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Underwater Awakening

Over the past year, we've been sharing the exciting underwater updates from UK based Project Seagrass co-founder RJ Lilley, on their ocean rewilding journey.
During the COVID19 pandemic and through the restoration project, some of the Project Seagrass team have been unable to physically connect with the water,  instead relying on their emotional connection to the sea. People like the project's other co-founder, Ben Jones. Director of their International Operations, below Ben gives us an insight into the work they do around the world and the communities central to this conversation.

 

[Poseidon’s Grass – the seagrass Posidonia oceanica in Chalkidiki, Greece.]

Like many others within society, my connection to the sea has persevered thanks to the positive experiences I have had in the past and a longing to re-live and re-enjoy them. So, it seems a poignant vision then, as we enjoy spring and look to summer, to connect with sea as if it were the first time all over again.

This vision is central to how my connection to seagrass meadows was conceived. As a child and teenager, I had come into contact with seagrass on numerous occasions, but never once acknowledged it. I’d no doubt spent family holidays in Greece and Spain snorkelling in meadows of Posidonia oceanica with my father only to ignore this humble plant in favour of the fauna that depend on it. Fast forward a few years, and even through university I was fixated on sharks and coral reefs - seagrass was just not on my radar. Despite a love and passion for all things ocean, I’d overlooked this unlikely habitat that would go on to underpin my life’s work to date.

As with all great narratives, then came “the big reveal” - my exposure to this previously unseen yet key character in our coastal seascape. A holiday to the Caribbean opened my eyes to this underwater savanna that was brimming with life of all shapes and sizes. While I’d had the same experience on multiple occasions in the past (in Greece and Spain as a teenager), it took fresh eyes to really awaken me to how important seagrasses are, and it’s in the tropics where this really became evident. I’ve spent the better part of Project Seagrass’ existence working on projects in the tropics, from remote archipelagos in Myanmar, to tourist hotspots in Mexico. No matter where I’ve been, conversations with communities have shed new light on the importance of seagrass and how people value it. These conversations make me appreciate seagrass, and the sea, for multiple new reasons.

 

[Eagle rays cruise over a seagrass meadow in Puerto Morelos, Mexico]

I see a lot of parallels in this with how the pandemic has played out. From changing the way that we perceive nature to shifting the way we think about what matters in the world, the COVID19 pandemic has in some ways been the awakening we need as humans. Through social distancing measures, society has opened their eyes to nature; families have been spending more time outdoors, experiencing nature as a place to exercise, to eat or to relax. As a society, we’ve started to realise how important nature is for well-being.

Thinking back to the communities I’ve met in the tropics, this connection with nature was already part of daily life. Yet, we mostly don’t perceive this connection unless we go looking for it. In places like Bali, Indonesia, seagrass meadows exist just beneath the surface of beaches popular with tourists, yet these same seagrass meadows provide a means for communities to make income through fishing. In Cambodia, backpackers flock to an archipelago to party in the same environment where others may look to collect food. For me, the key element here is that people value nature for different reasons. Whether this is as a tropical dance floor, or as nature’s own food store, it’s only for the latter where the true value of the environment is acknowledged. The reality is that nature has always been there, but we’ve been ignoring its contribution.

 

[A local fishermen in Bali, Indonesia collects fish as beachgoers sunbathe.]

[Women “glean” for invertebrates amongst the seagrass at low tide in the Wakatobi, Indonesia.]

[The sea is a place that brings happiness and joy for Monken children in the Myeik Archipelago, Myanmar.]

I have spent the majority of the pandemic writing about the relationships that people have with seagrass - my PhD research focuses on the link between people and nature. It's time spent with communities that has allowed my connection to the sea, my connection to seagrass, to persevere through this pandemic. So, as life returns to this new-normal, we should look not just beneath the surface, but beyond the surface. Wherever you are, look to the people and communities around you, and their connection to the sea, to inspire you. Connect with the sea all over again.

Words & Images by Benjamin Jones 
Thanks to Project Seagrass


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