A Deep Dive with Global Ambassador Joakim Odelberg

In September, Joakim Odelberg joined The White Feather Foundation as a Global Ambassador. In the following interview, we take a closer look at what drives his passion for conservation.
Joalim Odelberg Ambassador The White Feather Foundation

For me, they occured like angels out of the blue and I fell in love then and there.

TWFF: You’ve stated that what made you a conservationist was the first time you swam among manta rays in Thailand. I’d love to hear more about that.
JO: I took my first diver’s certification when I was 10 years old and I’ve been diving ever since. Then I had an experience—my first meeting with manta rays. They are social, gentle and beautiful creatures. For me, they appeared like angels out of the blue and I fell in love then and there. And that should have been a really breathtaking experience, but when we came up in the boat, there was a guy who opened up a beer can, knocked it back and then threw the beer can over his shoulder into the sea. Thanks to him, I changed my path in life.
TWFF: What career path were you going to pursue before you became a conservationist?
JO: I studied music and I released albums. But I decided to work toward changing people’s attitudes toward destructive human behavior instead. My idea was to visit the most popular marinas we have in Sweden and try to capture the coziness; drinking wine on boats, having a good time and at the same time film what was going on underneath the boats with the marine debris. We would sync up both screens to show both places. From that, I made a documentary and that first film took off.
TWFF: And after that?
JO: I got recruited for Swedish television as a host for a nature show that’s been on for 40 years. I did four seasons of that and then was contacted by the Swedish government to represent Sweden at the United Nations in New York. I presented an exhibition about marine debris and while I was in town, Dr. Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue brought me to The Explorer’s Club. When I came home, I had two letters of recommendation to become a Fellow for The Explorer’s Club.

We just clicked.

TWFF: What made you want to be an ambassador for The White Feather Foundation?
JO: Last summer in Portugal, I spoke at the Global Exploration Summit (GLEX) and Julian watched my talk. We spoke afterward and we just clicked. We had lunch together with members of his team and then he and I shared a taxi to the airport where we talked some more. I really liked his attitude and his way of thinking on these topics. Later, we met up in Monaco and that’s when I became an ambassador. I’m very proud of that because what The White Feather Foundation strives to achieve goes hand in hand with what I do. The army is building up!
TWFF: Our supporters may have seen a trailer we posted for an upcoming collaboration between you and the Gothenburg Symphony called Nordic, a Fragile Hope. Tell us about that.
JO: It’s a dream I’ve had to travel around our Nordic countries and document the most beautiful nature we have, but also show the threats to the natural world and what we need to do to preserve it for the future.
We started in the first expedition up north on the west coast of Norway. We aren’t flying at all on this trip, so we took trains to get to our expedition boat, a 50-foot sailboat. Then we sailed 1200 nautical miles. On that leg of the trip, everything that shouldn’t have happened did happen. We had storms, the back of the propeller broke and we had to stay in the harbor for a few days to wait for parts to be replaced. The boat had to go all the time, so with only four people on board we would sleep for four hours and sail for four hours. And it was really cold—minus 10 degrees celsius. It’s all beautiful and breathtaking to see and experience, but it’s really hard work.
TWFF: How does the footage translate to the symphony performance?
JO: The idea is to bring in five different composers from five different Nordic countries to write original music to accompany what I filmed, so for example if I’ve filmed orcas from underneath and they swim over me or I film the stars, moonlight or Northern Lights, it will be projected all over the walls and ceiling of the concert hall and synced with the musicians on stage. We’re going to tell the story that way, with beauty, but also with the threats.
TWFF: When can we look forward to seeing this come to life?
JO: The city of Gothenburg celebrates 400 years in September 2021, so that’s when Nordic, a Fragile Hope will debut. We’ll also bring the production on tour to America in San Francisco, New York and somewhere in between.
TWFF: What other expeditions, unrelated to the symphony have you been on recently?
JO: I’ve been working for the protection of rhinos and lions in Tanzania and Mozambique and mountain gorillas in the Congo and Uganda, as well as monitoring the palm oil situation in Indonesia.
TWFF: Your adventures seem fearless. Are you afraid of anything?
JO: I’ve never been attacked by an animal. If you know how to work with different species, nothing happens. But I have been in danger because of humans—poachers and rebels. It’s a dangerous job. In the past year and a half, I’ve learned of 9 or 10 rangers that have been killed.
TWFF: I think of those of you in the field as Environmental Soldiers. How do you decompress when you do have down time at home?
JO: I come home for a week and I’m super restless. And that’s not fun for my wife or for me. It’s something I think you have to work on. It’s images that stay with you. When you read about it, you don’t smell the smell or feel the heat or hear the mosquitos. For example, when I saw my first poached elephant, we came upon a little baby elephant, a male, who was trying to wake up his mother. She was lying there in a pool of blood on the ground. We saw how stressed that baby elephant was … and I think about that almost every day.

We really have to realize that we’re in the middle of it now.

TWFF: What scares you the most about the climate crises?
JO: We really have to realize that we are in the middle of it now. That if we don’t change our behaviors, we’re not going to make it. We have to take it very, very seriously. Sadly, we’re past the need to inspire just hope. We need action. With that action, more hope will come.
TWFF: How can someone that isn’t in the field make a difference?
JO: For myself, if I have to travel domestically for my work, I never fly. I go by train or by car. I also stopped eating meat, even though I really like it. I became a vegan and that’s part of my sacrifice. Just small things like that. And I understand not everyone wants to cut out meat, but if you eat it four times a week, just eating it two times a week will make a difference. There’s also ways you can help just by buying things that were produced close to your home. When it comes to plastic, step away from single-use plastic and try to use alternatives.
TWFF: The reusable bags are an easy way to help, for sure.
JO: People are really getting it. I can feel it in my bones. They are much more aware now than they were two years ago. We’re not forced to do it, but I know we feel better as people if we do.
TWFF: What other concerns do you have about the climate crises?
JO: Only 6% of our ocean is protected and we need at least 35% to save it. We have to work toward the creation of new Marine Protected Areas. Every time we’re diving inside a protected area vs. outside a protected area you see such a difference in biodiversity. The protected areas are thriving.
TWFF: How do Marine Protected Areas get established? Is it legislation?
JO: Yes, it depends on the countries and the governments of the areas that need protecting. We have to educate the decision makers with what we learn in the field.

If you leave life alone, it will come back, it will fix itself.

TWFF: I heard you had some exciting experiences recently in Costa Rica.
JO: The slaughter of sharks is out of control—almost 100 million sharks are killed annually. And sharks are the most important predators we have for balancing the ecosystem in every part of our oceans. I was in Costa Rica to film the tagging process and that was the first time I got a little nervous.
TWFF: You weren’t in any protective cage or contraption?!
JO: No, I just had to be careful. But I got some really great footage and photos! (laughs) I also got the super cool opportunity while I was there to follow scientists down on the Submersible and it was amazing. There was a yellow submarine down there so that was cool (laughs).
TWFF: What are the odds?
JO: Yeah, exactly!
TWFF: You are an inspiration to many with all of the important work you do. I’m curious about who inspires you?
JO: As far as famous people, Sir David Attenborough, who I’ve met twice, and then of course, Dr. Sylvia Earle. When I saw her Ted Talk, I was really inspired by her. More important are all the heroes I meet in the field that nobody knows about. It could be a ranger that goes out every day to protect elephants risking his or her life. There are so many of those types of people out there that deserve to be recognized as heroes. Their courage and their drive inspires me.
I must also mention my mentor, Dr. Allan Carlson who is a conservation biologist at the World Wildlife Fund in Sweden. He’s brilliant. The university hospital loves him. This is a man who came in with 20 active amoebas inside of him—four of which were unknown to science! (laughs) He’s survived malaria multiple times, he survived the bird flu. He’s done everything!
TWFF: What are you most encouraged by out in the world?
JO: It’s possible to change a negative trend into a positive trend. In the 1980s in Uganda there were 250 mountain gorillas. Thanks to good conservation work and dedicated people, the locals especially, there are now 1064 mountain gorillas. The dream was 1000.
If you leave life alone, it will come back, it will fix itself. Conservation wins a lot of battles. Now we’re losing the war, but we’re going to win the war as well.

You can follow Odelberg’s expeditions on Instagram and Twitter. Be sure to also stay tuned to this website for announcements and updates on our collaborations with him. If you’d like to support the environment with a donation to The White Feather Foundation, start here. #ConserveLife

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