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How this real-life mermaid empowers ‘seatizens’ for marine conservation one shark pun at a time

Ashoka Philippines

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How this real-life mermaid empowers ‘seatizens’ for marine conservation one shark pun at a time

Anna Oposa, through Save Philippine Seas, is fueling a new wave of environmental changemakers.

Ashoka Philippines

Save Philippine Seas’ Chief Mermaid and Ashoka Fellow Anna Oposa has all hands (fins and tails included!) on deck in creating a sea change moment for the country’s marine conservation scene.

Whether it’s grooving to “Thresher” (Bruno Mars’ Treasure) or making fin-tastic visuals on how ‘crazy rich’ the Philippine oceans are, Chief Mermaid Anna Oposa makes saving (and appreciating) the environment inviting for everyone.

Unlike mermaids in cartoons, Anna does more than singing on rocks and combing her beautiful locks. A lover of the seas and the arts, she combines these two in driving the current at Save Philippine Seas (SPS), a national environmental non-profit organization.

Formed in 2011 as a social media campaign against the illegal wildlife trade that killed 161 turtles in Southern Philippines, SPS has grown to become a “living movement” by making environmental conservation a part of Filipinos’ daily lives.

As a dynamic movement, Save Philippine Seas is transforming citizens into ‘seatizens’ who are reconnected to the seas and collectively act to protect it. Anna does this by creating programs and campaigns that give individuals and institutions a fundamental understanding of and appreciation for the oceans, and ultimately the tools to make a real difference.

Saving the seas, saving humanity

As an English Studies major and the daughter of an environmental lawyer, Anna has always had a penchant for weaving words. Having no professional background in environmental sciences did not deter her from exploring and further expanding her work and advocacy. 

“The issue of framing is key,” shared the chief mermaid in an interview. “Conservation is being framed for the environment’s sake, when it should be the environment for humanity’s sake.”

With the Philippines sitting right at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the world’s most marine biodiverse region, the treasures that lie in its waters alone could free millions of Filipinos from hunger. This makes protecting the seas all the more necessary as a majority of the country’s municipalities are located along the coast, with many lives depending on it. Despite such deep connection and history, Anna observed firsthand, as a scuba diver and a young advocate, the stark realities on the ground. 

While setting up community activities for children to unleash their artistic talents and learn about the marine environment, she saw how most of them do not know how to swim nor have been near the waters once. This led to a realization that, more than anything, the worsening condition of the country’s oceans is a result of Filipinos having been long disconnected from it. 

Anna took this as an opportunity to educate and empower Filipinos, especially young people, in the best way she knew—through the power of storytelling. 

Anna injects clever wordplay and witty puns derived from pop culture to communicate the hard science behind scientists’ work in marine conservation. This, in turn, has helped reframe environmental campaigns—extending to SPS’ programs—to be more accessible, relevant, and easy to understand.

Challenging existing cultures and belief systems is also Anna’s anchor in spreading her conservation work, with SPS actively engaging with youth, businesses, and governments to co-lead and co-create innovations on shark conservation, waste management, and conservation leadership. All these contribute to her goal of making the Philippines a center of marine biodiversity, not adversity.

GIF of young Filipinos involved in the marine conservation programs of Save Philippine Seas waving
SPS’ Sea and Earth Advocates (SEA) Camp invites young changemakers to innovate solutions for the environment while reconnecting with the seas. (Video source: Save Philippine Seas)
Making waves with young changemakers

At the core of Save Philippine Seas’ work is Anna’s radical belief in the power of young changemaking. As a young advocate herself who had started her own organization at 23, Anna believes that the youth can also be today’s leaders if given the right resources to tinker and opportunities to explore.

Led by SPS in partnership with the US Embassy and Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, Sea and Earth Advocates Camp (SEA Camp) is the first environmental leadership program of its kind in the country. It taps on youth participants’ potential to develop solutions on complex environmental problems and issues.

Besides getting access to mentorship and funding, all participants are immersed in outdoor experiences that serve to bring them closer to the sea. From riding a boat to snorkeling around coral reefs, these young leaders are encouraged to rethink their relationship with marine life.

Since its founding in 2015, the program has produced 269 alumni from 10 Southeast Asian countries; 11 SEA Camps and 2 SEA Camp Summits; and over Php 1.5 million invested in 105 youth-led projects in the region, benefitting over 3,000 seatizens.

Anna has launched other projects that empower young people to be environmental changemakers, which include Haquathon, a Southeast Asia-wide search for tech-based solutions that address marine conservation issues and Reimagine Recycling, a program that helps grassroots initiatives with emerging circular economy solutions to secure funding and mentorship.

With her current mission of bringing the seas to young people, Anna’s biggest impact yet is her work in mainstreaming environmental education through the Earthducation program. From 2013 to 2019, SPS conducted various workshops on how formal and non-formal educators around the country can create conducive eco-learning spaces. They also designed and piloted the Earthducation Kit as a response to pandemic restrictions. The modules, focused on conservation literacy, are currently being adopted by the Department of Education to be scaled nationwide.

“My job as a mentor is to create students who will do better, who will do greater things than me,” Anna mentioned on her work in empowering young seatizens. “In the next 20 years, I will see that happen.” 

GIF of an illustration of a thresher shark swimming across a coral reef.
Thresher shark tourism helped Malapascua, Cebu to recover from Typhoon Yolanda’s aftermath.
Love at first ‘shark’

Anna fell in love with the ocean from a young age. Growing up, she vividly remembers swimming with turtles and sharks alongside her father and siblings. But it wasn’t until her first dive at 15 that she truly discovered the Philippine seas and its astounding beauty.

Anna was already a licensed scuba diver when she came across Malapascua Island’s Monad Shoal in one of their regular family visits to Cebu. Home to thresher sharks that are native to the island’s waters, it was during this time that she could not tell if she was in love first with her boyfriend or the sharks.

Her growing commitment to shark advocacy has led to groundbreaking developments in protecting endemic marine wildlife from illegal trade and exploitative tourism. In 2012, Save Philippine Seas launched the Shark Shelter Project, a multi-stakeholder, community-based initiative in Malapascua. Anna collaborated with local dive shops and fisherfolk communities to promote responsible diving and teach alternative sustainable livelihood methods. 

“While thresher sharks are considered treasure sharks in Malapascua, they are still fished and finned in other parts of the Philippines and the world,” Anna wrote in her blog. “This motivates me to work harder to make other people see the economic and ecological value of our marine resources. That really, these species have more worth alive than dead.”

The project has grown in scale over the past decade and has helped establish the country’s first marine sanctuary for thresher sharks, ultimately becoming a model for other marine protected areas in the Philippines and in Alor Isla, Indonesia. 

Ashoka Fellow Anna Oposa on her long-term vision.
Co-creating a Philippines that’s worth diving for

Following her success in campaigning for the protection of 18 shark species in the Philippines at the recently held 2022 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), Anna is currently working with the Food and Drug Administration to legalize cosmetic and personal care refills in the New Normal. SPS has also been collaborating with values-aligned multinational companies in shifting their business towards sustainability and circularity.

It has been 11 years since Anna started her mermaid journey, and she and Save Philippine Seas show no signs of stopping in mobilizing seatizens to take action.

“I don’t take the word ‘empower’ lightly,” Anna shared. “I am working towards a future where environmentalism is ordinary and SPS becomes irrelevant.”

There’s no perfect environmentalist. For Anna, being one can be as simple as bringing a reusable bag when shopping or supporting eco-friendly brands. It’s about starting small, “advocating for clean seas, streets, and surroundings” in the language one knows best. And by building a network of proactive seatizens who are, in turn, making waves of change, Anna is one step closer to achieving her vision.

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