Protecting our Ocean and Building Awareness in Italy

I’d love to share my story with you of my work with an organization called Worldrise fighting to protect our beautiful ocean. To finish my master’s in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development, I chose to study the educational and communication investments in marine conservation to improve community knowledge and behavior.

I was connected with Mariasole Bianco, the founder of Worldrise, through Charlotte Vick while working at the COP21 events for the Sylvia Earle Alliance. Mariasole Bianco is an Italian Environmental Scientist and expert in Marine Conservation and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPA). She founded Worldrise in 2013 to promote grassroots marine conservation projects in Italy providing a platform for local communities and university students to develop environmental educational programs and sustainable development projects.

I was immediately attracted to Mariasole’s energy and enthusiasm for marine protection. After I finished my courses in France, I was off to Italy to work with the three different projects that make up Worldrise; #Batti5, Full Immersion Cinque Terre, and Il Golfo dei Delfini. Each project has a purpose of positively impacting the marine environment through education and awareness building in the communities we work in.

I loved every minute of my week in the Tuscan seaside city of Viareggio working with the #Batti5 project. This project was developed to stimulate children’s creativity and encourage them to reconnect with nature. We worked with three different elementary schools as well as the local library.

In the first phase of this project we introduced the children to the issue of marine plastics and the importance of our ocean. I was so surprised by how much the kids already knew about the dangers of plastics to marine animals and how this can move up the food chain eventually ending up on our plate. The next phase consists of beach clean-ups where kids collect only plastics such as cups, straws, toys, bags, etc. along their local beaches. They quickly realized the quantity of plastic found along their beaches. Some groups collected up to 8 kilos of plastic in just a short 40-minute period. It was refreshing to see these young kids so excited to help make a difference and clean-up their beaches. The third phase involves an art project where the kids use their plastic pieces to fill in marine animal drawings on a poster board. These posters were then placed in front of each beach entrance we cleaned sending a message to the community of the threats of single-use plastics.

This last part of #Batti5 is crucial because it helps students understand that this durable material, which can last for hundreds to thousands of years, can be easily up-cycled and turned into something new rather than just using it once and throwing it out. #Batti5 gives hope and strength to continue educating, raising awareness, and fighting for the protection our planet Earth. Our future generations need to be educated on these urgent issues now so they can grow up to become leaders, speakers, role models, and stewards of our environment.

As part of my research, I had teachers take individual surveys on their experience and feedback of the project. Although it was a very small sample size, the results reflect the teacher’s willingness and enthusiasm to continue participating in this project.

Video created by NECOS

 I then moved to the crystal blue waters of Golfo Aranci, Sardegna to work on the Golfo dei Delfini project. This project focuses on educating tourists and tour operators on the importance of eco­‐tourism using dolphin watching in Golfo Aranci as a prime example. The project intends to promote and value the natural resources within the area, which can provide substantial benefits to the local community.

While working and living at the Centro Immersioni Figarolo dive shop, I gained scuba dive certificates and helped develop the eco-friendly dolphin project.  Here I began learning the daily duties of preparing divers, filling tanks, and all of the other glories of working at a dive shop! It was such a beautiful experience living with Mauro and Federico Lubino and connecting so well with the dive shop owners Andrea Gloghini and Valentina Miglore, being included in their C.I.F family, learning their Sardinian culture and being able to practice my Italian everyday.

Tour operators who participate in the Golfo dei Delfini project are certified by Friend of the Sea as “eco­‐friendly” dolphin watching excursions by signing the code of conduct based on international guidelines for migratory species. Tour operators are obliged to follow regulations such as keeping the motor on neutral in order to not disturb the dolphin’s hearing and always remaining within 60 meters of the dolphin. I helped tour guides educate the tourists on the biology and life of the dolphins in order to share knowledge during the dolphin sighting.

We would go out on tours in the and evenings and very often see dolphins swimming around the bay.  I loved being able to educate tourists about why we shouldn’t feed these mammals or why it might be dangerous to swim with them. It’s important to raise awareness so they can take that with them and share what they learned to others who may not know the dangers of disturbing these animals’ habitats.

We also had tourists participate in a survey to estimate the economic benefits entering the community from these eco­‐friendly excursions. As part of my thesis I also measured the tourists’ perception and knowledge from what they learned. It was great to see that 97% of the population who took my surveys agreed that dolphin watching excursions should be a regulated activity. I also thought it interesting that the 3% that answered no; felt that dolphins should not become adapted to tour boats after seeing the quantity of boats filled with tourists searching for dolphins.

For the final project I moved to Levanto, a small but beautiful coastal town along the Ligurian Sea just north of the famous Cinque Terre villages. Here I lived with four other Italian scuba dive instructors in a tiny little village outside of Levanto called Pastine Superiore. I worked at the dive shop here called Punta Mesco Diving where we would take divers to dive in the Marine Protected Area of Cinque Terre. Again, I quickly connected with the Punta Mesco Diving family learning a wealth of knowledge with the owner Dario Ferrari's stern scuba diving instruction.

The Full Immersion Project promotes the value and importance of MPAs. I helped educate divers with a short briefing before their dive on the importance of diving with caution in an MPA and the importance of the biological diversity they may find along their dive.

This particular MPA of Cinque Terre where we were diving was established in 1997, extending from the Promontory of Punta Mesco until the Capo di Montenergo in Riomaggiore. In Italy, an MPA is made up of three zones (A, B, C) which are subject to different rules and regulations. Zone A covers an area considered to be the heart of the MPA where particularly restrictive regulations to protect the rocky bottoms is reserved for only research. Zone B covers two areas, a strip of Zone A including the meadows of Posidonia oceanica, which are considered the lungs of the Mediterranean providing refuge for hundreds of organisms. The other area covered in Zone B surrounds “Capo di Montenegro” which holds one of the richest biological populations in the Mediterranean, the coralligenous formations made up of many different animals and organisms over thousands of years. Zone C includes the links between the two headlands and is the least restrictive where you can bath, dive, and fish.

Image from Parque Nazionale delle Cinque Terre

Divers were also asked to participate in a short questionnaire before and after their dive in order to view their perception of the biological importance of the area as well as their feedback of the dive they just enjoyed. The questions presented in the survey asked about perception, knowledge, and about future behaviors these diver might participate in to continue protecting natural resources. 76% of the population said they would be interested in taking a marine biology course at the dive center. I thought that would be a great opportunity to develop a biology course taught by one of the dive instructors. Punta Mesco Diving could be certified as an "Eco-dive shop" while at the same time benefiting the local community to enrich in their marine biology knowledge.

Worldrise is a great example of an organization that builds awareness on the values of the marine environment and the importance of its protection. I learned and experienced so much during my time with Worldrise. Not only did I live and work in field with a very big gender gap, many times being one of the only women, but also I was able to experience working with different local Italian communities as a Hispanic American promoting and pushing marine protection in a country where every region is widely different in dialect, culture, and traditions. It was truly a holistic and empowering experience!