The Ocean Tunnel: Art Meets Activism for Ocean Science

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Imagine you are surrounded by the ocean. The water is pristine and blue. You see schools of giant tuna and you can hear the songs of whales as they migrate through the deep water. But as you watch, the bigger fish start to disappear. The water becomes murky and a jelly fish appears out of the gloom. Soon there are no fish at all, only clouds of jellies that you have to fight to get through. Everything goes dark and silent.

This is the experience of walking through the Ocean Tunnel, an interpretive oceanography project designed by Maddie Hamann.

Maddie is a PhD Candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where she studies the effects of waves and turbulence in the La Jolla Canyon. When she entered graduate school, she imagined that she would be making new discoveries about the ocean that would help society as a whole. But she encountered a different problem. “It blew me away that there is so much knowledge that we already have [about the ocean] that is not at all expressed.” It amazed her that all of this scientific information wasn’t making its way out into public knowledge. She recognized that this was a problem she could help solve.

Maddie decided to spread awareness about the problems currently facing our oceans by creating an interactive art project. She designed a 200-ft tunnel composed of murals by different artists that would show the gradual degradation of ocean environments due to climate change and fishery collapse. First, the observer would see a pristine ecosystem with schools of large fish in the open ocean. But then the big fish would be replaced by smaller fish as the result of over fishing. As the ecosystem collapses and the water temperature warms, the environment becomes murky. Algal blooms eventually kill all the small fish and attract filter feeders. With the fish all gone, the water turns into a “gelatinous soup” of algae and jelly fish.

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These are the real life effects of climate change and overfishing in our oceans. Like the rest of our planet, the ocean is getting warmer and this not only causes stress to the creatures that live there, but also effects waves and currents that serve as nutrient highways through our waters. Additionally, higher carbon dioxide content in the air is causing the ocean to become more acidic. This changes the nutrient content of the water and makes it difficult for microorganisms to grow. That causes damage to the food chain at the most basic level.

The more immediate problem, however, is over fishing. The World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report identifies unsustainable fishing practices are the most pressing danger to ocean ecosystems. There has been a 36% decline in overall biodiversity in our oceans since 1970 and as many as 31% of fish populations are overfished. This means that human overexploitation of our ocean is causing real problems for marine ecosystems.

Climate change and over fishing are the direct result of human practices, but most people only have an abstract understanding of their effects. Maddie wants the Ocean Tunnel to give people a “tangible and impactful experience of mankind’s effects on the ocean.” But more than that, she hopes to show people that this disastrous future is not the only option. Changes in fishing policies have already helped to revive some declining fish populations. The Ocean Tunnel will include a section where observers can add their own thoughts about ocean conservation and ways to change this future. This will help to spark conversations in the community about how to protect our ocean ecosystems.

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The Ocean Tunnel will be displayed in its entirety at Burning Man in Gerlach, NV in August, then again at YOUtopia in Escondido, CA in October. Some sections will also appear at “A Ship In the Woods” art and music festival in Escondido in June and at the San Diego Pride Festival in July. Maddie hopes that there will be an opportunity to install it on the University of California, San Diego campus at some point next year. The work is primarily being done at the San Diego Collaborative Art Project’s collaborative workspace (Colab), though contributing artists come from all over California. If you want to get involved, they are hosting a number of fundraising events over the summer and hope to bring in people both from the Burner community and beyond. You can stay up to date on build days and events at!

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