The Big Oxplore Essay Competition Results… Part two

In this second post centred on the results of our recent ocean-themed essay competition, we’re delighted to share the winning and runner-up entries in the Year 10-13 category. Plus, the video messages our judges sent to the students which include some personalised feedback on their essays.

Again, a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to enter and share their creative takes on our competition titles.


Winning essay in Year 10-13 category:

Should we prioritise Ocean over Space exploration?

Curiosity is unique to the human species and it is understandable that we fuel our desire to question our world through exploration. It is the driving force of our civilizations and it is what allows us to incite change on society. Our constant eagerness to uncover the unknown is why we find such fascination in outer space; an endless, dark vacuum containing entities of incomprehensible size. Maybe the awe-striking nature and deep uncertainty of space is why we spend so much time questioning it. However, one thing is for certain, we have a vast area of uncharted territory of our own on planet Earth – The Global Ocean – so why is it that we spend much more time exploring space than we do our own oceans?

71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by the Global Ocean and a remarkable 80% of these oceans is still yet to be explored or even seen by humans. A quote by science writer Arthur C. Clarke describes this perfectly: “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.” [2]  The Global Ocean contains the largest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet, from life near the Poles to the stunning coral reefs in the Tropics. Its immense size means that it has a huge impact on the weather and temperature of the planet and these ecosystems also have a profound effect on the food supply of many organisms, including humans [1]. It is therefore very surprising that a larger percentage of the surfaces of Mars and the Moon have been mapped and studied than the ocean floor [1], especially considering that you would think that knowing more about the largest, least explored ecosystems on Earth would greatly benefit the human race.

Understanding the oceans would not only satisfy our natural curiosity, but it could also unlock new sources for medical drugs, food, and energy resources [3]. Deep-ocean exploration would also be key to gaining information vital to predicting earthquakes and tsunamis [3], allowing better preparation for the civilizations that would be put in danger by these natural disasters. Not only would this reduce damage to settlements and save money, but also save lives as well. The most relevant benefit is that it will help us to understand how changes in the Earth’s environment are affecting and being affected by humans [3]. In addition, the continuous discovery of new ‘alien-like’ marine species is both fascinating and useful – in understanding organisms that are adapted to surviving in the most extreme environments, which are what I believe to be the key to answering the questions about the origins of life on Earth. It is very likely that these organisms have remained unchanged for millions of years.

On the other hand, space exploration provides its own important benefits. We are able to better understand how the human body works by performing experiments in space – astronauts do not have to work as hard to move around while in space due to the weightlessness and so heart activity is greatly reduced, allowing the effects of a sedentary lifestyle to be further investigated [4]. We are also able to investigate plant physiology in the absence of gravity. This has helped us to better understand how plants grow and how trees form wood, providing potential routes into improving tree growth on a commercial scale [4]. Possibly the most influential benefit of space exploration is the development of new technologies for use in medicine such as the use of robots in neurosurgery [4].

The Space Race of the 20th Century has led to companies like NASA and Space-X having huge roles in the media in recent years and therefore in society. It is possible that this could be one of the reasons why there has been less focus on the benefits of ocean exploration over the past two decades – at least within the media. Furthermore, as of 2017, the NOAA’s annual budget is under $20 million [5]. In contrast, the NASA Curiosity rover Mars mission cost $2.5 billion alone [5]. This shows the striking difference in the funding between space and ocean exploration.

In conclusion, I believe that both ocean and space exploration are very important. Both provide unique research opportunities, and both are endlessly intriguing. However, it is undeniably true that we spend much more time on the latter than the former. I think that given the rapidly growing challenges caused by climate change, it is time that we shift our curiosity (and funding) towards our oceans. If not now, then when? It is time for change.

Written by Logan Heath

Sources & References


[2] Marine Biology: A Very Short Introduction, Philip V. Mladenov, Second edition published 2020 Oxford University Press




A message from one of competition judges, Natasha Gillies (Department of Zoology)

Runner-up entry in Year 10-13 category:

Should individuals take more responsibility for protecting our oceans?

Some of my first memories as a child are coastal welsh holidays. Photos of my siblings and I, sandy and windswept are scattered around our house. Another thing scattered around our house is plastic. We consider ourselves a fairly eco-friendly household, but in this day and age it often feels like plastic is inescapable. We try to buy sustainably, shopping for foods from smaller shops with our own containers and order from businesses that have sustainable packaging but our recycling and plastic waste bin is constantly overflowing. In this essay I will argue that the role of the individual is important when taking care of the ocean, but far too much blame is laid at the people’s feet, and not enough work is done towards stopping plastic pollution at a corporate level.

Whilst plastic might not be overtly dumped into the ocean by waste management systems, due to landfill sites around the world, tiny microplastics still find their way into our oceans via rain water, soil erosion, drainage systems and illegal waste disposal. Once in the ocean, plastics pollute our reefs, poison our fish and prevent our ecosystems from functioning as they should. When China, one of the UK’s primary waste processing locations, stopped taking plastic recycling in 2018, UK ‘recycling’ has been found in Malaysia in illegal landfill sites[1]. This begs the question of where else has our plastic ended up. The AAAS suggests that 4.8 to 12.7 million MT enters the ocean each year[2], and this is only set to increase unless serious change takes place in our waste management systems.

In his article, Peter Thomson aptly calls our situation a “plastic plague”[3]. Even before Covid-19, I would feel this is an accurate description but having lived through my own plague, I feel fully able to testify to the accuracy of this observation. Both are insidious, creeping in when you least expect it and seem impossible to escape from. However, just like at the time of writing, I feel there is a ‘vaccine’ to the disease of plastic, and it is not submitting the general public to guilt and blame when the problem lies farther up, at a more corporate level. In 2016, only 12% of waste was generated by households[4]. Of course, any reduction in waste is a good reduction, but with the UK producing 221.0 million tonnes[5] of waste in 2016, I question how much the general public reducing their waste will actually help with the 19 to 23 million metric tons of waste generated globally that entered aquatic ecosystems in 2016[6]. If all big businesses stopped using single use plastics in their packaging, or ensured their waste was responsibly recycled, it would be the beginnings of a vaccine for our planet. More work must still be done, but it would be a start.

It is important not to undermine the power of the public, however. As a collection of individuals, we have enormous influence over the way our country is governed, and as consumers we have similar power. Refusing a straw and recycling as much as you can may be tiny steps, and in the grand scheme of things insubstantial but together we have a power. So whilst huge corporations continue to act poorly, creating change only when the alternative is a significant drop in profits, I will continue to recycle my plastic waste, however futile this may be. I want my children to experience the beaches I love, the wildlife I treasure but with every day this feels less and less attainable. I would like to end this on a happy note, a hopeful end for a hopeful future but, perfectly honestly, words fail me.

Written by Josie Pratt-Walters


[1] Ross, Alice. “We Found UK Plastic Waste In Illegal Dump Sites In Malaysia.” Unearthed. N.p., 2018. Web. 1 Dec. 2020.

[2] Jambeck, Jenna et al “Plastic Waste Inputs From Land Into The Ocean.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. N.p., 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2020.

[3] Thomson, Peter. “The Ocean Is in Trouble.” Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development, no. 14, 2019, pp. 158–167. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.

[4] Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. UK Statistics on Waste, York:Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs, 2020

[5] Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. UK Statistics on Waste, York:Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs, 2020

[6] Borrelle, Stephanie et al. Science. “Predicted growth in plastic waste exceeds efforts to mitigate plastic pollution”. American association for the advancement of science, 2020

A message from one of our judges, Liam Saddington (School of Geography and the Environment)

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