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Of Happiness, Elusive Otters and an Octopus's Pupil - This is Oceanológico's Story

Thank you all so much for following our adventures over the last year! Oceanológico’s first year has definitely not been an easy one (global Pandemic and all) but we are so grateful for all the wonderful people we have met and experiences we have shared together in these turbulent times.

Now that we’ve gotten to know each other a little, we thought it’s time to tell you a little more about Oceanológico’s story. As some of you may already know, the “real face” behind Oceanológico is Lisa (yup, that’s me writing right now). So I shall drop the “we” for a moment whilst I share this story from my perspective.

As a child I was lucky enough to spend loads of time near the sea - my grandparents lived (and still do) in a small Baltic Sea village in Northern Germany. Being in or by the sea has always evoked a true sense of joy and belonging in me - I could spend hours on end in the water, playing and splashing and being out on the sea on a boat made me endlessly happy. I mean, really happy. To prove to you just HOW happy, I am sharing short little video snippet of me in the very early 90’s on my dad’s boat. How is that for a smile (please excuse my rudeness with the chewing gum - at that time I really didn’t know better!)?

As I grew up, life happened and I got to spend less and less time in the sea. But every time I DID get the opportunity, innocent joyfulness returned. I specifically recall one university excursion to Sweden, where we had a lunch break on the beach after sampling and - not wanting to be seen in a bikini by my fellow students and teachers (yes, I am SUCH an introvert) - I snuck into the forest and popped back onto the beach a few hundred meters further down. I quickly ran into the ocean and began doing the only thing I knew to do when I was in the sea - playing. I dived down down, swam in pirouettes, pretended I was a dolphin, or maybe an otter, or perhaps a mermaid. I smiled at the beams of sunlight that were breaking through the water surface and tried to identify blurry objects at the bottom of the sea. Time just flew by. I re-joined my fellow students, who hadn’t even noticed I was gone, except for one professor, who later approached me in wonder. She said: “Lisa, I watched you disappear into the water - you have to tell me something: How, for crying out loud, did you stay in there for this long? A couple of us tried to swim and didn’t last for 2 minutes in these temperatures.” I shrugged and said: “My dad always said I had fish blood."

"I wanted to create an inspiring, safe and fun place for everyone to experience the joy of being in the sea. This is when the idea of Oceanológico came into existence."

Naturally I sought out a Marine topic for my final Master thesis and studied the impact of recreational fishing on a South African Marine Protected Area. What really got me excited about this project, was the prospect of walking up and down the coastline 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, over a period of 9 months - finally I would get real quality ocean time! This was in 2015. Together with my supervisor I attended a conference about the MPA Management and the organisers had invited some interesting speakers. Amongst them was the now oh-so-famous Octopus’s pupil Craig Foster (if you haven’t watched the film “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix yet, I strongly recommend you do). He shared a story about the primal joy humans experience in the water and his own journey of discovering his connection to life in the sea - all of what he said instantly resonated with me. Now, I’m not a very spiritual person - I’m a scientist at heart, yet I could relate to the sense of peace, happiness and connectedness upon entering the ocean, that Craig described. He put his story into a fascinating context of human evolution, humankind's cradle in Southern Africa and our marine heritage as mammals.

This is the rockpool, where the magic otter encounter happened

Shortly after hearing Craig speak, something truly special happened. I was a few months into my very intense surveys of a small stretch of remote South African coastline. On this day a group of volunteers accompanied me. I had just shown them an old rock shelter and pointed out tracks of elusive wild Cape Clawless Otters, whose presence I often felt but only ever witnessed three times up to this point and from a great distance. I strut forward to my favourite rock pool, when suddenly two otter heads appeared in the sea just behind the pool. How exciting! The otters noticed us and, to my surprise, instead of taking one of the many other routes back to land, they swam into the pool and approached us. The volunteers stood back a few metres, whilst I waited at the edge of the pool for whatever was going to happen next. Buckle up, because this is where the truly amazing part starts.

The otters and me in equal fascination.

Having my feet dangle in the rockpool, the otters came up so close, that I could feel their whiskers tickle my toes! I felt really drawn to join them in the water (remember when I pretended to be an otter earlier in this story?). So I went all in. For some magical minutes we played in the water together - checking each other out - diving down and back up. It was an unbelievably special moment. Eventually it was time to move on - for all of us.

Cape Clawless otters are known to be extremely elusive and shy creatures (in fact I helped a team of otter researchers a few weeks earlier to set traps in this very area but they left without a single otter caught / satellite tagged). I was certain that this meeting was not a coincidence - that the otters had long known about me and watched my movements through their territory for months before their curiosity got the better of them and they decided to check me out more closely.

So what does all of this have to do with Oceanológico? I realised that there was something to what Craig said - that we all carry a primal sense joy when we are in the ocean - an ancient connection that resides in all of us. My feelings weren’t unique or strictly spiritual - they were physical responses to the environment we evolved from. But some of us have lost the trust and connection we used to have with our environment - especially in the ocean, which can be an intimidating place to those, who don't visit regularly. I wanted to create an inspiring, safe and fun place for everyone to experience the joy of being in the sea. This is when the idea of Oceanológico came into existence. Of course it would still take a while before I had figured out the logistics - where, how and in what form could I create a space for people to connect to the sea?

The Canary Islands are a great place for this endeavour because it is a popular holiday destination for Europeans - many of which spend most of their time in cities far away from the sea. This way, I could reach many people who have lost touch with the environment. And why La Palma? For me, it’s one of the most enchanting of the Canarian islands - with its openness to the Atlantic, lush forests and dramatic volcanic landscapes it is easy to connect with the environment here.

A snorkeler is diving down and watching a dramatic underwater landscape.
A snorkel experience participant connecting with the ocean.

But Lisa, you may think, there are so many dive centres and freediving schools out there. What makes Oceanológico different? Let me tell you - Freediving is wonderful and I greatly admire the stamina of passionate apneists - a lot of training, both physical and mental, goes into freediving. Lots of talk about pushing for personal bests, perfecting techniques and constantly aiming to improve your own performance. But I believe that we have enough of that in our surface lives and wanted to create a space without judgement or performance measure instead. When you join me on a snorkel or skin diving experience, we simply share the joy of being in the water together. Of course, I have some techniques up my sleeve that help you make most of your time in the water - and as a biologist you will also hear me talk excitedly about the marine life we will encounter. But there's no pressure for anyone to tick a box, reach a certain depth or take a test to prove that your worthy to be in the water. Everyone is 100% welcome and I will adapt the excursion to whatever your experience level is. Sounds good? Then I would be delighted to meet you and show you what La Palma's underwater world has to offer.

Can you associate with any part of this story? Do you feel different when you are in the ocean? Please share your story with me - I love to read every single one of them. And I would most certainly love for you to come and join me in the water.


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