From climate change to widespread plastic pollution to illegal fishing, the challenges to restoring and maintaining marine health in the 21st century are almost as big and complicated at the ocean itself. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14—SDG14 for short—seeks to focus global attention on how to solve these problems while ensuring that millions of people worldwide will be able to tap into the ocean’s resources to help them rise out of poverty.

Here’s an introduction to 14 diverse people and organisations that are stepping up to that challenge.

Dr. Sylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle talks with President Barack Obama during his visit to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2016. Credit: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

Get a close-to-firsthand impression of Sylvia Earle, a true champion of the oceans, by checking out her TED Talk, where she proposes to establish a global network of marine protected areas—the goal of her non-profit organization Mission Blue.

Earle, an 81-year-old American marine biologist, explorer, diver, author and lecturer, has logged an impressive 7,000-plus hours underwater; authored or co-authored upwards of 200 scientific and popular publications; and co-founded two companies Deep Ocean Engineering and Deep Ocean Technologies, which have developed submersibles such as Deep Rover that allow exploration at much deeper ocean depths than previously possible.

A former chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Earle is currently explorer-in-residence at the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society.

Earle’s movies and books are inspirational, such as 1980’s Gentle Giants of the Pacific (1980), a documentary recording the journey of sperm whales from Hawaii to Australia, around South Africa and up to Alaska.

Isabella Lövin

In Feb. 2017, Sweden’s deputy prime minister Isabella Lovin referred legislation to make the country carbon-neutral by 2045 to parliament, which passed it in June. Credit: Isabella Lövin/Wikimedia Commons)

Isabella Lövin initially rose to prominence in the ocean world as a freelance journalist. One reviewer termed her prize-winning 2012 book, “Silent Seas: The Fish Race to the Bottom,” which documents the degradation and decimation of Sweden’s fish stocks, “the Da Vinci Code of fisheries policy. A page turner where the same question keeps turning over and over inside your head: Who is the killer? Who killed our seas? ”

Now a politician affiliated with Sweden’s Green Party, she is the nation’s deputy prime minister and minister for international development cooperation, and climate. “I want to modernise Sweden’s development cooperation so that it can tackle the challenges facing the world,” Lövin states on the government’s website.  “Sweden has an important role at international level in pushing for sustainable development that benefits everyone. We are the first generation that can wipe out extreme poverty and the last one that can halt climate change.” Lövin is very active on Twitter, partly in Swedish.

John Tanzer

Christopher Kong (right) of the Kudat Fishing Boat Owners Association shows John Tanzer (left) some of the day’s fishing catch. Credit: Mazidi Ghani/WWF-Malaysia

John Tanzer, the director of the Global Maritime Program at WWF International, has helped to refocus the project’s strategy on sustainable development and a blue economy, with marine conservation as the key to both. He was the director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for over 10 years. You can follow either of his two Twitter accounts, John Tanzer, or John Tanzer WWF, to stay up to date with his work as well as the latest ocean-related news and views.

[Note: AtKisson Group has worked with WWF International as a consultant. -Ed.]

Ray Dalio

Here’s an interesting one. Most of the people on this list are activists or politicians, but not Ray Dalio, the founder and former co-chief executive officer of Bridgewater Associates, which at  USD 16.8 billion in net worth is one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Dalio is rated the 69th richest person in the world, which puts him just outside the 62 people that own as much as the poorest half of the world population.

None of this screams “leader in ocean issues.” But Dalio is also a philanthropist: Through his Dalio Ocean Initiative he quietly funds, among other things, the research vessel Alucia and Alucia Productions, a non-profit effort combining research and communication to bridge the gap between knowledge and action. (Deep Rover, the submersible developed by Sylvia Earle’s company, is on board one of the project’s research vessels.)

Does supporting this initiative make Ray Dalio a leader? Maybe not the kind of idealised leader we usually think of when the word pops into our heads, but a valid one nonetheless.

Nicolas Hulot

Nicolas Hulot speaking with journalists at the Paris climate conference, COP22, in 2015. Credit: COPParis2015/flickr

Nicolas Hulot, a French journalist and environmental activist, announced in 2006 that he would stand as a candidate in the general election if other candidates would not adopt ecology as one of the main election themes. With polls at the time estimating his support at around 15 percent, about half of the 12 candidates running eventually signed the proposed ecology pact.

As the founder and leader of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation for Nature and Mankind, Hulot has been working on changing consumption patterns throughout society since 1990. Now he’ll be working from the inside out: Recently-elected French president Emmanuel Macron has appointed Hulot his minister of ecology.

It will be interesting to see how Hulot contributes in the political arena. Follow his (French) Twitter here.

Bernardo Sambra

Bernardo Sambra, a Peruvian photographer and conservationist specialising in wildlife and the submarine world, founded The Living Oceans together with his wife Valerie Crousse in 2004. With a tagline and mission of  “protecting through images,” the project showcases the beauty and fragility of the oceans through the lenses of some of the worlds best photographers, educating the public and generating consciousness for conservation.

Sambra’s 2013  TEDx Talk conveys the core message embodied in this work: We can only protect the things we know.

You can follow his (Spanish) Twitter here. Make sure to follow him and others contributing to The Living Oceans on Instagram as well, for some breathtaking underwater photography.

Melati and Isabel Wijsen

Melati and Isabel Wijsen, co-founders of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, at the UN Environment launch of the Clean Seas campaign in Bali, Indonesia in 2017. Credit: Shawn Heinrichs/UNEP

Indonesian sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen were 10 and 12 years old, respectively, when they co-founded  Bye Bye Plastic Bags. They saw a problem at their Bali doorstep—more precisely, plastic bags on their favourite beach—and worked on finding a solution.

Since the Wijsens took on the issue, the island’s governor has committed to banning plastic bags by 2018.

These two young women really defy the “Tall, Handsome White alpha-Males with Privilege” (“THWαMP”) template of leadership that Keith Grint decscribes in his 2010 book “Leadership: A very short introduction.” Check out their inspiring talk at the TEDGlobal Conference in 2015, and keep up with their progress on Twitter.

Daniela Fernandez

Daniela Fernandez founded the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) while she was a student at Georgetown University, in response to a 2014 call for ocean action by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Through the organisation, Fernandez aims to empower millennials like herself to become leaders in preserving ocean health.

SOA partnered with the U.S. State Department to co-host the “Our Ocean Leadership Summit” in Washington, D.C., and Daniela herself has spoken at the United Nations, as well as at The Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali.  Follow her on Twitter.

Alexandra Cousteau

Alexandra Cousteau. Credit: Gilberto Cardenas/flickr

Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of French marine explorer and conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau and daughter of Philippe Cousteau, Sr, continues the family tradition. She is a senior advisor for the NGO Oceana, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, a film-maker, and the founder of Blue Legacy International, a non-profit with the mission of engaging people to reclaim and restore the world’s water supplies. Cousteau has led expeditions across six continents and produced over 100 short films about water issues around the world.  Try to keep up with her via her Twitter feed.

Adrian Grenier

Leonardo DiCaprio is usually the go-to male movie star when it comes to environmentalism. But Adrian Grenier, best known for playing a movie star named Vincent Chase in the TV series “Entourage,” is an accomplished ocean activist. Grenier discovered his passion for the oceans upon co-producing “52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale,” a documentary that chronicles a quest to find the mysterious and solitary right while emitting cries at a unique sonic frequency that scientists believe no other whale can hear.

Through his  Lonely Whale Foundation, Grenier has worked since to inspire empathy and action for ocean health and the well-being of marine wildlife. Grenier attended the 2015 United Nations climate conference in Paris, alongside Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall, to urge for rapid action on reducing global carbon emissions.

Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, who has courted criticism of his environmental activism with personal lifestyle choices (such as private plane flights), Grenier aims to project a consistent public message about sustainability.  He reportedly tries to reduce his use of plastic, in part by allowing no plastic bags inside his house. Follow Grenier on Twitter here.

Murray Fisher

Have you heard about the Billion Oyster Project yet? It’s one of the best-known initiatives of the New York Harbor Foundation, an organization Murray Fisher co-founded in 2010 and has led ever since. The project aims to spur a large-scale ecological revival of New York harbor by returning oysters, a keystone species that went commercially extinct in these waters decades ago due to over-harvesting, dredging and pollution, to the harbor ecosystem.

Students from the New York Harbor School monitor a Billion Oyster Project oyster reef in Brooklyn Bridge Park, 2016. Credit: New York Harbor Foundation/flickr

Through the Billion Oyster Project, local students have seeded 20 million new oysters in New York harbor over the past six years. It’s an remarkable effort that combines ecological restoration, environmental education of young people, and community effort. You can follow the Billion Oyster Project on Twitter.

Jerker Tamelander

Swedish native Jerker Tamelander has for six years been the head of Coral Reef Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Bangkok. In this role he is leading conservation and sustainable development activities on coral reefs and associated ecosystems, through analysis and guidance as well as programme development and implementation.

Other projects Tamelander works on in his UNEP capacity include Sustainable Dive Tourism Through Green Fins and the Coral Reef Marine Protected Area in Ninh Hai, Vietnam.

Follow all of UNEP’s activities through its Twitter account.

David Miliband

David Miliband. may seem like another surprising choice for this list. Not to be confused with his brother Ed Miliband (former leader of the U.K. Labour Party), David is a self-described ex-politician, having been the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs between 2007 and 2010.

More recently he volunteered as a co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, between 2013 and 2016. Focusing on the high seas—the vast ocean areas that lie beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones of individual nations—the commission worked to promote action on reversing the degradation of the ocean, and restoring it to full health and productivity.

Miliband, who has described these challenges as “the ecological equivalent of a financial crisis,” now runs the International Rescue Committee, a prominent humanitarian aid group.


We promised to introduce you 14 global leaders, but here’s a surprise: Number 14 is you and me. As important as individual leadership clearly is, what’s even more important is that people support their work. So let’s always been asking ourselves what we can do to protect the oceans.

Maybe it’s a financial donation to one of the groups listed above. Maybe it is avoiding single-use plastics, or participating at a beach or riverbank clean-up.

Maybe it is about letting our elected officials know we support ecologically sound, economically just ocean policies and programs.

Whatever it is, know that the decisions we make individually do matter. Perhaps they’ll even inspire others around us to become leaders themselves!

Each person can help restore and protect the oceans. Credit: Yosuke Shimizu/flickr