Go with the flow

Take a break from pandemic stress and meditate with the Monterey Bay Aquarium

“The tide still comes and goes, the jellies keep on drifting, and the fish keep swimming.”

Stuck at home, I find myself thinking about places I'd like to be: a friend's house, a bar, a movie theater. One of my favorite places in the world is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Luckily, the team behind the aquarium is diligently working to share marine life with the outside world — virtually. Their work bringing jellyfish, otters, and reef fish to our phones and laptops comes with an added bonus: positive mental health.

Emily Simpson is a social media specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She’s also part of an ace social media team of three that connects the world to the famous aquarium. If you don’t follow the aquarium on Twitter or Instagram, you really should.

Simpson also has a new gig: meditation guide. In March, the aquarium launched a video series called “Morning MeditOcean” (nice) comprising six mediation videos, complete with scenes from around the aquarium. The series' most popular video so far is "A Guided Meditation with the Jellies" — a peaceful viewing of Pacific sea nettles narrated by Simpson with 52,884 views.

Simpson was gracious enough to share why the aquarium decided to branch into mindfulness, presumably between meditation breaks, and why watching the ocean makes our brains feel so good.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hello! Can you tell me a bit about yourself — how did you become involved with the MeditOcean series?

Although most of my day is spent communicating with the public online and making animal puns, my background is in science, and I have a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Arizona — a long way away from any kind of ocean! I got into the world of marine biology thanks to the profound impact two of my professors had on me as an undergraduate, and I have been fortunate to work at the aquarium for seven years helping to share the ocean and its wonder to people all over the world.

My career so far at the aquarium has included a lot of public speaking. But this was my first dive into the world of leading any kind of mindfulness practice.

What is the origin story of this meditation series?

The MeditOcean series was born out of a desire to bring our online community some comfort during the initial coronavirus chaos and to keep connected with the people who are experiencing this same trauma alongside us.

On the first day that the aquarium was officially closed to the public, we had a remote brainstorming session with many of our incredible coworkers, and the idea of providing a guided meditation to go along with our usual webcam feeds started to take shape. People have always sent us such kind messages online about our webcams in the past, so we know they help provide moments of calm and serenity for many. Our Learning & Engagement team at the aquarium had previously led guided meditations for staff during quiet mornings before the aquarium opened to the public in front of our exhibits. So we thought, what if we combined the two?

Which was great! Until we realized that the social media team had no idea how to lead a meditation! I’ve used guided meditations and mindfulness myself as a way to handle stress and anxiety, but I wasn’t sure I could actually narrate one.

Luckily, our Director of Learning & Engagement, Tricia Webster, had helped put together staff mindfulness practices in the past and was already thinking about how we could resurface them for our own employees and volunteers during this stressful time. With our powers and expertise combined, the MeditOceans were born. Tricia and I wrote the scripts together, I recorded the voice-overs from home with the sound equipment I was able to grab from our offices before the closure, and then Patrick wrangled the video and edited everything together. It was truly a team effort to make these happen!

Why do you believe the pairing of ocean scenes and mediation works so well?

I think that a lot of people already take solace in nature. In a world that has become so fast-paced and industrialized, watching kelp slowly swaying and fish floating effortlessly provides our overloaded brains a gentle reminder to pause and appreciate the world around us.

It’s also a reminder that even though our own personal worlds might feel overwhelming and chaotic right now, under the water, in the forest, in the desert, in all the natural spaces all around us, life persists. The tide still comes and goes, the jellies keep on drifting, and the fish keep swimming. At a time when so many people are stuck indoors, these videos provide that connection with nature that we’re all missing.

The addition of the guided meditation on top of these already comforting scenes is simply an auditory reminder that it’s okay to give yourself permission to pause and take a moment for yourself — that everything you’re feeling right now is valid. Whether you’re scared, stressed, or lonely, the world is still here for you and that there are other humans out there who are feeling the same way. It’s that human connection that lets people know even though we’re all self-isolating right now, we don’t have to feel isolated from each other.

Is there a certain ocean scene — like a swimming jellyfish or crashing waves — that you personally find particularly peaceful?

As much as I love all the critters in the ocean, I personally find peace in the waves crashing on the beach at sunset.

“The tide still comes and goes, the jellies keep on drifting, and the fish keep swimming.”

I think for me, it brings memories of family trips to the ocean, and right now I’m missing my family so much. I remember playing in the sand with my sister, my mom, and dad holding us in the surf so the waves wouldn’t knock us over, and feeling safe and happy with them. It brings memories of my young niece and nephew’s first trips to the beach and doing the same with them. It’s my way of feeling connected to them and being reminded of that feeling of safety and love right now, even though they’re 1,000 miles away.

What is the overall goal of this series? What do you, and the aquarium, hope people take away from these videos?

I think the overall goal of this series is to bring comfort to those who need it right now and to keep people connected to the ocean and each other. We’re all facing unique new challenges daily at this moment in history, but we’re also all in this together. When you watch these videos on our social media channels, you’re watching them with thousands of people who also need connection and support.

At the aquarium, our mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean, but we do so by creating connections with people on a very human level. I hope that people watching these videos will see that the ocean is beautiful, yes, but it’s also resilient — and so are we.

This series premiered during a time of intense stress for many Americans. Do you plan on continuing the series for the foreseeable future?

We’ve paused creating more MeditOceans for right now. It was a lot of intense work, very quickly, to make the ones we did, so we’re approaching future episodes with a little more of that mindfulness and care that we tell others to take for themselves! But don’t worry, we have the six that we made in a YouTube playlist available for anyone whenever they need them, and we’ve been throwing around some more ideas for future MeditOceans. We’ll “sea” what the future brings!

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