Dive In! How writing about the ocean changed my life.

By Ann Eriksson

As an author and biologist, I’ve written adult novels about whales and ocean contaminants, mites living high in the canopy of old-growth forests, coyotes in the Canadian prairies and the natural history of the British Columbia Gulf Islands.  I love writing fiction and had never thought of writing non-fiction books for kids.

Dive In! Final book cover.

In 2016 I received an email from my former fiction publisher who now works for Orca Books, which publishes fiction and non-fiction for children. “Would you like to write a book for our ecological literacy series, Footprints?” she asked. I hesitated, already involved with a new novel. Then she said the magic word: Ocean.  I’ve been in love with the ocean since I was a child even though I grew up in the flat dry Canadian prairie thousands of miles from a coastline. I dreamed of working with dolphins and learned to dive in the murky lakes in Alberta years before I moved to the west coast. At university I took all the marine biology courses I could. I had a keen interest in ocean ecology and conservation. This was a chance to write about a topic I was passionate about and share it with young people. Perhaps it would inspire some of them to care about the ocean too.  It didn’t take me long to say, Yes!

So, I embarked on a book project for 9- to 12-year-olds (and their adults, I like to say) which became Dive In! Exploring Our Connection with the Ocean. My editor at Orca told me I could do anything I wanted as long as it fit in with the ecological literacy theme and format of their Footprints series. They also said it had to be meaningful to every child on the planet! I focussed the book on ocean conservation with the unifying theme, everything is connected to everything else. Four chapters: why the ocean is important, what’s going wrong, what children can do about it on their own, and what they can do collectively with others.

During Ocean LearnFest, my community learned about the oeacn and how we could help look after it. We got to know our neighbours better too.

The research was fun.  A personal narrative runs through each Footprints book, so I included material about my love of the ocean and the personal choices my family and I make that affect ocean health.  I wrote about the efforts my community is making to educate itself about ocean ecology. The ocean is such a cool, fascinating place and there are so many wonderful organizations and individuals working to protect it, that I had no trouble finding material and creating a lively and interesting narrative.

The exception was Chapter Two.  Titled Ocean Overload, this chapter took me deep into the problems humans have created for ocean ecosystems: overfishing, coastal development, habitat lost, dead zones, plastic pollution, toxic contaminants, invasive species, warming ocean temperatures, sea level rise and ocean acidification. I already knew about these issues, but I was drowning in the research material. The warm Pacific blob was wrecking havoc on marine species. News was coming in daily from around the world about plastic pollution, increasing storm intensities, melting glaciers, flooding, fires, drought. Yikes! How was I going to write for children about these serious problems? I went into a dive and not a magical underwater one. Writer’s block set in.

Learning about seagrass meadows and other marine ecosystems when you are young means you’ll make ocean-friendly choices as an adult.

One day, I talked with my friend Nikki Wright, director of SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, about my problem.  Nikki has spent 25 years restoring eelgrass habitats for the benefit of marine fish and invertebrates and for all of us who rely on them for oxygen production, carbon storage and shoreline protection. She used the word ‘opportunity.’ Yes, we’ve created a lot of problems with our overconsumption and the unintended consequences of our technology. But we now have an opportunity to do things in a better way than we have in the past. To live our lives in a way that improves ocean health, mitigates the threats and allows us to adapt to change. That conversation flipped my thinking. I took a breath and completed the chapter.  The colourful photos, the interesting Ocean Facts, Make a Splash and My Marine Life sidebars in Dive In! also help to shed a positive light on the tough but realistic content.  I believe that children want to be informed in a way that inspires and gives an them achievable set of actions to make change. The last two chapters, Operation Ocean Rescue and Be an Ocean Hero, and the Resource section do just that.  

So how did writing Dive In! change my life? Before I started this project, I thought I was a pretty conscious consumer. I recycled, walked whenever possible, shopped with cloth bags, carried a reusable water bottle with me, hadn’t eaten beef in decades, and used biodegradable products. I signed petitions and wrote letters to legislators. I volunteered for my community nature conservancy. But writing Dive In! made me hyperaware of the tsunami of problems facing the ocean and gave me more insight into what we can do.  I had to make more effort to ‘walk the talk’, to ‘be the change I wanted to see.’

What did I do? I took a job with Nikki Wright cleaning up marine debris and restoring eelgrass ecosystems and shorelines. I used the money to buy an electric car with my husband and installed solar panels on our roof to charge it. I limit the amount I fly and buy carbon offsets when I can’t avoid it. I choose sustainable seafood.  I look for more ways to eliminate plastic from my life (not an easy task). I speak to groups and write blogs (like this one) about Dive In! I learn from others. More conservation books for children are in the works. My mantra has become a quote from Dive In’s book jacket: “Be kind to the ocean, it protects us all.”

Author: Ann Eriksson (Photo Credit: Gary Geddes)

Bio: Biologist and writer Ann Eriksson is as passionate about the ocean as she is about creating stories that inform and inspire. Ann shares her oceanfront home on Thetis Island, BC, Canada with her husband Gary, and the wild herons, eagles, gulls, seabirds, otters, seals, sea stars, clams, crabs, sea jellies and other marine life that live nearby. Much of her time is spent on, in and around the ocean. Ann is the Gulf Island Regional Coordinator for the Salish Sea Nearshore Habitat Recovery Project, an environmentalist and founding director of the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy.