David Helvarg: The Critical Mission of Saving Our Oceans

By Bruce Boyers

When I got the assignment to interview David Helvarg, noted author, journalist, and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, I had no idea of the vault of emotions I was about to open within myself. As the threat to our seas has become more pronounced over the years, it seems that this vault has become quite solidly shut and firmly locked, and shoved back into the farthest, darkest recesses of my mind; and until David started talking, I’d pretty much forgotten about it altogether.

Mid interview with him, I suddenly recalled how as an eight-year-old I had learned to bodysurf in the tumbling waves on the shores of Long Beach, California—and how crushing it was to me when Big Oil came along and erected drilling platforms just offshore, disguising them (badly) as tropical islands, plastic palms and all. At the same time a breakwater was built, and the waves that I had played in were no more.

Other memories came rushing forth. When even younger (about age three or four) I had wandered from under my mother’s watchful eye and into the hefty surf of Laguna Beach. I got caught up in a wave and was turned end over end, until I was summarily deposited on the shore. I stood up, shook the water from my ears and looked back out to sea. I hadn’t been frightened; the ocean had been gentle if strong with its salty, foamy touch. I felt like I had made a giant liquid blue-and-white friend.

Years later I went back to Laguna to show it to my son, but the Laguna that I had known had totally vanished—smothered and jammed with condos and brand-new luxury homes, the streets choked with the high-end sleek vehicles of the nouveau riche, the once funky beachfront now ablaze with trendy restaurants and expensive hotels. I haven’t been back since, preferring my memories of open grassy hills rolling down to the sea where I stepped gingerly through tide pools in search of hermit crabs.

In a similar way, I prefer the memories of playing with my school friends under Santa Monica Pier, leaving completely a present time in which the Santa Monica Bay has become one of the most polluted oceanic spots in the world, where you swim at your own risk.

Yes, all of these memories were firmly locked away—until I began talking to this remarkable man, who shared many similar memories and much more, and has made it his life’s mission to help restore the planet’s oceans.

David Helvarg and the Blue Frontier

Just who is David Helvarg? Well, to begin, he’s a man who has without question led a prolifically active existence. In the seventies, you would have found him as a journalist in Northern Ireland when the civil strife known as “the Troubles” was at its height. In the eighties, he was covering the US role in Central American conflicts; he was actually arrested by the Salvadoran army and deported from El Salvador in 1983 while reporting on a massacre of civilians. In the nineties, he was reporting and writing on topics ranging from underwater technology to AIDS education.

As an award-winning journalist, Helvarg has produced more than 40 broadcast documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and others. His print work has appeared in publications including the New York TimesLos Angeles TimesSmithsonianPopular ScienceSierra and the Nation.

If you ask him what has brought him to now fight exclusively for the ocean, you discover the other part of his life—existing the whole while and finally consuming him.

“I’ve always been engaged with the ocean since I was a kid,” Helvarg told Calmful Living. “Most of my life was schizophrenic; I was going off to cover wars and epidemics so I could come home to go bodysurfing and diving and hang out with the waves. Because I spent my life around the water I also observed the shifting baseline, how things were not getting better and the rapid changes that were taking place.”

Unlike me, however, who did my best to not see such changes, Helvarg took action. In 2000 he wrote a book entitled Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas, through which he applied his investigative skills to the waste, fraud and abuse that were undermining the ecological integrity of our living seas. He made a decision to cover the other 71 percent of the planet that he hadn’t been covering in his life: the oceans. A deep personal loss nearly took him back to war reporting, just to escape depression—but then he got a call from famed consumer and environmental activist Ralph Nader, who had read Blue Frontier.

“There is a chapter in the book entitled ‘The Seaweed Rebellion,’ about marine grass-roots activists who have solutions, and how we need to scale them up,” Helvarg related. “So Ralph Nader asked me if anybody was organizing the Seaweed Rebellion, and I said no. He offered me office space and some support to start that. I guess I figured we were always going to have wars, but we may not always have coral reefs, marine wildlife and protective coastal salt marshes. It was something that I had the knowledge base to work on, and so we formed the Blue Frontier Campaign.”

The Campaign has established a nationwide network of grass-roots lobbyists and is campaigning for an American Oceans Act to protect public seas, as well as working to improve ocean policies in the 23 coastal states  of the United States. Its other objectives include the creation of books, a TV documentary series, and various educational materials on ocean exploration and stewardship. The first such creation was the 2005–2006 Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide. The Blue Vision Conference in Washington, DC, in July 2004 and Blue Vision Mid-Atlantic Conference at the National Aquarium in Baltimore in April 2005 began a series of seminars to introduce seaweed activists to oceanographers, port officials and other marine stakeholders, which continue to this day.

50 Ways to Save the Ocean

To aid the Campaign and to bring awareness to the average citizen, Helvarg in 2006 released a book entitled 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, which illustrates how each person, no matter where he or she lives, is connected to the ocean, and lists out 50 simple methods by which everyone can help save our seas. Recently the Blue Frontier Campaign launched a project called Digital 50 Ways, a project that profiles young people working on marine solutions inspired by the book. It is being done in partnership with Digital Ocean, a virtual meeting ground that connects people and provides them with resources to advance ocean sustainability and protect Earth’s marine ecosystems.

“In the introduction to 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Philippe Cousteau wrote, ‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.’ The book came about because people lose track of that kind of connection,” said Helvarg. “I talk publicly about some of the cascading disasters confronting our oceans—from industrial overfishing to nutrient, plastic and chemical pollution, to the coastal sprawl that’s taking away essential habitats, and then on top of that the fossil fuels that have fired up climate change. People come up afterwards and ask, ‘What can I do about climate change and the collapse of marine wildlife? I’m one person. I have a family; I have a job’—or, more typically these days, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ The answer of course is, ‘You are already doing something.’ Everything we do every day impacts the seas around us, and so I started putting out the different ways people could solve things as individuals, as citizens. When you do something right for the sea, it tends to be something right for you in terms of your health, your pocketbook, and your spiritual sense of being.”

An excellent example is one of the 50 ways that advises eating organic and vegetarian foods. Helvarg points out that, in this instance, he’s not even talking about sustainable seafood but our regular land-based food. “Every thread is connected, and with industrial agriculture we put 140 pounds of synthetic fertilizer onto growing an acre of corn in Iowa, Nebraska or Illinois. It’s too much. All the surplus petrochemical-based waste follows gravity down the streambeds and rivers and ends up in the Mississippi. The spring flood causes a second crop of algae in the Gulf of Mexico. As the algae decays, it sucks the oxygen out of the water column, resulting in massive dead zones that are spreading around the world from urban and also chemical agricultural runoff.

“So the choice to eat organic is not only healthy for you, it’s healthy in terms of the runoff that doesn’t go to our coastal waters. And at the same time, if you are buying sustainably and locally, it’s foreshortening the travel time that foodstuffs take and the amount of fossil fuels burned in the process. The things that we think of as simply environmental or health oriented, such as organic eating and living and the energy choices we make, have huge impacts on the oceans around us.”

Another good tip is very close to home and deals with how we care for our yards. “A lot of people are still using synthetic fertilizers on their yards, which are going to end up in storm drains and running into the sea,” said Helvarg. “It’s important for people to take care of yards by going organic, and by doing other things such as having open lattice instead of pavement so that rainwater can go into the ground rather than running off concrete. Rain barrels are another great method of conservation. Doing it right, we can grow food and we can simply walk out the back door and reconnect with the natural world.

“For the rains that fall on your garden, you can thank the ocean. It’s this big cycle of water: the evaporation off the ocean generates the clouds that rain down through our mountains, watersheds and gardens; and these rains go straight back into the ocean and out through the coastal salt marshes and eelgrass meadows, across the reefs, into the submarine valleys and down to the abyssal depths. Forty years later they’re back at the surface recirculating again.”

What the Ocean Could Give Us—If We Let It

In addition to being a plentiful source of food, the ocean is also largely unexplored for the many other benefits it could provide—benefits that are disappearing right before our eyes.

“The sea is a frontier we’ve barely tapped into,” Helvarg said. “In 1983, Ronald Reagan declared a 200-mile exclusive oceanic economic zone for the US—about six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase—and about one-third of the world’s oceans have been fenced off the same way. Yet it remains largely unexplored. With resolution, we’ve mapped the moon and the other planets in our solar system but only about 5 to 10 percent of the ocean. Last night at an event I met Don Walsh, who, in 1960 with another explorer, went down into the deepest point on earth, the Mariana Trench, seven miles down. We’ve sent hundreds of people into space, but we only have this one person alive today who’s been to the lowest point on our planet.

“So even as we are just on the edge of discovering new phenomena, such as the medicinal benefits of sea whips for pain relief or cancer cures from soft corals, we’re in a process of simultaneous destruction. We’re putting these habitats at risk by thoughtless actions. Our seas are an area of exploration that has the potential to be a sustainable source for medicinal uses and for proteins, curing our ills.

“The sea is also a healer of more than the physical. I know just from personal experience what a healing process it is to attend to being part of something larger than yourself. Then, look at the freedom kids have to express their wild nature when you take them to the beach. For others, there is an enormous value to knowing that there’s still wilderness on our ocean planet where a person can get adrenaline rushes and thrills. Yet it also provides such a profound solace in its peace. It is a value that’s immeasurable.”

Ceasing Harm Is the First Step

It can be seen from just the few examples cited from 50 Ways to Save the Ocean that a vast majority of these methods deal with cessation of actions that are currently causing our oceans harm. But even doing that, it still takes many years for the ocean to heal.

“I think when you’re digging a hole, the way to prevent the hole is to stop digging,” Helvarg remarked. “We still have persistent organic pollutions from DDT, and we stopped producing it years back. We’ve seen the reduction of other chemicals that we’ve banned. Now one of the major pollutants is plastic. Plastic is worse than basic petroleum, which will biodegrade over time. Plastic polymers just break down into finer dusts that find their way into the food system. Those polymers attract the other chlorinated compounds and persistent organic pollutants with about a million times the attraction of seawater alone, and then present all kinds of different problems to sea life. Out in the Pacific, albatross are dying because their parents are mistaking plastic items for marine food and feeding them to their young, and they literally starve to death with bellies full of plastic. In the northwest Hawaiian Islands turtles eat plastic bags, thinking they are their favorite snack food—jellyfish.

“For plastics, I’d say that step one would be to reduce by half the plastic produced globally, which is some 200 million metric tons a year, 50 percent of which goes for single-use items like plastic bags. We do have places like San Francisco that have banned single-use plastic bags, and people are moving increasingly toward looking at alternatives to plastic. I’ve got no problem with it for bathtub liners or prosthetic arms or other uses, but certainly we need to get rid of the plastics that are in the waste stream now.

“We don’t have solutions for all the problems, but for most of them we do. We know if you stop killing fish they tend to grow back. We know advance sewage treatment can take a lot of the bacteria out of the near-shore waters. We need to restore our coastlines and restore and protect our wetlands—these are nurseries and storm barriers and water filtration systems of our coastal seas; and if we reduce the use of chemical inputs in agriculture, we reduce the coastal dead zones they’re creating.”

Is the Broad View the Personal View?

In the end, if we don’t save the ocean it will no longer be there, despite what has been thought in the past. “We used to think, not that long ago, that the ocean was so vast you could grind up all the cities of Earth and it wouldn’t feel the impact,” Helvarg said. “They used to say that fish are so abundant that their productivity couldn’t be impacted by human intervention. We now realize that none of this is true, that we’re having huge impacts on the other three-quarters of our planet that’s saltwater.”

This is the broad picture. But does it touch each of us in very personal ways as well? Hearing about Helvarg’s new book entitled Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish made me realize that my personal connection with the sea, while unique to me, was perhaps not unique in the broad scope of things. It might be that such a kinship or bond is what everyone has—whether they realize it or not—and that bond, in the end, is what will save things. Helvarg’s connection is what continues to motivate him, and he decided to share it in his new book.

“The book is kind of my memoir of my connections to the ocean since I was a young fry running around in the swamps that linked to Long Island Sound, behind my public school,” Helvarg concluded. “I was brought up in New York and as a kid thought I’d miss the discovery of alien worlds by a generation. I was kind of mad about it. When I was 15 my mom took my sister and me down to Key West, and looking at the aquamarine waters was like coming home to a place I’d never been. Putting on a mask and snorkeling, I found this whole other world with living colorful rocks and hammerhead sharks and turtles and select fish. I was hooked and I have been ever since. I think it explains why I care and continue to fight for the oceans—and why we all need to.

For more information on Blue Frontier and their activities, visit