Two teenagers from Benning Terrace helped to sway the President  of the United States to make oceans a nationally preserved landmark.

Ashley Dawkins and Robert Edwards participated in National Geographic’s documentary television series Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures, which began filming last summer.

“The whole trip was based on getting President Barack Obama to sign a bill to protect underwater life,” said Edwards, a senior at Maya Angelou Public Charter School. “We were making the whole documentary to persuade Barack Obama to save underwater life because it was essentially dying off.”

According to National Georgraphic, Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures follows well-known ocean explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle, renowned underwater Nat Geo photographer Brian Skerry, author and environmental activist Max Kennedy and their crew of teenage aquanauts on a one-year  environmental quest to inspire President Obama to establish blue landmarks across an unseen American wilderness. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, their goal is to turn the next 100 years into a "blue centennial" by protecting vital habitats and underwater natural wonders. The year-long expedition ended with President Obama revealing that he had created the world’s largest marine preserve in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean. To celebrate these historic achievements, National Geographic captured the first-ever footage of a U.S. president diving underwater.

Both of the youth were in a mentoring program where they were introduced to Youth Creating Change, a group created by the Earth Conservation Corps and the Metropolitan Police Department. Sea of Hope producers, Sarah and Bob Nixon, and Sylvia Earle, are on ECC’s board.

“We started going to meetings with the people who have the power to make change in the community,” said Dawkins.

“We were neighborhood leaders. They get kids from all over, bring them together, and take them on adventurous trips and build trust with each other,” said Edwards.

The two were noticed due to their hard work and dedication, Edwards said, and were nominated to participate in the film. The formal nomination came from Chief of Police Cathy Lanier for their outstanding leadership in their communities.

“I didn’t know what they were talking about, so I said sure,” Edwards said. Then he got a little iffy when he saw pictures of what they would be doing. “Then they were talking about planes and going in the water and being a part of history. I just trusted it.”

Dawkins, a freshman at Norfolk State University, didn’t hesitate.

“I’m always open to new experiences so I agreed,” she said.

Beginning in July 2016, the teens traveled to St. Croix, a U.S. Virgin Island, and the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first time Dawkins got on an airplane. Edwards went to Hawaii while Dawkins was attending her new student orientation at college.

“We would go on these expeditions to major bodies of water, take an observations on how aquatic life was doing, and like what changes we can make to help it flourish,” Dawkins said. “And they wanted to do it as a thing to make people aware of what is going on in the ocean. Not a lot of people know. They took people to the ocean who know nothing about it and were showing them what was really happening.”

In St. Croix they snorkeled, swam with dolphins, and took pictures. In the Gulf of Mexico they were swimming with whale sharks and other sharks. They saw a whale shark hatch its egg. Edwards swam with all sorts of different fish in Hawaii.

“I’ve been to Virginia Beach, but never experienced the ocean that way. Scuba diving, deep sea diving...This was a whole new thing for me,” said Dawkins.

“We were traveling every other week. And at the places, we were swimming every day,” said Edwards, who had only swam in swimming pools before this experience.

After learning how to change an air filter in submarine, Edwards went 432 feet down to the bottom of the ocean in Hawaii with Earle. From the submarine they “played with coral and ran some tests,” as well as took photos, Edwards said.

“I was scared...it was cold and pitch black. The only way you could see was the lights outside of the submarine,” he said. Though once he was on the floor of the ocean it was pretty awesome, he said.

The two also went to a few meetings with local fisherman. They were observing what the fisherman thought about putting restrictions on where and what they could fish and what they thought about aquatic life.

Both teens found the trips to be a great learning experience.

“At first, I felt like what happens in the water stays in the water...it doesn’t cause change in our everyday lives but it does,” Dawkins said. “Like recycling would be a better thing...I didn’t think it was that serious. If a bottle is in the trash can or on the floor it wouldn’t make a difference. But when they showed me how much trash was in the ocean and how it was killing the fish, it made me more aware and made me want to help our ecosystem. It starts there and it is kind of a domino effect. Before you know it, there are changes everywhere.”

Edwards agreed.

“I actually didn’t care too much about fish and underwater life before going on the trip. I actually started to care about littering and protecting the fish, stopping people from fishing, and it stopped me from eating fish,” he said. “If we don’t have water, we don’t have life...It is good to talk about it, but you have to actually feel it and see it to actually care.”

So now as Dawkins continues to study accounting at Norfolk State, she also recycles. And she finds herself more interested in a wider variety of topics than before.

“I feel like the experience led me—even though I don’t see everyday action, I should do research on my own. I don’t have to wait for people to tell me about things, I should find out on my own,” she said. “Here, I am more hands on and I control what I learn. I don’t depend on people to teach me stuff. I think it really helps me in college.”

Edwards said he plans on continuing to tell people about his experience and teaching people what he knows. His friends at first didn’t believe what he was doing, but when they saw the film, they were happy for him. He plans on attending college in the fall, but has yet to make a final selection, though he is considering a political science major.

“I was an amazing trip. It was a good experience. I hope other people experience it,” he said. As for Obama signing legislation protecting waterways around Hawaii, Edwards said, “I was shocked. I was really in a documentary that mattered and was useful.”

When Obama left office, he had protected more than 548 million acres of federal land and water, more than double the amount his predecessors saved.

Dawkins said it was an amazing experience, as well, and wanted to share with her community.

“I want to give a message to the kids in Benning Terrace to be open to new things,” she said. “Welcome everything with open arms. You will never know how it will change your perception of life.”




BUCK ISLAND, ST. CROIX- Ashley Dawkins, student at McKinley Tech High School swims in the ocean for the first time after Police Chief Cathy Lanier nominated her to join the Blue Centennial Expedition. (Photo credit: Bryce Groark)
ST. CROIX- Rob Edwards and Ashley Dawkins take part in the Blue Centennial expedition. They had never seen the ocean before Dr. Sylvia Earle whisked them away to St. Croix. Here they chase a school of Blue Tang around one of Buck Islands reefs. They try their hand at video taping and photographing the amazing ecosystems that live beneath the waves to help spread awareness that these places exist and that they need help. (Photo credit: Bryce Groark)
ST. CROIX- Rob Edwards gets his snorkeling gear ready for his time ever getting into the ocean. (Photo credit: Damien Drake)
ST. CROIX- Rob's first time in the ocean he was able to swim with a pod of dolphins! The playful dolphins are a once in a lifetime experience. (Photo credit: Bryce Groark)
Last modified: 4/24/2017 2:00:01 PM