World Oceans Day: meet UAE marine activist Natalie Banks

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Natalie Banks, founder of Azraq, a registered non-profit marine conservation organisation in the UAE, tells us about their initiatives, from conserving and protecting the marine environment to the educational element which includes beach clean ups, encouraging youth volunteers and working with them to become stewards of marine conservation.

Can you tell me about AZRAQ and some of your initiatives? 

Azraq is a not for profit marine conservation organization registered in the United Arab Emirates. In Arabic Azraq means blue so we are about conserving and protecting the marine environment and we do this through educating, motivating and activating the community through a range of activities with a mission to increase the numbers of people changing their habits and activities to greater protect marine life.

Can you tell me about your initiatives that involve working with youths?

Azraq has an educational element which intertwines our missions with schools. This includes school presentations on our initiatives, workshops, beach clean ups, movie screenings and mangrove tree plantings. We also have youth volunteers and work with them to become stewards of marine conservation. An example of this relates to our Instagram Live Stories that we are running weekly on Wednesday and Saturday at 6pm. Two of our youth volunteers are presenting during this program. Finally, Azraq is about to announce a Youth Ambassador program whereby youth will have a seat at the table in terms of the decision making around Azraq‘a operations. As an organisation focussed on future proofing, it’s imperative that we have the voices of the future involved in these decisions.

What has the response been like?

Youth are extremely more aware of the issues the planet is facing than previous generations. We have been left mouth agape of the knowledge some youth have regarding this topic. But even if they don’t have the knowledge, it’s the passion and desire to protect the planet that we see in every young person we meet. Somewhere along the lines, other priorities become more important in adulthood for most people.

Why is it so important to educate and inspire youths about the environment?

The youth of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. We need to ensure that youth have all the information available to them in order to make well informed decisions in their adulthood and not continue making the mistakes of the past from previous generations. Also, it is the youth of today that will be tasked to find the solutions. Educated minds help to find the answers.

How did you first become involved in environmental initiatives and why?

I got involved in marine conservation when I was taught to scuba dive. I was very fortunate to share one of my training dives with a juvenile whale shark. I was instantly mesmerized by this shark, it’s markings, size and mouth and I was moved to want to learn more in order to protect and conserve it. I didn’t know it at the time, but years later I would be so passionately opposed to a policy that kills sharks as a way of protecting people, that I would quit my full time job and start a charity in Australia to protect sharks, which led to reducing marine debris and coral health. The rest is history.

Who is your eco hero?

They say never meet your heroes, if you wish for them to remain a hero. I have been fortunate to meet some of my Eco-heroes and in some cases this has been true. But if I had to choose one, it would come down to Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, with the fabulous Jane Goodall taking the honours as I have met her twice now and she is even more inspiring in real life!


What is the biggest challenge to protecting marine life and why?

Changing mindsets is our biggest challenge. The oceans are suffering due to human activity and changing people’s thoughts, opinions and actions to increase marine life protection is one of our greatest challenges in addition to raising awareness of the issues and why things need to change.

What does a post COVID world look like to you?

Sadly, a post COVID world won’t look much different to a pre-Covid world in my mind, except for an increase in marine debris from single use plastic.

The theme of World Environment day this year is biodiversity, why is it so important when it comes to marine life?

When it comes to marine biodiversity, the richness and abundance in the world’s oceans and seas is astronomical and since the world is covered with approximately 70% water, the amount of life in the oceans is enormous. Marine biodiversity is important to protect because humans are dependent on the Earth’s resources for their livelihood, health and well-being. The oceans provide us with drinking water, seafood, every second breath we take and of course an amazing recreational playground.

What can we do to help protect the planet?

The first step is to ask why you wish to protect the planet and make this your mantra. Then be open minded to create a change of thought, opinion or habit. Pick one issue that concerns you about the planet, research what can be done, do one small thing and tell others about it too. Build up a support army which creates a ripple effect and then be brave enough to see what else you can do. But find your reason why.

Tell us something we maybe don’t know about the marine life of the UAE?

Did you know that there are over 30 species of sharks in the Arabian Gulf and that sharks aren’t blood-thirsty man-killers but actually keep our oceans healthy? Remove sharks from the marine environment and you put at risk the health of the oceans.