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Striving for the ocean by swimming the Strait of Messina

By Richard Branson - 27 September 2016

What do you do when faced with an enormous challenge, unsure if you will be able to achieve it? Find some people to help you along the way, and dive in together. 

 

The Virgin Strive Challenge is about each of us challenging ourselves to do more and inspiring others in turn. I could think of no better way to celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8th this year than to challenge my friend Adrian Grenier to join me by making a huge splash as part of this challenge to restore ocean health.  Since then, people all around the world have been celebrating their love for the ocean with us online and here in Italy.

Today, we finally took the challenge, swimming across the Strait of Messina for 3.3 kilometres to raise awareness for global ocean conservation action. The sun glistened off the waves as we dived in and began this open-water encounter. Earlier we had tried on some inflatables for size just in case we needed some help out in the water. But for once, Adrian and I weren’t joking around as we donned our flippers and snorkels.  

The conditions today were excellent with the sea a balmy 25 degrees. Adrian, Holly and I got off to a quick start - perhaps a bit too quick, which left me slightly out of breath as we got into open water. I recovered quickly and we set off, stroke after stroke. I swam backstroke most of the way, Holly positioned herself between me and Adrian to make sure we both survived (thanks Holly) and Adrian swam deliberately and consistently along with us. After what seemed like an age, we made it to the other side. Hooray! We were asked what we saw the most of: sadly, the answer was: “Rubbish.”

The ocean stretches thousands of kilometres in depth and breadth around the world. It’s a huge, amazing system that powers our planet, but it is in trouble from overfishing, pollution and climate change. Earlier this month in Washington at Secretary Kerry’s Our Ocean conference, a number of governments, big and small, that touch every ocean stepped up and took action. They committed to more marine protected areas, combatting illegal fishing, removing plastics from the ocean and doing more to address ocean acidification.

The waters around Sicily have long been rich fishing grounds replete with tales of illicit activity, overfishing, a rich diversity of life and illegal fishing. The Southern ports of Sicily are home to an Italian trawling fleet; other ports host about 30 per cent of the Italian long-line fleet and Northern Sicily is notorious for fishing non-compliance with national and international rules. Bluefin tuna and swordfish are the most valuable catch – the former are making a slight recovery but remain imperilled as a result of overfishing. Scientific studies suggest that few sharks remain in the Mediterranean. Some Sicilian ports are hubs for illegal fishing using both driftnets and long lines. Driftnets were banned by the UN in the 1990s.  They are known as ‘walls of death’ as they hang in the water column, trapping everything that swims towards them. Like so many other parts of the ocean, overfishing and destructive fishing are now being joined as threats to this amazing area by climate change, marine traffic, pollution and oil exploration. 

The waters near Southern Italy are Mediterranean biodiversity hotspots, in particular the Sicily Channel that lies between Sicily and Tunisia. Home to unique areas such as deep-sea reefs, underwater volcanoes and canyons and rich marine life such as whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and many species of fish. The area has been identified as being of important ecological significance by the UN Convention of Biological Diversity and the Barcelona Convention, a regional treaty focused on protection of the Mediterranean Sea. It urgently needs protection. The Italian government needs to act, but also needs to be joined by others because a large area lies beyond the 12 nautical miles of Italy’s national waters - within the international waters of the Mediterranean. We need to say no to harmful activities, and governments must work together to make sure that the area is protected as a marine reserve. 

Completing the Virgin Strive Challenge means setting a growth mindset - to challenge and push ourselves, to reach outside of our comfort zones, because that helps us all grow as people. For the ocean, we all need to adopt this same mindset, do much more to restore ocean health, and work together to drive change at scale.

I realised during this swim that we need to see even more leadership – more vision, courage and character when it comes to protecting the ocean. Governments need to meet the goals of protecting 10 per cent of the ocean by 2020. Together, we need tostrive to do even more and meet the scientifically recommended target of protecting 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. If you want to do more today to secure ocean health, go to oceanunite.org/take-action and make your own splash.



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