As a yoga instructor in Los Angeles, Brock Cahill was more focused on chaturangas and down dogs than the oceanic ecosystem and conservation of sharks. But then, on April 20, 2010, an explosion on the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon led to the biggest marine oil spill in history. Over 87 days, four million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, creating an unprecedented environmental disaster and polluting 1,100 miles of shoreline.
Two months later, Cahill saw reports that, during efforts to burn off oil at the water’s surface in the Gulf, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles—an endangered species— burned up, too. Cahill, in his words, became pissed off.
“I flipped my lid,” he said. “I said, this isn’t going to be happening on our watch.”
Cahill got to work. He organized a group of like-minded friends and joined the rescue efforts to help save as many turtles as they could. Over six months stationed at the Gulf, Cahill estimates that he and others saved around 500 of the 5,000 Kemp’s ridleys that were in existence there at the time.
From Yoga to SeaChange
By July 2010, the Deepwater Horizon was capped shut and emergency measures to clean up the spill shifted to longer-term efforts. But for Cahill, the spill was only the beginning of what has become his life’s work. During his stint on the Gulf, he and his cohort founded the SeaChange Agency, a non-profit dedicated to ocean conservation and advocacy.
Over the past 12 years, the group’s efforts have expanded well beyond the Gulf. SeaChange has eight ongoing initiatives, each of which tackles ocean and sea life conservation in a different way. Project Kurma, for example, works with locals who live near a sea turtle hatchery in northwest Nicaragua. Turtle eggs in the region are prized on the black market. SeaChange instead incentivizes egg hunters to leave the eggs, allowing them to hatch.
Closer to home, in Santa Monica, CA, Cahill and his colleagues run Stand Up for the Ocean, a program that takes under-served groups on SUP tours to pluck trash from the water and learn about ocean ecology along the way. And in local schools, SeaChange offers a sustainability curriculum through School of Fish, an outreach and education program.
But Cahill’s greatest passion is reserved for a single inhabitant of the ocean. Sharks, the apex predator of the lot, are a focal point for SeaChange.
“The first time that I saw [sharks] up close I was a little bit intimidated,” he said. “But that immediately changed as soon as I recognized that they weren’t interested in making me part of their food chain.
“This baby reef shark, probably three feet long, came up to me and started to swim along. It probably weighed a lot and could do some damage, but I saw it eating fish and I just fell in love. Ever since then, I’ve been intrigued by sharks and I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours underwater with them.”
Shark Conservation to Save the Planet
Cahill’s reverence for sharks was inspired in part by his friend and SeaChange co-founder, Rob Stewart, a renowned Canadian diver and conservationist who made the 2006 film, Sharkwater. A close friend of Cahill’s and a co-founder of the SeaChange Agency, Stewart died in a diving accident in 2017. Since his death, Cahill and SeaChange have been among those carrying on his work, shedding light on the mass killing of shark populations worldwide and the economic drivers behind it.
In Sharkwater, Stewart highlighted the pursuit of the fish for shark fin soup, which became a delicacy in some cultures. His 2017 follow-up film, Sharkwater Extinction, covered other ways that sharks have become sought-after commodities for products including cosmetics, pet food, fertilizer and fishmeal. In both, he deployed his expertise in cinematography and his ability to create an emotional connection with the subject to draw attention to the issue.
““We’re killing 100 million to 150 million sharks every year,” said Cahill. “It’s estimated that 90 to 99% of different sharks have been fished out of the water.”
Protecting the Planet with Sharks
For Cahill, as for Stewart, protecting sharks and raising awareness about them is about more, however, than saving a species from extinction. Instead, the dorsal-finned fish are the cornerstones of life on earth: essential not only for life underwater, but for life on land, too.
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“Sharks control the oceanic ecosystem and food chain,” said Cahill. “The ocean produces up to 78% of the oxygen on this planet. So if you take out the apex-level predator, the entire food chain goes out of whack, and then suddenly the ocean can’t produce the oxygen that it needs to produce for the rest of the planet to survive and thrive.
“There’s no other species on the planet that has been the architect of how this earth has survived through every major extinction up to date,” he continued. “Sharks have been on the planet for 450 million years—predating dinosaurs and every other species that exists. [They’ve survived every extinction event]. Except for the one that we’re about to put them into.”
In his efforts to raise awareness about shark conservation, Cahill relies not only on facts and figures. He also expounds on the animals’ attributes, in a kind of compelling reverie.
“People need to recognize that sharks are sophisticated and sensitive creatures,” he said. “They have two other sensory parts that human beings may or may not have. [The first] are electromagnetic receptors. They can sense electrical movements and charges in the water from these receptors in the front of their noses. The others are lateral lines that run down the side of their bodies that can feel movements and energy in the water column.
“They can feel a person’s energy—as you know, you and I have energy, right? If you’re scared, they feel it and they think, ‘Oh, is that food?’ If you’re excited or happy to see them, they feel that [too.]”
It’s in this way that Cahill’s work as a yoga instructor and his work as a conservationist come together. In yoga, he said, practitioners channel their internal energy to cultivate harmony and connection; to be a force for good in the world. Cahill’s practice on the mat, then, has been a training ground for his activism off of it.
“If we live by these philosophies of yoga practice…how can we not step forward and try to make the world a better place?,” he said. “My dad used to teach me, if you borrow something, you return it in better condition than when you got it. That kind of philosophy is a great [metaphor]: We’re borrowing some of the energy from the earth and then, hopefully, giving it back.”