7th Annual Benchley Ocean Awards and Bay to Sea Symposium Highlights

The 7th annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards took place on the evening of Friday May 30, 2014 at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The Benchley Awards were followed on Saturday, May 31st, by our first-ever west coast high-level public forum called the "Bay to Sea Symposium", which was sponsored by Blue Frontier and the Aquarium of the Bay.

The event included a raft of ocean heroes, advocates, scientists and policy makers.  This year's honorees include the following:  

The National Stewardship Award went to the European Union Commissioner for Fisheries, Maria Damanaki and was presented by 2010 policy winner and former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco. The Science award went to Dr. Steve Gaines and was presented by 2011 science winner Dr. Steve Palumbi.  The Policy award went to Leon Panetta and was presented by 2009 winner Rep. Sam Farr. The Media Award went to ‘Blackfish’ Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and was presented by 2010 Media (and Academy Award) winner Louie Psihoyos, director of ‘The Cove.’  The Exploration Award went to Prince Khaled bin Sultan and the Living Oceans Foundation and was presented

by Jenifer Austin, manager of Google’s Ocean Program (the 2012 winner). The Christopher Benchley Youth Award went to 16-year-old Casey Sokolovicby and was presented by last year’s winner, Sean Russell.  And the Hero of the Seas Award went to Captain Charles Moore, presented by Plastic Pollution Coalition Executive Director Daniella Russo.

The winners came together with the directors of the National Aquarium, the Aquarium of the Bay, Hopkins Marine Lab, Marine Mammal Center, Mission Blue, SeaKeepers International, Greenpeace and 200 other ocean champions (including the director of ‘Ocean Champions’) at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

The evening started with winners greeting each other, Leon Panetta hugging Jane Lubchenco, Louis Psihoyos explaining about his new movie ‘6’ (the global extinction crisis with elements of a Hollywood thriller).  Gabriela Cowperthwaite talked with her NASCAR driver friend and supporter, Leilani Munter, whose ‘Blackfish’ racecar is painted to look like an Orca.

While ROV pilot Dirk Rosen spoke to one of Leon’s Secret Service agents, Leon told us about his love of growing up with sardine canneries in Monterey.   Although he was White House Chief of Staff, CIA Director and Secretary of Defense, he still counts creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as one of his proudest moments.benchley-awards-2014-0191

‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ creator Jim Toomey launches the festivities as this year’s MC.     

Jane Lubchenco introduced a video from Maria Damanaki.  She and Maria worked closely together to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (pirate) fishing.  In her video statement, Maria Damanaki reminds us that while real progress is taking place, “we need to stand shoulder to shoulder to address the tremendous challenges that our oceans and seas are still facing."


Sam Farr introduced Leon Panetta “It all starts with California’s love affair with the sea as well written in David Helvarg’s book, ‘The Golden Shore’. Leon was emphatic about how we need to move faster on marine protection as the threats to our seas are mounting - "At a time of crisis over development, pollution, fisheries… we need to protect the oceans not just for the oceans sake but for life itself."

In his acceptance speech, Dr. Steve Gaines, Dean of the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara explained that, “Everything I’ve done (on fishing reform, marine protected areas, etc.) is through putting together interesting teams.  Solutions come when teams of people combine skills but… we have to find solutions that grow faster than the problems.”

In introducing Gabriella Cowperthwaite, Louie suggested that when deftly handled “film is a weapon of mass construction,” while Gabriella, a first-time filmmaker recounted the surprising and ongoing response that her riveting ‘Blackfish’ on captive whales and corporate malfeasance continues to receive.

In a video message, Prince Khaled bin Sultan explained his belief that, “ocean exploration today gathers critical information for making wise conservation decisions for the future,” while the Living Oceans Foundation director, retired Navy Captain Philip Renaud told the crowd how their research vessel is half way through a 5-year “Global Reef Expedition,” creating new ways to map and study coral systems.

Long time sailor and this year’s  ‘Hero of the Seas’ Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and founded the Algalita Research Foundation noted that, “We live in the age of plastic.  The annual consumption of plastic and the weight of the earth’s human population are nearly equal… I hear it expressed that somehow technological advancements will result in ways to clean up the ocean and create non-polluting plastics that will cancel the need for radical changes in our globalized economic and political system that creates megatons of  waste.  There is no doubt that we need to keep pushing for global change.  Heroes, like Capt. Moore will make it happen!”



Perhaps 16-year old sea turtle activist and 2014 Youth winner Casey Sokolovic expressed most clearly what unites all 48 past and present Benchley winners and their dedicated supporters. “I have learned many lifelong lessons in my 8 years of activism — which is half my life…I’ve discovered that to make a difference, you have to become the difference and not just be a small wave of change. You have to be a tidal wave and flood the world with this change.” She was so inspiring!


Bay to Sea Symposium

David Helvarg and I were honoroed to be among many blue luminaries to speak to a crowd of more than 300 people who gathered at the Aquarium of the Bay's theater. They heard outstanding talks and panels on the Bay and the Wonder and the Challenges of the Ocean from past and present Benchley award winners Jane Lubchenco, Geraldine Knatz, Steve Gaines and Steve Palumbi, as well as the Bay Institute’s Program Director Marc Holmes.  David Helvarg moderated a luncheon conversation between National Geographic Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle and Scripps Institution of Oceanography Director Dr. Margaret Leinen.  They both addressed global issues like overfishing and climate change and the belief that it is not too late to enact solutions that can turn the tide in favor of our living seas.   It was great - Sylvia even led a meditation on the sea.

If that wasn’t enough to provide hope, you could leave the aquarium and walk down the pier to see dozens of sea lions noisily hauled out on the docks along the city’s waterfront where one of the world’s great marine wildlife recoveries is in progress.  This includes the return of harbor porpoises to the bay for the first time in 60 years and a large number of whales, dolphins, salmon and seabirds that are thriving just beyond the Golden Gate and up and down California’s coast.

If the world’s eighth largest economy (California) can prosper while protecting and restoring its coast and ocean, there’s no reason commonsense solutions can’t be scaled up to a national and global level.  That’s what Peter Benchley Ocean Award winners are working towards every day. This year’s more than 20 sponsors included Google, The Campbell Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.