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Make the ocean great again

Few people have Pia Ve Dahlen’s dedication and drive. At some level, it seems like she has more hours in the day than the rest of us - or she just uses them extermely efficently! The marine biologist from Sarpsborg, Norway, spends her time teaching people about the ocean and how we can take care of it, something that’s more important now than ever.

What does a normal workday look like for you?

Hah... Good question. I freelance a bit as Pia i Havet (Pia in the Ocean) and do fieldwork, write articles and goof about in the ocean, but most of my days are dedicated to Passion for Ocean, a new organization I started with Rebekka de Leon.

A regular week however, contains at least one trip in the ocean, usually accompanied either by super-photographer Aleksander Nordahl (IG: @freedivingnorway) or someone who’s never tried freediving before. My little plan is to introduce all the people of Norway to the magnificent world underwater by throwing them into the ocean and letting them see for themselves what we need to protect! Sometimes we dive in gorgeous kelp forests, sometimes on trash cemeteries. No matter where we go though, we always have a great time.

Outside of the “being inside the ocean”- stuff I travel a lot, talk to our sponsors/collaborators, attend seminars, read up on the latest ocean news, look at corals, open up dead animals and try to spread the word about our lord and savior; the ocean. Cod is great!

What exactly is the Passion for the Ocean-project?

Our main focus is to show people why we should want to take care of the ocean, instead of just pointing fingers and telling everybody how much we fucked up. Our vision is that the motivation you need to want to take care of something in the long run has to come from the heart and the head. Meaning: you need knowledge about what you want to take care of, and you need that emotional relation to it. Our opinion is that this deep sense of ownership is more constructively developed through positive experiences (diving, surfing, sailing, fishing, swimming etc) rather than by pointing fingers and guilt tripping.

We started out as a festival in 2016, where we invited anybody with some sort of relation to the ocean to come hang out with us; fishermen, artists, divers, surfers, chefs, scientists. You name it. It was a massive success, as over 70 organizations and institutions said yes to join us. We had somewhere around 4-5000 visitors the first year, and quickly realized this was so much more than just a festival. Last year we had ~9.000 visitors, including the Royal family and a bunch of politicians, NRK (Norwegian state-owned TV channel), etc. It was bigger, better and even more fun than the last time, and our network from working with this is even bigger now.

As a consequence, our activity throughout the year has expanded, and we now hold talks, host events, organize trips out to sea etc, in addition to playing around with Elvebakken vgs to make a school pilot project. Make the ocean great again.


"I started out wanting to be a dinosaur (age 5). When that (for reasons not so obvious to 5-year-old me) turned out to be a bit problematic, I decided to become a princess ..."

Why did you choose this profession, and how was your path there?

In contrast to a lot of people, I never really knew what I wanted to be. I started out wanting to be a dinosaur (age 5). When that (for reasons not so obvious to 5-year-old me) turned out to be a bit problematic, I decided to become a  princess. Then I discovered horses, and figured I wanted to own a ranch with a hundred million of them. When I found out the princess of Norway had a horse, I quickly turned back to the goal of being a princess. Then it was the usual; astronaut, cowboyprincess, cowboyastronautprincess, biochemist, astrophysicist, mathematician, mechanic, bioengineer, fighter pilot and finally a biologist. My eureka moment came when we were at the museum of natural history, being guided by Petter Bøckman. I remember thinking “I wanna be a biologist, and I wanna be like him”. So I did that.

According to my family, friends and neighbors, I was the last person to realize I were to become a marine biologist. At age 9, I already had a favorite fish (pelican eel (Eurypharynx pelecanoides), it’s crazy cool and still my favorite), and I would spend every waking moment either looking at nature stuff in books, on the television (Globus 2) or rolling around in the mud at our cabin by the sea in Sarpsborg.

What issue within the field of marine biology engages you the most these days?

I’ve been working with marine littering for 4-5 years now, and spent most of my time last year talking about the potential harm that comes with “runaway plastics”. We dump about 15 tonnes of plastic into the ocean every minute worldwide, which is an absolutely insane amount. On a yearly basis, some 4.5 trillion cigarette butts end up on the ground, that’s over 12 billion butts every day, and most of these end up in the sewers or rivers that goes straight into to the ocean. And what do you know, ocean life is no happier than your lungs to be exposed to those chemicals, and so cigarette butts and bags of snus has actually become a problem in coastal areas with lots of people.

And it doesn’t end there. In 1976, the average person in the world had a yearly plastic usage of 2 kg. In 2017, that number was up to 46 kg per person, while the number of people in the world simultaneously doubled. We invented this amazing product (plastic), and we abuse it to such a ridiculous degree that it’s seriously starting to affect the environment. The best question I ever got was from a 10 year old; “If plastics last forever, why do we make single use-products from it?” Good question. I don’t know the answer.

During 2018, we’re gonna focus a lot of energy on cleaning the fjords, with the main focus being the Oslo fjord, to try and bring life back into it. We’re working with a lot of interesting people with all kinds of knowledge and resources. One of them is Elin Sørensen, a PhD from The Norwegian University of Life Sciences who wants to place different test beds (concrete reefs, eelgrass mats, etc.) in the fjords to see what happens. One of the places we’re looking into is Sjøholmen, where I also happen to be the project’s marine biologist.

 Photo by: Marte Haraldsen Photography.
Whale watching. Photo by: Josh Guyan.
Whale watching. Photo by: Josh Guyan.

What can the general public do to help?

Holy smokes - we can do A LOT! It’s never been easier to help make the world a better place, mostly due to the fact that we in general do so many fucked up things to begin with. Here’s a couple of things from the top of my head:

1. STOP. THROWING. SHIT. ON. THE. GROUND! This is probably the easiest one to do. It amazes me how careless people are; in Oslo alone we throw about two tonnes of waste on the ground every single day. Two tonnes. That equals the mass of roughly 122 fully grown orcas every year. And yes, cigarette butts are trash. They consist of a plastic filter and a lot of leftover toxins. Please throw them in the trash after putting them out.

2. Clean a beach. Or just pick up a piece of plastic if you find one on the ground while out walking. Every little piece you pick up is a piece less in the stomach of some poor animal. Everything helps.

3. Never throw anything in the toilet that you haven’t eaten first (maybe except for the used toilet paper, I’m not gonna make you eat that).TOILET YES: poop, pee, puke and toilet paper. TOILET NO: Everything else. Hair, tampons, tampon wrappings, cotton swabs (q-tips), toothbrushes, shoes, condoms, contact lenses, pacifiers, leftover food, goldfish (unless you ate it first and it came out as poop), razors, needles, balloons… you get the picture. And I know it sounds weird that food and hair is a no-go, but they take a long time do break down, clog the system, attract rats and fill up the reservoirs.

4. Reduce, reuse, refuse, recycle- Reduce the amount of cheap crap you buy. Really. Spend a couple of $$ extra on quality that lasts, and hopefully hasn’t been produced by some sad, poor kid in Sri Lanka that bleeds out of his eyes and eat radioactive plutonium for dinner. You also reduce the amount of shipping needed to get your product from a to b, which is a win win for almost everybody. - Reuse your stuff. Got a hole in your pants? Fix it. Heel of your shoe broke off? Fix it. Want a new dress? Go to a second hand store and buy one that has already been made. I’ve had multiple friends trying a month of “zero waste”, which is super hard, but absolutely possible. Try it out for a week. Or a day. I promise you that you will start noticing the insane amounts of meaningless plastics we use every day.- Refuse to accept unnecessary products. Do you really need that plastic lid for your takeaway coffee? (hint: no). Do you really need that straw for your chaimacchiattochinospresso-whatevertodaysyouthdrink? No. No you don’t. Do you need to but your bananas, avocados or oranges in a separate plastic bag? No. By saying no to meaningless “comfort”-plastics, we can greatly reduce the amount of stuff out there, and in that way reduce the percentage of it that ends up on the ground. - Recycle for life. It matters. By recycling your materials (especially plastics) you reduce the energy needed to produce raw material, the possible pollution from incineration, and the potential harm from plastics that escape from landfills (that we luckily have banned here in Norway now).

5. Take the bus. Or the train. Or walk, use your bike or skateboard. The less traveling we do by car or airplane the better it is (I’m not telling you to stop it completely, just choose the train if it’s a possibility). Did you know that most of the microplastic that ends up in the ocean comes from wearing out car tires? Me neither.

6. Buy local goods from smaller shops. Locally made clothes and food leave a much smaller carbon footprint, and in a lot of cases, you help rural settlements survive. We need our small farmers (and wolves), not only to grow food, but also to maintain what we call the cultural landscape, which helps keeping the biodiversity high. Check out Radical Broccoli for tips and tricks, and The Northern Company for tips on using sustainably picked seaweed.

7. Buy MSC (wild caught) or ASC (farmed)-certified seafood. This certification is only given to producers that can show a sustainable production in every link of the production chain. If you’re uncertain, WWF’s seafood guide is a great help.

8. Get familiar with your sunscreen. Most sunscreens today contains a lot of toxins that harm the environment when you use it. Same goes for detergents, and basically any chemical you use. Biotherm has a sunscreen they call “Waterlover”, with 96 % biodegradable contents, and Orkla has created a series of products called “Klar”, where they took out anything they could find that would damage to the environment. None of these products are perfect, but they are a damn good step in the right direction.

9. Read a book. No seriously. We have insane amounts of resources right outside our doorstep, but there is absolutely no marine biology in schools today. It’s ridiculous. How can we expect people to make good calls and choices, come up with innovative processes and new technology, without having any knowledge about what’s happening beneath the surface? So read a book. Or watch a documentary. About the ocean, about the coastline, about the kelp forest, ecosystems or evolution. Get to know nature. We need to know what we’re taking care of to understand why we need to do the things we do.

I could go on, but I think this will do for now. And remember: nobody can do everything, but everyone can do a little.

Foto: Gunnlaug Kulløy

Many people dream of a job where they can make a difference, what’s your best advice when choosing a career?

Do what you really like, and don’t worry about money. If you have an inner drive and a genuine interest of the field, only the sky's the limit. When I started on my bachelor in 2006, I got SO many “Naaw, aren’t you a cute little girl - trying to save the world. I’ll remember to wave down to you from my 2 mill NOK a year-job in the petrol business when I finish”. Nine years later, I’ve got a lot of the same people taking my course (I ended up teaching zoology at the university) because they needed biologists to become teachers. Shows how quickly the market can turn, and that following your dream rather than the current moneymaker is so much more sustainable in the long run.

Nature has this amazing quality; that it’s connected to every single thing we do, so no matter if you love history, economy, shipping, tech, IT or biology, there is a place for you where you can make a difference. But before you head off to saving the world; get to know it. You need knowledge about how the ocean works (ecosystems, currents, species) before you make a wave energy plant. You need to know how the shipping industry has an impact on the ocean before you can start finding solutions. You need knowledge about the huge carbon reserves that are locked in the boreal forest before going all Leeroy Jenkins with a chainsaw to do forestry. When you have a little insight about the problem, no discipline is “wrong”. We need every single piece of the puzzle if we’re gonna solve this, from scientists to artists, big corporations and small startups, farmers, anthropologists, athletes, decision makers, entrepreneurs and innovative technology.


Foto: Gunnlaug Kulløy
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