New Institutional Directions for 2016
By Dr. John Todd

Ocean Arks International was founded as an educational not-for-profit organization 35 years ago. Its primary goal was to communicate positive and significant information about the Earth and its stewardship through the journal Annals of Earth. The publishing was the brainchild and creative focus of Nancy Jack Todd. At the same time, Ocean Arks became a pioneering organization that developed ecological technologies for the protection and healing of damaged environments, both aquatic and terrestrial. My role was to inspire and oversee the evolution of a technological shift away from dependency on energy intensive, heavily engineered systems to a more carbon neutral, green and ecological future.

By 1990 it began to seem there might be commercial potential for the living technologies that we were creating. With partners, I started several companies, including John Todd Ecological Design, a small consulting firm. We did not have immediate financial success with the new companies; however, over the following decades, more than100 innovative and successful projects were implemented around the world.

There was a symbiosis between Ocean Arks and the company we came to call JTED. When a project was valuable, but very risky, we would seek philanthropic support and Ocean Arks would undertake the challenge. If the project was in an area in which we had experience, like sewage treatment, then JTED, because of its engineering capabilities would take on the project. It was not always entirely clear-cut but there is no doubt that, in spite of our scarce resources, the two types of organizations working together kept the technological innovation alive and well.

New Engineering Alliance

Late this past fall, however, the unexpected happened. JTED’s engineering group, which was comprised of two engineers-in-training and our project coordinator, left to establish their own company. Although this at first seemed a setback, it then became an opportunity to think anew. I asked several leading ecological engineering practitioners if they knew of someone in their professional world who could create an engineering alliance for JTED. I was interested in someone who was not only professionally competent, but also had the social skills to coordinate a number of engineering and design firms on projects of a very different nature. My first choice was Erin English, a senior engineer at a leading environmental and engineering firm called Biohabitats. Erin is an engineer who had worked with us at Ocean Arks International a number of years ago. She was the engineer for the award winning eco-machine at the Omega Institute’s new Center for Sustainable Living. This was the first facility to qualify for the Living Building Challenge. For the Omega project, she was employed by Natural Systems International, a firm based in Santa Fe, N.M. It was subsequently purchased by Biohabitats, her current employer (

Erin liked the idea of an engineering alliance with us at JTED. Since then I also have come to appreciate her company, Biohabitats. It represents a range of talents and the breadth of its reach is truly impressive. It is based upon principles of Earth stewardship. By the first of April this year we reached an agreement for JTED and Biohabitats to collaborate.

SOUTH AFRICA: Can Polluted Streams Be Healed?

Three years ago Nancy Jack Todd and I travelled to South Africa to teach design workshops. There we forged an alliance with a number of entities. The alliance was coordinated by Biomimicry of South Africa, an organization committed to natural systems design. Our goal was to work in the slums of the western Cape Province to find ways of treating the sewage and the filth in the streets and to make poor communities more livable through ecological design. We began our design in an informal community called Langrug. By last year we had implemented several small scale living technologies for wastewater management there

In Annals of Earth, Volume thirty-three, number two for 2015, I wrote an article entitled Healing Polluted Streams and Rivers. In it I proposed three possible technological approaches for treating badly damaged streams. The first was an eco-machine restorer, a tank-based system to run parallel to a stream. I planned for the polluted stream water to enter the eco-machine from upstream. The water would be treated during its journey through the restorer. Upon its discharge back into the stream, it would create a clean and bio-diverse zone within the stream itself.

The second eco-technology, the ecological pipeline, was comprised of a perforated pipe to be placed on the bottom of the stream and to be filled with media inoculated with beneficial bacteria. The water flowing through the pipeline would be partially purified through microbial activity.

The third technology, called the artificial kelp forest was made up of long ribbons of non-woven fabrics to be anchored to the bottom of the stream. The ribbons would be no deeper than the low water levels of the stream.

Near the city of Stellenbosch in South Africa there is a very polluted stream called Plankenbrug.

Plakenbrug Stream

This year one of the South African team, Jonny Harris engineered an eco-machine based upon the first of these concepts to determine if it can improve water quality in the Plankenbrug. It was completed and commissioned in late March of this year. For the next year we will closely monitor its performance and its influence upon the stream. If it performs well, we will have a powerful new ecological tool for healing streams and possibly even improving the quality of rivers. The photo shows the prototype eco-machine in a secure location adjacent to the stream.

Plakenbrug Stream Eco-Machine


In addition to our other commitments at Ocean Arks we have a long history of developing watercraft for a more ecological age. In the early 1980’s we developed the concept of an ecological hope ship. It was to be a sailing craft for moving biological materials, including food crops, to impoverished parts of the world. The result was a large sailing greenhouse designed by Phil Bolger. We called it the Margaret Mead. The project is described in Phil Bolger’s book Different Boats. We tested several of his radical concepts in a fifty-five foot, one/fifth scale model named the Nancy Jack. The Nancy Jack became a familiar sight for several years in the waters near our town of Woods Hole on Cape Cod. The model was a success and proved a number of Phil Bolger’s ideas.

Following this project, we joined with the well-known yacht designer, Dick Newick, to develop a working watercraft for poor coastal communities in South and Central America. It required only wind power for propulsion. The project was funded by, the Canadian International Development Agency -- CIDA. The boat, dubbed the Ocean Pickup, was a beautiful trimaran, a three-hulled vessel. The prototype, which we called the Edith Muma, proved a fast and effective fishing platform in the waters off both Guyana in South America and Costa Rica.

The carbon-neutral water taxi and light cargo vessel that we are currently developing is a collaboration between ourselves and Laurie McGowan, an innovative Canadian naval architect, from Nova Scotia. We wanted a hybrid vessel to be the equivalent of a Tesla-of-the-Sea that could function as a modern workboat and, depending on the weather, keep to a schedule just as fossil fuel powered watercraft do. Laurie McGowan gave us exactly what we needed.

I described this project in the last issue of Annals, volume thirty-three, number three in 2015.

The illustrations below outline its unusual biplane rig and its hybrid solar/wind system for propulsion. It will be the first vessel of its type and a game-changer for maritime working vessels.

Water Taxi
Water Taxi Interior

In 2016 my plan is to seek a sponsor for the vessel either through philanthropic sources, or through a client who will pay for the prototype so we can build and thoroughly test the vessel before turning it over to them. The cost of what we are calling the Pelicano will be close to a million dollars. In some locations, particularly the Caribbean, it could probably pay for itself in a few years. It will be competing against gas consuming workboats including those of the offshore oil industry. If fuel supplies in the islands become short in supply this type of craft could be vital to local transportation.


Many years ago when I was collecting fish for research on the possible impact of a sea level canal planned to connect the Atlantic and Pacific in Central America I witnessed the collapse of a small coral reef near the village of Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The reef was close to the shore where banana plantations existed. In my mind, the culprits that killed the reef were agricultural toxins from pesticides that were seeping into the water adjacent to the reef.

To the north, extending along the full length of the country of Belize is the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. The Belize Barrier Reef is roughly twenty-five miles offshore at its southern end and one thousand feet offshore towards the north. UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1996 because of its biodiversity and uniqueness. Sadly, in 2009 it was re-designated as endangered and it remains so.

At JTED last autumn we brainstormed ways in which such coral reefs could be protected. Obviously the principal method would be the reduction of agricultural poisons as well as dramatically improving wastewater treatment on the islands and coastal communities. In our view, however, additional strategies are needed to arrest the disintegration of the reef systems. We already have the technological experience to design coral reef restorers in the form of eco-technologies that are several miles in length. They would intercept fertilizers, poisons and sewage, before they reach and degrade the reef.

The drawing below is a schematic for a proposed two-mile long coral reef protector. It consists of a floating complex that hosts a series of ecological elements that reduce nutrients and degrade poisons. The illustration portrays a section of the restorer that integrates people as well.

Reef Restorer Schematic Reef Restorer Section

In 2016 we hope to continue the design work and to explore the full extent to which these structures could also grow seafood like oysters and edible seaweeds. Is it possible that large reef restorers could pay their way as economic entities? We hope to find out.


After the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico several years ago I unpacked our earlier work on the Ocean Ark. This was an ecological hope ship powered by the wind and sun and intended to serve oceanic waters. Instead of carrying biological materials to environmentally impaired parts of the world, this would be a vessel that was an eco-machine capable of treating millions of gallons daily of polluted seawater.

I envisioned a sailing catamaran that carried intensely engineered eco-technologies between its hulls. They would hang down into the water and seawater would pass through them. There would be four subsystems for cleaning water. They were inspired by sea grass communities, kelp forests, algae based turfs and by bivalve communities that would include oysters and clams. With my colleague, Matt Beam, we assembled and tested several of the subsystems within a greenhouse. The illustration below shows the original concept.

Ocean Ark Concept

For the last few years, however, the idea lay fallow. I did not see how I could raise the resources to build and test the Ocean Ark and I did not have, nor knew how to find, a client for the project. However as I watched the unfolding of the pollution disaster in Brazil in Rio’s, Guanabara Bay, the site of the 2016 Olympic sailing events, I sensed the project was needed. Never had I seen such filth in the marine environment. Raw sewage, refuse and the disgusting flotsam were flowing into the bay from a city with almost no environmental controls. I knew that I personally would not race for an Olympic medal in a small boat in such a foul place.

I wondered if an Ocean Ark, such as I had been planning, could help improve a body of water like Guanabara Bay, and if so how many arks would it take to do the job. With the cost of the Olympics projected at over ten billion dollars, the Ocean Arks would cost next to nothing in the overall scheme of things. It was time to restart the project.

For naval architectural and marine engineering help I turned again to marine designer Laurie McGowan. He reviewed the background materials and designs and readily agreed to the commission. It was a real pleasure for me as a former ocean scientist to work to with Laurie, a marine designer who has a passion for life in the sea.

The boat was to be a catamaran, two hulled with the ability to support the eco-technologies between the hulls. We wanted it to be a hybrid, both wind and sun with fossil fuel for back up. It would have to be powerful and has six masts, three on each hull. It would also have electric motors for propulsion and power on board. We expected it might need electricity from diesels to supplement its wind and solar energy.

Another key aspect to the design was accommodation. My plan was that the Ocean Ark would double as an ocean science educational facility and that students could be on board for weeks at a time. They would help manage the living systems and study their effects on water quality.

Ocean Ark Design
Ocean Ark Design

Our plate is very full for the year 2016 and beyond. As it has always been, the main challenge will be to convert the dreams and ideas into paying projects. The future is daunting. I also have no doubt that solutions to our problems abound. Their advocacy is the powerful necessity we must face.

Ocean Ark Design