XPRIZE Aims to Inspire a Connection with the Ocean


The public engages with space science and exploration more than they do with the ocean ‰ÛÒ XPRIZE hopes to change that.

Workshop participants pose in the lobby of XPRIZE headquarters under a model of SpaceShipOne, the winner of the first $10 million XPRIZE challenge. Image Credit: XPRIZE

The ocean has a problem and it may not be what you’re thinking. Beyond ocean acidification, over-fishing, plastic pollution, mercury levels and extinctions, one of the ocean’s overlooked woes may be engagement.

XPRIZE hopes to change that. The Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE challenge is a $7 million competition to accelerate the development of cost-effective and high-resolution ocean floor mapping technologies. Three hundred and fifty people from 25 countries make up the 21 semi-finalist teams, who will compete in the second round of the competition in the fall of 2017. They will have to deliver five high-resolution images of a biological, archeological, geological feature, as well as one object yet to be disclosed. The technology must be deployed from the shore and be able to dive to depths of 4,000 meters.

In addition to the technical challenge, the folks at XPRIZE have set their sights on another important obstacle, public perception. They hope to inspire the public to connect with the ocean, to support ocean exploration and research.

In May, XPRIZE gathered filmmakers, writers, branding and marketing experts and scientists from the ocean community to begin answering an interesting question: Why does the public seem to care more about space exploration than ocean exploration?

Movie poster from 1975 film ‰Û÷Jaws,’ directed by Steven Spielberg. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Jyotika Virmani is a senior director in prize operations at XPRIZE and prize lead for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. ‰ÛÏSpace is generally considered to be more exciting and more visible; people need simply to look up into the night sky and see billions of stars and imagine the vast possibilities,‰Û she writes in a summary of XPRIZE research. ‰ÛÏConversely, the oceans remain psychologically distant from the human mind, only directly visible to those who live along or visit a coast; even then, most people just see the sea surface ‰ÛÒ the wonders that lie beneath remain hidden.‰Û

Virmani and her team suspect that media narratives about the ocean may be contributing to an imbalance when it comes to public perception. While space stories are often quite positive, coverage of the ocean tends to be driven by problems like ocean acidification, she said. Space stories are mission-based and capture our imagination, but ocean stories present problems that require action. Research and exploration in space is, generally, the product of international cooperation. In the ocean community, there is a lengthy list of organizations and countries with differing messages and competing needs.

To Virmani and her team at XPRIZE hope inspiring the public can generate greater funding for ocean research and exploration and create policies to help protect the ocean for future generations.

To highlight this difference, workshop participants were asked to name their favorite space- and ocean-based films. Most had no problems naming space films, but came up short on the ocean side. Workshop facilitators did a little unscientific digging and found that over the last few decades, there are about 215 films set in space and 92 set in the ocean.

While this may seem, on the surface, inconsequential, consider the difference between the budgets of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). åÊIn 2016, NOAA’s $4.84 million budget was dwarfed by NASA’s $18.5 billion.

Bob Weiss, vice chairman of XPRIZE, added to the discussion by sharing his personal interest in the ways that life imitates art. As a film producer, Weiss reminded attendees that NASA borrowed the space launch countdown from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film ‰ÛÏWoman in the Moon.‰Û

To Wiess, the boundaries between media are breaking down opening up new opportunities for reaching new audiences. He advocates a ‰ÛÏtransmedia approach‰Û to tackling any given issue by figuring out how to communicate in all the mediums available.

Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, emphasized the changing media landscape as well, reminding participants that the number of journalists covering the world’s oceans continues to decline. Schubel sees the internet and social media as dominant communication forces. He suggested harnessing these forces as tools for connecting with the public and rapidly disseminating ocean news. To Schubel, the ocean community hasn’t successfully captured the public’s imagination or engaged decision-makers and they need to adopt new ways of communicating the importance of the ocean to the welfare of humanity and, ultimately, the nation.

‰ÛÏIt was truly a unique opportunity to bring together communications professionals from different disciplines and backgrounds‰Û said Carlie Weiner, communications manager for Schmidt Ocean Institute. ‰ÛÏThe workshop provided a wonderful platform for a vital discussion on how better we can streamline and highlight our message about the world’s oceans.‰Û

Jenny Woodman is a science writer and Writing Fellowship Coordinator for IEEE Earthzine; she lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyWoodman