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Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Pavitray Pillay interviewed by Miss Earth SA
Pavitray "Pavs" Pillay has made it her life's work to educate others about our oceans' health and future.
A child's oceanic dreams

Picture this: A 10-year old Indian girl sits mesmerised in front of a 1980s Telefunken TV watching David Attenborough’s Living Planet – the first one! Her eyes twinkle at the vast blue waters, the swirling schools of fish, the rainbow-coloured corals and the pirouetting seabirds, darting and diving into the water. Her eyes are burning, she is too afraid that if she blinks she will miss something. She hangs on Attenborough’s every rasping, breathed sentence. 

For her it is not the majestic whales or the whimsical bottlenose dolphins or even the serene turtles that are captivating. It is the lesser celebrated ocean life – the gazillions of reef fish, and, oh, the octopus, that intelligent, tentacled chameleon of the sea. She is enthralled that the gannets wear their eye make-up like Bollywood actresses and dancers. And with the fighting might of the nudibranchs. “The nudi what?” you might ask. Well, sea slugs with bright colours and lungs outside of their bodies....

Attenborough’s last lines are that the oceans are our lungs and lifeline. Without the blue, there would be no green. Our mere existence as a species is dependent on healthy oceans!

Turning dream into reality

#Life goal – that little girl now wants to be a marine biologist.

If you haven’t guessed already, I was that kid – in Pretoria – and wanting to become a marine conservationist or a marine anything was not what most Indian families think of as a career. In my family, your options were: doctor, lawyer, CA or… failure.

But like the game-changer Steve Jobs said: “Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?” So I became a pirate and studied marine science – a different choice so that I could make a difference.

Fast forward and I am working at WWF, and soon realise that I work on one of the best brigantines with many “pirates” aboard. Often I am asked: Do you work with whales and dolphins? Does WWF rescue turtles and seals? The truth is my work and the animals I work with are so much cooler.

Let’s start with my favourite: the WWF Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative. SASSI is a consumer guide that helps you make smart and savvy choices about your seafood. Why? Because many of our marine fish species are in trouble – like the grumpy, serious musselcracker that looks a bit like my grandfather! As its name suggests, it has one of the most powerful jaws, six sets of teeth in the lower jaw that can crack through shells and skeletons. But the musselcracker is also on our “don’t buy” red list due to overfishing.

Choose green to keep our seafood stories alive.
The plastic problem

Apart from overfishing, another problem our oceans face is plastic pollution. It’s scary to think that the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastics is being emptied into the sea every minute! We find micro-plastics in turtles; we find plastic bits and pieces in birds and whales and plastic has the potential to end up on our plates. I would hate to become Barbie from the inside.

WWF is coming to grips with plastics by thinking in circles. When you start to think in circles, the options are endless. So we are thinking of circular economies.

Now, this is about more than just recycling. If we take single-use plastic items like a straws, coffee cup lid or ear buds you will mostly likely never recycle these but will use them for no longer than 12 minutes and yet they will outlive your children, grandchildren and possibly your great grandchildren in our oceans. So when you refuse a straw – you are making a different choice that makes a difference now.

© Shutterstock / Rich Carey / WWF
We have 8 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year. This plastic doesn’t biodegrade and only 5% of it is floating on the surface which means that we don’t see most of it.
Coming full circle

Three months ago while visiting my family I had a most surreal experience. My 10-year-old niece and I were watching Attenborough’s Blue Planet. I immediately noticed how transfixed she was. I recognised the wonderment in her eyes and shared in her angst when the fluffy young penguin fumbled and stumbled into the icy ocean. 

As we sat down for family Sunday lunch, my little niece proudly announced: “When I grow up I want to be a concert pianist.”

The shock and silence in the room was palpable – I tell you, my family was in suspended animation at her words, some almost catatonic.  Completely oblivious to their reaction she added, “…or a marine biologist”.

To my utter surprise, the entire family exhaled together. All of a sudden becoming a marine biologist was a viable career. Hah! I’d made the cut! My family has also come full circle and now rates suitable careers as: doctor, lawyer, CA, marine biologist or… failure.  

As my niece animatedly described the Blue Planet it became evident to me that it is her future we are investing in. The future is not something she, you, I or your children get to go to. It’s something we create now, because without the blue, there would be no green.

Pavitray Pillay Photo
Pavitray Pillay, WWF-SASSI Consumer Awareness & Outreach Manager

Crazy yogic, marine biologist and science communicator, trying to make a difference for our planet.


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