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Local Rich German founds Project O and turns hobby into a passion to preserve the ocean 

By DIANNE RUSSELL

“If you think the ocean isn’t important, imagine Earth without it. Mars comes to mind. No ocean, no life support system,” said Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue.

The ocean defines Laguna Beach as much as its art, and no one is more invested in ocean conservation than local Rich German, who has spent much of the last 12 years on his stand up paddle board (SUP) navigating its waters. 

“Except for a few days, I’ve been out on my SUP every day since 2010,” said German, the founder of Project O and president of strategic partnerships of OneWhale. 

local rich close up

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Our Epic Ocean is a podcast series Rich German started which brings experts from around the world into conversations to share their stories and solutions to the challenges the ocean is facing 

Of course, one can only fantasize about German’s many adventures. 

Picture being on an SUP off the Laguna coastline and spotting two 100-foot blue whales – the largest animals on the planet. “I paddled out 30 to 40 minutes to get to them. It was incredible that they were close enough to shore to reach,” said German.

“The next day I went back to the spot where I’d seen them at a line of buoys. There was a worker there at the buoys, and I asked him how far offshore we were and how deep the water was. He said that at two miles offshore, the depth drops from 200-300 feet to 600 feet. Then another 1/4 mile farther out, it drops to 1,500. The vision of 1,500 feet of water below me and my paddle board was daunting.” 

local rich blue whale

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Photo by Mark Girardeau

Blue whales, the largest animal on the planet 

When asked about the strangest thing he’s ever seen, German replied, “On December 21, 2021, I was out with my friend Matt Wheaton, and we spotted a massive (9-10 ft.) sunfish (Mola mola) around 200 yards offshore. I’ve seen many sunfish but never that close to shore.”

The ocean sunfish or common mola (Mola mola) is one of the two heaviest known bony fish in the world, the other being the southern sunfish. Adults typically weigh between 545 and 4,409 lbs. 

local rich sunfish

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Photo by Rich German

Matt Wheaton with giant sunfish 

German admits there have been funny occurrences as well. “I was paddling with a good friend and her best friend – we were right by Seal Rock and there was a blue shark in the water. My friend ran into her friend’s kayak with her board and knocked her into the water.” 

No doubt more fun for the observers than the person in the water.

A magical encounter with mammals

German has had his share of amazing moments – he sees dolphins and all kinds of sea creatures during his daily jaunts. However, there was one that changed the course of his life, an improbable incident others might describe as frightening but for German, it was life-changing. 

In 2015, it was his encounter with a pod of four orcas that was the impetus for turning German’s passion into a lifelong project. “They were inches away and swam under my board. I wasn’t afraid of them – they’re not harmful. It’s a lot scarier being out on the 405 freeway than being out in the ocean with marine animals. That story went global, and I saw it as a sign from the universe that my hobby needed to become my life’s work.” 

local rich SUP near

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

German moved to Laguna in 2006 

After the encounter garnered international media attention, German connected with some of the leading ocean conservationist organizations. When he learned firsthand about the peril our ocean and the marine life are facing, his obsession turned into a mission to protect them. “The ocean gave me so much, and I realized it was my job to spend the rest of my life preserving it,” he said.

Thus in 2017, Project O was born. Project O is a nonprofit, 501c3 organization dedicated to restoring, protecting and sustaining the ocean and the marine life in it.

Experts agree that the health of the ocean predicts the health of the planet. According to www.marinelife.com, a healthy ocean regulates climate and reduces climate change impacts. Ocean currents distribute heat across the globe, regulating temperature and weather. The ocean also absorbs more than 90% of the heat and approximately 30% of carbon dioxide emissions produced by human activities.

From Florida to California 

Originally from Chicago, German grew up in Florida and spent most of his time in Fort Lauderdale and three years in Key West. “No one paddle boarded in Florida,” he said.

German came out west in 2006. “I always thought I’d live here on the coast and first moved to Newport Beach, but I didn’t like it and only stayed there for five months,” he said. “Then a buddy suggested Laguna Beach.”

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In 2010, he moved into the house he lives in now. “I had no idea these were the best beaches to paddle board. It was a fluke, no pun intended,” he said. “I started seeing dolphins every day when I paddled out. We have more species of dolphins and whales here than anywhere on the planet. I fell in love with the ocean here. I’d seen Laguna Beach from the shore, but everything shifted when I saw the coastline from the perspective of the ocean.”

local rich bottlenose dolphin

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Photo by Rich German

Patches, a bottlenose dolphin   

German sees dolphins every day and recognizes some of them. “Their dorsal fins are like fingerprints, no two are alike,” he said. They are the most abundant flippered friends that we encounter off Laguna Beach with more than 400,000 dolphins found off the Southern California coastline. 

However, even though bottlenose dolphins go up and down the coast (as far south as Mexico and as far north as central California) every day, no one documents dolphins’ travel patterns and according to German, there is no research to track them.

“Laguna Beach loves and protects its coastline. It’s a wonderful example of what happens when we leave the ocean alone,” German said. “It used to be dead, no fish, but now there are lots of fish, big and little. Laguna has created a safe protected area.” 

Laguna Beach is the only city in California whose entire coast has been designated a boating & fishing-free zone as it has been a marine protected area (MPA) since January 1, 2012. 

Diverse background

As founder of Project O, German brings a wealth of diverse expertise to his role. He has been a successful business coach, philanthropist, photographer and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. He also plays the guitar, paints and is a writer. His third book, Blue Laguna, chronicles his up close and personal experiences with dolphins and whales. The book is available for sale on the Project O website and 100% of proceeds go to Project O. 

Since 1999, he has been a business coach and still has his coaching company, but now has a partner so German can focus on the ocean conservation.

local rich distance water

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Navigating Laguna’s waters 

Blue City Network

German also created Blue City Network 2017, a program of Project O that certifies cities for following best practices. The Blue City Network is a certification system that recognizes cities and counties that demonstrate their communities’ commitment to healthy waterways and oceans. Participants gain access to proven resources and blueprints provided by top environmental nonprofits, cities and governmental agencies. Upon certification, participants become part of the Blue City Network, a coalition of communities from around the world that collaborate in their ongoing quest to become true champions of the environment.

“Manhattan Beach, Malibu and Santa Cruz are in the program, but Laguna Beach is not yet in the program,” German said. “We need to get Laguna next.”

OneWhale

In addition to his organization Project O, German serves as the director of strategic partnerships of OneWhale. Founded by filmmaker Regina Crosby, OneWhale’s mission is to protect one beluga whale, Hvaldimir (Hvaldi), so that they can protect many. To this end, they are seeking a sanctuary in Norway. OneWhale supports Hvaldi’s safety, survival and entitlement to an enriched and natural life. Hvaldi, as named by Norwegian locals, is a young male beluga whale who arrived in Norway wearing a harness in April 2019. Upon his arrival, it was clear he was a trained whale and pursued interactions with humans. Hvaldi has spent the majority of his time at busy industrial salmon farms, which poses a workplace hazard and environmental liability for the salmon industry. 

local rich out of water

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The end of another day on the water 

Currently, German is working on a business plan to secure donors for the whale sanctuary – for Hvaldi and other whales in captivity. “We’re working with two different corporations in South Korea to move beluga whales who are now housed in concrete pools in malls,” said German. “They want to get rid of them, but have nowhere to send them. We’re moving forward – it’s such an exciting project.” 

German will be traveling back to Norway in the next few months. “The outlook is hopeful,” he said. “We hope to have the sanctuary secured within the next year.” 

Another of German’s projects is the Laguna Kelp Cleanup, which celebrates the Second Annual Kelp Festival and World Oceans Day. It will be held on Saturday, June 4 at 8 a.m. Participants are asked to meet at the kelp forest north of Main Beach. Sustainable bags will be provided. 

“We go out to the kelp beds and collect trash,” German said. “We’ll have SUPs and kayaks available.” 

Last year, the majority of the trash they collected was plastic.

Imagine a place, as Dr. Sylvia Earle described, “No water, no life, no blue, no green.” 

For more information on Project O, go to www.project-o.org.

For more information on OneWhale, go to www.onewhale.org.

For more information on Our Epic Ocean, go to www.ourepicocean.com.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - [email protected]

Lana Johnson, Editor - [email protected]

Tom Johnson, Publisher - [email protected]

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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