Updated: Apr 4, 2021
I was recently astounded by the absolute majesty of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals and then shortly thereafter I was devastated by the heart-breaking information and imagery portrayed in the Netflix film Seaspiracy. Both Undrowned and Seaspiracy do an excellent job of shining a spotlight on the impact that human behavior has had and continues to have on this planet’s oceans and the animals who call them home. I found myself wondering if there was a national or international celebration of marine animals-- which is how I stumbled across World Aquatic Animal Day.
I was thrilled to discover that World Aquatic Animal Day existed, as it gave me an opportunity to figure out how to use my platform to bring awareness to the lives of the marine animals with whom we share this big blue planet. A project of the Aquatic Animal Law Initiative and the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, the 2021 World Aquatic Animal Day aims to raise awareness of the many marine animals that live in our rivers, lakes, and oceans, and the ways in which human behavior is putting those animals at risk.
Many of us don’t often think about the impact we have on animals who live, hunt and play in the planet’s watery depths— beyond the occasional pang of guilt when we see a story about a whale that washed up on the beach with a stomach full of plastic. I would like to think that’s not because we care less about the animals who call watery environments their home, but because humans are land mammals, so aquatic animals are out of sight and therefore generally out of mind.
As for me, I am both mystified by the world that exists beneath the water and slightly terrified of it. At the age of seven, I almost drowned in a swimming pool and had to be resuscitated, and since then I’ve experienced gut-clenching fear at the thought of being trapped underwater with no way to breathe. This early trauma led me to see the aquatic world as a magical (if forbidden) place where all manner of exotic beings go about their mysterious underwater lives. It’s not often that I think about the ways in which my life on land could be negatively impacting the lives of these water-dwelling individuals.
From the plastics that end up in our oceans and wreak havoc on marine animal food chains, to the chemical fertilizers and fecal waste from plant and animal agricultural activity that make their way into our oceans and deplete the precious oxygen marine animals need to breathe, to oil tankers and pipelines that devastate aquatic environments when they regularly disgorge millions of gallons of oil into our oceans, to the waste dumped directly into our waterways from industrial manufacturing facilities— the number of ways that human activity is making aquatic environments unlivable for marine animals seems endless.
Yet the vast majority of humans live the entirety of our lives outside the water, not spending any significant amount of time submerged, so we don’t often come face-to-face with the consequences of this harmful human activity. This is why books like Undrowned and films like Seaspiracy play such a vital role in educating us about the ways in which our marine environments are under attack, the perils aquatic animals face, and the actions we can take to reverse the harm humanity has done.
As I reflect on these animals who build family, community, and yes culture beneath the liquid surfaces of this planet, I remind myself that they may be out of sight but it’s my responsibility to keep them in mind. As a member of the dominant species on Earth, and as a person who is committed to using my life to create positive change in the world, I’m choosing to use this World Aquatic Animal Day to educate myself about the human impact on marine animals and ways I can minimize my participation in their harm.
B. N. Sanders