June 8, 2022
For Kristal Ambrose, World Oceans Day is every day. A 2020 Goldman Prize winner, Kristal—nicknamed “Kristal Ocean”—rallied her community in the Bahamas to protect the seas, passing one of the most stringent plastic bans to date: the categorical ban of single-use plastics, which account for one-third of all plastic in our oceans.
On the frontlines of ocean health, Kristal is now taking her momentum global. In honor of World Oceans Day, let’s learn about her work beyond the Goldman Prize, gain a little perspective on our relationship with plastic, and peek into what’s needed to protect our seas.
Becoming an Ocean Warrior
The 140-mile-long Andros Barrier Reef—the third-largest continuous reef system in the world— stretches along the islands of the Bahamas, Kristal’s home. Sheltering a vast array of marine life, these island reefs and shorelines catch much of the region’s plastic pollution. “Beaches in the Caribbean region receive streams of marine plastic debris unparalleled to their production, use, and consumption of plastic,” explains Kristal. She decided to do something about it.
After joining an expedition to study the Western garbage patch, part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Kristal saw how simple, everyday items—plastic bags, Styrofoam, straws—were wreaking havoc on our oceans. In 2013, Kristal founded the Bahamas Plastic Movement, researching how this plastic moves through our oceans, working with youths to build awareness, and garnering support for policy change.
In 2018, she and her students met with the Bahamian Minister of the Environment, singing “We are the change, we are the solution, we can fix this plastic pollution.” Three months later, the government announced a ban on single-use plastics. It’s a trend-setting win: Though over 100 countries have some sort of regulation on plastic bags, few go so far as to eliminate single-use plastics categorically.
The Work of a Prize Winner
Two years later, Kristal would go on to win the Goldman Prize, the first for the Bahamas. “Winning the Prize has made the Bahamas Plastic Movement and I more visible, translating into more opportunities for growth, support, knowledge sharing, and gaining,” says Kristal. “It has allowed me to propel my work yet slow down to focus on specific areas of action and the key roles I play in plastic pollution solutions.”
One of those roles is as a children’s author—Kristal has worked with students for over a decade and knows well the power of youth. Kai and Gaia Discover the Gyre is her love letter to the ocean and her students, following a young Bahamian girl named Kai (Ocean) and her best friend, a sea turtle named Gaia (Earth). After Gaia becomes stuck in a trash gyre, Kai vows to bring an end to ocean plastic pollution, a story that parallels Kristal’s own work with sea turtles.
Another role for Kristal is as a researcher and problem-solver. A PhD candidate at the World Maritime University in Malmö, Sweden, Kristal is currently working to map plastic pollution in our oceans. “A lot of marine debris is transboundary in nature,” she explains. “It’s hard to determine its source, abundance, composition, and accumulation rates without adequate data.” Focusing on the Caribbean, her work is filling in those gaps, aiming to create a marine debris monitoring protocol that leads to real-world solutions. “That protocol can then be adopted by countries to collect and compare data to create consensus on the necessary policy actions that can address this issue.”
Tackling issues so large, it’s imperative to stay hopeful, she explains. “Youth certainly give me hope,” she notes, and a daily connection with nature keeps her going. “Waking up every day to another chance at life, trying our best to save this beautiful planet we call home, seeing the cycles of life and nature play out in seasons—that gives me hope.”
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About the author
Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on citizen conservation and public lands. She has been published in National Geographic, Sierra, Lonely Planet, and more.