The Principles of Ocean Literacy and How Marine Animals and Rehabilitation Can Help Teach Them

Ocean Literacy Principle One: The Earth has one big ocean….
Photo Credit: The Ocean Literacy Website at

Since it was first introduced in 2004, the concept of “ocean literacy” has changed the way scientists and educators understand the role of public education of the ocean. The term resulted as a response to concerns regarding insufficient public awareness of ocean issues and anthropogenic impact, eventually laying the foundation for future highschool ocean curricula (Costa & Caldeira, 2018). Ocean literate citizens are defined as people who understand their influence on the ocean and the ocean’s influence on their lives in return (Schubel & Schubel, 2008).  Ocean literate people are then able to both communicate this connection with others, and make informed decisions individually and politically (Schubel & Schubel, 2018). Recent studies have called for an increased urgency of public ocean literacy to address anthropogenic pressures, such as ocean acidification, overfishing, and marine debris, that threaten ocean ecosystems and inhabitants (Fauville, Dupont, von Thun, & Lundin, 2015).  

Ocean education, however, often takes place in the form of “free-choice” learning, a process in which people learn voluntarily in a less formal setting (Schubel & Schubel, 2018). Oftentimes occurring through aquariums, science centers, or social media, free-choice learning allows people to learn through their own interest in ocean topics. For ocean literacy, marine animals are often the face of ocean conservation, maintaining tangibility of the issues and engagement of a free-choice learning audience. For example, one study at the Melbourne Zoo, Australia suggested that visitors who watched a live show about plastic waste starring fur seals which had been harmed by plastic showed more positive attitude towards marine conservation compared to a group who only read related static displays (Mellish, Pearson, Sanders, & Litchfield, 2016). By directly witnessing how marine debris negatively affected the seals, the group could understand the possible influence of their personal lifestyle choices, and then potentially alter their behavior.  However, even though these types of shows at zoos and aquariums can advocate for ocean literacy, their viewers are more likely to be already interested in wildlife and marine issues (Mellish et al., 2016). Therefore, in order to maximize public ocean literacy, there must be more accessible means for people to learn about marine animals and anthropogenic influence.  

The internet and social media have recently played a pivotal role in educating the public on political, social, and environmental issues. Different types of social media platforms allow users to find relevant content and communicate about it with their friends and community, bringing new people into the conversation (Fauville et al., 2014). Marine-related social media posts also foster dialogue between scientists or researchers and their audience. This connection allows for a deeper engagement in topics and potential education (Fauville et al., 2014). Significantly, it has been found that marine-related photos and video posts shared by researchers gain more attention from users than links or text posts (Fauville et al., 2014). This finding suggests that visualizing marine animals and other ocean inhabitants, even in photos, is important for the public to gain interest in marine issues. Images of marine animals can therefore help make content more accessible for non-scientists, inspiring more people to pursue free-choice learning. Similarly accessible, but more in-depth, marine animal tracking data also engages public interest, as well as pushes conservation progress. 

Marine animal tracking has created more reliable information on animal migrations, breeding grounds, distribution, and rehabilitation success (Hays et al., 2019). These data have helped implement marine protected areas, such as the South Sandwich Islands, and have altered shipping routes to minimize whale injuries (Hays et al., 2019). Similar information has been used to track rehabilitated individuals, such as Florida manatees, to monitor their health and population dynamics (Hays et al., 2019). Not only have these tracking events impacted marine conservation policy, but they continue to advocate for ocean literacy from another angle. If shared on social media and similar platforms, tracking data and their implications can educate the public on marine animal populations, and potentially motivate individuals to call for policy change themselves (Hays et al., 2019).  

Although marine animals and their rehabilitation, often necessary due to anthropogenic causes, are helpful for people to visualize their impacts on the ocean, there is still more to ocean literacy. It is an important step to educate oneself on relevant issues, but, as argued by Stoll-Kleemann (2019), it is even more difficult to make modifications to one’s lifestyle and advocate for political change. Upon recognizing that preventing damage to marine life will improve global health and quality of life in return, a person can then experience the full potential of being an ocean literate citizen (Stoll-Kleemann, 2019).  




Costa, S., & Caldeira, R. (2018). Bibliometric analysis of ocean literacy: An underrated term in the scientific literature. Marine Policy.  

Fauville, G., Dupont, S., von Thun, S., & Lundin, J. (2015). Can Facebook be used to increase scientific literacy? A case study of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute Facebook page and ocean literacy. Computers & Education, 82, 60–73. 

Hays, R. C., Bailey, H., Bograd, S. J., Bowen, W. D., Campagna, C., Carmichael, R. H., Casale, P., Chiardia, A., Costa, D. P., Cuevas, E., Nico de Bruyn, P. J., Dias, M. P., Duarte, C. M., Dunn, D. C., Dutton, P. H., Esteban, N., Friedlaender, A., Goetz, K. T., Godley, B. J., …  Sequeira, A. M. M. (2019). Translating Marine Animal Tracking Data into Conservation Policy and Management. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 34(5), 459–473. 

Mellish, S., Pearson, E. L., Sanders, B., & Litchfield, C. A. (2016). Marine wildlife entanglement and the Seal the Loop initiative: a comparison of two free-choice learning approaches on visitor knowledge, attitudes and conservation behaviour. International Zoo Yearbook, 50(1), 129–154. 

Schubel, J.R., & Schubel, K.A. (2008). From ocean issues to solutions: The role of public ocean literacy. OCEANS 2008. DOI:10.1109/OCEANS.2008.5151878 

Stoll-Kleemann, S. (2019). Feasible Options for Behavior Change Toward More Effective Ocean Literacy: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Marine Science ProQuest. DOI:10.3389/fmars.2019.00273 

Research review paper written by summer intern, Bradlie M. Bradlie is a graduate from Boston College with a degree in Biology.