When Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman, an Atlantean demigod and superhero from the DC Comics universe, he was already a household name. The actor had made his small-screen debut years earlier as lifeguard Jason Ioane on Baywatch Hawaii. He’d appeared as Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis and in a remake of Conan the Barbarian. He achieved superstardom as Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones, where he showed off his acting chops as a loyal — if ruthless — leader.
So, when Aquaman came along, Momoa was no stranger to having all eyes on him. But what caught him off-guard was exactly who was watching.
“I’ve never really been looked at by the younger generation until Aquaman,” he says. “Never did I have a kid look up to me. It’s crazy and beautiful.”
With that realization, he says, a lifetime of passion and frustration clicked into place.
In 2019, Momoa addressed the United Nations about the perils of ocean pollution and water inequality. He launched a water company that replaced plastic bottles with aluminum packaging that he describes as “infinitely recyclable.”
Earlier this year, he donated drinking water to the Navajo Nation, an Indigenous community of some 200,000 people in the Southwest that was not only ravaged by COVID-19, but also has struggled historically to gain reliable access to clean water.
Knowing the power of social media, he shaved his trademark beard to draw attention to his cause. He publicly called out fellow celebrities after he caught them holding plastic water bottles.
Because if Momoa could inspire us to feel anything, he wants us to care more about the world’s oceans. If he could inspire us to do anything, he wants us to ditch single-use plastics.
If he can be a real-life superhero, Momoa is going to be a crusader for clean water.
It might not come as a surprise that Momoa has a passion for water — but it would be wrong to assume this connection is due only to Aquaman. In fact, Momoa’s aqueous interests are deeply rooted in his family lineage.
Momoa was born in Honolulu to parents of widely divergent backgrounds. His father is of Samoan and Hawaiian descent; his mother’s forebears were European and Native American. His mom eventually moved to Iowa, where Momoa grew up.
There, he was acutely aware of the “culture clash” between Micronesia and the Midwest — not least of all with regard to water’s varying degrees of importance.
On the mainland, he saw people taking water for granted; it wasn’t on anyone’s mind unless there was a flood, he recalls. “But on the islands, water is life. Every aspect of life is tied to the water.”
After high school, Momoa studied marine biology in college and eventually returned to Hawaii, where he pursued a modeling and acting career.
Amid all his success, he never lost sight of his heritage or his connection to his family, to his island, and to the water. His most prominent tattoo, a sleeve on his left arm, is a pattern of repeating rows of shark teeth. He explains that it’s a tribute to the shark, which is his family’s aumakua, a guardian spirit and the Momoa family crest.
“It’s supposed to take the darkness out of your heart and bring the light in,” he said of the artwork in a 2013 interview. “But we’re still working on that,” he added with a laugh.
Over the years, Momoa’s ancestral ties converged with a growing awareness of the damage plastics pollution has inflicted on the world’s oceans and other waterways. “One million single-use plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world,” he says emphatically.
And that is only the beginning: Half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year is used only once, and more than 8 million tons land in our oceans. Some experts have projected that by 2050 those bodies of water will contain more plastic than fish by weight. (Learn more about the problem with plastic at “The Problem With Plastic — and What we Can Do About It”.)
The least we can do, Momoa says, is choose a better bottle.
“It baffles me that I can be on a plane and get a can of Coke, can of beer, can of Perrier — but for water, it takes three different kinds of plastic just in the bottle! That pisses me off,” he says. “I carry a reusable water bottle. I have a well at home. But no matter what I do [as an individual], there’s still plastic everywhere. I wanted to do something bigger and not just complain about it.”
To that end, in 2019, he launched Mananalu Pure Water, which packages drinking water in aluminum cans.
“Mana is a very sacred word in Hawaiian,” he explains. “It means ‘spirit of life’ — it’s a whole energy force. Nalu means wave. Mananalu represents an unstoppable wave of change,” he adds. “I want to create a wave of change.”
That wave of change may begin with better packaging options, but Momoa knows it can’t stop there.
Plastic pollution, climate change, and water inequality are systemic and multilayered problems that affect the most vulnerable among us, including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and lower-income communities, as well as wildlife.
The culture clash that Momoa saw firsthand as a youngster — the set of circumstances that makes it easy for those of us with access to clean water to ignore or dismiss plastics pollution — is thriving today. “As a native Hawaiian born to a mother from Iowa, I have seen how one place can be oblivious to another,” he said in his UN address.
Speaking on behalf of island nations, which he described as “stewards of this planet,” Momoa implored his audience to pay attention to and take action against the climate crisis and rising sea levels.
“The oceans are in a state of emergency. Entire marine ecosystems are vanishing with the warming of the seas. And as the waste of the world empties into our waters, we face the devastating crisis of plastic pollution.”
He was unequivocal in placing blame for the crisis squarely on the actions of humans and the inaction of leaders who value short-term profits over basic human rights: “We are a disease that is infecting our planet.”
“Change cannot come in 2050, or 2030, or even 2025,” he added. “The change must come today. We can no longer afford the luxury of half-assing it as we willingly force ourselves beyond the threshold of no return.”
Coastal communities face the devastating effects of a climate crisis that includes rising water levels, disappearing islands, and new (and destructive) weather patterns. But they are not the only groups facing water-related tragedy.
The lead-contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., is perhaps one of the best-known cases of environmental injustice in the United States: Black people account for 54 percent of the city’s population, 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and children in low-income neighborhoods are particularly susceptible to elevated blood lead levels, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
But Flint is certainly not the only example. While the majority of Americans have access to safe water, the NRDC found that thousands of community water systems have violated federal drinking-water laws.
A less publicized case of water inequality drew Momoa’s attention this past spring: Decades of injustice intensified as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the Navajo Nation, which spans Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. He learned that 30 percent of the residents on the Navajo reservation and three of 12 Hopi villages in the area lack reliable access to running water (or electricity).
This is due to waterways and wells that have been contaminated or drained by uranium and coal mines. Only 16 grocery stores and small food markets serve the entire region.
“I had no idea until a friend showed me an article,” Momoa remembers. He promptly shipped a donation of Mananalu water to the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Effort. “I wanted to help and hopefully bring awareness,” he says.
“I’m not just trying to sell my cans,” Momoa continues. “It’s not just that aluminum is the answer. I want to give people a better choice. I want people to make a better choice.”
As he sets his sights on the future — which includes growing Mananalu and his production company, Pride of Gypsies, and filming Aquaman 2 — he credits his fitness and meditation practice as well as his family with keeping him grounded. “It’s really all in the people you keep close,” he says admiringly of his wife and two kids.
That said, he notes that the work itself propels him. “If you’re doing what you love to do, it energizes you,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of fire in me; the activism fuels me. There’s a lot of people who need help. What weighs me down is not being able to do it all.”