Having spent many summer days snorkelling, and thus having witnessed, over the years, the deterioration of the Mediterranean sea floor—while also being an obsessive collector of beach trash—I was interested to come upon a woman who is dedicating her life to the solution of these problems. Meet Katerina Topouzoglou, founder of the organization ALL FOR BLUE.
Katerina grew up in Greece and spent a lot of her time in the water, becoming in the process a world class underwater target shooting champion, freediving and scuba instructor. She also has a thing for sharks.
What Katerina saw on her ocean adventures inspired her to dedicate her life to ocean conservation. She was kind enough to answer my questions:
–Tell us a little about your story. What was your initial involvement with the sea?
K: I was an athletic child, and practiced many different sports from a young age. Finally, I realized my element was water. I was competitive, and my dream was to compete for Greece. I took up underwater target shooting, which is a swimming pool sport that combines apnea with shooting at a target with a speargun. In 2014 the Greek team went to Italy to compete and I totally messed up—I was so anxious! I came back determined to work at it, I practiced as much as I could, entered any swimming pool competition going; and in 2016 I went back to Italy, as Captain of the Greek team, and this time I won three medals in the European Championship, and two medals in the International Championship.
–You have many strings to your bow: shark protection, ocean conservation, educating the new generations. What motivated you to make this your life’s work?
K: I watched a video of Cristina Zenato, who is famous for her technique for removing hooks out of the mouths of sharks, and I was fascinated. I emailed her, and managed to get on one of the courses that she runs at a diving centre in Freeport, in the Bahamas. She’s a great instructor, and I loved her approach to things. We got on really well, we became friends, and I went back several times. I also got my scuba diving certifications there. She was my inspiration, not only for my organization, but for the necessity of educating the world about sharks.
–Aren’t sharks prehistoric creatures?
K: Of course they are; they evolved before dinosaurs. They’ve been on this earth 450 million years. Only for that, they deserve our respect. They are very misunderstood creatures, and—something I didn’t know at first—they are extremely important for the equilibrium of the eco-system. The fact is, we only get 50% of our oxygen from trees—the rest we get from plankton. Sharks keep the ocean clean by eating dead and wounded fish; where there are sharks, the sea floor is alive and wealthy with all sorts of creatures—fish, turtles, dolphins. In the Mediterranan, in many places you see few fish and a sea floor full of rubbish.
–How does the Zenato shark technique of ‘tonic immobility’ work?
K: You get the animals to come close and touch their noses, and that induces a state of tranquillity which allows you to relax them, and get the hooks out of their mouth. Different species of shark behave in different ways. I’ve practiced mostly with Caribbean Reef Sharks. Sharks in general like fish blood, not human blood. Generally attacks are rare—there are 5-8 fatal shark attacks per year, whereas humans kill 100 million sharks each year.
–Do sharks realize you’re trying to help them?
K: Again, it depends on the species of shark. For example, whale sharks entangled in nets will go near divers, as if they understand they will get help.
–How did ALL FOR BLUE come about?
K: All the ideas come to me while I’m in the water. In 2015, I went to Mexico on a project to measure microplastics in the sea. We collected water 600 miles from shore—it took days to reach the spot—and it was full of microplastics. That’s when I decided to quit spearfishing and devote myself to conservation. My initial interest with keeping the sea clean came from my parents, as a child—so I thought it would be a good idea to connect with the younger generations, and that could best be done through the schools.
I started by myself, and now, after four years, All For Blue has a team of 20 volunteers. We organize seminars in schools, where we give out diplomas, that the children can use later in their college applications and CVs. We also do research with the data we keep from the marine debris, keep records of all trash removed, organize exhibitions, and, of course, beach and underwater cleanups.
It’s difficult to keep an organization like this alive, because in Greece, especially in the last few years, it’s been hard to get funding. We collaborate a lot with local communities, setting up programs in the areas of interest of the relevant authorities, who can then cover our costs; and also with companies.
–So, this has become your career;
K: No, this is my life purpose. For my day job I’m a real estate agent in Cyclades. But nothing gives me as much pleasure as talking to kids in schools, sharing my knowledge. I’m touched by the response of the people who follow my seminars. The see videos of the sea and they have so much enthusiasm to help and join in. All the medals I’ve won in my life cannot compare with this joy; this is my life’s aim and I feel driven from above.
–Do you usually get a positive response from local authorities?
K: Not always. Some are not convinced: they deny there’s any rubbish, don’t see the necessity for seminars or diplomas. What is fantastic is the reaction of the children themselves. Even in the technical colleges, where kids are quite street-wise, they become riveted. On some islands they have started their own teams, and are doing great work. There are now 20 such teams, the most active of which is in Kalymnos. We did two seminars there, and we send them reusable equipment—all plastic free, of course. We’re all very proud of them.
–How do you choose the venues you visit? Are you proactive, or do they contact you? Are they mostly Greek?
K: Increasingly we have companies contacting us, in the framework of CSR. They ask us to give seminars to their staff, or they subsidize programs for their company. However, we contact the schools ourselves. This year we got a contract for a yearly project in Cyclades called #KeepMykonosBlue. The program included beach and underwater cleanups, and from this year all plastic removed during our cleanups are turned into trash cans, by using a special procedure. These are now on the island in central areas, such as the stadium etc.
Wherever I travel, I contact the schools. Apart from Greece, we’ve done seminars in the Bahamas, Miami, Djibouti, South Africa and others. Once I went with a group to Cuba for a diving project. We had a free afternoon, so we just walked into the nearest school; we didn’t even speak Spanish. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable the kids were about the sea. They still send us emails about beach cleanups they organize.
–When talking to kids, how do you combine sharks (cool) with trash (potentially boring)?
K: Of course we start with the sharks! But we are passionate about what we do, so we have developed a seminar that is fast—we try to keep a momentum going, with plenty of brief videos and not much lecturing. We show the kids shark teeth we’ve found underwater, and talk about that. Before I start talking, I show little videos of various projects, to get their attention: research projects, freeing mammals (turtles, dolphins, etc) from nets, how hard it is for a diver to get a plastic bag out of the bottom. A dolphin trying to free itself from a plastic bag. I also talk about bio-degradables, and how they’re not as green as advertised, because in the water there’s not enough oxygen; so they break up into little pieces and the fish eat them.
–What are some of the weirdest things you have removed out of the sea?
K: The first thing I found that shocked me was a shopping trolley stuck in some rocks. Thankfully I had help from other divers, but it still took us 45 minutes to get it out. The list is endless: washing machines, a radiator, 4 scooters, tables, chairs, champagne buckets…
I want the kids to still be shocked. I want our actions to inspire, and have a return to the local community. I insist on education before the cleanup, but I especially insist about the underwater cleanups; because there might be somebody to pick trash off the beach, but few people dive and do cleanups.
We have now collected more than 220 tons of rubbish and given out 55.000 diplomas. In three years, 30.000 of those only in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. It’s lovely to return to the same places when we can.
–How is the organization coping with the present restrictions?
K: We’ve replaced school visits with Webinars. And outdoor events are held with limited numbers of participants, who wear masks and practice social distancing. Here I would also like to point out that all the equipment we use—gloves, bags, etc—is plastic free.
–Do you have a motto or catchphrase?
K: All for Blue and Blue for All!
The sea needs allies. Are you with us?
–What can people do to help?
K: Lots of things: even making a small donation or buying reusable products from our e-shop, such as stainless steel reusable straws or thermos reusable cups. You can volunteer, join clean-ups, invite us to your country (if you are a relevant organism), invite us to talk in a school. Make your company plastic free.
–Where can people follow you on social media?
K: All For Blue has a site, (www.allforblue.org) where you can see exactly who we are and what we do. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, (https://twitter.com/allforblueorg ), as well as posting videos on YouTube. You can link to all of these via our site, too; we’d love it if you followed us!
Footnote: According to new estimates by Australia’s government science agency, CSIRO, at least 14 million tons of plastic pieces less than 5mm wide are sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans; more than 30 times as much as is floating on the surface. Also microplastic has been found in the actual flesh of fish. Finally, Western countries such as England export millions of tons of their rubbish to Third World countries, instead of processing it themselves. Scary, isn’t it?