What Does the Ocean Mean to You? To Two Young Explorers, It Means the World

On this World Oceans Day, the National Geographic Society is thrilled to announce the 2021 ArcGIS StoryMaps Ocean Challenge, an opportunity for youth co-hosted in partnership with Esri. Creating a StoryMap can empower young people to learn about the ocean, build their storytelling skills, and help protect our “beautiful big blue,” as National Geographic Young Explorer Gabby Tan calls it. Read on for a conversation about the ocean with Gabby, who is from Malaysia, and fellow Young Explorer Ben Somerville, who has lived his whole life by the ocean in the Cayman Islands.

National Geographic Society (NGS): World Oceans Day is June 8. What does the ocean mean to you?

Gabby Tan: The ocean has always been a huge source of inspiration and memories. World Oceans Day is one of my favorite days of the year. No matter how near or far we are from the ocean our lives are deeply interlinked with our beautiful big blue!

Ben Somerville: The ocean has influenced what my hobbies are, where I want to live, what I want to do in my life, who I surround myself with, and even my values. I became an environmentalist because I was witnessing the ocean around me transition from this untouched pristine environment into a place that still held such beauty but was obviously degrading.

NGS: What sparked your interest in the ocean, and how did your interest lead you to take action?

Ben: Growing up in the Cayman Islands, I was exposed to some of the most pristine marine environments in the world—as well as the human impacts on them. As an avid scuba diver, I watched as coral reefs bleached and fish species depleted, an experience that motivated me to create initiatives to preserve the Caymanian environment and culture.

Gabby: I grew up in Malaysia and was always inspired by the incredible beaches and bodies of water around me, but I didn’t know much about the issues facing our planet until a school geography trip to a coral reef nursery in the Langkawi islands. That field trip was a turning point for me. While I was amazed at a nursery of thriving, rehabilitated coral, I was shocked and disheartened by a trip to a beach littered with plastic and fishing nets. As I continued to learn more about the ways in which issues like the climate crisis, pollution, and coral bleaching were affecting coastal communities, I felt like I couldn’t just sit back and watch.

NGS: Gabby, as part of a grant from National Geographic, you are working with the Tideturners initiative to empower young people in Malaysia to learn about and develop solutions to environmental issues. Why is this project important to you, and how is it going?

Gabby: Throughout my environmental journey I’ve had the opportunity to speak to youth at workshops, schools, and conferences around the world. A theme I noticed was that many students wanted to take action but weren’t sure how to start. The gap in environmental education around the world helped inspire the creation of Tideturners. We’re gearing up to launch our free online climate resources and website this summer and are thrilled by the response we’ve gotten at our events this year.

NGS: Ben, your grant focuses on raising awareness of and conserving the mangroves of the Cayman Islands. Why is this project important to you, and how is it going?

Ben: Three of my main motivating factors are that mangrove ecosystems are central to erosion control and protecting against storms; they shelter a rich diversity of marine life; and they sequester carbon efficiently. We’ve had a lot of success with our project, from hosting educational seminars to conducting media campaigns to working with established organizations to improve conservation laws. I felt passionate about reaching younger generations of youth and teaching them about mangrove ecosystems, and we’ve been successful in addressing the lack of education on this key issue.

NGS: From your early teenage years, Gabby, you have been a strong voice for environmental justice and youth empowerment. What have these experiences taught you about the world and about yourself?

Gabby: I’ve learned that, to push for change, we must constantly question why things are the way they are, think outside the box, and be able to reimagine a better way out, because maintaining the status quo will not help us solve these issues. I’ve also found that focusing on solutions, instead of on the doom and gloom perpetuated by social media and the news, has been so important in motivating me to keep going.

People gather at Tanjung Aru Beach in Sabah, Malaysia, in 2018. Photo courtesy of Gabby Tan

NGS: What is one ocean memory you treasure?

Ben: The most fond memories I have are of free diving with sharks. All you have are a set of fins and a mask, so you almost go by unnoticed. When you encounter a shark, they cruise by slowly, scouring the tops of the reefs looking for fish. You’re able to witness the sheer size and power of the creature and its dominance in the environment, but you’re also able to witness its beauty. It makes you realize that as comfortable as you can be in the water, you still are a visitor to this natural environment.

Gabby: I will always treasure the memories I made while visiting my grandparents in Sabah, Malaysia, collecting seashells, wading in the water, flying kites, and building sandcastles. It was so much fun and instilled an appreciation for our ocean from a very young age.

NGS: What tips would you give other youth for using their voices to create change?

Gabby: Be creative (there is no one way to be an activist!), don’t underestimate yourself, and find a like-minded group of youth to work with, because we are always stronger together.

Ben: The first tip I would give is to understand that your voice holds power. The second tip is to understand the science of what you’re fighting for. If you show you’ve done your research, people will take you more seriously and the campaigns you create will be more successful.

These answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Join #GenGeo youth globally for the 2021 ArcGIS StoryMaps Challenge for Restoring Our Ocean, open to high school and college students of any age and all other individuals ages 18-24. Young people can learn about the oceans and create impactful stories about ocean health. The first-place winners will have an opportunity to participate in a networking meet-and-greet with a National Geographic Young Explorer. The submission portal officially opens on August 16, but you can get started creating your StoryMap today! Visit our ocean resources site for sample stories, maps, data, and much more.

In honor of World Oceans Day, we encourage our #GenGeo community to share this Ocean Guide with educators and families in your network. The guide contains free ocean-focused activities and resources that can be accessed worldwide.

Just announced: National Geographic updated its Map Policy to recognize Earth’s fifth ocean—the Southern Ocean. After decades of ocean research and exploration we’ve determined that the icy waters surrounding Antarctica form a distinct ecological region—including unique animals, plants, and climate—that qualify it as a fifth ocean.

Feature image by Manu San Félix

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