Written by Charlotte Thomas
Photography by Jeff Brown/Tom Van Oosannen
07 June 2023
It was on the stage of The Superyacht Forum in November 2018 that something of a milestone moment happened in the yachting industry – a small group of superyacht industry leaders with a shared belief about the need to drive sustainability and guarantee yachting’s future formed a non-profit organisation they called Water Revolution Foundation (WRF).
From these first tentative steps has grown a multifaceted program of projects designed to help the superyacht industry, and by extension the wider maritime sector, make informed decisions and take positive actions to improve the industry’s footprint.
Key to this program is the development of various tools that can help the industry, owners and crews begin to measure their footprint and make changes based on individual, tailored solutions and suggestions for improvement.
At the core is work by WRF initiator and Vice-Chair Dr Vienna Eleuteri, which is subsequently being evolved by the scientific and naval architecture brains at WRF in close collaboration with its strong partner base.
Tools include the Yacht Environmental Transparency Index (YETI), which assesses a yacht’s environmental footprint in the operational phase and can offer suggestions for improving this score through refit, as well as helping optimise new-build projects. There’s also a growing database of sustainable solutions that offers decision-makers a list of life-cycle-assessed products and services that are ready to be implemented on board.
Alongside developing these tools for the industry, WRF is taking key steps in more direct ocean conservation, particularly with its support of Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs).
This is not the usual style of ocean conservation. It centres on identifying the areas of the seas and oceans where whales and other marine mammals thrive – resting areas, breeding grounds and nurseries, for instance. But the end game is focusing on something at the other end of the scale – phytoplankton (tiny plant-like organisms), which offer a dramatic benefit to the planet as they create as much oxygen and absorb as much CO2 as all the planet’s forests and grasslands combined.
Turns out, the oceans’ largest inhabitants and some of its smallest are intrinsically linked. Whales mix and fertilise the waters, which in turn creates the ideal habitat for phytoplankton. So, by protecting whales and their habitats, we can nurture phytoplankton, which could be one of our most important weapons against climate change.
WRF’s IMMA support is not just about contributing research to identify these sensitive areas, however. “The illusion that more data needs to be gathered is not always true,” says Robert van Tol, WRF’s Executive Director. There’s actually a lot of data already known – the trick is in centralising that data, interpreting it, and making nominations and decisions based on the data and the science.
“That’s what IMMA is all about,” van Tol continues. “Scientists all gather their empirical data, bring it together in one place and map it out with areas defined by coordinates. It’s purely fed by data from scientists.”
These areas – of which more than 200 have been mapped, mainly in the Southern Hemisphere, including all around the coasts of Australia and New Zealand – are identified and confirmed as important, which doesn’t mean human activity is banned there, but rather there’s information available about the local marine life of mammals.
That means that decision-makers – whether related to wind farms, ship operations, a shipping route, fishing or whatever – need to take the information into account to realise more sustainable ocean use.
For Water Revolution Foundation, supporting IMMAs is not merely a reactive solution or an encouragement of passive contribution; it’s about there needing to be a fundamental change in how we approach conservation in general. It’s in this regard that WRF is aiming to be part of a paradigm shift in how we interact with and protect our environment.
“Sustainability should already be in place,” van Tol asserts. “We actually need to regrow nature and its biodiversity. Smarter, more nature-based solutions and materials are enabling us to adapt and as such restore the natural capital. It has been a one-way street for humanity to use nature, and we’ve forgotten we’re part of it.”
Drawing primarily on the superyacht industry, WRF has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for IMMA studies and mapping of the North East and North West areas of the Atlantic Ocean, with plans to fund other areas accordingly.
The campaign has already raised more than EURO 265,000 out of a EURO 550,000 initial target, with half the target assigned to each North Atlantic area. All funds (minus GoFundMe transaction fees) go directly to the IMMA project, with other overheads covered by WRF.
It’s all part of a bigger picture that’s being drawn under the banner of a program called Ocean Assist – a project that’s guided by the world’s top scientists and marine biologists, with no political leanings, no drive for populist solutions and no ulterior agenda, which means that actions are taken solely in the best interests of the oceans and their ecosystems.
“IMMA is a very exemplifying project for Ocean Assist. WRF wants to provide the yachting community with the most trustworthy and effective projects to support, which also generate results that we can adopt to embrace, and advocate for, sustainable ocean use,” van Tol enthuses.
“For instance, it’s actually a Task Force under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which offers all kinds of multiplier effects. “For example, every euro you invest is worth three. The value invested should also be multiplied by the effects of the projects or solutions it brings,” van Tol adds.
“The calculated effects of marine mammals thriving for the production of phytoplankton is much larger than the amount needed to make this happen.
“Plus,” he emphasises, “it’s a nature-based solution. It was selected by our Scientific Advisory Board, which is where we follow the most renowned scientists in this field who tell us which projects to support to maximise the relatively limited resources of the yachting community.”
As it stands, van Tol explains, most ocean conservation efforts from the yachting industry stem from charity or philanthropy, but it’s unstructured, meaning contributions can vary wildly year on year, and there can be a lack of due diligence in where money is donated. But the fact that people see the need to invest in our oceans is a good start.
“What if we did all that, in the right directions, supported and guided by the right scientists, to optimise the effects of our precious euros?” van Tol asks.
“If we all contributed to the Ocean Assist fund, and we let the most renowned scientists choose where it goes and report on the effects, then we as the yachting community can say this is what we collectively invested, and this is where it went.
“Moreover,” he continues, “we can not only support the project but actually utilise the results by, for example, implementing IMMA maps on our bridges for more conscious navigation. It’s about structured support, collectively making a positive impact, and utilising the results to adapt our behaviour, our interaction with nature.”
In terms of what this means for yachts directly – and with the IMMA maps being freely available, it’s something that all boaters can do – it starts with being aware of what’s below the water where you are. From that, there are straightforward actions or nonactions that can be taken.
“So, it’s not very smart in these areas to increase speed or change course, or drop anchor, or launch tenders and jetskis,” van Tol suggests. “There’s a very common change of behaviour that you would make when you realise you’re entering a vulnerable area where marine mammals breed, feed or sleep.”
Indeed, generic guidelines exist on what to do when you are close to whales, but they’re not specific to yachting – it’s something that van Tol says Ocean Assist will develop, making those guidelines more specific and relevant to yachts and leisure marine users. There’s also the entertainment and infotainment aspect, which can benefit yacht owners, guests, and their children.
“You can connect with what’s below the water and make it an entertainment or an educational experience, especially if you train the crew on the topic,” van Tol says.
“You can also utilise the fact that you’re there – if you just look out, whether you spot a marine mammal or not, both situations give information to scientists. Marine mammals breach often, so if you don’t spot them in an area, that also tells you something.”
Ultimately, says van Tol, the funding of such programs as Ocean Assist and conservation efforts could come through a levy on flag fees or another mandated way that would mean all users of the oceans – private, leisure or commercial – are contributing on a fair basis. In the meantime, the imperative for the yachting industry to lead by example is clear.
“For yachting to continue enjoying the oceans, it needs to better look after them,” he offers.
“Offsetting has turned out to be a failing approach. Reducing negative impact and contributing to a positive impact is how we can future-proof yachting, and show true commitment and purpose in response to growing social pressures.”
It comes down to two things. “If we can adopt different behaviours or ethical guidelines on the water, we can convey that message to other maritime industries and have an impact,” van Tol concludes.
“Oceans are our planet’s carbon sinks and they’re at stake – and so is the natural habitat for yachting. If you want this lifestyle, you should be thinking about what you can contribute instead of what you can take, and if we all do that, we can become a force of positive change.”