Children can’t get enough ocean animals. But their marine habitat is in trouble. As the ocean’s temperature continue to rise by 0.14°F each decade, sea levels along U.S. coastlines are set to rise a foot by 2050, threatening coral reefs, beaches, and marshes—and the animals that live there. And an estimated 15 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, nearly double the eight million tons recorded in 2010.
One of the best ways to turn the tide on the ocean crisis? Teach kids about the creatures that live in it. “As kids get to know particular types of marine life, they often form connections or begin to care about them,” says Robyn Ehrlich, education manager at the Pacific Whale Foundation. “It’s from that connection, care, and appreciation that the inspiration to protect the ocean begins and grows.”
A healthy ocean requires a balanced ecosystem, and if any species disappears, the equilibrium is thrown off. Researchers estimate that more than 700,000 marine species live in the ocean, all interdependent on each other. Here’s a list of kids’ favorite marine animals and how they can help protect them—and save the rest of the ocean.
The animal: dolphins
Why they matter: Dolphins help regulate the ocean population by feeding on fish and squid, and they’re an important food source for shark species like tiger sharks, great white sharks, and bull sharks.
Why they’re in trouble: Although kids’ go-to dolphin—the bottlenose—isn’t endangered or threatened, all 41 dolphin species face threats from being caught up in large commercial tuna fishing nets, as well as ocean pollution that often originates as land trash.
How kids can help: Though grown-ups can look for true dolphin-safe tuna (it’s trickier than you think, but this article shows you how), kids can help dolphins by become trash warriors in their everyday lives. Challenge children to pick up and dispose of five pieces of trash on a family walk (bring gloves!), or turn them into citizen scientists. Apps like the Marine Debris Tracker allow families to plug in different kinds of trash they find near any waterway (ocean pollution often starts way upstream) to help scientists understand where the most research and funding is needed.
The animal: sea turtles
Why they matter: Known as the lawnmowers of the ocean, green sea turtles eat seagrass that would otherwise grow rampant, and leatherbacks eat their weight in jellyfish every day. “Imagine what the oceans would look like if they weren’t eating 1,000 pounds of jellyfish every day,” says Wendy Knight, executive director of Sea Turtle, Inc. “How would fish swim? How would boats move?”
Why they’re in trouble: All sea turtle species are either endangered or vulnerable; one of the most frequent reasons they’re brought to Sea Turtle, Inc.’s rescue and rehabilitation center are health issues after mistaking things like plastic bags and straws for food.
How kids can help: Encourage kids to come up with creative ways to replace their single-use plastic products with more sustainable ones. For example, turtles often mistakenly eat balloons, thinking they’re jellyfish. So for your next party, skip the balloons and recruit your kid to help make paper chains out of recycled wrapping paper or punch holes in leaves to make confetti. (You can also try this DIY pom-pom puff.) These other crafts will encourage your kids to make things like reusable straws and portable cutlery holders.
The animal: polar bears
Why they matter: As the top predator in the Arctic, polar bears are a key part of the ocean ecosystem. These vulnerable marine mammals hunt and pull up seals from their perches on sea ice, and the leftovers help feed birds and arctic foxes.
Why they’re in trouble: Polar bear’s frozen sea-ice habitat live is shrinking because of climate warming. That means less access to food, which impacts their reproductive abilities (which means fewer polar bears).
How kids can help: One of the ways to tackle global warming is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by finding alternative renewable energy sources. One option is to look at your child’s school. For instance, you can help your kid start a campaign to create an idle-free environment where parents turn off their cars while waiting during school pickups. Or children can study how often classroom or gym lights are on or off, then present their findings—along with ideas on how to reduce the energy waste—to school administrators. (Read more about how kids can make a bigger eco-impact at school.)
The animal: sea otters
Why they matter: Sea otters are “ecosystem engineers” that help maintain and restore habitats. For example, they eat large amounts of sea urchins, which keeps the urchins from destroying the kelp forests, which absorb dangerous carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide critical marine habitat for other animals.
Why they’re in trouble: Classified as endangered, southern sea otters are often threatened by infectious disease and parasites spread by contaminated and polluted water that runs off into the ocean.
How kids can help: Got a cat? Make sure kids are disposing its feces in trash cans instead of toilets, since cat waste can carry dangerous parasite eggs to sea otters. Other hazardous household chemicals can make their way down the drain and into rivers and ocean, so find safer homemade alternatives. For example, instead of buying commercial fertilizer, which contains nitrogen, your child can help create garden fertilizer by starting a compost pile with leftover kitchen scraps. (Here’s a kid-friendly guide to composting.) And instead of tossing used toy batteries, which can leach harmful chemicals into the earth that winds up in waterways, kids can start a collection bucket to recycle batteries.
The animal: sharks
Why they matter: Sharks are apex predators on top of the ocean’s food chain, and they help regulate fish and seal populations in order to maintain a stable ecosystem.
Why they’re in trouble: Kids might find it hard to believe that these top-tier predators are in danger. But more than a third of shark species face extinction because of overfishing, loss of habitat, and climate change.
How kids can help: Make your next shopping trip a save-the-sharks adventure by challenging kids to read labels for shark liver oil (usually listed as squalene or squalene) as an ingredient in personal care products and supplements. Then have them spread their love of sharks. “Kids have a voice, and they can spread facts instead of fear, helping inspire others to care about sharks,” says marine biologist Jillian Morris, founder and president of Sharks4Kids, who suggests that kids create posters, make videos, or write a story to educate friends and family. (These ideas will help get kids over a fear of sharks and other “scary” animals.)