Aged 50 and passionate about marine conservation, Ghislaine set up The TerraMar Project. Now her life has become focused on the state of our oceans and she's encouraging others to join her
I may be in mid-life, but it feels like my career has just started. At the end of 2011 I launched The TerraMar Project. It was the year I turned 50 and, by most standards, late in life to find one’s true calling.
Since then, I have spoken at the UN three times, given a TED talk and appeared on CNN and Bloomberg TV.
I now write and speak on ocean-related topics as diverse as impact investing and the power of the internet for social good. I get on a plane almost every week to address one conference or another.
But while this is all still quite new to me, the seeds for this late-start career were planted years earlier. The ocean has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, mesmerised by the sea creatures, his French accent and adventurous tales of the deep. I began diving when I was nine. I collected shells, discovered imaginary islands and had posters of fish and corals on my bedroom walls alongside those of the Osmonds.
I grew out of my crush on pop stars (sorry, Donny) but my love of the sea and adventure took me on an odyssey that eventually led me to ‘flying’ deep worker submersibles, remotely-operated underwater vehicles and helicopters, as well as becoming a certified emergency medical technician.
I have been collecting skills and certificates forever. It started with the first star I was awarded at school for good behaviour, and was followed by many more, along with awards and other things I could hang in the loo. I ‘qualified’ as a magician’s assistant and pool lifeguard. I learned to bake cupcakes, crochet and speak new languages.
Most people grow out of this stage. But for me, it has become a challenge: I have to learn something new every year. Thus my forties were spent participating in scientific expeditions, diverse explorations and some madcap adventures.
I helped to count shark populations around remote rocky outcrops, mapped new underwater mountains, picked up discarded fishing nets, collected marine debris, chased illegal fishermen and clambered through jungles to investigate ancient irrigation methods.
During this time, I also became a deep worker submersible pilot. It was after one of my first dives that I knew I was going to work in, around or on the ocean until I no longer could.
I was nervous once the hatch was shut and water rushed over the top of the dome. Descending, it was strange to think that hundreds of feet of ocean separated me from the sunlight, and more with each passing minute.
Fluorescent creatures punctuated the dark, but mostly it was inky black. Visions of monsters and shipwrecks – or of being trapped by an un-charted rocky overhang – were never far from my mind.
Then, close to the seafloor, on went the lights. And there I saw… a plastic coat hanger. It was a devastating sight.
Seen from space, our world is a blue dot, with 72 percent of the planet consisting of ocean. Of that ocean, 64 per cent lies outside any single country’s jurisdiction.
Although they account for nearly half the Earth’s surface, with no clear owner, the High Seas – the most ignored, least explored and largest part of our planet – are a virtual free-for-all.
They are a mess of laws, conflicting laws and no laws. Most people, politicians, foundations and NGOs ignore them, focusing on coastal areas instead.
The idea to concentrate on this 64 per cent came to me in the middle of the night, and with it the question of ownership. Would ownership make people care more? Would a tangible sense of it – a flag, a passport – help to change the way people feel?
After all, it does belong to us all. It is our ‘global commons’, a designation that dates back to the Emperor Justinian in 533AD and which was enshrined in the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982.
So how about making it an ‘online country’? How about an education platform, ambassadors, an ability to have a say about this part of the world?
I have become so exercised about this because the ocean’s health is critical to life on Earth. It releases more than 50 per cent of the oxygen that we breathe, it controls our weather and creates our rainfall.
Yet we pay little heed to its essential role in our lives, thinking of it – if we do at all – as a constantly renewable resource or a place to relax in the sun.
We treat it like a dustbin. Swirling masses of plastic and debris converge in the currents (the largest containing an estimated three million tons). Acidification kills corals on which millions of species depend for life.
Unsustainable extraction of our ‘apex predators’ and others changes the species balance and threatens food security for the billions who depend on fish in their daily diet.
But we need a productive ocean. There are more than 200 million jobs associated with the fishing industry that need protecting, too.
The goals of the TerraMar Project are to create a global ocean community based around our shared ownership; to drive awareness, connecting and educating people on all related matters; and to help draw up an ocean-specific Sustainable Development Goal at the United Nations.
It is a not-for-profit digital hub, on all the social media platforms, and every day we put out a digital newspaper, The Daily Catch, which keeps our community informed of breaking news on all water, ocean and other marine topics of global interest. Here, you can take a virtual dive, claim an ‘ocean parcel’ or become an ambassador.
For whom? The fish? Well, fish can’t vote, but people do. And if all of us went to the TerraMar site and took the I Love the Ocean Pledge, we could take our charter right to the UN, where a decision on the fate of the ocean’s inclusion in the Sustainable Development Goals will be decided in September. It would be a start – and a great start.
Meanwhile, every day I am challenged and focused on what I do. I love it. And along the way, I have discovered that it doesn’t matter what age you are, so long as you follow your passion.
Ghislaine Maxwell is the president and founder of The TerraMar Project (TMP), a web-based non-profit organisation founded to protect the ‘ocean commons’ by empowering a global community of ‘ocean citizens’. In addition to promoting awareness and responsibility for the High Seas, TMP collaborates with stakeholders to make the oceans part of the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Ghislaine, an avid explorer, is also a member of the Explorer’s Club and has participated in a number of marine and archaeological expeditions. She was educated at Marlborough College and Oxford University, and is a licensed helicopter pilot, a certified EMT, and a deep worker submersible pilot.