Seeing unemployment suppressing coastal communities while nearby nature is at risk, Wietse van der Werf saw an opportunity. Inspired by a deep attachment to the ocean, the eco-minded social entrepreneur set out to uplift young people across Europe through an innovative conservation programme.
As a 20-year-old, Wietse worked at sea, travelling as far as Antarctica and witnessing some of the most breathtaking examples of marine life. His experiences transformed his outlook on the world and equipped him with the confidence and skills to accomplish his goals.
“Being at sea takes you entirely away from society,” he tells Smiley News. “While out on a ship with a group of people, you’re left to the devices of Mother Nature. It can get so rough that the ocean makes you feel small and fragile.”
The challenges he faced while navigating through storms, exposed to all elements, were formidable. But Wietse believes this also gave him the resilience to tackle life head-on. “Working as part of a team to keep a ship going was something that I really think made me value life and gave me genuine self-confidence,” he says.
Helping people and nature’s recovery
But this wasn’t his only discovery. Returning from sailing, he witnessed the struggle of coastal communities, especially among young people inflicted by unemployment. To simultaneously overcome this social issue while doing the vital work of ocean conservation, it dawned on him that disadvantaged young people could be part of a new solution.
This is how he came to launch a forward-thinking initiative based on a franchising programme with a business approach to ocean restoration. The Sea Ranger Service, is a social enterprise that trains young people to protect the marine environment.
Already the programme has upskilled over 100 young people who help with a range of exciting ocean conservation projects. These intrepid Sea Rangers surveil wrecks that offer sanctuary to marine life. They defend protected areas in the North Sea and care for marine plant life that plays a vital role in absorbing carbon and offers a natural means to combat climate change.
For we cannot tackle the environmental crisis without also overcoming social issues, Wietse believes – a belief that was fundamental to founding the Sea Ranger Service. Since its inception, the initiative has helped many young women and men find their footing in life.
Wietse has seen these newly-trained conservationists transform from unconfident and demotivated youths into bright and hopeful professionals.
He describes how one trainee had previously had a very serious gaming addiction which the Sea Ranger Service helped him overcome. “We told him we believed in him and we’d take a chance on him but he’d have to work really hard,” he recounts.
“A few months later we discovered that because of his previous gaming addiction he was very skilled at controlling drones. So he became our best drone pilot and the problem he’d had for so many years suddenly turned to his advantage.”
After a succession of similar results for other young people working to protect ocean biodiversity, Wietse hopes his idea can be replicated around the world in order to have a more widespread impact.
“I know there’s a long way to go,” he says. “But I think what our success shows is that there are more innovative possibilities for environmental conservation which can tackle social issues at the same time.”
Inspired to act?
JOIN: If you’re an entrepreneur that shares the same social and environmental values as the Sea Ranger Service, find out more about their franchising opportunities.