Two-times Olympic champion who has been fighting to save the seas for over a quarter of a century is now seeing sustainability coming to the fore

March 22 2023

A two-times Spanish Olympic champion has been leading the fight against climate change for almost a quarter of a century through the foundation she established in 1999. Theresa Zabell’s passion for the ocean, developed over the course of her impressive career, led her to establish the Foundacion Ecomar 24 years ago. Since then, the Foundacion has worked with over two million people through its activities, educating and empowering young people across Spain and Portugal.

Two-times Olympic champion who has been fighting to save the seas for over a quarter of a century is now seeing sustainability coming to the fore

Now that the world has woken up to the importance of sustainability and the need to protect our oceans, what can we learn from the journey of an Olympic champion?

The significance of our seas

The ocean is critical to all life on this planet: the Earth’s surface is made up of over 70% water, and the seas and oceans provide us with more than half of the oxygen we breathe. The ocean provides us with food, water, and energy, and is host to a vast array of wildlife. It also acts as a ‘carbon sink’: the ocean absorbs around 31% of CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere.

Despite this, the seas and oceans are under continued threat from human activity, including plastic pollution and overfishing, and are increasingly suffering the effects of climate change, leading to hazards including ocean warming and acidification. The oceans have a key role to play in moderating climate change, but its capacity is increasingly limited by these ongoing threats to the marine ecosystem.

Like Ecomar, more and more people and organisations are working to raise awareness of the need to protect the oceans, building on Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life Below Water, which aims to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’. But despite increasing awareness the need for action is still mounting: in 2021 alone, more than 17 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the world’s oceans, and plastic in the North Atlantic has tripled since the 1960s. In 1999, Zabell was already thinking about how to tackle these growing challenges.

Olympic champion sets even bigger challenge

Theresa Zabell has spent her life connecting with the ocean. After setting foot on her first sailing boat at the age of ten, she went on to win the World Class in La Rochelle in 1985, competed at five World Championships and three European Championships, and ultimately became the only Spanish woman to win gold medals at two Olympic games, at Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. She was once proclaimed the best sailor in the world by the International Sailing Foundation.

As she was travelling the world and setting new standards of success, the roots of the Ecomar Foundacion were with her. From her earliest experiences of the ocean, Zabell had been aware of plastic pollution. ‘The idea started when I was a young sailor,’ she explains. ‘When you’re sailing you’re always looking for things floating, and I started realising it wasn’t just seaweed. I asked someone in my sailing club what it was, and they said it was rubbish. I had all these questions—why is it there, where does it come from—that quite frankly nobody knew how to answer.’

These early memories made a strong impression on her. ‘It stayed with me,’ she says. ‘I started seeing what I could find in all the different seas that I had the opportunity to sail in.’

After achieving Olympic gold at the 1992 and 1996 Games, Zabell decided to step back from competition. She knew what she wanted to do next.

‘Before I finished my Olympic sailing career I already knew that I wanted to do something to make the seas better,’ she says. She already had some experience speaking to children and young people, and she soon realised that educating the younger generation would provide the perfect opportunity to change society’s perspective on ocean pollution.

The Foundacion officially began its work in March 1999. Its motto was ‘take care of the only two places you can’t move away from: your body and your planet’. But the landscape was very different 24 years ago, and at first, the team struggled to convince some of the importance of the second half of their message.

‘We wanted to introduce nautical sports, teach kids to sail, and help them to understand why the seas are so important to us and the environment,’ Zabell says. ‘We didn’t have too many problems selling ‘take care of your body’, with sport and a healthy lifestyle, but we had tremendous problems with the ‘take care of your planet’ message.’

Despite this, though, the Foundacion immediately began reaching young people. Its main objective was to ‘raise awareness among the younger generation’, through programmes, workshops, and coastal clean-ups. The Foundacion wanted to ‘bring young people closer to sustainable ecological values’, and to ‘immerse them in the culture of respect for the sea’.

Today the tide has truly turned. The Spanish Olympic Committee has recently developed its own sustainability manifesto, and an increasing number of federations have signed up to support it. Now Ecomar sits at the heart of a growing number of organisations that are looking to protect the environment. ‘Now there’s tonnes of organisations out there wanting to do something in sustainability,’ Zabell says.

Education, awareness, and action

Ecomar promotes sustainability along three pillars of action. ‘We educate, we raise awareness, and we act,’ Zabell explains.

The Foundacion has three central projects. The first is its Ecomarímpola programme, which is an educational, environmental, and recreational programme for 7–14-year-olds that they offer to sailing and surf schools across Spain and Portugal. The programme provides instructors with the materials and knowledge that they need to teach children ‘care and respect for the sea and the environment’, as well as the importance of sport and a healthy lifestyle. Every year the Foundacion produces a logbook, made with 100% ecological materials, which acts as a ‘guide to know, enjoy, and respect the sea’. The Foundacion is currently working with over 120 schools and reaches between 15,000 and 20,000 children every year.

In this programme, participation in sport, health, and the environment are inextricably linked. ‘The goal here is that a person who goes to practice a sport that is in the marine environment—sailing, diving, surfing, canoeing, and so on—also learns how to take care of that environment,’ Zabell says. By reaching young people who are taking part in marine sports, the Foundacion aims to encourage lifelong sustainable relationships with the ocean.

Ecomar’s second central project is a coastal clean-up programme, targeted at children, families, and businesses. Volunteers work together to clean up beaches across Spain and Portugal, and the Foundacion have also worked in rivers, swamps, and inland waters. Alongside the clean-ups, the Foundacion offers an educational workshop, the ‘Blue Workshop’, which covers a demonstration of waste management, coastal cleaning, and how to recycle. Although managing waste is key, the Foundacion also emphasises the importance of ‘turning off the tap’, and acting on the source of waste that ends up in the oceans.

The Foundacion’s third key project is its school education programme. Since inception, the Foundacion has run large-scale education programmes across schools in Spain. The team are now reinventing the programme in order to reach more students, and ran a pilot project in Barcelona in 2022. Through ten modules, children are taught about taking care of the environment. The next step is to develop a digital platform. ‘It’s a more scalable method than us ourselves doing it by going to the schools,’ says Zabell. ‘It could be a way of reaching 100,000 children a year.’ Over the next 3-4 years, the team will roll out their digital platform and hope to reach even more young people.

An impressive record

With a track record now spanning almost a quarter of a century, Foundacion Ecomar can now prove its positive impact. At the end of last year, volunteers on coastal clean-ups had collected a total of 33,033kg of waste. In 2022 alone, 2,376 volunteers on 52 coastal clean-ups collected 6,972kg of waste, including 1,174kg of containers and 897kg of glass.

In all, 2,430,000 people have been through the Foundacion’s activities. The Ecomarímpola programme, which began in 2006, now has 116 centres across Spain and Portugal. Since 2004, 220,000 logbooks have been distributed.

The figures are impressive, and Ecomar are now looking to build on their impact by expanding into new areas and developing new investigation projects. Their current work spans Spain and Portugal, but the team are currently hoping to work with the EU to implement a programme with sailing schools in Italy and France.

Meanwhile, the team are also involved in an investigation project in Spain that is exploring seagrass replanting in the Mediterranean. Seagrass, which lives in shallow areas along coastlines, provides food and shelter for a vast array of marine life. Crucially, it also absorbs 10% of the ocean’s carbon each year—even though it only covers 0.1% of the ocean floor. It has a key role to play in the fight against climate change, and seagrass replanting projects, including a recent £2.5 million project in the UK, are directly addressing the issue. Zabell hopes that Ecomar can continue important work in this area, which is particularly important given that Mediterranean Sea is home to 1.2 million hectares of seagrass meadows.

‘The seagrass we have in the Mediterranean is extremely valuable and extremely important,’ she says. ‘A square metre of seagrass absorbs as much CO2 as between 15 and 30 square metres of rainforest, but there’s been a big reduction of seagrass in the Mediterranean over the past 10 to 15 years. It’s really important to try and bring it back up to its original state.’

By replanting seagrass, it could play a role in future carbon capture and carbon offsetting projects. Through its seagrass work, Ecomar is continually expanding and adapting into the areas that are most critical for the future health of the ocean.

Leading by example

Ecomar’s commitment to sustainability is evident, but their sustainable ethos goes beyond the classroom. While environmental education and promoting health and participation in sport sit at the centre of its work, the Foundacion is also serious about the sustainability of the organisation itself.

The Foundacion is committed to transparency and good governance, and has received the Sello Dona con Confianza, which recognises organisations that adhere to the nine principles of tranparency and good management. To receive this accreditation, the Foundacion received a thorough analysis of its management, governance, financial accounts, and transparency practices.

‘Twenty years ago, nobody talked about transparency and good governance, but now you don’t understand a company without it,’ Zabell says. ‘As a foundation, I think it’s even more important.’

In line with this ethos, the Foundacion publishes details of its income and distribution of funds in its annual Blue Report, as well as a list of its key partners, sponsors, and donors, which includes Kinder, Movistar, Volvo, and Avène.

The Foundacion has also received other certifications, including ISO 9001, and emphasises the importance of partnership: the Foundacion is a partner of Clean Seas and 1% for the Planet, and has worked with the European Commission.

The Blue Report reports on all its activities for the year and provides a snapshot into the reach of the organisation. The team also uses its website to educate and highlight important sustainability issues: their EcoBlog features articles on scientific topics such as bioluminescence, noise pollution, and overfishing, while a set of video tutorials cover key environmental topics. The Foundacion reached almost 24,000 social media followers in 2022.

Non-profit and environmental organisations have an important responsibility to maintain sustainability throughout all their work. Ecomar’s commitment to partnerships, accreditation, and good governance only enhances their role as figureheads in the movement.

Marking progress and looking to the future

When Zabell and the Foundacion Ecomar began their work in 1999, they had no trouble spreading their message of health and sport, but their environmental message was a harder sell. In 2023, the situation has changed. ‘Now, it’s almost the other way around,’ Zabell says.

The tide has turned, and more and more people are aware of the need to protect the environment. As they look for ways to do so, Foundacion Ecomar has a unique role to play. With almost 25 years of experience under their belts, they know what it takes to grow and continue a programme of work and a dedicated mission. Flexibility has been key. ‘We had to reinvent ourselves at times,’ says Zabell.

Teamwork and a shared commitment has also been important. ‘I’m most proud of the team,’ Zabell says. ‘They are so dedicated and ambitious and they really believe in the mission.’

The mission has always been personal for Zabell. After so many years spent connecting with the earth’s oceans, she wanted to ‘give back to the sea all the satisfaction it had given her’. 24 years on, it’s clear that the Olympic champion has done just that.

As the urgency of the climate crisis looms ever larger, other organisations can learn a great deal from Theresa Zabell and the Ecomar story. Passion, dedication, forward thinking, and a thorough commitment to sustainability in both ethos and action has propelled Foundacion Ecomar through almost a quarter-century of work. Leaders, athletes, and fans across the world must take the same approach if we are to protect both the earth and the seas.

Read moreBethany White

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