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Oceana Magazine Spring 2011: From Actor to Activist

In March, Oceana board member Ted Danson released his first book. Co-written with journalist Michael D’Orso and published by Rodale, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them” is an insightful and comprehensive look at our oceans – and how to protect them for future generations.

Danson is well known as a versatile film and television actor, but few people know how he became an ocean activist.

In this excerpt from the book, he explains the origins of his passion for ocean conservation:

I WOKE UP SCREAMING. It was late—two or three in the morning. The whole house was asleep, and I could hear the sound of surf outside the open windows of the little vacation beach house we had rented. I was soaked with sweat, terrified, not sure if I was awake or dreaming.

I was 7 years old. Clutching my stomach, my face a mask of pain and confusion, I stumbled into my parents’ bedroom. My mom and dad rushed me into the  bathroom, splashed water on my face, and did their best to calm me down. Soon enough I was back to normal, a sleepy, exhausted kid who just wanted to go back to bed. Everything was fine.

But the next night it happened again. And the next. And the one after that. The same, terrible dream. And here’s how it went: I’m sitting on a beach, the middle of a glorious day, and a voice speaks to me out of the clear blue sky. God’s voice.

“Ted,” it says.

A bucket appears in the sand beside me.

And then a spoon filled with holes appears in my hand.

“You have one hour to empty the entire ocean into this bucket,” says the voice, “or the world will explode. And it will be your fault.” Now, clearly this dream represents your basic, run-of-the-mill messiah complex, not uncommon among us actor types. But if you’re in the mood to grant me a little poetic license, you could say this was the awakening of my concern for our world’s oceans. And if so, then while I’ve spent the past twenty-five years actively working on the various issues facing our oceans, if you count the scary dream, my concern for the seas has actually been stirring inside me for more than a half century—for almost my entire life.

I grew up about as far away from the ocean as you can get—first in the hills outside Tucson, Arizona, then among the Ponderosa pines of the northern part of that state, just outside of Flagstaff.

My father was an archaeologist and later became the director of the Museum and Research Center of Northern Arizona. Our home, just an hour south of the Grand Canyon, was routinely visited by some of the world’s leading scientists in the fields of geology, paleontology, anthropology, and, of course, archaeology.

My mother was very involved in our church and led a spiritual life, not just inside that Episcopal chapel but out in the foothills and forests that surrounded our home. She loved nothing more than going out for a walk. She took us—me and my sister—with her all the time, and when you went for a walk with my mother, you better not be in a hurry. Because she took in everything, she saw beauty everywhere, and she always stopped to relish it. The more you look, the more you see. That’s something my mom taught me. She was the great appreciator. My father was much more the scientist— studying things, dissecting them, taking them apart, sorting them out, putting them back together, understanding what made them tick.

And, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time—I was busy playing with my friends, in the canyons and ravines around our house, just being a kid—I have no doubt that what my parents’ lives stood for back then somehow sunk in, providing a foundation for the advocacy work that I do today.

I strongly believe that science and spirituality go hand in hand, and any conversation we have about the environment has to take both into account. Unless all our actions to save the oceans are based on science, we will end up doing more harm than good. And unless we acknowledge our spiritual connectedness to one another and to this planet we live on—unless we realize that almost everything each of us does has an impact on somebody else—we may never rise above our self-interests in order to gather the collective forces we need to face the environmental challenges that  now surround us.

Speaking of self-interest, I was pretty much consumed by it until my mid-thirties. It was then, around my fourth year of playing Sam Malone on the TV show Cheers, that I noticed being a celebrity was not very different from being a 5-year-old in a room full of adults. Everyone is focused on you. All the attention and energy in the room is directed your way. I realized that if I wasn’t careful, my life could easily spin out of control, and I’d run the danger of becoming the 5-year-old who’s stayed at the  grownups’ party too long. I knew that I needed to do something constructive with all that energy before it really screwed me up. I needed to focus it on something outside of myself.

That something, it turned out, became the oceans.

In 1984, my family and I moved to Santa Monica Canyon, about ten blocks from the Pacific. One day I was walking on the beach with my two young daughters, Kate and Alexis, and we came upon a sign that said “Beach Closed, Water Polluted.” Kate, who was 8 at the time, was puzzled as to why—and how—a beach could be closed. Frankly, I was just as puzzled as she was. When she asked me for an answer, I didn’t have one.

So I began looking for it. I started asking some questions myself. Not long after that, I went to a neighborhood meeting that had been called in an attempt to stop Occidental Petroleum from drilling 60 oil wells in the waters off Will Rogers State Beach, right there beside Santa Monica and other surrounding communities.

The meeting was organized by a lawyer named Robert Sulnick, an environmental activist who’d been involved in these kinds of fights for many years. In the beginning, I was completely unaware of the complex web of forces threatening our oceans. I didn’t know any more about industrial bottom trawling, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, or government fishing subsidies than Sam Malone, the affable high school dropout turned bartender, did. But I learned fast. Bob and I joined forces, ultimately stopping those wells from being drilled, and became great friends in the process.

Flushed with success, a little naïve but full of passion, we created an organization called American Oceans Campaign. Our focus was on coastal pollution and maintaining the national moratorium on offshore oil drilling. I was full of a novice’s enthusiasm—eager to convert people to the cause and quick to spar with those who dared contradict me. I was quickly schooled by several conservative talk show hosts and rightfully learned my lesson.

For a while, Howard Stern had a daily “Danson’s Countdown to Doom.” Rush Limbaugh took me to task when a rash prediction I made for the end of the oceans as we know them came and passed—and the oceans still looked pretty much the same ... at least to the untrained eye. So here’s what I learned: Stick to the science. Tell people what’s going on, turn them toward the experts who really know what’s happening, and then let the people themselves decide what to do about it. Don’t make speeches just to impress the audience with how much you’ve learned. Because there’s always so much more to know, whether you’re just starting out, or you’ve been at it awhile. That’s why we need the experts, and we need to listen to them. Because they do know. I never let myself forget how lucky I’ve been to be able to meet many of these experts ... and to be able to help get their message out.

In 2001, American Oceans Campaign joined forces with several other nonprofits to form a new global marine organization called Oceana, the biggest international group in the world solely focused on ocean issues. And I have to confess, when that merger occurred, I thought, Great! Now I’ve got a back door, a way out. I was tired of asking my friends for money, frustrated trying to raise awareness about something that seemed so basic, and not sure I was really making a difference.

But it turned out I wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. The new organization upped the ante to a whole new level, pulling together such an astounding array of great,  committed, and inspiring people that I found myself happily working even more for this cause, not less.

The oceans make up 70 percent of our planet’s surface. They are a permanent gift to the future of all people—a legacy to our children, and to our children’s children. We’ve started to turn the tide.

Now let’s finish the job.

To buy “Oceana” visit http://www.oceanabook.net