How to be an Ocean Hero

Shannon L. Switzer Swanson is an award-winning photographer, published writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on ocean conservation.

There are many definitions of a “hero.”

Each of us has our own personal opinion of the qualities a hero must possess and the people we personally consider to be heroes.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of a hero as a defender or protector gives me hope. It means that anyone who takes a step to protect our ocean can rightfully be considered an “ocean hero.” It means that while diving to the bottom of Challenger Deep puts James Cameron and his dedicated DEEPSEA CHALLENGE team on the Ocean Hero list, such extremes are not required. For me, this is heartening, because I don’t have a neon green sub, or the know-how to make one, but I do love our ocean and want to do my part to keep it healthy.

If you feel the same, there are hundreds of small things you can do (and not do) in your day-to-day life that will qualify you to join the ranks of Ocean Heroes!  Many of these steps are simply a matter of becoming more informed, and then modifying current habits and behaviors. Choose to implement one or two new things at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.

Check out the tips below for both parents who want to work with their kids, and teachers who want to turn their classrooms “blue.” If every parent and teacher in the world implemented just one of these suggestions, think of how much better off our oceans would be!

Shannon Switzer is a water conservationist, photojournalist, and National Geographic Young Explorers grantee. In 2011, she walked the length of the San Dieguito River, from its headwaters in the mountains right down to the ocean. Learn about that adventure with her article here!
Illustration by Ben Swanson

In The Classroom

Our ocean is drowning in plastic.
Map by Jason Treat, National Geographic

Make the Connection
Before you teach about the ocean in the classroom, take some time to get to know how you are connected to it, even if you’re smack dab in the middle of North Dakota. All water leads to, has been a part of, or will be a part of our world’s oceans at some point. This means your rivers and lakes are ocean brethren, and so are we! Once you recognize the importance of this connection, you can pass it on to your students.

Many, but not all, project-based learning experiences involve outdoor education.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic

Get Some Fresh Air
Turn off the lights and head outside for part of the day. You and your students will get some Vitamin D, which has been shown to reduce stress, promote healthy eating and sleeping habits, improve mood, and reduce symptoms of ADD and ADHD, while simultaneously reducing your carbon footprint. Just make sure to have a lesson plan that’s easy to execute outside by incorporating possible distractions (like a bird flying overhead or frog leaping across the lawn) into your teaching.

Photograph by Sylvia Earle, courtesy National Geographic Education

Start an Ocean Club
Work with students interested in protecting the ocean to help them start a fun-filled club that everybody wants to be a part of! Select a marine animal as a mascot for the club. Even better, adopt a real-life marine animal as your mascot. There are many non-profits that have programs to adopt a seal, dolphin, polar bear, killer whale, beluga, or even a shark! While you may not be able to do beach clean-ups if you don’t live close to the ocean, you can have the club focus on cleaning local rivers and lakes, which of course lead to the ocean. Start a recycling and/or composting program if you don’t already have one in place. Promote your new “blue” club through your school’s website and watch it grow with enthusiastic ocean defenders!

Print by Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain!

Create Ocean Art
Let your students’ minds wander to visions of life under the sea. Then, have them take those mind-pictures and turn them into art. After one of your Ocean Club clean-ups, consider sanitizing your spoils and turning them into masterpieces (here’s some inspiration to get you started). This is a fantastic way to spark your students’ creativity and give them a whole new perspective on “trash.”

Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic

Take the Party Bus
Encourage your students to take the bus or carpool to school, and try to make a habit of it yourself. If your school is close enough, make a habit of walking or biking. Runoff from car pollutants like oil, gas, and copper from car brakes are some of the biggest contributors to watershed and ocean pollution. As usual, what’s good for the environment is also good for us: Reducing carbon emissions improves air quality; using less gas is good for our pocketbooks; and walking and biking is good for our waistlines.


Fun Activities At Home

Photograph by Lori Epstein, National Geographic

Play in the Dirt
By planting native flowers, shrubs, and trees in your yard, you can help prevent runoff contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides, and oil from reaching storm drains, rivers, lakes, and (eventually) the ocean. Native plants thrive on local rainfall instead of requiring gallons of water, and their root systems help prevent erosion while absorbing and filtering harmful pollutants. Planting them will lower your water bill, reduce the amount of maintenance necessary to keep your yard looking nice, and help the environment. If that’s not enough, it will be a fun time for the whole family to enjoy getting their hands dirty! Idea: Adopt a vacant lot

Stacie Collins, do-it-your-self instructor, points to the next ingredient used to create laundry detergent during a do-it-yourself event hosted at the Grand Forks Air Force Base Library.
Photograph by Staff Sgt. Luis Loza Gutierrez, courtesy U.S. Air Force

Go Non-toxic
Not only are non-toxic items better for your family’s health, they are better for your local water supply, as well. Make a point to go shopping with your kids when you need new supplies. Let them help pick out alternative cleaners to replace your dishwasher and washing machine detergents, household cleaning supplies, and even paint (water instead of oil-based), to name just a few items. Or, if you’re feeling extra ambitious, try making your own household cleaning supplies. Idea: How well do students know how we clean our water?

Recent marketing research shows that people are far more likely to throw away scraps of paper and smashed cans, while recycling whole, undented materials.
Photograph by Ildar Sagdejev, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (In That Order!)
Teach your kids the joys of living simply. Be an example of responsible consumption by only purchasing items of high quality that will last, you will use often, and are locally made whenever possible. Keep items longer. Promote sharing and passing things on to siblings or other friends instead of throwing them “away.” Finally, when an item must be tossed, see if it can be recycled instead of sent straight into a landfill. This is obvious with plastic, aluminum, and paper, but take it a step further: Often local organizations have services available for recycling old cell phones, batteries, and even computers. Idea: Where are people recycling?

Image courtesy One More Generation

Ditch Plastic
Take some time to sit down with your kids and learn about the five plastic gyres that have blighted our oceans. Get rid of plastic straws, sandwich baggies, water bottles, grocery bags, etc., and replace them with reusable, light, stainless-steel “tupperware” and water bottles, and canvas bags. Not creating waste in the first place is the best way to prevent trash from ending up in our rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans. It’s also a great way to prevent wildlife from ingesting our plastic waste—and often dying from it. Idea: Take the #PlanetOrPlastic pledge!

A girl feeds her dog an ice cream cone. Photograph by David Boyer, National Geographic

Make Sure Pets Do Their Part, Too
Taking your dog for a walk is a fun outdoor activity the whole family can enjoy together, but be sure to bring something with you to collect your pup’s poop, especially if you will be near a water source or walking on the beach. If you don’t collect it, the harmful bacteria it contains will leach into the water, which can make people sick. Also, be sure to read the labels on your dog food or cat food to make sure it’s made of sustainable ingredients. For felines, never flush their kitty litter down the toilet. If you’re into tropical fish, avoid buying wild fish plucked from the reef, and never release your aquarium fish into the wild; they can quickly become an invasive species that throws the local ecosystem out of whack. Idea: What pets can students care for while they learn?

Image courtesy My Wonderful World

Conserve Energy & Water
Saving energy and water is good for the environment and your wallet! Think of all the extra, fun activities your family could do together with money you save from switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, unplugging appliances when they are not in use, installing low-flush systems in your toilets, and only running your dishwasher and washing machines when they have full loads. All of these small acts add up to make a big difference for our ozone and climate, which the ocean helps regulate. Sit down with your kids and make a list of things you can work on changing together. Idea: How do students think about conserving energy and water?


There are hundreds of fun ways to become an Ocean Hero, and these are just a few to get you started. Once again, my hope is that by sharing these tips, I can be a source of encouragement, not a burden. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Slowly implement new habits and projects at home and at school, and keep it fun! Each new goal accomplished is that much sweeter with enthusiastic kids involved—kids who will soon be leading our youngest generation of Ocean Heroes.

Fifth-grade students from Williams Elementary School explore Blue Spring and document the world beneath the surface through underwater photography. Learn more about Nat Geo Explorer Jennifer Adler’s project to give Florida students a “quick dip in the aquifer” here.
Photograph by Jennifer Adler

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