Greetings From Planet Ocean

By Graham Hill

A note from the editor:

After sailing 8,000 nautical miles, The Plastiki – carrying a 10-member crew  – arrived triumphantly in Sydney harbor on July 26th, completing a 130-days voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

After engaging in a role-playing game with actress Glenn Close during the TED Mission Blue Voyage, entrepreneur Graham Hill joined fellow Selection Committee member and adventure ecologist David DeRothschild and his Plastiki crew on a groundbreaking voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

“I’m not a werewolf,” said Glenn Close, her eyes not leaving mine for a second. My mind reeled. Could I trust her? She seemed calm and confident. Or was that a slight smirk in her smile?

Close, myself, several environmentally engaged celebs such as Edward Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio, along with AOL founder Steve Case, tech savant Bill Joy, and a number of philanthropists, were among the 100 or so aboard a Lindblad Expeditions ship in the Galapagos this past April for the TED Mission Blue Voyage. The five-day conference had been organized by TED and Dr. Sylvia Earle, the deep-sea-diving pioneer and 2009 TED Prize winner. Close and DiCaprio had taken a break from plotting ways to save the world’s oceans for a mean game of Werewolves and Villagers, a highly addictive role-playing game. The game won, Close, talented actress that she is, smiled mischievously. Total werewolf.

This scene, frankly, wasn’t one I had ever imagined myself in. But being the founder of one of the more popular green websites, TreeHugger.com, had, strangely — and wonderfully — brought me together with a lot of people I never dreamed I’d play role-playing games with below decks on the equator. And thankfully! The increasingly vivid environmental nightmare we were heading toward has prompted many of our society’s influencers to see how they can help, and the TED Mission Blue Voyage was the first of two such inspired gatherings I’ve been privileged to drop in on lately, the second being the Plastiki, my pal David de Rothschild’s recycled-plastic-bottle “cataraft,” on which I was just crossing the Pacific.

Unlike many maps, globes are not distorted. Take a look at one. Spin it around. Notice that there’s way more blue than brown. Center it over Hawaii, and the Pacific covers your whole view. The oceans cover fully 71 percent of the globe. It ain’t Planet Earth; it’s very clearly Planet Ocean. Without the oceans, we’d quite simply go extinct, and this is the fundamental issue that both the TED Mission Blue Voyage and Plastiki are addressing.

In the Galapagos, Sylvia Earle wanted to galvanize support for saving our oceans by creating a global network of marine protected areas dubbed “Hope Spots” — think national parks for regions of the ocean — and over the five-day event, she got a major head start. The event featured your standard intense battery of TED talks (ocean-focused), lightened with interludes by Chevy Chase, Damien Rice, and Jackson Browne and peppered with guided snorkeling excursions, diving trips, and nature walks (per Cousteau: we protect what we love).

Between premiering Jake Eberts’s latest masterpiece, Oceans; showing videos of Mike Rutzen playing with a variety of monstrous sharks; displaying fantastic ocean photos by Brian Skerry; and raising a cool 17 million (yes, million), the TED-curated talks delivered. Among much else we learned that our fisheries have been decimated, that two-thirds of our oceans are out of any nation’s control and therefore are frustratingly difficult to regulate. We learned that we insanely subsidize our two-and-a-half-times-too-large fishing industry to the tune of $35 billion a year, while a mere $16 billion could protect more than 20 percent of the seas.

Once Mission Blue concluded, I hightailed it to Christmas Island, Kiribati. Five hours south of Hawaii, this is where I joined up with the Plastiki, a 60-foot catamaran made out of 12,500 reclaimed bottles and a fully recyclable plastic called Seretex.

The cat looked like a pleasure yacht. But one with Magiveresque additions of solar panels, wind turbines, a gigantic terrarium apparatus, and even a power-creating stationary bike. It was crowned with a Buckminster Fuller–inspired geodesic igloo for the crew. In short order, I came to understand that Adventure Ecology’s vessel, while very high-tech in some ways, was more raft than boat. An experimental craft built in San Francisco over the past few years, the Plastiki’s mission was to sail from there to Sydney using only alternative energy (wind, solar, hydro, human) while drawing attention to the plight of our oceans and encouraging us to start thinking “resource instead of “waste” management by emulating our animal brethren and designing for zero waste. The adventure part? The Pacific is absolutely massive, the boat sails a measly three or so knots per hour, and due to the design challenge of hulls full of water bottles, she easily drifts sideways and has serious turning restrictions.

By my fourth day, I’d acclimated to the round-the-clock three-hour watches, the constant salty damp and the incessant creaking, clanging, whistling of our lady Plastiki as she lumbered across the oh-so-ginormous Pacific in a suspiciously Truman Show fashion. The vibe was great onboard, and with partners such as HP and Inmarsat, there was plenty of media streaming outward to CNN, Oprah, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, TreeHugger, and many others. It was also revealing to see how six people can live relatively comfortably in a tiny, tiny space (a roughly 300-square-foot cabin) while only using wind and solar energy.

About 10 days in, coming out of said 95-degree sweatbox of a cabin, I noticed our normally trailing buoy far to port. The infamous doldrums were upon us. And so, with equal parts excitement and fear, we jumped into the water for a swim, excited to get into the massive ocean for a cool-off and for a change of scenery, but fearful that our snail’s pace would be further slowed. We swam around like excited children, leaping off the cabin into the sea, diving deep and hanging onto the buoy, as far as one could safely get from the boat. The water was as blue and has as much visibility as a swimming pool, yet I dove and dove again looking for signs of life. Eerily, we saw nothing at all near the surface, and I understood how parts of the ocean truly can be desert-like.

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