I’m set to board Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship and expose the threats to our oceans

Climate column: As a doctor, the pandemic has taught me how interlinked and precarious our health and life-support systems are – that includes our oceans

Rita Issa
Thursday 08 April 2021 11:43 BST
<p>The Arctic Sunrise over the Saya de Malha Bank in the Indian Ocean</p>

The Arctic Sunrise over the Saya de Malha Bank in the Indian Ocean

A couple of weeks ago I opened my emails to find one from Greenpeace International, asking if I could be the onboard medic for their ship, Arctic Sunrise.

The two days that I had to accept the post had me experiencing a range of emotions that had been largely suppressed during a year of lockdown: excitement and anticipation, to deep-belly anxiety running through the worst-case scenarios that I might manage as a solo doctor for a crew isolated on the high seas. But, it was also perfect timing. I’d just finished my contract working as a doctor in East London, and my new job as an academic researching how climate change interacts with migration and health was both flexible and aligned with Greenpeace’s work.

The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise is in the Indian Ocean documenting and exposing the threats our oceans face. This area is home to incredible wildlife and ecosystems – from pygmy blue whales and dugongs to colourful coral reefs and the largest seagrass meadow in the world. Such ecosystems play an important role in supporting local communities and in our global fight against the climate crisis, but they’re threatened by industrial fishing. Less than 1 per cent of global oceans are effectively protected from destructive fisheries and other harm. We’ll be heading to an area uniquely rich in life, to witness and highlight the failures in safeguarding our oceans.

The Indian Ocean is also home to millions of people living on low-lying coastal areas that rely on the ocean for their food and livelihoods. I’m currently in quarantine on an island in the Seychelles, which could be hard hit by sea-level rise, coastal erosion, flooding and an intensification of extreme weather events, despite having done very little to contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving such climatic changes.

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From the short time I’ve been here, I can tell you it’s a beautiful and abundant place made more so by its palpable precariousness. The United Nations’ Global Ocean Treaty negotiations and the 26th Climate Conference (Cop26) are set to take place in 2021, and with the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic to not return to normal but “Build Back Better”, it is both imperative and timely that those of us with power, act to mitigate the worst. As a doctor, the pandemic has taught me how interlinked and precarious our health and life-support systems are – that includes our oceans.

I’ll be joining Arctic Sunrise this week, after 10 days of quarantine, two Covid-19 PCR tests, a rapidly sought seafarers medical certificate, and the acquisition of some much-needed seasickness tablets. A week ago I couldn’t have told you the difference between port and starboard; now I’m tying bowlines and half hitches without a second thought.

Along with our onboard team of photographers and videographers, I’ll explore how our oceans are inextricably bound to our health, looking at the impact of overfishing, plastics, extreme events and sea-level rise, and how our oceans support us in our fight against the climate crisis, as well as keeping you afloat on our activities aboard the Arctic Sunrise for The Independent.

Dr Rita Issa is an NHS GP and onboard medic for Greenpeace’s boat Arctic Sunrise

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