– Article originally from The Generosity Journal Issue Four –
Many years ago, Oliver Vetter got lost at sea. Rather than curing him of his lifelong obsession with the ocean, surviving that experience made him even more committed to life on and near the water. His passion has taken him from Wales to Hawai’i and now to Wellington’s south coast, where he teachers others how to care for and protect our marine ecosystem.
I grew up in Cardiff and found my love for the outdoors and the ocean just by being outside a lot as a kid. Tramping, cycling and camping were always what we did on holidays. I was pretty hyperactive and would bounce off the walls if I couldn't get outside, so I feel very lucky to have found that outlet at a young age.
My parents always cooked and grew much of their own food; they composted and didn't use single-use plastics. Not because they identified themselves as environmentalists, but because they appreciated quality and health.
Surfing was an extension of my love of the sea and it took my life in directions I never could have imagined. Through my teenage years I just wanted to earn money to travel. I think as a surfer in Wales you have to travel to stay sane.
I went surfing in Indonesia and got lost at sea – just drifting in a boat. Gently floating to shore two days after losing our engines instilled what I already knew – that life is fragile and to live it to the full.
I studied oceanography at university so I could continue to be near the ocean, and aged 22 I landed a dream job in Hawai’i. Through waka ama, surfing and diving, I deepened my love and respect for the sea.
I stayed in Hawai’i for 13 years, during which time I did my Master’s and got a job in coral reef research. But the main issues facing the coral reefs almost all stem from climate change and pollution. At Sustainable Coastlines in Wellington, I work to educate people about those underlying causes. I talk about global issues and offer local, everyday solutions, as well as providing the tools and motivation to make a difference, however small.
We focus on beach clean-ups in summer and waterway planting in winter. We go into schools and organisations and educate people, and then we follow up with clean-ups and planting.
We spend a lot of time working with kids, who respond incredibly well to our programmes. We focus on solutions but we don’t sugar-coat the problems, and I think they appreciate that honesty. I believe young kids have an innate love for the outdoors but it's conditioned out of them through modern comforts and disposable lifestyles. It's our job as adults to keep that fire going.
What I love about our beach clean-ups is seeing people get excited about picking up rubbish! They are on the beach and actually seeing the issues for themselves. It can be sobering but it is also good to be doing something about it, and to be opening people’s eyes to the issue.
We as a society are pretty addicted to single-use plastics. I would like to see a future where these are phased out altogether, barring essentials like medical packaging. The true cost of plastics should be reflected in the price. A water bottle designed to be used once but that lasts essentially forever has a huge cost, both environmentally and economically.
Sustainable Coastlines makes a conscious effort not to deliver its message in a way that alienates others. If we only engage people who identify as environmentalists we'll never clean up the waterways – ‘environmentalists’ aren't polluting. We need to engage people on a one-to-one level throughout society. In my experience everyone wants to do the right thing, so we offer simple solutions and focus on positivity, motivation and fun!
Words by Esther McLaren and Image by Pat Shepherd.