A conversation with Shaama Sandooyea, the first to strike underwater for the climate

We talk to Shaama Sandooyea, activist and marine biologist from Mauritius onboard Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

Shaama Sandooyea, young Mauritian marine biologist and climate activist, held the world’s first ever underwater climate strike in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Photos of her holding a sign with the messages “Youth Strike for Climate” and “Nou Reklam Lazistis Klimatik”, Mauritian creole for “We Demand Climate Justice”, were all over the Internet for days after the global climate strike on 19th March. Sandooyea, who is also one of the co-founders of Fridays for Future Mauritius, is currently on a research mission on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise to study biodiversity at the Saya de Malha Bank, a climate-critical site with vast seagrass meadows 735 kilometres off the coast of Seychelles.

Shaama Sandooyea preparing her protest sign for the first climate underwater strike in the Indian Ocean. © Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace

You’re in middle of the Indian Ocean right now. Could you tell us what you’re doing?
I joined Greenpeace on their Arctic Sunrise ship and we’re on expedition at Saya de Malha Bank. It’s right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, between Seychelles and Mauritius. We’re here mainly to investigate the biodiversity that is present, the ecosystems, mostly composed of seagrasses. This area hasn’t really been explored before and there haven’t been a lot of reports on the biodiversity here. This is the world’s largest seagrass ecosystem.

Are there any specific findings that are important from a conservation point of view?
We did find many species of whales and dolphins and a local population of sperm whales, which is really amazing. We’ve found many species of sea birds and fish, and seen corals growing in the seagrass patches. But we’ve also seen the bleaching of some corals in this area which is threatened by factors such as rising temperatures, pollution and commercial fisheries. So basically, we found that this area is threatened, but at the same time has a rich biodiversity.

Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise at the heart of the Indian Ocean. © Tommy Trenchard / Greenpeace

You were the first to hold an underwater strike for the climate. Why did you choose to do it underwater? And what was your message?
We’ve been here since the beginning of March and we know that this area has seagrass everywhere. We know that the seagrass captures the carbon from the atmosphere 35 times faster than tropical rainforests… and that it also welcomes marine life, sea turtles, dolphins. Striking here, for us, is really important because it sends out a message that the most important carbon sink on the planet is the ocean, the marine ecosystem. And the seagrass accounts for 10 per cent of the ocean’s capacity to store carbon. It’s really amazing. I think we’re underestimating the marine ecosystem, especially the seagrass. Whereas these environments need protection, they’re here to help us combat the climate crisis but, at the same time, are being threatened by so many factors. So, striking here is a way for me as a climate activist to demand concrete actions and the best way to do that, to combat the climate crisis, is by protecting the ocean, by protecting these ecosystems, these lives that help us fight the climate crisis.

Shaama Sandooyea striking for climate underwater in the Indian Ocean. © Tommy Trenchard / Greenpeace

We know island nations are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, and obviously rely heavily on oceans. What is your experience as both an activist and a marine biologist from an island nation?
I come from Mauritius, it’s a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and we have a lot of other islands around. As a marine biologist, I know that the oceans are threatened. They’re degrading really quickly because of rising temperatures and the constant overexploitation of their resources, pollution and so many other threats. In Mauritius, we feel the threats really badly, for example, the rising temperatures and climate crisis. We’ve seen that corals around Mauritius have been bleached – at least 70 per cent of them. And once these corals bleach, they lose their ecologies. (The ecosystem) shifts from a coraldominated one to an algaedominated one. So, the whole system shifts and that’s bad because artisanal fisheries don’t get their food anymore. The second thing I’ve seen is that the Indian Ocean, because it is an ocean surrounded by land, heats up really quickly.

Nowhere is safe from the climate crisis, but the Indian Ocean is being threatened by intensive fishery practices. It’s too much pressure. And our local communities from Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, from everywhere… their main source of protein is fish. So, they need that food. And they’re barely contributing to the climate crisis and destruction of natural habitats, but are suffering from others’ actions. As a climate activist, I can see how it’s unfair, how the injustice is pronounced in islands, especially in the Indian Ocean. So for me to be here with Greenpeace and do such work, to be able to assess the biodiversity that is still present at the Saya de Malha and strike to demand ocean protection and climate action, it’s a huge thing for me because this is what we want. Activists from everywhere in the Indian Ocean have been wanting ocean protection. We’ve been wanting help; resources to fight destructive fishing practices, to stop the climate crisis. So, I’m really hoping this message goes forward.

Shaama Sandooyea working onboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise at the heart of the Indian Ocean © Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace

The island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are already experiencing the effects of the climate emergency, whereas Western countries often still talk about the climate crisis as if it were something in the future. What do you think about that? Can you tell us a bit about the climate change perceptions of the local community in Mauritius?
The islands in the Indian Ocean face consequences differently than other countries because the ocean is a big influencer of the climate. So we can feel the change really quickly in our climate. The corals are in bad shape, that’s for one. Secondly, we’ve been having issues with fresh water resources. Climate models predict that we’re going to get longer dry seasons, which is what we’re getting (already). We’ve had that for the past few months now. In Madagascar, there wasn’t any rain in the South, so they didn’t get any water for crops. In Mauritius, the same thing. So many people in vulnerable communities and regions didn’t get fresh water resources and no fresh water resources also means that our crops are affected. Then we’ve also had heat waves. The month of February was the second hottest month of the year in many decades now in Mauritius. The temperature keeps rising and it’s getting bad because every day it gets harder for us. It gets harder for the fisherman, for the farmers, for their plants, for our food. Everything is happening so quickly on the island. And the thing is that the ocean heats up so quickly that the cloud formation becomes immediate and when it starts to rain over the islands, we can get flash floods and landslides. These are things we’re facing now. It’s becoming the new normal. But it’s not okay that we’re facing so many issues when we’re barely contributing to (climate change).

Last year in August there was an oil spill off the coast of Mauritius. What were your feelings at the time? What were the consequences of the oil spill for Mauritius and what is the situation now?
The Wakashio (ship) crashed into Mauritius at the end of July and the oil started seeping out in August. So for 12 days the ship stayed on the reefs until the oil spilled. It was really devastating because it’s been a few years now that we’ve been asking for protection of our lagoons and our waters, and demanding actions against the climate crisis. And that area in Mauritius is really rich in biodiversity. We have a small island where there are endemic plants and animals, which were in the direct line of the oil spill. We also had a blue bay marine park there and a fishing reserve. So that area was specifically rich in terms of biodiversity. The corals were even recovering there. That was amazing. So, seeing the oil entering the water and then getting onto the coast line and entering the mangroves was really devastating because we’ve been fighting so much for the environment. When we got there (to the area where the oil had spilled, ed.) it was so strong that we could feel rashes already. We started coughing. We started presenting some health symptoms. And that was just a short-term exposure, maybe four to eight hours.

Since then, the local fishermen, skippers, diving centres – everyone who depends on the ocean in that area – have been in a bad situation socially and economically because they can’t get their livelihood from the ocean anymore. And that’s really difficult when you have a family to feed. The oil has also affected the mangroves, they started losing their leaves. The government has been taking samples to analyse the water quality and how the oil spill has been affecting the fish and corals, but hasn’t made the result public yet. So we don’t exactly know to what extent it has been affecting ecosystems there. There was also an NGO called Ecosud that was working with the local communities trying to get them healthcare and psychological support because the fishermen were really depressed. Before the oil spill we had a lockdown and they couldn’t go fishing. So that was really painful for them. And these people also started developing respiratory problems, skin problems and migraines. It’s bad. It’s still there. Maybe the oil isn’t really present in the water anymore but it’s still in the soil, in the mangroves and still present for people, the local community.

Who do you think isn’t doing enough, or anything at all, to fight against the climate breakdown?
I think that is the world leaders and private companies, the big corporations. They’re not doing anything and they’re absolutely contributing to the climate crisis. They’re the ones who can make a decision, a proper responsible decision that can change the lives of so many people and can ensure we have a better future. But they’re not doing it because obviously there are lobbies and they have profits. But profits shouldn’t go before people, the economy shouldn’t go before the environment because that’s the planet, and planet means life.

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