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Going Beyond Ocean Awareness: Blue Habits (part 1/2)

By Brian Hutchinson

This is the first in a two-part series about our Blue Habits program and the results of our first year of research. Click here to read part two.

Oceanic Society volunteers clean up trash from the ocean in Belize with Dr. Sylvia Earle (center) .

In 2014, Oceanic Society launched an exciting new program to address a question that had been on our minds for some time: how can we go beyond raising awareness about the oceans to actually motivate individual action for ocean conservation?

You see, although the problems we face in ocean conservation can be really complex, when you get down to it they all share a common cause: the way people behave. Plastic pollution, overfishing, bycatch, habitat destruction, acidification, and other major threats to ocean health are all the products of human behavior. And while not every problem can be solved through personal behavior changes, the way each of us acts in our day-to-day lives has a bigger impact than we might realize. We discard unnecessary single-use plastic (like water bottles and drinking straws), and some of it enters the ocean. We purchase seafood that is caught by poorly managed, unsustainable fisheries, and by doing so encourage overfishing and excessive bycatch. We fail to demand action from our elected officials, and so continue to live in a world that doesn’t adequately value and protect nature. And so on.

Many of us know that the oceans are in trouble, we want desperately to help, and yet we are unsure where or how to begin. So we wondered: How can Oceanic Society work to better convert ocean awareness into ocean action?

As we explored this question, we learned that few environmental organizations have tried to bridge the gap between awareness and action. In spite of the fact that behavior scientists widely agree that awareness alone does not lead to action, most organizations focus solely on raising awareness. We also learned that the science of behavior change is a growing field of study, but that research is predominantly focused on behaviors associated with health (e.g. eating and exercise habits) and commerce (e.g. purchasing behaviors). There have been few efforts to study behavior change in the context of environmental health.

Connecting with the Experts & Choosing an Audience

As we learned more about the science of behavior change and considered how to apply it to our work, one of the most elegant and widely referenced models of behavior change that we encountered was the Fogg Behavior Model, developed by Dr. BJ Fogg at Stanford University. The model explains how motivation (how much do you care?), ability (how hard is it?), and triggers (cues or reminders) interact to cause a behavior (read more). We reached out to BJ for advice, and he graciously invited us to participate in one of his Persuasive Technology Lab group meetings on Stanford’s campus to discuss our ideas. Both BJ and his students were extremely helpful in challenging us to identify our audience and to prioritize the behaviors we wanted to motivate people to change.

With their help, we decided to start with our core audience: international travelers and San Francisco Bay Area whale watchers. We chose this audience for a few reasons. For one, we’re already reaching more than 3,000 people each year through our conservation travel programs and San Francisco Bay Area whale watching trips. On top of that, our travelers are usually pre-disposed to care about ocean health. Moreover, the experiences themselves—seeing whales, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, and coral reefs first-hand—while at the same time learning about conservation issues through a knowledgeable naturalist guide, can make for powerful motivation. While our ultimate goal is to reach a much broader audience (e.g. online), starting with our travelers makes a lot of sense.

Given our decision to focus on travelers and whale watchers, BJ helped connect us to Dr. Nicole Ardoin, an associate professor at Stanford University with a joint appointment in the Graduate School of Education and the Woods Institute for the Environment, and her colleague Dr. Mele Wheaton, a postdoctoral researcher in the Woods Institute. Nicole and Mele were already leading research projects to evaluate the ability of nature-based tourism experiences to motivate behavior change in places like the Galápagos Islands and Año Nuevo State Park.

Together we began to discuss and develop a plan for Oceanic Society to launch our new program. We called the program Blue Habits, because our goal is to motivate people to adopt new ocean-friendly (i.e. blue) habits, and we decided to start by evaluating and experimenting with our whale watching programs. We wanted to know: How can we assure that our whale watching programs not only provide a great, educational experience with whales, but that they also motivate as many people as possible to behave in ways that quantifiably contribute to healthy oceans?

In partnership with Nicole, Mele, and their team at Stanford University, as well as our experienced group of whale watching naturalists, we’ve spent the last year and a half working to answer this question. In part two of this series we’ll talk about what we’ve learned and where we’re headed next. Stay tuned!

This is the first in a two-part series about our Blue Habits program and the results of our first year of research. Click here to read part two.


Brian Hutchinson is Oceanic Society's vice president of outreach, co-founder of the State of the World's Sea Turtles Program, and program officer of the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. Brian holds a B.A. in zoology from Connecticut College, and has been working to advance global marine conservation for more than a decade.


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