Turning the Tide: Emily Penn

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Emily Penn

Eco-advocate Emily Penn is studying ways to solve the challenges facing the earth’s oceans — and learning to better navigate her own life.

Emily Penn can trace the beginnings of her love affair with the ocean to her disdain for air travel. A year after traveling by train, camel, and horseback through China, the newly minted Cambridge University architecture graduate landed a job in Australia and was determined to get there by sea.

“I’d fallen in love with this idea of travel, where you get to experience the changes in landscape, culture, and climate — and the people you meet along the way,” she says.

So, in August 2008, she signed on to the crew of a record-setting biofuel-powered boat known as Earthrace that was embarking on a 120-city tour between Penn’s home in the United Kingdom and Australia. Despite the ship’s tight quarters, Penn experienced a new kind of freedom. She met Colombian sailors and Vanuatu schoolkids, learned how to wakeboard in the middle of the Atlantic, and was even kissed by a humpback whale calf. “By the time I got to Australia,” she recalls, “my whole world had changed.”

Her eyes were also opened to the plight of the earth’s oceans — trash floating miles from land; beaches littered with dead fish and birds amid the plastic refuse; and locals sickened from eating toxic seafood. Docking in Australia, the once-aspiring architect was thinking only of helping the oceans and the people, plants, and animals that rely on them.

Since 2010 she’s organized the largest-ever community-led waste cleanup of two Tongan islands, trawled for microplastics in the Northwest Passage, and co-founded Pangaea Explorations to help scientists, filmmakers, and everyday citizens access remote parts of the planet for environmental research and advocacy.

Just as the now 30-year-old Penn has left her impact on the oceans, they have had a profound impact on her, too. “Spending so many years at sea has been a gift, because it has taught me to expect change and to adjust my course in life with the winds and the tides,” she says. “You can have a direction you’re heading but know you’ll always shift your sail depending upon the conditions.”

Experience Life | Why are healthy oceans important?

Emily Penn | Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean, which is the habitat for about 80 percent of all living things. The ocean also regulates weather patterns and provides over half of the oxygen we breathe. Around 3 billion people rely on fish as their main source of protein. It also supports the seventh-largest economy in the world.

The economic aspect is a great way to help people realize the importance of the ocean in their daily lives. Money is coming from the ocean, and for us to continue making money, the ocean needs to be healthy. It’s essential to show there needs to be balance between ecology and economy, rather than pitting them against one another.

EL | What are some of the biggest problems the oceans face?

EP | A simple way to sum it up is that we are putting too much in and taking too much out.

First, we’re putting in a lot of pollution — like flame-retardant chemicals from our clothes, and pesticides and fertilizers from our lawns and crops. These get into water systems via clothes washers and rain.

We’re adding plastic waste from single-use sources that don’t have much value. Much of this ends up going from First World to developing countries that don’t have good waste-management systems, so much of it ends up in the ocean.

A lot of my work looks at how this pollution accumulates, its effects on marine life, and the food chain that humans sit atop of.

What we find with plastics is that bigger bits break down into smaller fragments, which you might think is a good thing. But because it isn’t degrading, it’s not going back into the natural cycle of nutrients. It’s just getting smaller, more difficult to see, and much harder to clean up. Most of the surface of our oceans is covered with what we call microplastics.

These tiny plastic fragments are easy for fish to mistake for food because they’re so similar in size and in density to plankton. We’re finding fish, albatross, whales, turtles, and other marine organisms with plastic in their stomachs, which can cause them to die of starvation. (For more on the scale of this problem, read “Why Are Our Oceans Full of Plastic?”)

We’re also overfishing our oceans. Upsetting the balance of ecosystems is a huge threat. For example, there has been a 90 percent decline in shark species in the last 50 years. High-end predators keep ecosystems healthy by keeping the food chain in check.

Finally, there are more complex issues — like rising sea temperatures, increasing carbon dioxide levels, and ocean acidification — which are caused by humans but can be more difficult to grasp.

EL | What can the average person do to address ocean pollution?   

EP | Become conscious about where the fish and seafood you buy come from. (For tips on conscientious consumption, see “Great Catch: Choosing Seafood That’s Nutritious, Sustainable — and Safe”.)

And avoid plastic. It’s great for some things because it’s designed to last forever, but reducing your use of disposable plastic is key. When you buy a product, consider how you’re going to use it. Is it a chair you’ll have for 20 years or a water bottle you’ll use for 20 minutes?

EL | In addition to being an ocean advocate, you’re also a talented artist. What does having a creative outlet do for you?   

EP | Art is a way of documenting all the amazing places I’m fortunate to travel to. Unlike snapping a photo, painting allows me to get close to the landscape and the light. It lets me immerse myself in the moment, which I think is something we could all benefit from. Technology has made so much available to us that we sometimes don’t take in what’s happening in front of our eyes.

Art helps me share experiences with others. Once I was sketching in a square in Tibet when a crowd of kids gathered to say hello and look at my work. This presented an opportunity to share information about my journey from Europe and the work I’m doing to clean up beaches. It would have been much harder to connect with those kids if I hadn’t been drawing.

EL | With the amount of travel you do to remote areas, what are your go-to strategies for taking care of yourself?   

EP | Food is my biggest struggle. Some places I end up going to don’t have the fresh food I prefer to eat. In the Maldives, for instance, they can’t grow fresh greens. Most of the beaches are covered in Styrofoam pieces from disposable cooler boxes that bring all the fresh food by plane and boat.

I’m very conscious wherever I am of the implications of eating a fresh green — it’s great for my body. But what are the locals eating? I try to eat what they eat, because it’s much better for the planet.

When I’m back in the U.K., I go to my parents’ home, where they grow all their own fruit and veggies, and stock up. I’m quite obsessed with salad and broccoli!

is an Experience Life staff writer.

Photography by Harry Cory Wright/The Interior Archive

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