Meet Lamya Essemlali: Ocean Warrior and President of Sea Shepherd France
In December 2005, Lamya Essemlali found out what it means to be willing to risk your life for a cause. The then-student was navigating Antarctica’s frigid waters to help stop illegal whaling, as a volunteer with the non-profit Sea Shepherd.
The day after Christmas, the Sea Shepherd crew found themselves in the middle of a storm with towering eight meter-high swells thrashing their vessel, Farley Mowat. Although the treacherous weather conditions and freezing temperatures weren’t the crew’s main concern. They’d finally found the 8,000-ton Nisshin Maru, the flagship of Japan’s whaling fleet. The 700-ton Farley Mowat – less than a tenth of the size of the whaling vessel – had attempted to block it. Now the monstrous ship was plowing directly towards them.
In the immensity of the Antarctic ocean all Lamya could hear were alarm bells and a recorded message blasting from the Nisshin Maru, “Get out of the way.”
“Collision in two minutes,” repeated the first officer aboard the Farley Mowat.
“That was such a key moment for me,” recalls Lamya. “Even though you say that you’re ready to risk your life for a whale, from the safety of your own home, when you’re confronted with it actually happening, what comes through your mind? How do you feel when it becomes real?”
“For me, in that moment, I felt fear but I never felt any regret,” Lamya remembers. “I was in the right place and there was no other place that I wanted to be.”
The Nisshin Maru changed course at the last minute, sparing the Farley Mowat, and Lamya went on to co-found Sea Shepherd France the following year. Since then the 42-year-old French-Moroccan has helped grow the hands-on marine protection organization’s French support. Today Sea Shepherd France is one of the biggest national entities of the global non-profit.
The Antarctic mission was also Lamya’s first encounter with whales. “When you see a whale in a normal situation it’s already magical. When you see them in the context of being in a whale sanctuary and you are there to stop them from being harpooned it adds a whole other dimension to the encounter,” recalls Lamya. “I’ll always remember seeing them blow in the horizon. It was mythical for me.”
As president of Sea Shepherd France and co-director of Sea Shepherd Global, her passion and willingness to risk it all for the ocean and its inhabitants drives all that she does. She fully embodies the popular saying: choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
“The choices I’ve made have been driven by a passion for the ocean,” says Lamya. Before meeting Paul Watson, Lamya had gone back to school to study conservation and was completing a master’s degree in Environmental Sciences in Paris when she volunteered on the Antarctica mission.
“I thought Sea Shepherd was the best tool I could find to defend the ocean but never in my wildest dreams, did I think I could combine that passion that fueled me with being able to make a living.”
Through her work the activist has seen firsthand the impact plastic is having on our earth. “Plastic is poison in our ocean,” says Lamya. “Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish.” Lamya points out that 70% of macroplastic found in our ocean comes from fishing gear and is therefore linked to people’s appetite for fish. Lamya has changed her lifestyle to match her ethos and no longer eats meat and fish. Her bathroom cabinet has also had an overhaul, as she opts for plastic-free brands that are just as mindful as her when it comes to the ocean.
“It makes it easy to make the switch to plastic-free with a product like Beauty Disrupted’s shampoo bars. They’re not just without plastic. They’re of a really high quality,” says Lamya. “ They are good for your health, good for the health of the planet, and are such a great product in so many ways. It’s a true win-win.”
Beauty Disrupted has an entire line of beauty bars, aptly named Ocean Magic, that are both inspired by and financially supporting (through the donation of 20% of profits) ocean life.
“We can’t talk about climate change without talking about marine life. From phytoplankton to great whales and all the species in between, we owe them one breath out of two,” says Lamya. With over half the oxygen that we need to breathe coming from the ocean it’s no exaggeration that she adds, “Our fate depends on protecting it.”
Lamya is a truly engaged activist who has taken that fate into her own hands. From small decisions, like what is on her plate or in her shower, to grand efforts like life-risking missions at sea, Lamya is an inspiration to live a life that supports the magic, beauty, and well-being of the lungs of the world.
Karryn Miller is a native of Auckland, New Zealand, for whom “home” has also meant Tokyo, Hanoi, Mumbai, Seoul, and Washington, DC. As a hotel public relations consultant with a passion for travel, she has also published pieces in dozens of travel books, magazines, and newspapers around the world. Most recently, together with a global collective of mothers, she co-authored the book Mother Wild, and launched a series of wellness retreats. In 2021 Karryn relocated with her family to the second snowiest city in the world, Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan.
Photos by Debbie Salvesen