Mitchell’s odyssey from stream to ocean

New Zealand continues to punch above its weight in global environmental issues, with three Kiwis seeking a positive change to our oceans in Washington this month.

New Zealand continues to punch above its weight in global environmental issues, with three Kiwis seeking a positive change to our oceans in Washington this month.

Mitchell Chandler’s inspiring journey began in a stream running alongside his Nelson primary school. 

It has wended its way through the Southern Ocean, and is now leading him across the Pacific to Washington DC—and the opportunity to make a difference to the world’s ocean.

The University of Otago oceanography student is thrilled to have been chosen by the Sir Peter Blake Trust as a youth delegate at the “Our Ocean, One Future: Leadership Summit” at Georgetown University this month. For the first time, high-level ocean leaders will join 150 university students from around the globe to build leadership strategies and spur action on protecting the ocean.

“It will be an amazing experience,” Chandler, 20, says. “The benefits will be two-fold—developing action plans so that we can help raise people’s awareness about the plight of our oceans, but also networking and meeting other young people with similar interests.”

The emerging marine scientist won’t be the only Kiwi represented in Washington. Royal New Zealand Navy sub-lieutenant and marine engineer Pauline Theron is New Zealand’s other youth delegate, while the Sir Peter Blake Trust’s chief executive, Shelley Campbell, will attend the 2016 Our Ocean Conference running in parallel with the youth summit. 

The conference, hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, is the third in as many years. Its objective is to draw attention to the huge pressure the ocean is under—from unsustainable fishing, marine pollution and climate change—and to “empower a new generation to lead the way toward a healthy and sustainable ocean”.

Always about the water

Chandler is a prime example of that generation. He grew up in Nelson, surrounded by sea, where his family has always been in or on the water.

“We have kayaks and stand up paddle boards, and recently my dad and I got our open water scuba diving certificates. The water has played a big part in my life,” he says.

His interest in the marine environment was sparked at Nayland Primary School, where he belonged to a group who monitored the health of the nearby Poorman’s Stream.  “Since then, it’s pretty much always been my thing, but now it’s developed into a bigger body of water – the ocean,” he says.

Chandler’s work with the marine environment has been recognised since a young age—he was a recipient of a Sir Peter Blake Young Leader’s Award, attended the Youth Enviro Leaders Forum and went to the Sub-Antarctic with the Young Blake Expedition programme in 2014.

Real world ocean science

Last summer, Chandler was the Blake Ambassador for NIWA, working in Wellington alongside NIWA scientists conducting measurements of variables in climate and atmosphere. He analysed data measuring wind from an Antarctic monitoring site, and profiled the atmospheric gases measured during a cargo ship’s journey from Nelson to Japan.

“It was cool working in the real world with science,” says Chandler, who is in his second year of a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in oceanography. His ongoing involvement is to “spread the message about what NIWA and the Trust does.”

It’s something that Chandler sees as critical to saving the world’s water ways—a passion he shares with the late Sir Peter Blake.

“It’s about how you can get other people involved in recognising the impacts their activities have on the oceans and waterways,” he says. “Encouraging other people. While I’m quite passionate about it, they don’t have to be as passionate—but just understand the importance of it; that it’s more than just water.

“I can go down to the ocean and take some measurements, or pick up some rubbish, but that is just a one-off, localised event. If I can get a large number of people interested in doing things, or even spreading the message, it’s going to have a longer lasting impact. That’s an important part, getting others involved and aware.

“I think people’s attitudes are improving and the number of people wanting to do something to help is growing. As it gets worse, more and more people realise something has to be done. It’s kind of depressing how bad the state of our water has become, but at the same time there’s hope because more people realise how bad it is and that we need to do something.

“Hopefully at some stage the number of people wanting to do something will outweigh the negative impacts, and we will start seeing some positive changes.”

Ocean action plans for home

From the action plans that are drawn up at the Our Ocean, One Future summit, Chandler plans to return home with ideas he can implement in both Dunedin and back home in Nelson as a starting point.

“I’m also really looking forward to meeting the other like-minded students who want to help the ocean. Hearing from them and learning some of the things they’re already doing will be amazing,” he says.

Among the ocean leaders who will work with the young delegates are National Geographic Society Explorer Dr Sylvia Earle, the White House director of science and technology policy Dr John Holdren, and Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the legendary undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau and founder of the youth environmental education organisation EarthEcho.

Each future environmentalist, political leader, entrepreneur and scientist will make an “Ocean pledge” during the summit. Chandler’s is: To increase public awareness of the importance of the ocean through public engagement in community ocean-related events, and particularly through workshops at local schools. 

Pauline Theron has seen with her own eyes the magnitude of pollution in the waters of the South Pacific.

The Royal New Zealand Navy sub-lieutenant and marine engineer, who was top graduate at this year’s Navy graduation of junior officers and sailors, has been on board HMNZS WELLINGTON, completing fisheries patrols around the islands of the Southwest Pacific.  

“It exposed me to the procedures used and the challenges faced in enforcing sustainable fisheries in this area,” she says. Earlier this year, she also joined the RNZN and Sea Cleaners to collect rubbish from Auckland beaches.

As one of our youth delegates at the Our Ocean, One Future Leadership Summit, Theron has made her ocean pledge: “To investigate current rubbish disposal methods used by the RNZN and identify if there are any recycling or other actions that can be taken to minimise our footprint.”

The 2016 Our Ocean Conference and the Our Ocean, One Future Leadership Summit will be held in Washington, D.C., on September 15-16.

Related links:

Sir Peter Blake Trust’s Chief Executive - Shelley Campbell, NIWA's Chief Executive - John Morgan, and youth delegates for Our Ocean, One Future Summit - Mitchell Chandler and Pauline Theron. [NIWA]