you connect with the ocean?

Over the past century or so, western science has started to uncover that humans have an inherent psychological need for a relationship with nature  - a truth long understood by traditional and indigenous communities worldwide. Studies have shown that our connection to nature, whether in coastal areas, forests, or marine landscapes, profoundly influences our ability to resolve or accept life’s fundamental questions. For example, related to identity, happiness and death. Moreover, being in nature restores and replenishes our ability to focus.

This connection to nature has also been said to be a core factor in our emotional development, and the extent to which we display pro-environmental attitudes and actions.  While less time in nature has negative implications on human well-being , an attachment and emotional affinity to nature has been shown to influence peoples’ behaviour towards their environment and their responsibility to protect, conserve and regenerate the ocean and land where we live.

A family fishing trip in Malta, 1971. Image: Gail Sant

The Ocean Voices Programme

Launched in 2022, the Nippon Foundation-University of Edinburgh Ocean Voices Programme aims to increase the connection between nature and society. The programme bridges the gap between the  ocean,  and science and policy through the communities and individuals that are dedicated to protecting our marine world. From coastal community resilience, to deep sea ecosystems and everything in between, Ocean Voices supports thought leaders to find their voice and use it for positive, equitable ocean action. The Programme has a global community spanning Fiji, Seychelles, Cape Verde, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Costa Rica, and beyond, fostering online connections in an era where remote work often impedes meaningful relationships.  Once a year the Programme organises and hosts an in-person retreat to see each other in-person, comment on height differences that always go unnoticed online, and connect with each other through shared experiences, work, and a collective love for the ocean. To do this, one of the first things we do as a group is share our ‘ocean story’- how we connect to the ocean, and how the ocean in turn connects us with communities, cultures, memories and emotions. 

Sitting in a circle, grounded by a recognition of mutual respect and trust, we shared stories about near-death drowning experiences that transformed into a life-long passion to act as an ocean custodian, cultural stories about ocean gods that built the same land people used to pass down the tales from one generation to the next, and descriptions of a longing for the ocean from land-locked hometowns.

Our connection to the ocean transcends cultures, geopolitical borders, and, as was the case for my ocean story, it transcends time.

My Ocean Story

My grandmother, Mabel, spent Malta’s long summers in a small coastal townhouse overlooking the sea from across the road. At 89 years old, my grandmother’s mornings involved spending an hour in the sea in the company of her neighbours. Without fail, this had been her routine for as long as I remember. 

When she passed away, around a year ago, I started going through her closet together with my family. Amidst the catalogue of 60s coats, what looks like a miniature wedding dress from my father’s baptism and hats that haven’t been worn in four decades (not that you would be able to tell), we found a drawer full of pictures. Images from the late 19th century up to recent Christmas lunches were stored in their corresponding photo albums; each photo carefully organised with a date and a short description written on the back in my grandmother’s handwriting.

The stacks of photo albums visualised everything my grandmother cared about. Her many trips to Lourdes to reinforce her unquestionable faith, portraits of distant and close family members, wedding photos, and my father throughout all his phases growing up. A lot of these pictures were set on a coast, on a boat, or at sea. As a small island state, a fair amount of our social plans feature the sea. There she was with my father as a child, in the frejgatina, a traditional wooden boat my grandfather had built. The boat was restored by my siblings a few years ago, and it is now used by my brother. There were pictures of my grandparents in their 20s on the island of Comino, where my siblings and I had spent a lot of time exploring through imagined scenarios. Pictures of fishing trips like the one I still go on with my family (all the while secretly hoping that no fish end up being caught).

Family photos show our generational connection the the sea. Images: Gail Sant

While my grandmother is no longer alive, the beaches, boats, snorkel trails and fishing practices still are. I share the same memories as her, as will future generations. I found solace in knowing that my grandmother’s connection to the sea survives through me.

While we often recognise the value in our relationships with one another, and we are increasingly giving recognition to our relationship with the ocean, we rarely view nature as a means to connect with one another. 

By connecting through ocean stories and experiences, we find a deep appreciation for each other, and the varied perspectives that we bring. It makes working through time zones, different cultures, ages and professional backgrounds not only a possibility but a desirable and vital element of our work.

The sensation of connecting across generations through the ocean also incurs a sense of responsibility, to past and future generations.

I owe it to my ancestors as well as my future children that I ensure that they can share memories of joy and love at the same beaches, to awe at the sea creatures that can only remain there if we don’t disrupt the ecosystem’s equilibrium.

In a world that is plagued with nature deficit disorders and climate anxiety, returning to the ocean is a source of hope and motivation to do better. While polarising 7-second media is taking over our screens and our lives, returning to the ocean reminds us that the ocean was, is, and always will be: an ever-changing constant and a space to connect with generations through time.


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