Vaka Okeanos, the beautiful canoe, stands out amongst all other ships that cluster around the French Cote d’Azur. A width of reactions, from stealthy glances to enthusiastic waving, accompany us on our way out to sea, about 30 nautical miles away from Cannes. Even in a crowded area like the Mediterranean in peak summer season, once land is out of sight, this morning we are the only vessel out here. The only signs of human existence out here float by in forms of party balloons, air mattresses or Styrofoam boxes from fishing industries – every single piece being picked up by us with the long hook and a net. No mercy, even if we miss the catch – which means turning the Vaka around to hunt the ocean waste and secure it on deck until we bring it back to land.
We’re 11 aboard: Four crew and seven guests sharing the limited resources we can carry on board: An opportunity to realize how little we really need. During the three months of the first season for Okeanos’ new project ‘Learning from the Sea’ in the Med, all our power is sourced from sun and wind, except for the gas to prepare our daily meals. Even though the sun is abundant, we make sure that we handle our resources wisely. We use our twin 10kw electrical engines only if necessary – when there’s no wind, or to anchor and leave anchorages. We drink as much water as possible, self-produced by the desalinator aboard, but we shower only with a few liters a day – quick soap and rinse to keep our fresh water supply high. The use of electronic devices only comes down to as much as needed and we let the stars and the moon be our main source of light at night when we sit down for a round of storytelling about the origins of the Vaka, sharing a communal meal and chatting about the day gone by.
It is a diverse range of experiences that make us more aware of our own impact on ocean environments. A plastic bottle swimming by, reminding us to use our own refillable bottles to avoid litter, a school of dolphins in the clear water around the Vaka links directly to our wastewater-behaviour: to use as little dishwashing detergent as necessary, and obviously only biodegradable products, never flushing any paper down the toilet, buying local products from ocean-friendly agriculture… These are the small steps we can all take to protect an environment that terrestrial beings like us hardly take into account: our oceans.
In the distance, geysir-like spouts from the blowholes of sperm whales appear. We will not hunt them for a close-as-possible encounter or a sensational photo but will instead take our time to slowly sail into their territory, leaving it up to them if they want to come closer or not. For hours, we spot several whales in the distance, and with every time they dive back into their world, they leave us in the dark: Will they come up again, will we be able to see them once more?
Days like this are timeless. With no reference to land schedules that normally structure our life, and the sun as the only indicator that the day is reaching its peak, we let our eyes wander to the distance, where ocean and sky blur, each of us busy with our own thoughts. There are no longer set expectations, as we already feel privileged to be surrounded by marine mammals larger than our boat, a day’s sail off the French coast.
“PPffff”. Looking back, I cannot recall the chain of reactions that followed this sound. All I remember is that I find myself surrounded by ten other stunned humans staring at the huge Fin Whale heaving the upper part of its massive and surprisingly elegant body out of the water, around 30 meters away from us. It is circling our boat, never changing the distance between itself and the Vaka. None of us runs, no one shouts or creates any noises, as we have discussed the rules of whale-watching-behavior several times before. There is no way I can stop hearing the loudness of my own pumping heartbeat. The finback comes close to check us out. Quietly, without any rush, but with the curiosity it needs to allow for that closeness. Our eyes seem to meet, at least our worlds do, for a moment.
When the whale dives back into the deep blue, we know that it won’t come back but it leaves us changed. Anyone who has ever encountered wild animals in a respectful way, whether on land or in the ocean, knows how precious these moments are, because they happen without us being able to dictate them. There is no way we can force a whale to come to our Vaka, but the whale does, all by itself. Out of free will, of curiosity, or maybe even distrust that leads him to check us out. We are unable to follow him into his world, but he can meet us in ours. Sending us a reminder of the connection between seemingly contrary spheres of life and teaching us that sometimes we do not have to reach far for the good.
To put it more bluntly: There is no need to fly to the other side of the globe if you want to be in contact with the ocean’s most intriguing treasures. The lessons learned and the memories of these precious encounters will be bright spots in the dark winter moments ahead of us in Germany, until the call of the Vaka brings us back on board again.
From facts to action:
140 million tons of plastic already ended up in our oceans. 5 to 13 million tons being added every year. While some of our ‘catches’ have fallen overboard from fishing vessels, like Styrofoam boxes, 80 % of all plastic that ends up in marine ecosystems come from land, together with run-off from industrial agriculture for example, wastewater and toxic waste from industries, cellulose and sanitary products from sewage systems. Saying that, one message is clear: Our oceans, for the most part, die on land!
The good news: We do not have to live close to an ocean or on an island to become guardians of our blue source of life. On the contrary, everyone can support the wellbeing of our oceans, every day, no matter where we live. Starting with the choice of food, you can make a real difference! Ask yourself where it was produced, how it was produced and transported, and how it was packed. Liquid manures and fertilizers from industrial agriculture are the main drivers for dead zones in our oceans. Depleted of oxygen, these areas no longer allow worms, mussels, crabs or fish to survive, turning thriving habitats into underwater deserts. Choosing plant food produced without mineral fertilizers and lowering our consumption of meat and dairy products significantly contributes to clean and healthy oceans. They will in return reward us with what human civilizations needs to survive, from oxygen production to mitigation of climate change impacts.