Ellen Spooner is a leader in Ocean Optimism and was recently a featured speaker at the 2021 Green Summit. We are excited to sit down with her and learn more about her background and passion in sustainability and the ocean.
Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
Watching a dolphin swim under my kayak along the shore of Mexico, my passion for the ocean began. I am a marine biologist turned science communicator. I want to increase the sense of wonder about scientific discoveries and inspire people to take care of the ocean. While my job is based in Washington D.C., the pandemic has turned me into a bit of a digital nomad.
While I was in graduate school studying fisheries at the University of Michigan, I realized that I was spending all of this time gathering data, analyzing it, and writing it up in scientific articles, just to be read by a few other scientists. There was all this great science happening and not many people knew about it.
Now I am a Communications Specialist for ECS Federal in support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment program. I help scientists tell their story and share their work with people that can use that information to help take care of the ocean.
I came to NOAA through the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. This prestigious fellowship brings graduate students with marine science backgrounds into the Federal Government to work on policy, communication, and science. As a fellow, I split my time with NOAA and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as an Ocean Education Specialist. I got work with many extremely talented scientists and see a lot of cool specimen from narwhal skulls to megalodon teeth.
What is a fun fact about you?
My first breath underwater, I was surrounded by sharks and stingrays. I got scuba certified at the second largest reef in the world. I was shocked and a bit scared after flipping backwards into the water off the boat, taking my first breath through the regulator mouthpiece, and opening my eyes to be swarmed by sharks and sting rays. But once the initial shock settled in, I was in awe and knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. After coming up from my first dive my instructor laughed at me and told me that I handled the sharks and stingrays very well. Apparently, this was a trick he planned because sharks and stingrays come to the boats expecting to be fed by the local tour guides.
Since then I dive mostly around San Diego in the kelp beds. That is a magical experience. You feel like you are flying without gravity and just watching fish swim above, below, and next to you is incredible. If you aren’t scuba certified yet, I highly recommend dipping your face below the surface.
Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today?
It is important to understand, talk about, and work to address climate change because it is the single biggest issue humans have faced since we have existed and it affects everyone and everything. From sea level rise and excessive rain flooding streets in the U.S. to droughts in Kenya, no one is left untouched. From our food and water sources to our homes and transportation, everything is impacted. The unfortunate part is some places will see worse impacts than others.
Sustainability is important because it is the solution to climate change. We need sustainable sources of energy to mitigate climate change and we need sustainable practices to adapt to the effects of climate change. For example, the development of offshore wind could support renewable energy to fulfill the electrical needs of many cities along U.S. coastlines. And building homes that are better adapted to extreme weather can make our communities more resilient.
I had my own recent experience with the impacts of climate change and increased occurrences of fires in California. I went to Lake Isabella, California for a friend’s birthday while the fires were happening in central California. Our first day there we couldn’t go outside because smoke from the fires burned our throat and our eyes. The next day we rented a boat on the lake but the water level was so low after being drained by planes to put out the fires that we could only drive around in a small circle.
In addition to this event, my hometown of Tucson, Arizona is experiencing serious drought and is likely to reduce the amount of water available to residents there.
When it comes to climate changes impact on the ocean, warming temperatures and glaciers melting are literally changing ocean currents like never seen before. Ocean currents are important not just for life in the ocean but to help regulate our climate as well. For example, the gulf stream current comes up from the equator along the east coast of the U.S. and brings warm water over to Europe. This warm water also warms the air and impacts the climate in Europe. The good thing is we have the solutions. We just need to implement them.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
The industry of Science Communication is just getting started. More and more scientists are recognizing the value and need for communicating their science not only with other scientists but with everyone.
A quote I love says “Nothing in Science has any value to society if it is not communicated” Anne Roe, an American clinical psychologist and researcher
Younger generations of scientists are communicating in new and innovative ways and many others are joining the movement too. While there is no formal training in science communication there are more and more efforts to teach the next generation of scientists how to communicate their work. I want to highlight the scientist and creator @sofishtication who has amassed over 17,000 followers on Tik Tok and makes really engaging videos about cool animal facts, mostly ocean animals.
So I think in the next 10 years we are going to get better and better at making science interesting and engaging and making more people aware of not just the problems but the solutions to those problems as well. I hope that we can reach more and more people, and inspire generations to join in and help take care of our ocean.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
The average person can do a lot. It is important that we not only make changes in our own lives but use our voice to advocate for larger solutions at the same scales as the issues. Everyone should know their voice matters and can make a difference. So an important thing the average person can do to make a difference is use their voice to let people in positions to make choices know that we demand change. When we bring our voices together people will listen. We can set policies and make changes that will have a greater impact than any one person. So I encourage everyone to find a local organization in their city that is tracking local issues that you care about related to climate change and sustainability and get involved with them. Use your voice to support the policies they are advocating for. For example, here in San Diego, there is the Surf Rider Foundation that is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches, for all people, through a powerful activist network. They are a huge part of the clean up for the oil spill along the California coast right now and there are many ways to get involved with them.
Yet, I do believe individuals can make a difference too. Buy sustainable products like bamboo toilet paper and don’t buy single-use plastic products. Try and bike, walk, or take public transportation to more places than you drive.
Also, follow the #OceanOptimism movement on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to learn more about how we have been successful in our ocean conservation efforts.