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Inside the Sense of Place Goal

It is the elusiveness of that meaning [the ocean’s beauty] that haunts us, that sends us again and again into the natural world where the key to the riddle is hidden. It sends us back to the edge of the sea, where the drama of life played its first scene on earth  and perhaps even its prelude; where the forces of evolution are at work today, as they have been since the appearance of what we know as life; and where the spectacle of living creatures faced by the cosmic realities of their world is crystal clear.

                    -Rachel Carson  The Edge of the Sea.  1955 

The Meaning of the Sense of Place Goal


A healthy ocean gives us food and natural products, stabilizes our atmosphere and climate, protects our shores, and provides opportunities for recreation, jobs and strong economies.  

At the same time, it quietly does something more subtle, but equally important: it sustains our spirit.  

Exploring the ocean’s role in human spirit and consciousness is much harder than weighing fish, mapping habitats or counting money, and that’s what makes the Sense of Place goal so interesting (and challenging).


What draws us so strongly to the ocean? Why are we so fascinated with it? Why do we get such pleasure from walking along a sandy shore, inspecting the life of a tidepool, meeting leviathan on a whalewatch, sailing to an island, paddling to a quiet cove, or just sitting on a rock or under a coconut tree for hours watching waves meet the land? What do we feel when we look at a salmon, a leatherback sea turtle, a polar bear, an albatross? How are those feelings expressed in our cultures, religions, spiritual life and aesthetic sensibilities?   

Poets and writers sharpen those questions and give some clues to their answers. Our strong bond with the sea was movingly described by T.S Eliot in 1941. Beyond the mysteriousness, vastness and timelessness of the ocean, our own distant relationship to  its strange plants and animals binds us to the salty, watery world that occupies two-thirds of our planet:

                 "The river is within us, the sea is all about us;

                  The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
                  Into  which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses

                  Its hints of earlier and other creation:

                  The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;

                  The pools where it offers to our curiosity
                  The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.

                  It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,

                  The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar

                  And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,

                  Many gods and many voices".

                        -Excerpt from Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, by T S Eliot, 1941

John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the U.S., explained our strong ties to the ocean as an echo of our ancient evolutionary history:

"I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, - except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came".

   -President John F. Kennedy, Speech at the America’s Cup races, Newport, Rhode Island, September 14, 1962

© Keith A. Ellenbogen

Measuring the Sense of Place

Most of us who work on the Ocean Health Index enjoy poetry and literature, but our job is to assess the ocean’s benefits scientifically and quantitatively.

Scientists often estimate the value of natural benefits by studying how much people would be willing to pay to avoid costs from environmental damage, repair hypothetical damage, change an environment in a way that would improve income, travel to a natural habitat, enter a park, participate in a recreational activity, or have a house or hotel room with an ocean view.  

Sense of Place can’t use those techniques because it explores values that are independent of material benefits or money, namely the perceptual and emotional qualities that make marine locations feel special and distinct from anywhere else, not only for people who live near the ocean or visit it, but also for those who live far away and may never see it. As one example, most people reading this will never visit Antarctica, but nevertheless take pleasure in its existence and the beauty of its unique landscape and remarkable animal populations.
Since people rarely describe those qualities directly or in a measurable way, Sense of Place had to infer their existence and assess their importance from other lines of evidence. In particular, this goal uses the status of Iconic Species and of Lasting Special Places to indicate the ocean’s role in the cultural, spiritual and aesthetic lives of people in different places.  

The Sense of Place score is the average of the scores for the Iconic Species and Lasting Special Places sub-goals.  Detailed methods for calculation are presented in Halpern et al. 2012. 

The Iconic Species Sub-Goal

What do you think of when you read the words: panda, kangaroo, tiger, kiwi? Chances are, you’d answer “China, Australia, India (or maybe Siberia) and New Zealand,” because these animals---which are only found in those places---have become emblematic of those places and deeply embedded into their cultures. They’ve become icons for their countries.

Sense of Place uses the health and condition of living marine Iconic Species to help indicate the ocean’s ability to support human spirit and culture, which is one facet of ocean health. The species may be important to traditional activities such as fishing, hunting or commerce; significant to local ethnic or religious practice; locally recognized for aesthetic value as tourist attractions or common subjects for art, or valued merely for their existence (e.g. many penguin species). Species harvested solely for economic or utilitarian purposes are not included, nor are habitat-forming species (mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass meadows, salt marshes, etc.), as they are assessed in association with other goals. However, an economically important species may still be iconic if it is culturally significant.  

Visual evidence of the iconic status of ocean species can be found on postage stamps, money, license plates, totem poles, post cards, clothing and elsewhere.  

Top: 20 ruble Russian stamp showing a Humpback Whale. Bottom: Back of New Zealand $5 currency note, showing a Campbell Island (sub-antarctic island) scene with Hoiho (Yellow-eyed Penguin), sub-antarctic lily, bull kelp and Campbell Island Daisy.

Top to bottom: Design by A. Povarikhin; Courtesy Dr. Kerry Anthony, DHD Gallery

Below are Polar bear license plates from Nunavat.  After becoming an independent territory in 1999, Nunavat continued to use the bear-shaped plate (left) employed in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  Beginning in August 2013, Nunavat will use a new rectangular plate (right) that still features the polar bear, along with other symbols of arctic life.   

The shaped plates (left) are now collector items and sometimes bring hundreds of dollars in at auctions.

Left to right: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press, published in the Toronto Star; Ron Wassink

Species become iconic by being recognizable, charismatic and capturing some element of the public’s imagination, though they can mean different things to different people. Such species usually play an important role in local history and traditional activities, such as ethnic or religious practices. Sometimes they play important economic roles, too, by stimulating artistic expression or tourism. 

Pagrus major, Sea Bream or Tai, the King of Fish, has been a symbol of good luck, celebration, and prosperity in Japan for thousands of years. Now raised in mariculture, the sea bream is economically important, given as gifts, eaten on special occasions and celebrated in art, sculpture and festivals.

Left: A woodblock painting of a Seabream (Tai) and Japanese Pepper Leaves (Sansho), from the series A Shoa of Fishes (Uo-zukushi). Right: The Toyohama Sea Bream Festival.

Left to right: Fuji Arts, Inc.; Aichi Tourist Association 

Because conditions change and cultures are dynamic, it is likely that some species could become iconic in the future even if they aren’t now.  In recent decades we’ve seen this happen with sharks, for example. They were once universally considered to be killers and scourges of the sea, but now increasingly protected not only for their importance to ecosystems and biodiversity, but also for aesthetic, touristic and cultural reasons. 

This 20 dollar banknote from the Cook Islands suggests the iconic importance of sharks in the Polynesian culture of this self-governing South Pacific nation; made up of 15 islands located northeast of New Zealand, between French Polynesia and Samoa. Cook Islands currency is only exchanged within this nation. For international exchange, Cook Islanders use the New Zealand dollar. 

Numismondo World Paper Money Picture Catalog 

Snorkelers in South Africa peer anxiously into the water as they prepare to swim with sharks for the first time. 

©Simon de Waal/Marine Photobank

Interestingly, some things gain iconic status even though their physical reality is ambiguous or imaginary. On land, for example, the perpetually elusive ‘Bigfoot’, a large ape-like ‘cryptid’, is legendary in a number of mountainous areas (‘Sasquatch’ in British Columbia, ‘Yeti’ in the Himalayas, ‘Hibango’ in Japan).  The Rainbow Serpent, which may have ancient origins in a real snake, has for millennia been a powerful creator god to Australian aboriginal cultures, who protect many waterholes and other places as its sacred homes.

Ancient cave painting of the RainbowSerpent, Kakadu National Park, NorthernTerritories, Australia.      

Courtesy of the International Research Experience for Students (IRES)

Red Rock, by Daisy Kungah. 

Taken from the Track of the Rainbow Serpent, Exhibition of Aboriginal Paintings of the Wolfe Creek Crater. Curator, Peggy Reeves Sanday. 

In the marine world, ‘Nessie’ (the Scottish ‘Loch Ness Monster’) and tragic-romantic tales about selkies (legendary creatures that live as seals in the sea, but shed their skin to become human) are iconic in Scotland. Mermaids probably hold that status worldwide, though especially in Denmark thanks to Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Little Mermaid.

These iconic, mythical creatures all possibly originated from sightings of real marine animals, possibly Oarfish (Regulus regulus), Harbor or Gray Seals and Manatees or Dugongs, respectively.

The Little Mermaid. 10 Krone silver coin. 

The Royal Canadian Mint 

Perhaps because the process of becoming iconic is so informal, nations and local regions have not often compiled lists of such species and equivalent information is scarce.  Lists of threatened or endangered species usually can’t help, because they don’t state the species’ cultural importance.  The only global data sources available to Sense of Place were lists of Flagship and Priority Species compiled by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and supplementary WWF lists for Australia, Pakistan, India, Madagascar, Malaysia, Portugal and Peru, because they deliberately include, among others, species that are especially important to people for health, livelihoods and culture. The condition of marine species listed was evaluated using information from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List on each species’ risk of extinction and whether its population size was increasing, stable or decreasing (if known).

The reference point is for all Iconic Species to be at minimal risk of extinction, i.e. ‘least concern’ in the IUCN Red List. More focused and methodical listing and evaluation of Iconic Species is needed in order to give those species the best chance for survival. Developing a global system to accomplish that is a high priority for the Sense of Place goal.   

All over the world the cultural heritage relating to sea turtles is diverse, deep and significant. They are widely seen as symbols of longevity, peace and strength, and are characterized as friendly and beautiful. Turtles and their eggs are still widely eaten, not only for their protein, but because eggs are imagined to make men more potent sexually.  In recognition of sea turtles’ special cultural status, their flesh has often been reserved for royalty, the upper classes or very special events. 

As one example, sea turtles have iconic status in the folk religion practiced by residents of the Penghu Islands, which lie about 60 km west of Taiwan (Province of China). First settled about 800 years ago by immigrants from Fukien, the 20 islands comprising Penghu now host nearly 100,000 people, though most live on the main island, Penghu. The folk religion, which blends Taoism, Buddhism and devotion to many gods and mystical animals, is practiced in thousands of temples and shrines, large and small. Penghu is an oceanic country. Since fishing and the sea play important roles in the lives of most Penghu citizens, the sea goddess, Ma-Tsu, is guardian of fishermen, ocean travelers and all who live near the sea.

Because they are long-lived and thought to bring good fortune, sea turtles are intimately involved in the worship of Ma-Tsu and as an expression of the islanders’ reverence for the sea. Fourteen days after the Chinese New Year, Penghu residents pay homage to the turtles by offering images of sea turtles to their temple gods to ensure peace, prosperity, and good fortune. The rituals last for three days as part of the Lantern Festival -- the most important celebration of the Lunar New Year in Penghu. Worshippers at the temples burn incense and make offerings to express thanks for wishes granted the previous year and prayers for good fortune in the coming year. The most common offerings are rice cakes shaped as sea turtles. Turtle images made from gold and coins are also offered at the altar.

Courtesy George Balazs and colleagues 

Turtles migrate to nest at Penghu from Hainan, Hong Kong, China, Okinawa and southern Japan. The population is small and nests mainly on the island of WanAn.

Among the largest temples honoring sea turtles are Tien Hou Ma-tsu Temple and the Golden Turtle Temple. Tien Hou Ma-tsu Temple, which dates from 1592, is the oldest temple in Penghu (and in all of Taiwan - Province of China) honoring the sea goddess. A huge sea turtle constructed from 6000 kg of rice flour occupies the main entrance, and a golden-robed figure of Ma-Tsu stands on its back.  The centerpiece at the Golden Turtle Temple is a mechanical sea turtle made of gold and weighing 3.3 kg.  The gold turtle swims in a pond formed within the back of a large concrete turtle painted gold, its flippers moving in synchrony with temple music.

Top: Image of Ma-Tsu in front of a huge rice-flour sea turtle at Tien Hou Ma-tsu Temple in Penghu. Bottom: Mechanical gold turtle at the Golden Turtle Temple, Penghu. 

Courtesy George Balazs and colleagues 

The Penghuan belief that turtles bring good fortune was highlighted recently in the New York Times. Johnny Lu, a native of Penghu and now the owner of a New York City business that manufactures and sells coral and pearl jewelry, keeps a large aquarium of turtles in his store window. Mr. Lu says his family owes everything they have to the turtles. Fifty years ago, when Lu was eight years old, a typhoon destroyed his father’s fishing boat and equipment. His family had 11 children and everyone nearly starved because they could not afford rice. His mother went to temple every day to pray for a miracle. His mother and father began collecting coral and shells along the beaches, making them into jewelry and selling them locally. During collecting trips, Mr. Lu’s father noticed that sea turtles often nestled in pearl beds. He followed the trails of hundreds of turtles and discovered many thousands of pearls, which he began to sell, along with the coral shells, as jewelry. Soon he became a well-to-do pearl farmer.  Then he opened a factory in Taipei to produce pearl necklaces and other jewelry. Soon his products were in demand in America and elsewhere. As the business grew, he opened a pearl store in New York in 1984 and two years later he and his family opened a second, larger pearl farm on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. He firmly believes that the turtles answered his mother’s prayer for a miracle, bringing good fortune to the family. 

Ng and Balazs (2013 a, b, c, and Balasz et al. 2013) also documented the cultural importance of sea turtles in Guangdong province, mainland China, where turtle fishermen often release turtles caught in nets with the belief that they will in return receive a spiritual blessing. Turtles that die from entanglement in fishing nets are buried respectfully on the beach accompanied by Buddhist prayers from local people. Turtles that were confiscated or live-caught in fishing nets may be rehabilitated at aquaria or aquaculture facilities. Such turtles may be released during annual celebrations to give the animals freedom, renew marine resources and gain spiritual blessings.    

The Lasting Special Places Sub-Goal 

Lasting Special Places focuses on geographic locations that people value for aesthetic, spiritual, cultural, recreational, or exist­­­­­ence reasons. This sub-goal assumes that if these places are well-maintained and protected, they will support culturally significant resources that can also generate economic opportunities and help to sustain coastal communities.

Lack of data confounds analysis of Lasting Special Places, just as it did for Iconic Species. Ideally one would survey every community around the world to determine the places most valued for cultural, spiritual, aesthetic or existence reasons, and then assess how well those locations are doing relative to the desired reference state (e.g., protected or well-managed). No such comprehensive study has been done. Places important to indigenous cultures are especially poorly known.

As a proxy, Sense of Place uses the United Nation’s World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), which includes the information from the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, lists of Marine Protected Areas, UNESCO World Heritage Marine sites, National Parks and Nature Reserves, and the United Nation List of Protected Places. Though the contained areas were listed for other purposes, the effort to protect the sites is assumed to signify that they are culturally important in some way, though this may not always be true.

The reference point is for 30% of the coastline (between 3 km seaward and I km landward from the shore) to be in protected status, with the assumption that all countries have roughly the same percentage of their coastal areas that could qualify as lasting special places and that the countries with the highest percentage of areas protected are the closest to achieving their country-specific target.


For more than 50,000 years the Yolngu people have inhabited the northern part of Australia now known as Arnem Land. By Yolngu law and tradition, these aboriginal people have a spiritual obligation to their ancestors to manage the land they live on and preserve their sacred spaces.  

The Yolngu’s first contact with the outside world was trading with Maccassan fishermen, beginning in about 1600, and later trading with Japanese fishermen. Cattle raising infringed on their land in the late 1800s and mining in the 1900s, leading to conflicts and the killing of many Yolngu. Explorations for bauxite began on their land and a huge bauxite mine (the Gove Mine) and associated aluminum refinery were established.

Alarmed by growing threats to their land and angered that it was being used without their permission; in 1963 they began the struggle for land rights by presenting a petition written on bark to the Australian government. They reacted more strongly when their sacred hill, Nhulun, was damaged. Nhulun is held sacred as the maternal birthplace of the wild honey or sugarbag produced by native bees. Sugarbag is a Yolngu delicacy. In 1969 Yolngu leaders took their spears to the top of the Nhulun and performed a special land rights ceremony, Galtha Bunggul, to proclaime their ownership and demand respect for their sacred places. Galtha Bunggul was among the first legal claims for traditional ownership of land and Galtha law by Aboriginal people. 

Yonglu men and women perform a dance ceremony. 

Courtesy Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation

The Yolngu’s continued political engagement and insistence on land rights resulted in passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976, and the land was officially handed back to the Yolngu as traditional owners. Following years of negotiations, the government of Australia created the Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) to protect 92,000 hectares of Yolngu land, including sand beaches and dunes, rocky coastal islands, mangrove forests, inland forests and a river. 

Because all Yolngu land is held in sacred trust to the ancestors, and some portions, such as Nhulun, have special cultural significance, Dhimurru IPA and its surroundings is a perfect example of a Lasting Special Place. 

At the same time, the area also includes some iconic species. For example, the sea turtles and dugongs living in the coastal waters have special cultural interest for the Yolngu. The Dhimurru IPA worked to develop good management practices for those important species, including a permit system, patrols to protect habitat, encouraging the use of Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) in fisheries, and ensuring that the traditional harvest of eggs and turtles is sustainable. Australian government departments and targeted legislation, including the 1989 Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act, help the Yolngu and other Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to protect and manage their sacred sites.

Yolngu Rangerand a Northern Territory Parks Ranger monitoring sea turtles in Dhimurru IPA. 

Courtesy Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 

Although Dhimurru is protected, pressures from outside and inside the area still present challenges through unauthorized use of the land and potential overharvesting of wildlife or resources. To counter those threats, many Yolngu work as rangers on the IPA, monitoring and protecting wildlife and assessing the numbers of turtles and crocodiles to make sure that populations are healthy. The rangers also remove marine debris from beaches, including the tonnes of discarded fishing nets (‘ghost nets’) that wash up each year, and rescuing turtles and other marine life entangled or injured by the plastic mesh. Rangers also take local school children on walks to teach them about cultural traditions and how to protect the environment. Rangers monitor recreational visitors and help minimize damage by maintaining campsites and controlling use of recreational vehicles on fragile dunes and beach zones, where they would cause erosion and destroy wildlife habitats.     

Sea turtle entangled in fishing net. Rangers disentangle any turtles that are still alive. 

Courtesy Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 

Yolngu Ranger and a NorthernTerritory Parks Ranger measure a salt water crocodile as part of population monitoring in Dhimurru IPA.    

Courtesy Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 

Yolngu Rangers and a NorthernTerritory Parks Ranger measure a crocodile while school children observe. 

Courtesy Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 

The Yolngu’s marine and coastal environmental work was honored in 2001 and again in 2010, when in conjunction with Australia’s National Science Agency (CSIRO) and Rio Tinto Alcan, Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation won the Banksia Foundation’s Indigenous Land Care Award and the Banksia Origin Gold Medal for the most outstanding project. 

Australia’s most famous Aboriginal Band, Yothu Yindi, comes from the Dhimurru area, and their music has played an important role in bringing issues of cultural rights and land use rights to mainstream Australian society and to the world.  As an example of their inspiring music, see Treaty or Tribal Voice on YouTube. As lead singer, Mandawuy Yunupingu, says, “We do not own the earth; the earth owns us.” 



Balazs, G.H. I-J. Cheng and H.-C. Wang. 2000. Turtle sacrifice to the temple gods In the Penghu Islands of Taiwan (Province of China). Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, March 2-6, 1999, South Padre Island, Texas. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-SEFSC-443, p. 98-101. Available online at http://balazs.itgo.com/.

Balazs, G. Ka-yan Ng, He-Xiang and Fenyan Zhang. 2013. The Xianliao Guandong Province Experience: teleasing sea turtles for restocking and conservation awareness in China. Proceedings of the 33rd ISTS Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation.  Baltimore, MD. NOAA Tech. Mem. NMFS-SEFSC-C45, #36. Available online at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/species/turtlesymposium2013.pdf.  

Ng, K.Y., and G.H. Balazs. 2013. Exciting observations of numerous green turtles foraging in coastal waters of Liuqiu Island, Taiwan (Province of China). Available online at http://akepa.hpa.edu/~mrice/turtle/liuqiu.pdf


Ng, K.Y., and G.H. Balazs. 2013. From Traditional Culture to Science - Exploratory Trips for Sea Turtles in Taiwan (Province of China). Available online at http://akepa.hpa.edu/~mrice/st.htm


Ng, K.Y., and G.H. Balazs. 2013a. Exploratory Trips for Sea Turtles in Guangdong Province, China – A Road to Conservation from Tradition, Culture and Science. Available online at http://akepa.hpa.edu/~mrice/st2.htm


Australian Government. Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area. Undated. Available online at 

Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation. Undated. Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area Cultural Heritage Management Plan 2009 to 2015. Available online at