Meet Claudette

Meet Claudette Rechtorik


Claudette Rechtorik has been working with Sydney SEA LIFE Aquarium for more than a decade. It was while she was studying Environmental Science at university that lights started switching on in her mind as a result of both the content of her course and observations while travelling.

As she became more involved and passionate about conservation, she decided the aquarium wasn’t doing enough in that area. “For about five years, I just kept bashing on doors. Conservation, conservation, conservation. You need to increase your conservation outcomes.” Because Claudette had been persistent in the discussion around conservation for five years, she was the aquarium’s first point of call.

The Sea Life Trust ANZ was formed by Claudette in 2005, across the water in Manly. She explains that it was a “sort of luck-meets-preparation-meets-opportunity”, though she had no money, no phone and no computer. The Sea Life Trust has blossomed since its early days with funds being raised through the charity year round, going to a variety of research and education initiatives. She highlights that the animals they have are the ambassadors for their wild counterparts. “I make sure that we focus our research or education on animals that we have, so we can tell their stories about what’s happening for them in the wild.”

While the charity has been raising funds and aiding research and education projects, there is a constant need to do more. “When you start to realise the scale of some of the issues that are facing our marine environment, and the rates of decline of all species, not just marine species, you soon realise that we need to mobilse very quickly towards addressing some of these big issues.” Some of these aforementioned big issues include climate change, plastic pollution and overfishing. “There are solutions, but it takes funding and awareness and engagement to drive those solutions through our wider communities.”

It’s hard to imagine how anyone begins to educate when there are so many areas to cover and people to educate. Claudette admits to burning out in 2014 trying to do all of it. “The more you know, the more you realise that time is running out. I just ran faster. Typed faster. Spoke faster. Met more people. Tried to do more things, and that’s not the solution.” Her solution in 2015 was to forget the adult population, so she started a youth program. Ocean Youth, began in April 2015 and Claudette says it’s the best thing she’s done since working in conservation. They’re engaged, they’re passionate, they’re wanting to be part of solutions. You start to see the ripple effect. They’re influencing their parents, they’re influencing their teachers, they’re influencing their best friends.”

I ask Claudette if educating will become easier. “If you find this out, can you tell please me? (Laughs). I don’t know. I’d like to think yes. When I go out to schools and I see a whole bunch of really aware little kids, it makes me think, ‘yes’. But something happens when you go to high school, where either you switch off that caring bit, or it’s not cool to care, or you just can’t be bothered because your head is in social media or worrying about what other people think of you. In adulthood, if you’ve lost it in those teen years, it’s gone. You go into a job that doesn’t care, surrounded by people that don’t necessarily care. I think its an ethical issue rather than an educational issue. As a citizen of the world, you have a role and responsibility by being here. It’s just about nurturing that all the way through.”

Claudette Rechtorik

Claudette and Moana

Sydney Harbour and its waterways have slowly been improving in water quality over the past decade. Dolphins have been spotted as far as Kissing Point, local councils are making the Parramatta River a priority, commercial fishing has ceased. These are all improvements in water quality, but the issue has shifted: plastic pollution has gotten worse. It’s amazing to see the amount of biodiversity we have in the harbour, there’s no doubt. We’ve got little penguins and seals – a huge array of marine life, which is really heartening. But then you see a pelican with a fishing hook stuck in its mouth or a penguin with a plastic cord wrapped around its neck. It’s easily solved if we are starting to address these issues.” In terms of the best ways Sydney can work with its waterways, Claudette tells me, “It seems to be all trash related. It’s about understanding, ‘Ok litter is going to happen, but what are some of the barriers that we can put to prevent it from entering the marine environment?’”

I tell Claudette that in the 90s, Australia seemed ahead of the game in terms of recycling and recyclable packing, but lost that somewhere along the way. She tells me, That’s because those campaigns have just stopped! I think in the absence of a constant litter campaign that I certainly grew up with, an entire, fairly introspective generation has come through and they’re not understanding the impacts that they have around them.”

In comparison to the rest of the world, however, Australia does ok. “We’re sort of mid-level”, Claudette says. We’re not where we should be, but we’re not the worst.

“We’re an outdoor nation. The thing that surprises me is the amount of waste. Everywhere.”

Claudette is confronted with the world’s problems every day. It must be overwhelming, so what keeps her going? Alcohol”, she laughs. But when talking seriously about why she continues working in this challenging field, she says, “I can’t not do it. I tried when I got really fed up, when I felt like I was just not having an impact and nothing was working and it was only getting worse. I sort of saw what else could I possibly do and I just couldn’t not do what I do. It’s out of respect to the animals. Someone needs to speak for them. I just have to do it. I can’t switch it off.”

How can people actually help day-to-day in preserving our oceans and its sea life? What about the people who do want to help, but don’t know where to start? Well, the Sea Life Trust has three major campaigns.

  • Choose to reuse. “We’re trying to see the end of this single use plastic buy and toss. Coffee cups, water bottles, straws, plastic bags. There’s no reason why you can’t just arm yourself with these things on a day to day basis. If four million people in Sydney did that, that’s four million coffee cups that aren’t used everyday.”
  • Fish for future. “We ask people to download the Australian Seafood Guide, a sustainable seafood guide, and to use that as their purchasing power, or support MSC certified product. That way you’re standing in good stead to leave a healthy ocean behind you.
  • Switch for the reef. “Switching. Switch off lights that are not in use. Switch off appliances that are not in use. Save yourself your electricity bill and just switch it off. How much carbon emissions are you saving while you’re saving cash? You walk past houses that have got every single light on in the house. How many people are in those rooms? None. We go a step further to say switch your bank if they’re supporting fossil fuel investments. Switch your super. Switch to meat-free Monday.  Agriculture is the biggest carbon polluter on the planet. Try one meal a week that hasn’t got meat in it.”

As a collective we have a huge power to change, even if we all did these very small things, which is what the campaigns are all about. “We try to keep it simple so that if one million of our visitors take one action, that’s a bit of a shift.”

Finally, I ask Claudette if she could be any sea creature for a day, what would she be and why. “Ooh. No one’s ever asked me that ever before. Gosh. I’d probably be something like a seal. A combination of the social interactions and the silliness. I suppose being preyed upon is not a great thing, but I think just the fact that they’re so playful and loved by everybody.”

We think the Opera House seal has it pretty good!

Find out more information about the Sea Life Trust ANZ and the causes they fund and support. Also, see how you or someone you know can get involved with Ocean Youth.  

Words by Jayne Cheeseman

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.