LIKE A REAL-WORLD version of The Avengers or Justice League, an international group of unlikely activists, some of them billionaires, have banded together to save our imperiled seas, which, by all accounts, are deteriorating at an increasingly alarming pace. Calling themselves the Philanthropic Ocean Research Vessel Operators – at least until they come up with a catchier name – they’re not waiting for governments to take action. Instead, they have applied their business know-how to studying the seas and devising conservation projects to combat the ravages of climate change, over-fishing, and the wholesale dumping of plastic.
Wendy and Eric Schmidt, Kjell Inge Røkke, Andrew and Nicola Forrest, Victor Vescovo and Agnès Troublé are among those who have formed the loose coalition, comprised mainly of privately funded institutions, to bring a more coordinated approach to ocean research.
Their efforts, described in the coming pages, vary, with Vescovo and the Schmidt Ocean Institute each mapping vast underwater territories and Troublé’s Tara Ocean Foundation concentrating on DNA sequencing of plankton and bacteria in the microbiome. The Forrests’ Minderoo Foundation has begun an incentive campaign to reduce the production of new plastic, and Røkke’s REV Ocean plans to take a more diplomatic role, bringing together world leaders and competing for interests (for example, commercial fisheries versus marine biologists) aboard its 183m research explorer yacht to create consensus on the best ways to restore the seas’ health.
“We’re a small number of people who understand the huge costs and are willing to pay,” says Romain Troublé, CEO of Tara, who says his group has invested about US$100 million in research in the last decade. “The positive is that we have the freedom to act at will.”
Vescovo has spent over US$50 million of his personal funds to build his research vessels, DSSV Pressure Drop and the submersible Limiting Factor, and to subsidize their missions exploring the ocean’s deepest trenches. Shelling out tens of millions is the price of admission for this new breed of conservationist.
Nina Jensen, CEO of REV Ocean, says it’s not enough. “Less than one per cent of global philanthropy goes toward ocean conservation,” she says. “That’s for a part of the planet that feeds two billion people, provides millions of jobs, and gives us 50 per cent of our oxygen. Maybe we haven’t been able to bring it as close to the hearts of the people as it should be. Maybe that should be our next step.”
Norwegian industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke, who amassed billions extracting resources from the sea, and ocean activist Nina Jensen, who has spent her career defending it, make an unlikely team. But the two have been aligned since 2017 when Røkke decided to do something about the deteriorating oceans.
“His career had everything to do with the ocean and he’s alarmed with what he’s seeing,” says Jensen, former secretary-general of Norway’s World Wide Fund for Nature. “He’s estimated how much time he has left in his life and wants to use it reversing these trends.”
Røkke became Norway’s second-wealthiest individual, with an estimated net worth of US$5.6 billion, by building a global fisheries business and then purchasing the majority stake in Aker, a Norwegian shipping and offshore drilling conglomerate that has since expanded into bio marine and renewable energy.
His most ambitious philanthropic project is REV Ocean, a foundation with an eponymous 183m ship designed to be both a research vessel and an ice-class hulled explorer. Scheduled to launch in late 2022 or early 2023, it features a helicopter, a submersible that can dive to 2,286m, six laboratories, and accommodation for 54 scientists and 36 crew. It was also designed as a charter yacht, with space for 28 guests in 14 staterooms. Once it’s running, the goal is to have guests fund the research initiatives through charter fees.
At World Wide Fund, Jensen collaborated with Røkke on the initial plans to create a sophisticated floating laboratory. “The advanced vacuum pumping technology allows samples to be brought on board alive, without being damaged,” Jensen says, adding that the team is exploring next-level facial-recognition technology. “If we’re looking for a specific species of fish, for instance, it would mean we would get only that type and not others.” REV Ocean will also be able to Livestream from the ocean floor anywhere around the world.
The combination of Jensen’s background as a marine biologist and Røkke’s well-funded commitment to restore the oceans has resulted in a new form of activism. When the corporate titan offered her REV Ocean’s CEO job, Jensen was reluctant. Røkke persisted. “Eventually, I saw the potential for teaming up with an industrialist who’d succeeded with every goal he’d set,” says Jensen, who relented. “We activists have been trying to solve these problems for decades, with limited results. We need people with power and access to capital who are global decision-makers.”
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