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In the Swim! Aquawoman

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Marine biologist Estelle Davies heads into her second summer teaching kids stuck in Hong Kong about the wide world under the water. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Photos Courtesy of Estelle Davis

On an increasingly swelter-y Monday afternoon, marine biologist and educator Estelle Davies is sitting in Pascucci in DB Plaza, her non-motorised scooter tucked in a corner. Her fair hair and long limbs make her look as if she were born on the water, which is actually not that far from the truth. Born in Cyprus to British parents, Estelle arrived in Hong Kong in 1979 when she was just nine months old. Her father had signed up with Cathay Pacific Airways and the family promptly carved out a life in Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay. “There was even a car ferry to cross the harbour back then,” she recalls with a laugh.

Estelle is relaxed and fast with a quip; always ready with a story or comment. It’s easy to see how she came to be in her communicative line of work. Conversation rambles, from earthquakes in the SAR, skinny buildings in Happy Valley, childhood science educator heroes – David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and David Suzuki pop up – terrace hazards and the documentary Seaspiracy.

Estelle fell in love with the ocean early, and by 16, she was in Belize “doing expeditions… I was fascinated by this world under the ocean; this life, that could exist on its own,” she says. “I was fascinated by how little it needed us. I felt like I needed to share this knowledge with others.” And a career path was born. After completing a bachelor’s degree in marine and environmental science at St Andrews University in Scotland and a master’s in Tropical Marine Ecology from James Cook University in Queensland (with a stop in London for a postgrad certificate in education), Estelle joined Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society’s (OFS). As a Cousteau naturalist, on the Ambassadors of the Environment Marine Exploration and Adventure programme, she found herself travelling the world’s oceans, giving lectures to guests on all things marine, ecological and sustainable – an experience she credits with instilling her desire to educate young people.

In 2005, OFS offered Estelle the opportunity to run the Ambassadors of the Environment programme in French Polynesia aboard the award-winning M/S Paul Gauguin cruise ship. This involved snorkelling and diving in some of the most pristine waters in the world – and teaching young travellers and their families about sustainability and protecting the islands’ ecosystems. Of Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau, famous explorer and conservationist, Estelle shares: “Jean-Michel is kind and thoughtful and one of the most inspiring individuals I know. He is a very modest man and his life is dedicated to ocean conservation, especially education. He believes, as do I, that people only protect what they love. So, we need to go out and make people fall in love with the ocean, the coral reefs and the animals that live there.”

Home eventually beckoned and Estelle returned to Hong Kong to settle in Discovery Bay in 2008 with her sisters. They’re not neighbours, but they’re a stone’s throw away from each other. “We chose DB because it’s close to the airport and also because one of my sisters already lived there with my nieces and nephew,” Estelle explains. “I love Sai Kung but for getting around ideally you need a car.

“DB has hiking and the outdoors and everything we want. And, of course, it’s on the water – I row so I spend a lot of time at the Lantau Boat Club.”

For the second summer in as many years, COVID-19 travel restrictions have meant that DB, and Hong Kong, kids who might normally jet off to see family overseas are staying at home. And like the kids she teaches, Estelle will be in town for the summer. Which actually isn’t the worst thing that could happen. As the founder and director of Living Oceans Education (LOE, www.livingoceanseducation.com), Estelle has been on a mission to raise environmental awareness, promote sustainable living and inspire better guardianship of the natural world in the next generations since 2016. She is carrying on the work she did as a client relationship manager at Asia Pacific Adventure, where she helped kids develop a better understanding and appreciation for Hong Kong’s spectacular environment and how to live more sustainably.

This summer, LOE’s signature field trips and beach explorations are still on (overseas trips are, obviously, on hold). The programmes run three or four days and explore the coastal environments around Lamma, Peng Chau, Sai Kung and, of course, Lantau and DB. Groups are small, and activities are designed to be eye-opening for kids aged six years and up. “At LOE, I teach students in Hong Kong about life in our oceans and to value nature,” Estelle says. “We lead outdoor field trips to snorkel a coral reef, visit mangrove forests and introduce them to the rich biodiversity of Hong Kong. People don’t realise just how much is here, right on our doorstep. Thankfully people are starting to explore to learn themselves because it’s so easy, but there’s always more.”

LOE does a great deal of its work during the school year, hosting after-school programmes and customising presentations and mini-seminars based on school curricula, most of which pivoted to an online model over the past year. Estelle will grant that Zoom got the job done, but it wasn’t quite as engaging as classroom visits, where hands frantically wave and oohs and aahs frequently erupt.

“I think most kids are born with a curious mind and a passion to learn, but at some point they get pushed into being afraid of the unknown and, sadly, sheltered from the environment around them,” Estelle theorises.

And while there are dozens of Hong Kong organisations that teach climate change and the hazards of plastic pollution, a resonant connection is often missing. Admittedly you’d need a master’s degree to truly understand the link between fossil fuel production, climate change and the price of tuna, but Estelle does her best to “pose the right questions.”
“A lot of kids don’t go to the beach and have an ‘It doesn’t affect me’ attitude about [the ocean]. But if we connect it to their daily lives or the food they eat for example, then the connection becomes a little clearer… Why should this worry us? Why should we be concerned? At LOE I’m trying to connect kids to nature, and show why we need each other; why we should care. How does warming, plastic in the ocean and overfishing ultimately affect us?”
Estelle wants kids to “fall in love with” marine life as she did as a child, and after they’ve connected with it, she wants them to strive to protect it.

Being the change is a constant battle especially now, with pandemic living’s reliance on surgical masks and plastic takeaway food packaging creating a sense of two steps forward, one step back. Estelle’s modest about her own impact. “Does my little contribution make a difference?” She shrugs. We can’t all be David Attenborough, but we can try.

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