For the longest time, I was afraid of the ocean.
My fear didn’t take root because of Hollywood’s portrayal of unfriendly underwater terrors in movies, such as 47 Meters Down. Although, my heart pounding claustrophobia may have been triggered when Mandy Moore reached the edge of an underwater cliff dropping into a dark abyss.
And it was not the minuscule microorganisms that I accidentally ingested that might potentially feast on my intestines; nor was it the tickle of a seaweed at my foot that instantly sparks my memory of Jaws; or the childhood nightmares of a leg muscle cramp causing me to drown before all the hideous deep-sea fish feast on my flesh.
Actually … maybe all of these archetypal horrors of the deep blue sea are partially to blame—and yet the main source of my fear is merely the fact that the ocean is huge—especially when compared to the island I am from.
I grew up on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei—population: 36,196. When you examine the Pacific Ocean region on a globe, Pohnpei illustrates the period at the end of this sentence. When you take the “island hop” route from Pohnpei to California, you sit numbingly for 20+ hours as you fly over what feels like an infinite aquamarine.
When I visited the University of Texas in 2014, my jaw dropped when my roommate casually mentioned that there were approximately 50,000 students on campus. It was difficult for me to comprehend that one university that could hold everyone on my island—PLUS an additional 20,000 people.
My people are less than 0.0001% of the world’s population. We are on a small piece of volcanic land, geographically isolated in the middle of the mysterious and vast ocean. From this perspective, it should come as no surprise that I initially viewed our ocean as a barrier between myself and the rest of the world. In my personal story, it was an antagonist made even more powerful by climate change. The ocean was a lurking tsunami ready to swallow all that I hold dear and sacred to my heart.
While I possess a thirst for exciting experiences and the desire to roam (perhaps the same residual wanderlust that drove my ancestors in their canoes to island shores), as a young Pohnpeian, I somehow lost my sense of direction. The more our ocean was out of sight and out of mind—coupled with my existing fear of all underwater things unknown and spooky—the more I lost my ability to navigate my way beyond the reef. I began to view our ocean as a boundless divider rather than something that kept me connected to my homeland.
Yet, thinking back, this was a perception that was characterized by misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
For my RAY Fellowship here at Ocean Conservancy, I have “voyaged” for 7,671 miles away from my islands. Learning more about the importance of our ocean here at Ocean Conservancy, I’ve slowly begun to perceive our ocean as a bridge that joins islanders and non-islanders alike, as we work together to protect its beauty and bounty. I feel a debt to my ancestors and my community as I embrace the same mindset of perseverance that drove my ancestors to explore the oceanic unknown and led to the creation of their home, my home.
I am beginning to find a balance between the dominant science-based conversations on the importance of our ocean with my identity as an islander. To me, our ocean and the different forms of life underneath its turquoise waters also has a deeper meaning. It is tied to the emotional value central to my people’s identity that extends from history to the present and into the future.
This is the positive relationship that I am aiming to rekindle.
Gradually, fear dissipates as my mind wanders back to those days back at home on Pohnpei.
I can hear the gentle splash of the waves on the shoreline as the moon tugs the tide higher, concealing the coral reef that extends around the entire island. Steadily, the waves begin to pull back to wait for the rising sun. I imagine it rising over the horizon, stretching out to resemble an orange hibiscus gradually illuminating the black opaque water.
Now, fear is replaced with strong admiration and longing for my ocean.