Like a real-world version of The Avengers or Justice League, an international group of unlikely activists, some of them billionaires, have banded together to save our imperiled seas, which, by all accounts, are deteriorating at an increasingly alarming pace. Calling themselves the Philanthropic Ocean Research Vessel Operators—at least until they come up with a catchier name—they’re not waiting for governments to take action. Instead, they have applied their business know-how to studying the seas and devising conservation projects to combat the ravages of climate change, over-fishing and the wholesale dumping of plastic.
Wendy and Eric Schmidt, Kjell Inge Røkke, Andrew and Nicola Forrest, Victor Vescovo and Agnès Troublé are among those who have formed the loose coalition, comprised mainly of privately funded institutions, to bring a more coordinated approach to ocean research.
Their efforts, described in the coming pages, vary, with Vescovo and the Schmidt Ocean Institute each mapping vast underwater territories and the Tara Ocean Foundation concentrating on DNA sequencing and imaging technologies of planktonic ecosystems and marine genetic resources. The Forrests’ Minderoo Foundation has begun an incentive campaign to reduce production of new plastic, and Røkke’s REV Ocean plans to take a more diplomatic role, bringing together world leaders and competing interests (e.g., commercial fisheries versus marine biologists) aboard its 600-foot research explorer yacht to create consensus on the best ways to restore the seas’ health.
“We’re a small number of people among funders who understand the huge costs and are willing to contribute,” says Romain Troublé, CEO of Tara, who says his group and partners have invested about $100 million in research in the last 10 years. “The positive is that we have the freedom to act at will, without waiting.”
Vescovo has spent over $50 million of his personal funds to build his research vessels, DSSV Pressure Drop and the submersible Limiting Factor, and to subsidize their missions exploring the ocean’s deepest trenches. Shelling out tens of millions is the price of admission for this new breed of conservationist.
Nina Jensen, CEO of REV Ocean, says it’s not enough. “Less than 1 percent of global philanthropy goes toward ocean conservation,” she says. “That’s for a part of the planet that feeds two billion people, provides millions of jobs and gives us 50 percent of our oxygen. Maybe we haven’t been able to bring it as close to the hearts of the people as it should be. Maybe that should be our next step.”
Norwegian industrialist Kjell Inge Røkke, who amassed billions extracting resources from the sea, and ocean activist Nina Jensen, who has spent her career defending it, make an unlikely team. But the two have been aligned since 2017, when Røkke decided to do something about the deteriorating oceans.
“His career had everything to do with the ocean, and he’s alarmed with what he’s seeing,” says Jensen, former CEO of Norway’s World Wide Fund for Nature. “He’s estimated how much time he has left in his life and wants to use it reversing these trends.”
Røkke became Norway’s second-wealthiest individual, with an estimated net worth of $5.6 billion, by building a global fisheries business and then purchasing the majority stake in Aker, a Norwegian shipping and offshore-drilling conglomerate that has since expanded into biomarine and renewable energy.
His most ambitious philanthropic project is REV Ocean, a foundation with an eponymous 600-foot ship designed to be both research vessel and ice-class hulled explorer. Scheduled to launch in late 2022 or early 2023, it features a helicopter, a submersible that can dive to 7,500 feet, six labs and accommodations for 54 scientists and 36 crew. It was also designed as a charter yacht, with space for 28 guests in 14 state-rooms. Once it’s running, the goal is to have guests fund the research initiatives through charter fees.
At World Wide Fund, Jensen collaborated with Røkke on the initial plans to create a sophisticated floating lab. “The advanced vacuum-pumping technology allows samples to be brought on board alive, without being damaged,” Jensen says, adding that the team is exploring next-level facial-recognition technology. “If we’re looking for a specific species of fish, for instance, it would mean we would get only that type and not others.” REV Ocean will also be able to livestream from the ocean floor anywhere around the world.
The combination of Jensen’s background as a marine biologist and Røkke’s well-funded commitment to restore the oceans has resulted in a new form of activism. When the corporate titan offered her REV Ocean’s CEO job, Jensen was reluctant. Røkke persisted. “Eventually, I saw the potential for teaming up with an industrialist who’d succeeded with every goal he’d ever set,” says Jensen, who relented. “We activists have been trying to solve these problems for decades, with limited results. We need people with power and access to capital who are global decision makers.”
Røkke’s other initiatives include the Plastic REVolution, an effort to make plastic recycling profitable, and the World Ocean Headquarters, which will serve as a global center for ocean policies and research.
“We don’t want to just fund X number of research missions,” says Jensen. “A decade from now, we not only want solutions for the plastic problem, but ways to mitigate the negative impact humans have on the sea. We will drive collaboration across multiple interests to move the ocean forward.”
TARA OCEAN FOUNDATION
When Agnès Troublé, better known as French fashion designer agnès b., launched the Tara Ocean Foundation in 2003, she had no clue about marine research. What she did know was that one of its main protagonists, Sir Peter Blake, had recently died on an expedition aboard his 117-foot research sailing vessel, Seamaster. The man best known for his America’s Cup victories was killed by pirates on the Amazon River while measuring environmental change.
Coming from a family who had been passionate about the sea for generations, Agnès b and her son Etienne Bourgois purchased Seamaster. They renamed it Tara and started France’s first foundation dedicated to the world’s ocean. “My aunt and cousin knew about fashion but not much about the logistics of operating a research vessel, so I became the operations head,” says Tara’s CEO, Romain Troublé, a molecular biologist and former America’s Cup sailor who is Agnès’s nephew. Romain understood that marine biology research was then in its infancy and that scientists needed comparable data to clearly interpret global trends. “We also knew it would take a more holistic approach to understand the many connections happening in the water.”
With smaller financial means than the other Ocean Keepers, he describes the foundation as “David versus Goliath.” Like the biblical David, Tara has accomplished great deeds in the past 18 years, including research expeditions to Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Unlike the other research vessels, Tara conducts up to four-year studies to better grasp the nuances of micro-environmental change due to global stresses.
“For depth of research, that makes sense,” Romain says. “It lets us compare smaller, local systems with the big data we have in hand.”
Its latest project, studying the ocean’s microbiome, or the microbes that make up around 70 percent of the water’s biomass, is creating a new realm of ocean research. “It’s much larger than the sum of its parts— the plankton, viruses and bacteria and other micro-organisms. It’s a complete living being,” says Romain. “We want to understand how this microbiome functions as a whole, and whether it is sensitive to plastic pollution or to the ongoing warming of the ocean.”
Tara and its partners and labs have already spent 10 years and nearly $100 million studying viruses, bacteria and plankton. The microbiome project will be a much more in-depth undertaking that involves DNA sequencing and imaging, as well as rigorous measurement of environmental parameters.
On its expeditions, Tara brings together scientists from as many as 25 laboratories in 10 countries; it even collaborates with NASA. The foundation also has Special Observer status at the United Nations. In a very French twist, Tara hosts 10 artists to paint, draw and photograph on each expedition. “It’s like the great explorers of the 17th century who sailed the oceans to discover ‘new worlds,’ ” says Romain. “Now we’re dis- covering new worlds beneath the surface.”
In 2015, Victor Vescovo, investment-fund manager, mountain climber and former naval intelligence officer, discovered his next calling: deep-ocean exploration. “The oceans are acutely connected to life on Earth, but 90 percent of the ocean floor remains unexplored,” he says. “Nobody else seemed to be stepping up to push full-ocean-depth technology and diving, including our government and marine scientific community. So I just went ahead and did it.”
Vescovo’s DSSV Pressure Drop, a 224- foot converted US Navy ship, relaunched in 2018, along with its new Triton submersible, Limiting Factor. His goal was to explore the deepest underwater points in the world, map previously uncharted territory and allow scientists to study new forms of marine life at extreme depths. The research vessel was designed with wet and dry labs as well as berths for 49 people, including 15 scientists, technical specialists or media, while Limiting Factor, a Triton 36000/2, became the world’s first two-person submersible able to dive to the oceans’ bottom-most trenches.
Having conquered the Seven Summits, Vescovo has moved into ocean exploration for reasons both altruistic and personal. “What we are doing is more like a manned moon mission, with the excitement they used to generate, versus just launching robots into space,” he says. “There is something special about being able to interact with an environment that is very difficult to access.”
During the 10-month Five Deeps Expedition, in which Vescovo piloted Limiting Factor to the lowest points of five oceans, research flourished. “It’s actually quite peaceful down there,” he says of descending 35,843 feet to the Pacific Ocean’s Challenge Deep, the world’s lowest point, in an area known as the Mariana Trench. “Even seven miles down, the bottom is teeming with life, including viruses and bacteria, the most robust life forms.”
The team collected an estimated 300,000 specimens and identified roughly 40 new species while mapping 268,000 square miles of underwater territory. In 2020, the Ring of Fire expedition explored trenches from Japan to the Red Sea. Part Two, begun in February, headed back to the Mariana, along with making its first dive in the Philippine Trench.
Like the other Ocean Keepers, Vescovo believes in open systems, so he makes his discoveries available to the global scientific community. He says individually financed foundations play a critical role in ocean research and restoration. “Since it’s 100 percent self-funded, I knew we could make things happen relatively quickly and efficiently,” he says. “Governments have so many regulations that it takes much longer to accomplish anything. ‘Speed’ is the operative word.”
SCHMIDT OCEAN INSTITUTE
“It’s our pantry, it’s our pharmacy and it’s our playground,” philanthropist Wendy Schmidt says of the ocean. The former Silicon Valley businesswoman, who also happens to be an accomplished competitive sailor, has always had a seemingly unquenchable thirst to learn more about the seas. Though she has spearheaded multiple nonprofits to tackle other big issues, from human rights to renewable energy, a major focus of her work has been the deep blue.
In 2009, she cofounded the Schmidt Ocean Institute with her husband, Eric, the former CEO of Google, to advance oceanographic research. “The idea for the institute was really a combination of my passion for the ocean and Eric’s desire to see the evolution of land- and space-based technologies accelerate our understanding of it,” she says.
The institute was one of the first organizations to make a sophisticated research vessel available to the scientific community at no cost and in exchange for making the findings freely available. “[The Schmidts] realized that one of the hurdles for really knowing our ocean was the expense of going to sea,” says Jyotika Virmani, a noted oceanographer and executive director of the institute.
Over the past decade, the 272-foot R/V Falkor has carried out 75 expeditions, while the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) SuBastian has completed more than 400 dives in four years. As a result, over one million square miles of the ocean floor have been mapped and a myriad of remarkable discoveries made. Take, for instance, a new coral reef that’s taller than the Empire State Building, or a 150-foot siphonophore, which is now the longest known sea creature. Falkor is also one of the only science vessels that have continued at-sea research during the pandemic.
At the same time, Schmidt is investing in promising technologies designed to improve ocean health, via the nonprofit Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, which, for example, backed Saildrone, a company that designs wind- and solar-powered drones to collect ocean data sans emissions. “You really have an opportunity to lead,” Schmidt says. “You’re able to put the investment into a proof of concept, into something to demonstrate a new way forward.” Conversely, she says, governments can’t afford to take such risks, and industry is invariably preoccupied with return on investment.
To Schmidt, a more comprehensive view of the world beneath the waves is vital for humanity. “We know more about the backside of the moon than we do about the ocean,” she says. “I don’t think you can address any environmental issues on land without understanding what’s happening at sea.” Virmani adds that without this fundamental knowledge, “it’s like we’re living in a three-story house and we only know what’s on the first floor.”
Andrew Forrest has been enraptured by the ocean since he was a boy, so much so that five years ago, after building a multibillion-dollar fortune, he went back to school to study it.
Australia’s second-richest person re-enrolled at his alma mater, the University of Western Australia, to pursue a Ph.D. in marine ecology. The businessman and philanthropist, who owes much of his fortune to mining, didn’t think grad school would be a breeze, but he also wasn’t quite prepared for how much work it turned out to be. “There was no work-life balance over that four-year period,” he tells Robb Report. He earned his title of “Dr.” in 2019.
But while his studies may have been grueling, they also illuminated the complexities of the seas’ problems. Under the guidance of Professor Jessica Meeuwig, the head of the university’s Marine Futures Lab, Forrest focused on the pelagic area offshore—“That’s where the most damage has been done,” he says—and began to truly understand the devastating toll pollution, overfishing and climate change are taking on the marine world.
In 2001, well before returning to school, Forrest and his wife, Nicola, started the Minderoo Foundation, which looks for progressive solutions to the biggest issues facing Australia and the planet. His studies have helped guide its Flourishing Oceans conservation initiative, including two of its major programs. The first is Sea the Future, which aims to reduce ocean pollution by pushing governments to mandate companies to reduce their reliance on new plastic production and use recycled plastic instead—or pay “producer responsibility fees.” Unfortunately, the cratering of the fossil-fuel market brought on by Covid-19 has hampered the effort by making new plastic even cheaper, but the foundation continues to push for the use of recycled plastic. The second project is OceanOmics, which collects and analyzes environmental DNA (eDNA) in ocean waters to get a more accurate measure of marine life and develop better protections.
Although Forrest is confident that people now realize how dire the situation is, he believes that a failure to act quickly and decisively will prove catastrophic. It’s his hope that his family’s foundation, which is one of Australia’s biggest philanthropies and has over $1.5 billion committed to its various initiatives, can play a part in turning the tide.
“Our oceans are sick,” Forrest says. “We have, I think, less than five years to save our oceans from the savage destruction from plastic waste. We have less than 10 years to save our oceans from savage repercussions of overfishing. This decade is the decade which I think will go down in history.”