Jane Goodall, when questioned about hope, reflected that it is ‘often misunderstood. People tend to think that it is simply passive wishful thinking: I hope something will happen but I’m not going to do anything about it. This is indeed the opposite of real hope, which requires action and engagement.’ And on the cusp of her 90th year, Goodall knows a thing or two about hope, and staying power, in the field of conservation. In a world beset with challenges – our increasingly mercurial climate, catastrophic biodiversity loss, pollution and our chronic detachment from nature – it can be hard to hold onto hope. And to know how to amplify it.
But hope is at the core of what drives the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF). It’s what spurred the Founder, His Excellency Abdulmohsen Al-Sheikh, to create the Geneva-based non-profit in 2003, and it’s in the work of the scientists, educators, conservationists and storytellers whom the SOSF funds that His Excellency continues to find hope for the future. For 20 years the SOSF has pursued a vision of sustainable oceans for all, focusing on highly threatened sharks and rays and the critically under-funded work that goes into their survival. By funding education, research and conservation projects each year, His Excellency has acted upon an indomitable hope that it is through strong partnerships, long-term support and the nurturing of a new generation of scientists and conservationists that we can solve many of the challenges facing our oceans.
In recognition of this dedication, the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences (AUAS) has presented His Excellency with its prestigious 2023 NOGI Distinguished Service Award. In his acceptance speech His Excellency said,
And far indeed the SOSF and its impact have come. It certainly seems some distance, at least ecologically speaking, from a childhood in the Arabian desert to a life spent in love with the ocean. And yet there is probably a philosophical connection, a link between wildernesses that makes the leap from vast seas of sand to our global oceans a mere conceptual ‘hop’. First introduced to the underwater world on the reefs of the Red Sea, His Excellency developed a commitment to sharks that had an unlikely advent. An encounter with a grey reef shark brought equal parts curiosity and trepidation; a fear ingrained by decades of misinformation that would be slowly unravelled during the countless hours he spent underwater with sharks and rays around the world.
An avid diver, His Excellency travelled widely and completed thousands of dives that brought him into contact with scientists working on various ocean questions. Cautionary conversations with these researchers, coupled with His Excellency’s first-hand observations of the growing threats facing the oceans and their biodiversity, set his resolve to help address these challenges. The fledgling SOSF delivered a single patrol boat to conservation officers at Cocos Island in the Pacific Ocean. It was an act of hope that has had lasting impact in the region; when given the right tools, practical support, financial aid, communications strategies or scientific advice, projects can succeed. This idea has been proven right over the course of two decades. SOSF project leaders have researched more than 258 species and described 14 new species, helped list 140 species on the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to regulate 90% of the global fin trade, and published 567 papers.
The SOSF was founded at a time when sharks and rays were often out of favour in terms of public opinion and funding support, as well as global conservation attention, with the exception of a few charismatic species. Through his love for the oceans and the sharks that rule them, His Excellency had met passionate people committed to a vision he shared and wished to support. That network of dedicated individuals has grown to such an extent that the SOSF now funds 482 projects in 91 countries. This year, a record 75 grants have been awarded to project leaders and the funding has prioritised young conservationists, understudied species and underfunded regions.
The AUAS is a non-profit organisation that recognises the efforts of leaders in the field of ocean conservation. By acting on his vision of hope, His Excellency Abdulmohsen Al-Sheikh has helped to chart a new course for the sustainability of global shark populations. He has committed the SOSF to supporting emerging conservationists, a policy that focuses on guidance. But more than vision and guidance, real leadership is an act of service. The NOGI Distinguished Service Award honours one man whose key belief lies in the power of the passion and dedication of others, and who acts to support, encourage and expand their capacity to change the world. Hope is, as Jane Goodall points out, an active pursuit. It is also, as the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu asserted, the ability to ‘see that there is light despite all of the darkness’.
Good work is being done by phenomenal people across our planet. Where one can recognise that, and act to amplify it, hope becomes contagious. As His Excellency concluded in his acceptance speech,