Rebecca Daniel (MSc Tropical Marine Biology, 2018) set up The Marine Diaries with friends while still at Essex. An “ocean science communication initiative”, The Marine Diaries uses digital media to communicate ocean science, and collaborates with other organisations to educate, influence, and inspire the next generation of ocean warriors.

How did The Marine Diaries come about?

“We started in December 2017 - Blue Planet II had just come out and we recognised the influence it had on the public to tackle plastic pollution. Scientists have known for decades that plastic in the ocean was an issue, but the public only really became aware of this after the documentary. As scientists, we were acutely aware of the disconnect between the general public and the scientific community. There is such a delay between the knowledge the scientific community holds and what the public is aware of .

“A lot of that knowledge is ‘locked away’ in paywalled journals. It can also take a long time for research to get published. We wanted to rectify that and communicate ocean science in a way that wasn't just sharing facts and figures , but incorporating storytelling and creating emotional connections.

“So we started posting on social media and writing articles about the things we knew about , or were studying on our course, and it just grew from there!”

Had you done much campaigning before starting The Marine Diaries?

“No, literally none at all. I’d used social media, but in terms of digital campaigning skills I had zero.

“I just try things out and see how they go. I read a lot of articles and watch a lot of webinars, and learn along the way. I’ve now gained more experience through various communication jobs, but yes, initially I was just taking a stab in the dark during our first campaign, Plastic Not Fantastic. After that, I knew digital communication was for me.”

What is the most urgent issue for you right now?

“I would probably say overfishing. The commercial fishing industry uses massive nets (up to 2.5km) that are dragged through the ocean. With technology, they can also pinpoint a whole shoal and scoop it up - the entire thing, indiscriminately. They remove vast quantities of fish, but they also catch dolphins and turtles, sharks and birds, which just get dropped back into the sea, dead. It’s happening at such a fast rate that species just can't recover.

“Even if we were to stop emitting all greenhouse gases right now, there would still be some temperature rise, sea level rise, and other impacts on the environment. So, because of that, increasing the resilience of the marine and terrestrial environment is vital. Reducing overfishing would increase the resilience of not only fish stocks, but the ocean as a whole. ”

Ok, we need a positive story: tell me about kelp!

“Ha ha – yes, we’re doing a lot about kelp at the moment for our Marine Ecosystem Diaries project! Kelps are basically seaweeds, which can form really dense underwater forests in polar and temperate regions. They are the foundation species for an entire ecosystem. These forests act like a regular terrestrial forest. So they have what are called holdfasts which are similar to plant roots, a stipe (like a stem), and all of the fronds (leaves) – and different organisms live on and around all of these parts of the kelp.

“Giant Kelp can grow up to around 50 metres - and one of the main things that they all do, because they photosynthesise, is capture carbon. There's even some research being done on whether kelp can be used to sequester carbon in the deep sea (which already occurs naturally), by growing and transporting it.

“Kelp forests are under threat from climate change, but it does also seem that there are some areas where they're quite resilient to it .”

As you know, in December the University joined many other organisations around the world in declaring a climate and ecological emergency. Most people have a clear sense of the climate crisis, but we talk less about the ecological emergency. What is it?

“The ecological emergency relates to the loss of nature and biodiversity.

“At the moment, we are in a sixth mass extinction of species globally and not just because of climate change, but also because of habitat destruction, over exploitation, and pollution – cutting down forests, for example, or plundering the oceans for fish.

“We need healthy ecosystems in order to tackle climate change and to regulate other planetary processes.

“Climate change is global, but the ecological emergency is too - we need to tackle both at the same time, because they're interlinked.”

Is the root cause the same?

“Yes, the root cause is us - consuming too much, taking too much, and not considering the environmental consequences, whether that's carbon emissions, methane emissions, destruction of ecosystems, or extinction of species. Our way of life is the issue. We’re not thinking ahead – what the impact of what we’re doing will be in one year, five years, ten years, one hundred years. That’s at the root of the problem, I would say.”

What can we, as a university, do?

“ I think the fact the University has declared an emergency is important, but it’s really just the first step. A commitment to net- zero is now needed, and also divestment from fossil fuels. If Essex currently invests in any kind of fossil fuel or destructive industries, then it needs to rapidly divest and reinvest in renewable energy, in sustainable development, and in projects that have a long term positive impact.

“The University could also commit to getting research staff, or staff in general, to not fly to conferences around the world.

“You could offer a bike scheme for students and staff, or work with local councils to improve the public transport links between the University and where people live.

“Communicating about the climate crisis is also key, because the University has such a powerful voice and influence.

“You could also add a climate change module to all existing courses, or offer specific courses to gear people up with green skills that will be necessary for the decarbonisation of the economy.”

And what, for you, are the main things we can all do, as individuals, right now?

“Well, the first one would be to eat less meat, fish and diary. The climate impact of food production, especially meat and dairy, is massive, but I would include fish too because of the issues with overfishing.

“Second, transport. If you can fly less, then definitely fly less and have virtual meetings - like we're having now. Driving less and cycling or walking more, or using public transport, are also really big ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

“At home, I would suggest switching to a renewable energy supplier, but one that actually invests in renewable energy production. There are a lot of renewable tariffs that don't necessarily contribute more renewable energy to the grid. Some companies say they’re 100% renewable, but they are just buying renewable credits - they're really just shifting numbers around.

“In general, just buy less - especially things like clothes, which have a really high environmental impact. You could go to clothes swaps, which are quite fun, or buy second-hand from charity shops or apps like Depop . There are even clothing rental companies now! Obviously, everyone wants to change their wardrobe every once in a while, but that doesn't mean you have to buy brand new items from fast fashion brands.”

What does the future hold for you?

“Currently we run The Marine Diaries on a voluntary basis. I hope that in a few years’ time we will be fully funded, with the money to have a bigger impact and reach more people. I would obviously love to be able to pay the team too!

“I also really want to do more ‘in person’ work, on the ground, reaching people directly. Online, you lack that personal connection and I would love to do projects in different regions of the world, connecting with local communities and NGOs . I'd also really like to work directly with schools and other educational institutions.”

Are you positive about the future?

“I'm a very positive person. I think if I wasn't positive I wouldn't be able to carry on doing the work I'm doing!

“I think the pandemic has had a really big impact. The last year has shown that people can change quickly, and the vaccine development programme has demonstrated how quickly a solution can be reached when we all work together, within countries and globally. I also think we are all realising more and more that everything we do has an impact not just on the environment, but also on us.

“The really, really key thing is that people are now, hopefully, more open to change.”

To find out more, check out The Marine Diaries.