World Ocean Weekly

Culture, Connection and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Africa Town, a community established by the survivors of Cotilda

Remains of what may be Cotilda, the last US slave ship, discovered in a muddy riverbank in Alabama. Image by Ben Raines, AL.comThere is but one ocean, that is perceived historically as a surface for exploration, transport, and trade — all factors in the making of civilization worldwide. But below that surface lies the detritus of the dangerous endeavor of voyaging, loss by storm, warfare, and ignorance of such a dynamic and challenging environment. The ocean has enabled connection for all time, and has built through the exchange of knowledge, skills, and traditions a vast contribution to world culture.

One of the most tragic illustrations of this process is trans-Atlantic slavery — the buying and selling of slaves from Africa to the west, South and North America primarily — as cheap, dispensable labor. In the United States, there are three major contributions to our cultural identity: the existing culture of native peoples living here for centuries; the ensuing European culture transferred through waves of immigration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Asia; and the arrival of African culture through slaves that changed our nation’s patterns of settlement, music and language in powerful, undeniable, positive ways. Indigenous people, European people, African people — we are an amalgam of acculturation that lies at the heart of who we are.

Ballast blocks from the Saõ José slave ship, which sank in December of 1794 off the coast of South Africa. The Slave Wrecks Project

We must never allow that fact, and those memories, to be lost, and to guard against such forgetfulness, we turn to material culture — the objects, sites, and other evidence of such history as our foremost tool for preservation. That commitment, evinced by museums, libraries, archives, cultural sites, and national and international organizations such as UNESCO, is an essential part of an endeavor to conserve and honor this collective past is all its forms and manifestations.

Recently, as reported in the Smithsonian Magazine online news, the remains of what is purported to be the last ship to transport African slaves to the United States was revealed following the effect of a powerful east coast storm and flood conditions in a muddy riverbank near Mobile, Alabama. Researchers claim that the ship may well be the Clotilda, built in the 1850s as a transport for supplies from Cuba, purchased by a local businessman, and, commissioned to purchase 110 slaves in Ouimah, a port town in the present-day African nation of Benin. While slavery was then legal in the state of Alabama, it was in violation of US federal law outlawing the slave trade some 52 years before. If the vessel is indeed Clotilda, it represents an end, the last shipment of slaves. But it represents also a beginning: the survivors of that ship reported to have formed a nearby community, called Africa Town, in the middle of the American deep south on the verge of the Civil War.

At the 2017 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as again reported by the Smithsonian, artifacts from another slave ship, the São José-Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese ship wrecked of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794 en route to Brazil from Mozambique carrying 400 slaves, were displayed as unique remnants memorializing the maritime aspect of the slave trade, an iron ingot used as ballast and a pulley block, recovered from a 200 year old ship and characterized “as thought to be the first objects ever recovered from a ship wrecked by transporting enslaved people.” The objects were on 10-year loan to the museum and their conservation had been partially funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program of the Cultural Affairs Office of the US Department of State. The grant of $500,000 had been designated in 2016 by the American Ambassador through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as recognition of the importance of these artifacts as symbols of the unifying cultural relationship inherent in the vast interconnected history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The US Department of State Facebook page related to the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has today this statement: “Due to the lapse in appropriations, this Facebook page will not be updated regularly.” That cannot be. Memory cannot be truncated by budget cuts or ideological dis-appropriation. The implications of acculturation cannot be, like the power of an ocean storm, denied. There is wreckage there, disconnection. Real, sad, and final.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, the weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Water As Capital: Wealth of Life

In order to ​truly ​understand and ​solve the ​problems ​inherent in our ​relationship ​with the ​natural world, ​I have long ​argued for the ​freshwater/​ocean continuum ​as the most ​essential ​element in any ​effective ​response to ​decades of ​extraction, ​transformation, ​and pollution ​in the name of ​consumption, in ​the United ​States and ​around the ​world. ​



From this ​perspective, ​water as ​manifest in all ​its circles and ​cycles of ​conveyance ​around the ​world ​constitute a de ​facto system of ​“​watershed,​” from ​the mountain-​top to the ​abyssal plain, ​encompassing ​aquifer, ​springs, rivers,​ lakes and ​ponds, glaciers,​ and open ocean,​ the protection ​and equitable ​utilization of ​which ​constitutes a ​solution to ​serious ​problems we ​face worldwide. ​

It is a big ​idea, a quiet ​answer to a ​loud question, ​and I continue ​to search for ​metaphors and ​explanations ​that will help ​us understand ​the concept and ​the steps ​required to ​enable it as a ​strategy for ​survival in the ​21st century. ​
Since the ​Industrial ​Revolution, we ​have viewed ​fossil fuels ​– coal, ​oil, gas, and ​their ​derivative ​chemicals and ​plastic — ​as the capital ​that funds our ​way of life. We ​have invested ​in it ​extravagantly ​with little or ​no concern for ​consequences ​that today are ​evident in air ​we cannot ​breathe, water ​we cannot drink,​ and the ​exponential ​growth of ​externalities ​and failure to ​manage by-​products and ​waste. ​

We responded ​through ​regulations, ​laws, and ​international ​treaties by ​which we made ​some progress ​in limiting and ​mitigating the ​consequences of ​this global ​strategic ​experience. ​Today those ​restrictions, ​even the ​alternative ​strategies to ​recycle and ​replace these ​behaviors, are ​under ​regressive ​attack and the ​world risks a ​sudden return ​to values, ​policies, and ​behaviors ​already proven ​obsolete and ​bankrupt. ​

How do we ​respond to the ​necessity for ​change? How do ​we re-align our ​engagement with ​the natural ​world, through ​new technology ​and changing ​political will? ​How do we shift ​our fundamental ​premise for ​managing ​increased ​population, ​demand for ​growth, and ​sustainable use ​of what the ​earth provides? ​How do we re-​imagine life ​and implement ​the health and ​welfare of ​ensuing ​generations? ​How do we ​galvanize ​public ​engagement to ​demand change, ​soon enough in ​time?

I argue that ​we accept water ​as the new ​capital, the ​product that we ​manage and ​sustain in all ​our financial ​and political ​enterprise, the ​system around ​which we ​organize our ​governance as a ​form of ​watershed ​management, and ​the true, all-​encompassing ​measure by ​which we ​calculate value ​as its ​contribution to ​our profit and ​loss. ​

If we accept ​this, then we ​accept a new ​balance sheet ​where we offset ​expense with ​revenue — ​expense defined ​as what is paid ​for and ​inclusive of ​what is saved ​by the ​efficiency and ​economy of the ​alternative, ​and revenue as ​what is gained ​beyond ​transaction ​inclusive of ​intangible ​benefit. This ​is not as ​complicated as ​it may first ​seem. If we ​accurately ​present the ​cost of oil in ​terms of direct ​expenditure as ​well as the ​additional cost ​of consequence, ​not to mention ​the loss of ​that resource ​expended and ​non-recoverable,​ we will come ​up with a very ​different set ​of categories ​and amounts on ​the expense ​side.

If we ​accurately ​present the ​return in terms ​of savings ​through ​alternatives, ​then we will ​come up with a ​very different ​set of ​categories and ​amounts on the ​revenue side.​ If you ​agree that we ​are living in a ​society with a ​fundamental ​structural ​deficit, ​measured in the ​debt of ​governments and ​individuals, ​then you may ​also agree that ​this new way is ​a viable ​approach to ​change that ​imbalance ​between global ​profit and loss.​

This does not ​mean that we ​reduce water to ​a commodity to ​be traded like ​oil. No: quite ​the opposite. ​As I have ​argued before, ​in this ​scenario water ​is first ​accepted as a ​basic human ​right by which ​every ​individual on ​earth is ​guaranteed a ​basic volume to ​enable a ​society that ​thrives through ​adequacy, ​parity and ​equality. ​

That ​established, ​then water ​becomes the ​determining ​currency of ​transaction, ​the natural ​element priced ​as a sustainable ​symbol and ​reality of a ​democratic, ​harmonious ​society, priced ​as ecosystem ​service and ​sustained as a ​clean, clear, ​and copious ​supply for ​generations to ​come.

If capital can ​be defined as ​“any form ​of wealth that ​can be employed ​in the ​production of ​more wealth,​” then ​water as ​capital becomes ​an investment ​endlessly ​returning to ​all of us who ​share its value ​as food, energy,​ work, health, ​community, and ​peace. ​

Water is the wealth of life.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, the weekly podcast upon which this blog is inspired.

This is Why We March


Close your eyes wherever you are, envision the sights and hear the sounds of the ocean. For each of us that moment will be filled with individual and universal meaning. The ocean is the compendium of the circles and cycles of water that constitute our bodies, our sustenance, our energy, our health, our security, and our cultural traditions. Without the ocean we cannot live. All religions instruct us that access to water cleanses our bodies and our souls. The ocean encompasses and transcends everything.

Why would we abandon it?

But that is just what we have done, and are today continuing to do—to return to ignorance and indifference to this natural, nurturing source through continuing pollution, consumption, and associated extraction of resources that have already proven to be a bankrupt strategy for survival. Why? Who benefits? Why must we repeat the mistakes of this past, when we are well on our way to solutions through alternative technologies, regulatory controls, innovative subsidies and policies, modified structures of governance, re-application of our most cherished values, and changed behaviors by millions of Citizens of the Ocean worldwide?

What was begun in the 1970s as a global response to the impacts of human activities on air, land, and sea is now under renewed and determined threat, at the state, national, and international levels. The power of regression is making a singular and focused effort to reverse all that progress—discrediting the science, denying the consequences and impacts, dismantling the advisory boards and regulatory structures, ignoring political opposition, and returning to a world where Nature is there to be extracted, exploited, and exhausted in the name of short-term financial return and fear of change.

The speed and determination of this effort cannot be denied. And it will continue unabated, even as its illogic and illusion is revealed, unless we, those Citizens of the Ocean, resist with every tool available and every erg of energy applied. As with prior challenges, the people have taken to the streets to evince a broad, committed, and effective demonstration of opposition to these inhumanities. While this may be manifest only for a moment in time, in a single place or many, the collective will of the unified statement resonates beyond as undeniable political and social determination to make things right.

And so we are decided that we must now March For the Ocean.

On June 9, 2018, in Washington D.C., such a march will occur. The event will complement World Oceans Day, the 8th, a day designated by the United Nations, which has been celebrated worldwide as a global commitment to ocean health and sustainability. At no time in our history has the meaning and purpose of that day been more critical as an expression of national and international affirmation that all efforts to protect and conserve our ocean world is the peoples’ will. The intent is to gather thousands on The Mall in Washington, DC, and in other places around the United States and the world, to express their support of all aspects of ocean protection to include threats to marine protected areas, renewed coastal drilling, cuts to budgets for ocean research, unregulated fishing, and the withdrawal from the international climate agreements, among so many others.

The march is being organized by Blue Frontier, an ocean advocacy organization, in collaboration with more than 70 environmental ocean groups. The list is growing every day: you must be a part. For further information and volunteer sign-ups, promotional videos and press materials, please go to the event website:

Let’s join this march as wave upon wave of friends and strangers who have declared, publicly, loudly, and responsibly, that the ocean will prevail over attacks and compromises, and continue to support and embrace us for generations to come, by its healing, sustaining water.

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World Ocean Explorer: A Virtual Aquarium and Exploration Experience

An ambitious new project to create a free virtual aquarium and ocean exploration experience centered around STEM-based ocean literacy for students ages 10 and up

If you ask most oceanographers and marine scientists of my generation how they became aware of and committed to their life’s work the answer seems always to come back to the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, the first and still unrivaled television account of the exploration of the ocean worldwide, broadcast in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, so personally communicated by Cousteau, enabled by the technology of scuba and underwater camera that changed the perception of the ocean for a generation.

That magic has continued in the form of many similar documentary products that has sustained indeed amplified interest to the point that marine science and ocean exploration have continued to grow with specific vocational interest and general public fascination. The growth of aquariums around the world during the ensuing decades is also a most remarkable outcome of this impetus. In the US alone, there are some 50 aquariums of various sizes with attendance numbering in the tens of millions. These are viewed as conservation, educational, entertainment and economic development drivers and are designed to provide access to ocean creatures, to understand ocean processes, and to use the tools of display, audio-visual technologies, special curricula, and the on-sight experience to stimulate and explain the vast ocean world. Most of us have no real encounter with the ocean at all; some of us have the privilege of access on a rare vacation; some of us must accept the aquarium as the best reality available.

The manned submersible which will take users on dives to a polar sea, a tropical coral reef, a hydrothermal vent, an environmental disaster site, or a submerged cultural artifact. Users can maneuver to observe, to collect samples and data, and export findings for the classroom.

Beyond television, the Internet has also become a means to provide access to the underwater world. Various private research organizations are now making their research expeditions available, sometimes in real time, through internet broadcasts streamed to screens tablets and phones. In addition, other underwater vehicles, robots and fixed research technology are enabling public access to data and visualization that was impossible even a few years ago. In many cases this distribution of ocean information is accompanied by a personal narration: the voice of the scientist or operator describing and exclaiming, much as Cousteau did to humanize the experience.

What’s next? How can we maximize the technology, organize the information, and present it in a format that is open to all participants, structured for teaching and learning, and maintaining the enthusiasm for knowing and feeling the miracle of the ocean world?

Last week, the W2O launched a crowdfunding campaign for the completion of a virtual aquarium and exploration experience. Called WORLD OCEAN EXPLORER, it combines a simulated visit to an aquarium that displays creatures that physical aquaria cannot, linked to detailed scientific explanation. Further linked to STEM-based standards for ocean literacy. It also recreates a submersible vehicle that any participant can maneuver to observe, to collect samples and data, and to research various ocean habitats: coral reefs, a deep ocean vent, an underwater accident, or a submerged cultural artifact for example.


It is not as sensual or vivid as being in the ocean itself; it is not of the physical scale of a 400 million dollar aquarium space, but it will cost nothing to enter, and it will provide comparable information and simulation of an expeditionary experience available to classrooms, home schools, environmental organizations, other educational institutions, and curious individuals worldwide. It will be a virtual aquarium without glass walls, without fees, and without the physical and programmatic limitations of aquariums that have gone before. It will be a powerful educational, and informational tool for public engagement. Above all, it will be a democratic place, as wide, deep and dynamic as the ocean itself. We are inviting each of you to help us build it, by going to our Kickstarter campaign and to make a contribution in any amount to our construction goal. It will be your aquarium, your expedition, your science, your experience, your investment. I urge you to join WORLD OCEAN EXPLORER; together as world ocean aquanauts we can share the wisdom, promise, and magic of the ocean and its connection to us all.

Learn more and support EXPLORER today by visiting our Kickstarter campaign


WORLD OCEAN EXPLORER is an educational gaming experience, free for use in the classroom and at home by ocean enthusiasts ages 10 and up. Simulate a walk through a deep ocean aquarium, find marine species rarely seen; engage with ocean systems; click through to educational content and curriculum; and board a manned submersible for exploration of a variety of ocean environments. Aboard the submersible, complete goal-driven mission scenarios or conduct free-play explorations. Choose a locale: a polar sea, a tropical coral reef, a hydrothermal vent at the deepest depths of the ocean, a shipwreck on the seafloor, an oil spill at an offshore rig…all the while gathering samples and data for use in the classroom! <<LEARN MORE>>

Biomimicry: Providing a Framework for the Future

As I consider this new year, 2018, I wonder about the ocean agenda, its substance, momentum, and role as a solution to so many challenges faced by the world. We are living in a retrogressive political time, with a deliberate strategy for reversal, indeed, for the dismantling of the environmental progress we have made since the mid-1970s when individuals, organizations, and governments realized that indiscriminate growth in the name of consumption was despoiling the glories and utilities of Nature. We have come so far, only on the threshold of another year to understand that all that progress is to be willfully denied and subverted unless we stand up and resist in the name of ourselves, our communities, and our ensuing generations.

While reading this morning I came upon this thought: optimism is an ethic, not an attitude. I confess I had never thought of my personal bias toward the optimistic perspective was anything more than an innate condition. But this statement made me understand that it is more than just a world view, rather as a certainty with compelling moral dimension. The realization gave me both pause and strength as I continue to search for the framework by which to outline the shifts in value, structure, and behavior regarding the ocean, freshwater, and all the inherent derivative benefits for food, energy, health, security, community, and civil engagement among the peoples of the earth, indeed for the future of human survival. That is we do at the World Ocean Observatory: we advocate for the sustainable ocean through responsible science, cultural insights, education, and public engagement.

The framework I now believe is correct and logical is based on Life’s Principles as identified by the Design Lens of Biomimicry 3.8, an organization dedicated to “learning from the natural world for solutions, solved in the context of the earth-life’s genius.” What this vision does is provide an architecture for responding to our present situation by emulating natural processes as based on the following nine principles:

~ Nature runs on sunlight
~ Natures uses only the energy it needs
~ Nature fits form to function
~ Nature recycles everything
~ Nature rewards cooperation
~ Nature banks on diversity
~ Nature demands local expertise
~ Nature curbs excesses from within
~ Nature taps the power of limits

Each of these is a quiet but absolute contradiction of our past principles as constructed post-Industrial Revolution and the presumption that humankind is superior to Nature and can manipulate it at will through extraction, pollution, and exhaustion. Well, look where that has gotten us. We’re so smart that we have with premeditation and method poisoned our land, impoverished our population, and subverted our highest aspirational values by greed, inequity, and indifference. It is a sorry plight, and it’s time to reject this system categorically lest we put our entire being in jeopardy.

If you think about the Biomimicry Principles, however, you can sense an obvious path forward using the best of our hopes and achievements, though the power, efficiency, and right economy of the natural world — through the use of the sun, through limited consumption, through re-design of our questions and answers, through the re-cycling/re-use of everything we make, through cooperating not exploiting one another, through self-regulation of our unrestrained and subversive excesses, and through the understanding that limited growth in the name of sustainability is the way forward out of the historic morass in which we are now imprisoned into a world conducive to harmony and life.

What the Biomimicry Life Principles provide is a new vocabulary for us to understand the virtues of Nature that we can adopt as guidelines for adapting our bankrupt conventions to new convictions, organizations, and actions. As the World Ocean Observatory considers next steps for the ocean, we will do so within this new framework, relying on the ocean and her systems to lead us. And we will surely apply a tenth compelling Principle by asking: Is it beautiful?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He also hosts World Ocean Radio, the weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.