What’s Your Ocean Story?

A tribute to my roots, my uncle, fishermen and every person who knows the power of our ocean

I write and reside on the unceded ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank and Piscataway peoples. I commit to actively situate and address my place within generations of Indigenous knowledge, labor and lifeways that we encounter in the conservation movement and beyond.

What’s your ocean story?” I adore this question. It’s a common icebreaker at Ocean Conservancy, open-ended enough for almost anyone to answer. When someone at Ocean Conservancy asks me this question, this is the story I tell:

I first greeted the Pacific Ocean at a young age. Screaming cousins by my side, long and loud car rides, and packed Tupperware of pancit all filled the family vacations of my childhood in the Philippines. At six months old, I knew how to float on my back on the Pacific. When my twin brother and I grew a few years older, my parents watched us chase each other across tabing-dagat. Tabing-dagat is the word we use for “shore,” directly translating to “next to the sea” in Tagalog. I love it even more in my mother tongue because it relates a person to land. Regardless of where we are, my family and I embody this term of being next to the sea. It’s a feeling of staying, persisting and feeling endless joy in a time-space, inseparable from our environment. As a place and a feeling, we find liberation in tabing-dagat.
Through and through, I am a daughter of the ocean as much as I am the daughter of my mother.

Alliyah Lusuegro with her family

As I pass the six-month milestone of the RAY Fellowship, I reflect on this ocean story of mine. Like us, our ocean story evolves. Our ocean stories grow as we grow. We don’t have to be right on the coast to feel the power of the ocean, too. If we search deeper, sometimes we encounter its power through one or more degrees of separation, such as another person.

My most salient ocean story of now involves my late uncle, Tito Sandy. Around the same time I received news that I was going to be a RAY Fellow, I also received news that he passed away. No one else in my immediate family knew the ocean the way Tito Sandy did. A beloved seaman and chef, he made a living on the water most days out of the year. To my family, he was a comedian. To the seamen, he was a comrade. During the holiday season, the boat crew could not return home to their families since they were at sea, and so Tito Sandy brought home to them by cooking their favorite Filipino traditional foods: lumpia, lechon, pancit palabok, mechado, embutido. In my last conversation with him, I spoke in Tagalog for the first time in a while, sharing news that I would be joining Ocean Conservancy. Ours is a mission that he was 100% behind and one he sailed miles for. “I’m proud of you, inaanak,” he told me. Tito Sandy is a major part of my ocean story, too.

Alliyah Lusuegro's Tito Sandy

In my day-to-day work, I encounter people like my uncle who have witnessed the power of the ocean. My co-workers speak of growing up by the coast, fishing, sailing, taking family trips to the Gulf of Mexico, conducting marine science research in Hawaii, cleaning up beaches, surfing, paddling and swimming. They talk about their relatives, too. These memories have all led us here at this specific moment in time to advocate for a healthy ocean and the communities and wildlife that depend on it. Why? Because our ocean has given so much to us. Love, breath (literally), wonder, awe, bravery and purpose to name a few. Along with the science and policy solutions we offer to address our oceans’ greatest challenges, our emotions and experiences are just as integral and valid to our work. Ocean storytelling isn’t an explicit tradition in organizations like ours, but I sure hope that it regularly surfaces in our conversations. I hope that ocean storytelling is here to stay. Our collective work at Ocean Conservancy is a part of my ocean story, too.

Fishermen are some of the best storytellers. I’m learning the most about the fisheries world from them. Fishermen go out to the water and observe the ocean across time: second-by-second to generation-by-generation. Fishing involves knowing your relation to the water, to the immediate surroundings, to other fishermen, to climate, to the fishing season and the fish. Their experience is very relational to time, space and other people; it is like tabing-dagat. For many, fishing is also an intergenerational family tradition. Many ocean stories told by fishermen reminisce learning how to fish from an elder. Many of their ocean stories now involve changes they’re seeing on the water. Warming waters, unfamiliar fish stocks and sea-level rise are a few examples of climate impacts on fisheries that fishermen bring up. I hope to continue learning about fishermen so that their ocean stories may carry on and I am able to share and amplify them through my work as a storyteller. Fishermen are a part of my ocean story, too.

Alliyah Lusuegro and family

The next time someone asks me what my ocean story is, I will be in the library of my mind, eagerly searching through my memories and other stories I am honored to know, revisiting my ocean story and how it has continued to grow. I don’t have to pin my response to a single experience or to just myself. In this particular moment, my ocean story carries my uncle’s spirit. Like him, I long to remember his legacy of tending a community with other ocean users.

All of our ocean stories are interconnected and, like the ocean itself, have power in multiplicity. In return, we have the power and the ocean’s offerings —of love, breath, wonder, awe, bravery, purpose and more—to advocate for a healthy ocean. It’s a mutual, reciprocal relationship that embodies tabing-dagat. When we integrate such emotions and experiences into our work, we take on a holistic approach in our ocean conservation efforts and we sustain lifetimes of ocean stories to preserve and tell.

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