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Empathy for the Ocean

Empathy for the Ocean, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury

“Empathy for the Ocean” is a stone sculpture cartoon fish inspired by my concern for all of us on the earth.  It is a wish that we can find a way to work together to save our world.  It is the result of cascading collisions of ideas about warming oceans, science, DNA, anthropomorphism, animation, and empathy.

Getting to Know the Ocean

My sister moved from the Rocky Mountains to Long Island Sound several years ago because she wanted to be near the ocean.  Such a drastic move made me curious about the ocean, something I had never really thought about.  Fish have always fascinated me because they live where we can’t; also intriguing. 

It turns out oceans are a complex system full of extremes, the circulatory system of our planet, and key to our survival.   

Ocean Fun Facts:

Oceans cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface.

94% of the earth’s wildlife live in oceans.

Phytoplankton, tiny plants that drift in the ocean, create one half of the oxygen on earth.

The Mariana Trench, found in the South Pacific Ocean, is 7 miles deep.  This is the deepest part of the ocean.  Water pressure at the bottom of the Trench is 8 tons per square inch.

The largest mountain range in the world is found under water, called the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, and is 40,000 miles long.

Only 5 % of the ocean’s floor has been mapped in detail, a mostly unknown frontier.

There are more historic artifacts submerged in the oceans than in all the museums in the world.

Un-fun Facts About Oceans:

Oceans absorb a lot of heat from human-caused carbon dioxide from our burning of fossil fuels.  More heat in the ocean raises water temperatures on the surface, which disrupts the balance of layers of warm and cold water in the oceans, changing ocean currents and weather patterns.

The warm top layers cannot absorb as much heat as they used to, so the heat stays in the air and our air temperatures also increase.

Warm ocean water has less oxygen in it and disrupts marine ecosystems killing fish and encouraging algal blooms. 

Warm oceans melt sea ice which causes sea levels to rise which causes coastal flooding and devastates Arctic ecosystems.

More CO2 in the ocean lowers the pH causing acidification which kills coral reefs, home to an abundance of sea life.  Since 94% of the earth’s wildlife lives in the ocean, it is a good idea to take care of it.


Empathy is the ability to understand another “person’s” thoughts and feelings from their point of view rather than your own.  I put this in quotation marks because it is not just “persons” who think and feel, animals have many of our same concerns in their lives.

I recently listened to a webinar called “Empathy in the Garden” presented by a naturalist from Audubon Rockies.  The presenter had creative ways to teach children the important relationships between plants and insects and what they are doing in the garden.  She also had fun ways to teach them how to behave to avoid getting stung.  Her idea is that knowledge and understanding can lead us to care about other living things rather than be afraid of them.  Excellent!

I am an enthusiastic gardener; I grow a lot of flowers for birds, bees, bunnies, butterflies, and bugs.  Also for me and my husband, Brian (another “B”).  There is no lack of empathy in my garden.  But what about the ocean? 


The webinar naturalist cautioned against teaching children to relate to bugs in ways they relate to humans, i.e. attributing human characteristics to non-human things.  Suddenly my ears perked up. 

Anthropomorphism is giving human characteristics to animals.  I was a Character Animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation for 20 years.  Anthropomorphism is an important skill for any self-respecting character animator.  My brain began to spin.


I am a strong supporter of scientific research, data collection, and developing theories based on fact-supported research.  Also, I know from living with animals all my life that we are far more alike than we are different. 

I have read that scientists in general have issues with admitting that animals have language and feelings, even though the research is there.  Animals think and plan ahead, they invent tools and strategies to achieve their goals, whether it is a pack of African wild dogs choreographing a hunting maneuver, a crow opening a puzzle box, or prairie dogs broadcasting news in the colony.

Being an Animal 

There is no disgrace in considering oneself an animal.  I want to be part of the natural order.  I pride myself on being a steward and member alongside my fellow animals in the circle of life.  

Wildlife Biologist Douglas Chadwick’s recent book, Four Fifths a Grizzly, presents scientific research proving the shared aspects of all life on earth.  Every living thing is composed of the same stuff–DNA and RNA.  He writes in his entertaining and well-researched book:

However broadly or narrowly one defines identical genes, I am in a sense alive in a mind-boggling number of creatures in a staggering range of environments around the globe through the DNA we share.  I leap, I fly, I slither.   . . .   Being more related to avocados, ants, and aardvarks than most people suspect doesn’t dilute our stature as humans but instead increases it manyfold.  It renders us more than human.  This is our deep heritage, an old and enduring kinship as big as the living world.  (1)

Disney Animation

I spent most of my 20-year career at Disney animating animals.  These characters were all combinations of the real animal and its real behaviors and what we might describe as human behaviors.  (Only one, Fish-Out-of-Water from “Chicken Little” was a kid-in-a-fish-suit and had little similarity to a real fish.) 

I have lived much of my life with cats and horses.  They have the same basic needs as us, like food and safety.  They also play games for fun and hang out with friends.  On warm sunny days they enjoy relaxing in the sun.  They protect their homes and babies, and run away or take a defensive posture when threatened.  They prefer some foods over others, and some activities over others.  We share a lot of the same behaviors.

Empathy for the Ocean view 2, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury
Empathy for the Ocean, view 2.  This cartoon fish falls in the category of Animated Gleefulness.

Animated Gleefulness

My experience as an animator informs all my work.  My sculptures are always anchored in ideas that are important to me.  Some sculptures are more whimsical than others, a direct result of my years in Animation.  One of my patrons, an influential top executive in a Fortune 500 company, coined the term Animated Gleefulness to describe my cartoon stone sculptures.  “Empathy for the Ocean” is Animated Gleefulness to a T.

Humor and fantasy are essential parts of my creative expression and allow me to cope in a chaotic world.  Learning something about how oceans function to keep everything going makes me care about what happens to all of us both in and out of the ocean, and learn the right things to do to help each other.  Heavy thinking from a cartoon fish. 

The Stone

“Empathy for the Ocean” is carved from Azzurro Aquamarina Marble from Portugal.  It is composed of large sparkling crystals in soft blue and white.  This marble was formed from gazillions of crushed seashells heated and pressed by the movement of earth’s tectonic plates for 500 million years.  It smells like a tide pool when you cut it.  (It doesn’t smell after it is cut.) 

How appropriate that this fish is created from creatures who lived in an ancient ocean.

Empathy End Note

World-renowned conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall wrote:  “Only if we understand, can we care.  Only if we care, we will help.  Only if we help, we shall be saved.”

(1)Douglas Chadwick, Four Fifths a Grizzly, Patagonia Works, 2021, p. 35

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