Going Deep with Blue Ocean Society

Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation Leverages Education and Beach Cleanups to help save the whales

Christine Campanella, a Blue Ocean Society volunteer and Board Member, shows us microplastics she's collected as part of the organization's research.

In late 2021, Howell Conservation Fund began partnering with Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, a nonprofit that engages the public with scientific research into whale conservation and ocean plastics. We were intrigued by their efforts to not only clean up their local beaches, but also their data analysis efforts on microplastics, and how they would use this data to track pollution sources and educate the public. The work that they do is driven by a long-time love of whales, a passion that Blue Ocean Society’s Co-Founder, Jen Kennedy, has had since childhood.  

We recently had the opportunity to complete a long-awaited site visit with Blue Ocean Society - something that had been delayed due to the COVID19 pandemic. While in New Hampshire, we witnessed firsthand the important work that the organization does. We also got a chance to speak with Jen about her background and how this organization came to be.

“I’ve always been fascinated by whales,” Jen says of her childhood. “Growing up, I would get Greenpeace mailings and was always really concerned about them.” However, despite her obsession with this megafauna, Jen - a native of the landlocked Rochester, NY - did not see a whale until she was 21. 

During her senior year studying natural resources at Cornell, Jen’s dream finally actualized when she took part in a forestry internship in New England. Her mother had come to visit, and she suggested to Jen that they go on a whale watch. It was here that Jen’s dream of seeing a whale finally came true. She remembers it vividly. “At one point,” she recounts, “I turned to my mom and said, THIS is what I want to do with my life.”

After graduating, Jen did a whale research internship in Gloucester, MA, where she met her now co-Founder of Blue Ocean Society, Dianna Schulte. During this time, Jen was able to not only spend time studying whales, but also seeing firsthand the limitations of education on this topic. After the internship, both founders worked on whale watch boats . Before school field trips, they  were sent to schools to teach students about whales. “I was just amazed,” Jen says, “one of the first schools we went to was only 40 min from the coast, but only 10 kids out of 80 had been to the beach and seen the ocean.”

Seeing this lack of general, first-hand knowledge of marine ecosystems set Jen on a lifelong mission to spread awareness and education. This mission is what drives Blue Ocean Society in all its programming today, including their education programs, volunteer and internship program, and even a brick-and-mortar Blue Ocean Discovery Center in Hampton Beach, NH. But while the whales have been the impetus behind this organization, the work spans further.

In 2001, Blue Ocean Society started doing beach cleanups because, according to Jen, “it’s a way to save the whales in a hands-on way.” As she explains, litter on a beach can threaten anything from whales to plankton. Trash can ensnare whales or end up in their digestive tract, in addition to many other nefarious effects. Recent research has also found that whales help to circulate nutrients through the food chain; their excrement feeds phytoplankton, which are food for zooplankton, and so on. This ‘whale pump’ effectively closes the loop on the food chain, which makes saving the whales that much more important.

These beach cleanups served as a way for regular people to get involved in marine conservation, as well as a means of collecting data on plastic pollution. In 2014, Blue Ocean Society began involving volunteers in a microplastics sampling project on local beaches. “It's a pretty tedious process,” Jen says of the plastic sampling program, “it requires kneeling on the beach, it's windy… it takes a different kind of volunteer.” By starting this program and engaging what Blue Ocean Society calls “Citizen Scientists,” the organization began offering people the chance to participate in science and make a difference, contributing data that they otherwise could not collect.

Blue Ocean Society co-founders Jen Kennedy and Dianna Schulte on a whale watching expedition

To date, these sampling efforts have taken place every April through October since 2014. In addition to collecting over 100 microplastics samples from April through October, the organization works with volunteers to conduct more than 200 beach cleanups throughout the year, as well as host an ‘Adopt a Beach’ program, in which they train volunteers and give them the tools to host their own. However, until recently, Blue Ocean Society has lacked the funds to analyze and publish these longitudinal data from the microplastics research. “To me, it’s really important to collect data,” Jen says. “It’s great if someone wants to pick up trash while walking, but the only way to learn how bad the problem is is to collect data.” 

In 2021, Jen met Brett, the Founder of Howell Conservation Fund (HCF), who was interested primarily in Blue Ocean Society’s microplastics sampling analysis. “What drew me to Blue Ocean Society’s work,” Brett explains, “was their strong local presence, their interest in pushing the boundaries of their work, and their willingness to dive into the plastic issue even before they had their resources pulled together.” Brett also was impressed by the organization’s demonstrated ability to foster partnerships with state and federal agencies, as well as creating a replicable model from their findings. “I see this as a way to create a playbook for how other local NGOs can engage with the top polluters in their region,” says Brett.

Microplastics such as styrofoam are pervasive and often fly under the radar due to their small size.

With funding for this analysis coming primarily from HCF, with cross funding from New Hampshire Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Blue Ocean Society has hired a statistician. This summer, they began digging into their near-decade of data collected. They recently shared with HCF the first round of high-level results, in which they discovered plastic foam to be by far the most prevalent plastic pollution in their area. The results are still being finalized, but already Jen and her team have discovered initial lessons learned from their findings. “For one,” she says, “most of the trash you see on the beaches has a reusable replacement. If we used less single-use plastic, there’d be much less litter.”

Once the results are in, the next step for Blue Ocean Society will be publishing their findings, tracing the source of the waste, and engaging both the community and the generators of this waste. While we wait for the full results, Jen has a few tips for those looking to clean up local beaches: “Go nice and slow and take your time. If you pick up 10 pieces of styrofoam, that can save 10 birds.” She also says that overconsumption is one of the main areas where individuals can have a direct impact. “We’re not thinking critically about what we’re using in our lives,” she explains, “Really, reducing consumption is what you want to do - refusing ‘stuff’ in the first place.”

We’re looking forward to seeing the full results from Blue Ocean Society and helping them share these results with the world. We also would like to thank our partners at Blackstone Ranch Institute for their collaboration and financial support of this program. To learn more about the project, check out our project page on Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation.

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