People & Culture

Students on Ice founder Geoff Green discusses his experience as an expedition leader

Harnessing the power of the ocean to inspire wonder and change

  • Dec 16, 2022
  • 814 words
  • 4 minutes
Geoff Green operates a Zodiac, which is used to take Students on Ice participants from the Polar Prince icebreaker to events and explorations on shore. (Photo: Martin Lipman/SOI)
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Just over two decades ago, Geoff Green was awed by the sight and sound of thousands of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica. If young people could have similar experiences of wonder, Green thought, it would shape their engagement with our natural world. Today, the founder and president of the SOI Foundation has overseen educational expeditions for more than 3,000 youth from around the world and expanded to work with partner organizations involved in research and conservation. These ocean journeys of a lifetime always include a youth element, with participants joining scientists, Elders, artists and other visionary leaders who guide them toward building a more positive world. Green spoke about his vision — for SOI and the ocean — last fall while on the foundation’s inaugural Ocean Conservation Expedition, a 22-day journey along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia and through the Bay of Fundy.

On the expedition guest list

The premise for this month-long expedition is to bring together people involved in the oceans who often don’t connect. They work in silos, whether they’re government [workers] or academics or fishermen or youth. By bringing people together, you create the relationships that you need if you’re going to find sustainable solutions. So, we’ve got the Canadian Wildlife Service, which is largely focused on seabirds; we’ve got Parks Canada, which works through the national park system on conservation and education; we have students and professors; we’ve got groups of Indigenous youth from across the Maritimes. And the list goes on. Industry is a critical piece of this puzzle, too. When people are connecting, learning, listening to each other, that’s when the magic happens. It inevitably leads to new ideas, to partnerships, to initiatives. 

On protecting the ocean

The ocean is the lifeblood of the planet. Seventy per cent of this planet is covered by water. We should have called it planet Water, not planet Earth. When you hear what oceans mean to people, it’s incredible. Everybody loves the ocean, yet we’ve treated it like a dumping ground. So there’s been a disconnect. Now we’re starting to understand how important it is for biodiversity, for our life. 

On moving beyond ice

Students on Ice was a simple idea, which imagined that if we could expose youth to the cornerstones of our global ecosystem, it would change their perspectives. Over the last two decades, the program has evolved to include culture and history, flora and fauna, and big issues like climate change, but also mental health and careers. It’s become a much broader program. Participants used to be only Canadian students, and now we’ve had youth from 57 countries. That’s cool because it’s global youth addressing global issues together. 

The icebreaker is a floating classroom and lab, with daily meetings to dive into topics that range from culture to conservation. (Photo: Martin Lipman/SOI)
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On his best polar bear story

We did these expeditions where we camped on the floe edge. The floe edge is a really active place — the whales, the birds, the seals. This one time, we were playing Frisbee with the kids out on the ice, and one of the throws went way long and landed in a sort of broken jumble of ice. I jogged up to retrieve the Frisbee, and right there, beside the Frisbee, was a polar bear lying down having a snooze. It scared the crap out of me. I just turned around, and we moved the game!

On disappearing Arctic ice

Glaciers are disappearing. Sea ice is diminishing. Inuit Elders are describing all kinds of changes from when they were children — changes to the permafrost, to the land, to the tundra. New bugs, new birds, new fish. Simply put, there’s warming happening. The changes affect both sea ice and land-based ice. We need that ice in the Arctic. Polar bears need that ice. People need that ice. The consequences of it melting are huge — the floods, the fires, the droughts globally. But it’s when you talk to an Elder face to face, or when you look into the eyes of a bowhead whale, that these issues become really personal. 

On fostering hope

A number of things give me hope: seeing how inspired and motivated the youth I meet are and how many ideas they have. Being in the Arctic, the Antarctic, the ocean, and seeing the beauty and the wonder provides motivation and inspiration. At Students on Ice, we’ve chosen to focus on the educational component, which I think is critical. But we need more than that. We need policy. We need legislation. We need technology. We need new economic models that make sense for the planet.

On being drawn to water

I’m very privileged to have a cottage on a lake in Canada. That’s definitely my happy place and our family’s happy place for so many reasons. Why do people go to lakes? Why do they go to the ocean? Why do they go to the river? We’re drawn to it. We’re made of water. We need it.

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This story is from the January/February 2023 Issue

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