Shane Brown found out about TikTok when a 16-year-old family friend encouraged him to join the platform. Now, the marine photographer has nearly 8 million followers who watch videos of him collecting trash from Hawaii’s oceans and sharing educational content about marine life and ocean conservation.
“I know that it’s not just the ocean that I’m cleaning up on my own,” Brown told Global Citizen. “I’m also teaching people that they can go out and do that on their own and that it doesn’t take much to do.”
In his videos, Brown shows the trash that ends up in the ocean, including elastic hair bands, socks, and even old cameras and phones.
Ok wait is a diver missing?♬ original sound - CEO of the Ocean
He also collects lost fishing gear — known as "ghost gear" — and speaks about the harmful impact these fishing nets and lines can have on marine life.
Who else doesn’t know what day it is lol♬ original sound - CEO of the Ocean
Global Citizen talked to Brown about using his TikTok to spread awareness, the impact he hopes his content will have, and what you can do to take action and help protect the oceans.
Global Citizen: When did you first start creating online content about the oceans?
Shane Brown: I started a YouTube series about sustainable food harvesting, mostly focused on the ocean. I wanted to look into things like spearfishing, where you can get food from the ocean that is sustainable, which is the opposite of commercial fishing, where they just go out with a big net and then catch like 1,000 fish, and then freeze them and send them to the market.
I kept on doing those videos for a while, and then one day a family friend who is 16-year-old from San Diego, where I grew up, was like, “Hey, you should post your videos on TikTok.” I was like, “The kids' dancing app? That’s stupid!”
But I decided to take one of my videos and adapt it to some TikTok trends and see how it did. I found a girl's iPhone 11 under water, and I had already made it into a YouTube video, but I decided to turn it into a TikTok cliffhanger video. And that was like instant success, [gaining] nearly 200,000 followers in a day.
Then I decided to post videos of picking up trash in the ocean as opposed to just finding cool things and treasure. There was this big net that I had found out on a dive and I made this multi-part video series about cleaning up this giant net. And it did really well. I was getting all these comments like, “We're glad that they're cleaning the ocean,” etc. But, I would have done that anyway — every time I saw that kind of thing on a dive I'd always come back with the trash that I found.
I think after that I was like, “OK, now I can really make trash pickup videos.” So, sometimes if I don't have a video to post for a while I'll go to this beach that always has trash and just go clean stuff up there and see if I find anything cool. It's been great having that motivator to pick up trash like I normally do because now I also go out of my way to do random cleanups.
Why do you think more young people are getting interested in ocean conservation?
I think more people are becoming aware of the impact that we have to have moving forward. It's been really great to have that kind of attitude from the viewers because you know that they're impressionable and that they're learning.
To be someone who's having a positive impact on viewers ... I’m not just cleaning up the ocean on my own — I'm also teaching people that they can go out and do that on their own and it doesn't take much to do.
I feel like there's a responsibility to talk about protected animals and how to interact with certain animals since I'm making ocean videos. I feel a responsibility to make everything be educational and useful so that then when people want to emulate what I'm doing, they know how to do it properly.
Do you think of your content as a form of ocean conservation advocacy?
I don't think about it that much. I just like going diving and I’m more motivated now to go and find trash and make an interesting video.
It would be cool if there wasn't COVID-19 right now to set up big cleanups and plan to have people come and do a big group attack on one day or something like that. But, maybe 1% of my followers are actually here in Hawaii and most of the people that are interested in what I'm doing are people that are not here. So, that's the first challenge with me using my platform to reach people here and have an impact here.
I look to my local leaders that are a part of the Hawaiian uprising here, and ask them what they want to see more of and then I try to do that or amplify their voices.
My mission is not to be a leader or anything — it is just to be one of the people that is helping and amplifying the voices of the people that are having an issue, which is mostly the Hawaiians.
I look to my local leaders who are a part of the Hawaiian uprising [of activism] here, and ask them what they want to see more of and then I try to do that or amplify their voices. I don't want to be saying that my way is the right way because I am a visitor here. Even though I've lived here for seven years, I will always be not Hawaiian.
Being Hawaiian and being here is very sacred. So, if you're not Hawaiian you either respect that or you don't. The people that don't respect that are the ones that are coming here and exploiting or taking advantage of things and not looking for ways to help Hawaiian people. Then the people who do respect that are the ones who want to help the Hawaiian people with their struggles.
How do you view your TikTok in the context of bigger conversations about sustainability in Hawaii?
My TikTok is probably just the very tip of the iceberg because I'm just taking on what I can, which is helping the ocean. I want to keep my content digestible enough so that people will come and watch and not make viewers feel like they are in a history classroom.
The original Hawaiian way of life respected the ocean and the land, and I wanted to make videos that showed people that it was still possible today to go back to that kind of living and minimize your environmental impact while also feeding yourself.
In addition to picking up trash themselves, what can Global Citizens do to help protect the ocean?
So, if you watched my videos about hair ties, then you would think that hair ties are a huge problem in the ocean because that's all you'd be seeing. But it is a lot easier for me to find hair ties because I know exactly where they are ... The ghost nets come up frequently on a couple of beaches mostly on the east side, but ... it's not like I can track down every single net and talk about it.
There are nets everywhere, and we're just seeing a little fraction of them — I would say less than 1% are washing up on the shore. The issue is that we're not seeing all of the ghost nets and that's why there have been efforts by some people to go out to find those big plastic patches to try to educate people about what's out there.
I think the takeaway from that is to not worry so much about your personal impact with losing a hair tie in the ocean as much as your impact when you choose to buy fish from the grocery store, because you are supporting the commercial fishing industry. Then, even bigger than that is [pushing] to increase legislation against that type of commercial fishing.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.