One person can make a difference –
Wyland and his gift to New Zealand
Interviewed by Dave Moran
It is often said, ‘People are what makes the world go round.’
During October I had the privilege of spending some time with a person who is doing more than his share to keep the world revolving. His uncompromising passion and personal commitment to the marine environment has been inspiring for me and many others.
The name Wyland does not ring many bells for the average New Zealander or Australian, especially if you’re not interested in art or whales. In the USA Wyland is revered as possibly the most influential marine life artist of our time. His art is to be found in museums, art galleries, public walls and in private collections worldwide. With the assistance of Sir Peter Blake, Wyland was invited to Auckland to stamp his trademark on the entire western wall of the New Zealand National Maritime Museum. He had one week to complete the wall measuring 420 metres long and 20 metres high.
With 40 art galleries sprinkled across the USA Wyland is in a position to put energy into his goal of making people more aware of the inhabitants of the marine environment. Through his art and the Wyland Foundation he is giving the new generation, our children, a greater appreciation of the marine environment in the hope that they will nurture it instead of plundering it as past and present generations have done. Our children are the key.
I believe you had your first diving experience with whales off Maui, Hawaii.
The first time I snorkeled with great whales was with humpbacks off Maui. I had been invited by a research team, Mark and Debbie Ferrari. We just got into the water and immediately the whales were interested in us and came over for a look. I was very excited and almost forgot to breathe. The mother whale presented her calf to me to view – it was a very spiritual moment. The mother’s eye got real wide and looked right into my eyes and she knew that I was no threat. I think they are intelligent enough to know some people are there to help them. It was a great experience and I still reflect it in some of the murals, sculptures and paintings that I do today. I can still see those rolling images in my minds eye from that first encounter with the humpback whale. Beautiful.
You say the eyes are a really important aspect of your work?
The eyes are really the focal point of my work, like most portrait painters. The eye is the soul of the animal. I always say I not only try to paint the great whales, but the great spirit they have. The spirit shows through in their eyes. When you’re swimming and diving with these animals that’s the first thing you see. They look straight into your soul. Eye to eye. And it’s really the highest level of consciousness, I think, for a diver to look into the eyes of an intelligent great whale.
This blue whale you’re presently painting is huge!
This is life size. Ninety-five foot long (29m). This whale would probably weigh in the area of 150 tons.
I can’t see any sketch lines. How do you know where to start and finish?
There’s no numbers here. This is entirely painted from the mind’s eye. There are no preliminary drawings or sketches or anything. It’s just from studying whales and diving. I take all that information and imagine the whales swimming across the wall and I paint it as it goes by. It’s a very different way to work but it works.
I understand Jacques Cousteau had a profound influence on your life?
Absolutely. I was inspired by Jacques Cousteau in the early 70’s as a kid growing up. We used to be glued to the television watching the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. After I saw a Cousteau special I wanted to learn more. Now I feel as if I am helping to keep Cousteau’s message alive. The way I do it is through my art.
This painting is number 84?
Yes, this is number 84 of a planned 100 whaling walls. After I painted the first one in 1981 I said I would do 100. I decided it would take 30 years so I’m about five minutes ahead of schedule right now. When I am finished this one I have 16 more to go to accomplish my goal. It will be finished by the year 2011. I then want to embark on creating 100 life size bronze sculptures to continue pushing the message about the creatures that live in our planet’s oceans.
I understand you do these whaling walls at no charge. You obviously have a mission deep inside you that you wish to fulfill?
I simply feel that if people see the beauty in nature they will work to preserve it. Art is such a powerful medium, especially art on this scale. I paint also to raise awareness, not only of whales but of all life in the sea. Clean water and healthy oceans are important and vital to everyone. That’s what I’m calling attention to. If I paint enough of these murals, and they estimate that currently about one billion people a year see my murals, I guess they’re going to have quite a big impact.
Was there something in your life that made you aware that the environment needed help?
I just became aware myself as I started to study the whales. I realised that to save the whales is great, but we need to protect the environment and the ocean from man made problems like over-fishing, pollution and all those things. It starts really with an inspiration which comes to me from whales, dolphins and sea-life. You start to learn about the problems of the sea and you start trying to figure out a way as to how you can contribute and make a difference. The best way I could see to do this was through my painting. I call what I do ‘the art of saving the oceans.’
Besides the murals, you also do oil paintings and sculptures?
I actually started painting whales and dolphins on canvas and realised early on that I needed a larger canvas, so I started looking at the sides of buildings. I do smaller paintings, oil paintings and I do a lot of sculptures. In fact, that is what I majored in at college so I hope to do 100 sculptures of all the great whales once I have finished the 100 whaling walls. That will be fantastic.
I understand your whole family is involved in the business?
Yes, my mom, my brothers, the whole family. I had to bring them on as I had so much work and I needed to have somebody I could trust. The company just grew so fast. We have a team of 40 Wyland Galleries all over the US and that’s now expanding internationally. We just opened our first virtual gallery, www.wyland.com
Are any shops in New Zealand selling your artwork?
No, but there is a lot of interest so this might be the time to have a Wyland Gallery in Auckland. That would be great. The fact is that I’m flat out with my own 40 galleries at present. I am the only artist in the family so that can be a problem. There’s only so much you can do. I want to have a life too, like diving at the Poor Knights this weekend. I want to experience diving in New Zealand. Then it’s off to the race, the America’s Cup, which is really exciting.
You have painted the hulls of the two Waikiki Yacht Club entries, Abracadabra 2000?
I have painted both hulls with Hawaii marine life. I will take my awareness wherever an opportunity comes up. If I have to paint it on the side of an America’s Cup boat, I will. What’s great about that is I actually called that mural on Abracadabra whaling wall 83, and I feel that it is the first whaling wall that is exclusively for the whales. They are going to get the best view of it as most of the mural is under the boat. Humans do get to see it, but for all intents and purposes that whaling wall is for whales and other marine life to enjoy. Probably the first artwork ever, that was created specifically for the whales. Isn’t that fun?
How did you get involved with the Abracadabra syndicate?
I was asked by Abracadabra if I would do a mural as the boats were being made in Hawaii. They asked if I would do a mural of Hawaii marine life and I thought it was appropriate and important. It puts the whales and the Hawaii marine life on the world stage. I am also a big supporter of Hawaii. I live there and wanted to do something good for my home state. I ended up painting both of them and I’m very proud of them too. They’re very unique. They really stand out and so far they have been really well received everywhere they have been, especially by the kids.
Did you have any preconceptions about New Zealand before you came here?
I had just heard that it was absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than Australia. I thought Australia was beautiful but New Zealand even more so. It is a place that I could live for sure. I know Clinton said the same thing, but it is a beautiful country and I certainly look forward to coming back here and sharing my art with the people here. That’s what I like to do, bringing my art, or at least my paintbrush with me when I come.
You’re hoping to do some diving while you’re in New Zealand?
Yes, that’s my main purpose. Sailing and diving. The artist has to suffer. My three favourite things, sailing, diving and painting. I’ve heard about the Poor Knights so I want to dive there during the visit.
I understand you are planning to develop a project for New Zealand children?
Next year we are going to present an Arts and Science Curriculum for all the schools in New Zealand which the Maritime Museum, Sir Peter Blake, myself and the Cousteau Society are developing. It’s called Clean Water 2000 and we are going to work with the United Nations. I’ve worked with Kofi Annan (U.N. Secretary-General) before. We all want to continue to inspire the children.
Is this the first time you have done this?
No, I did it in the US in 1998, for the Year of the Oceans. I created an Art and Science Oceans Curriculum and sent it out to every single school in the United States. There were 120,000 schools reaching out to 67 million students and to support the curriculum I did a 50 state tour of America. I visited 50 states in 50 days and then I needed a blood transfusion!
I’m really interested in developing those types of programmes. The art is easy. I partner with an organisation, like last year it was the Orange County Marine Institute. In 2000 the Wyland Foundation is partnering with SCRIPPS Institute of Oceanography, one of the world’s most famous oceanographic institutes to continue these programmes. The first member of the Wyland Foundation was Lloyd Bridges and it was really hard when he passed away, but we are carrying his torch and of course the torch of Jacques Cousteau. Also on my foundation are Doctor Sylvia Earle, Dr Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titianic, and Buzz Aldred, the astronaut. I have a very small but mighty Wyland Foundation and we are doing good things. I also have asked Peter Blake to be on the Honorary Board of the Wyland Foundation. I think he’s the best person to carry the torch of Captain Cousteau.
I have noticed in your mission statement, you say ‘one person can make a difference.’ Could you expand on that?
If you really thought about all the problems in the ocean, it would seem hopeless that one person could make a difference, but believe me, if there’s one person with the dedication to do their bit, whether you’re an artist, a film maker, whatever you do, you can find a way to contribute to the conservation of the planet, the ocean, the environment. It’s all important and starts in your back yard. Really just taking care of your own world and then if you have the opportunity to learn, that is where it starts. Then comes awareness and absorbing information, sharing it with your friends and then trying to inspire other people. That’s what I have done.
When my generation grew up it was dinosaurs. We loved dinosaurs. Now as I talk with kids all over the world they have a passion for sea creatures. This was brought about by Cousteau inspiring a lot of people to write books and make films about marine adventures and discoveries. It’s just a matter of encouraging them to continue the good work because they need to be empowered to understand that one person can make a difference. One person can make a difference, they can make a difference in their world. That one person starts with you.
How do you see your involvement with the Cousteau Society expanding that message?
I am there for them. I have been a Cousteau member for a long time. Peter Blake has asked me to come on board and do some expeditions. I will help Cousteau in any way. I would just say to people, hey, the Cousteau Society should be the world’s largest conservation group. They were the pioneers in their efforts to preserve the world’s oceans. If you care anything about the oceans you should send your US$25.00 and become a member and do what you can. In numbers, there is power. We need to get the Cousteau Society’s membership up over five million. That’s my goal. I want to help them. What’s really incredible is I think the reason that Peter Blake and some of the Cousteau folk want me is that I speak for the young people. I have a television series called Wyland’s Ocean World on Discoverer Ocean Planet. Of course the Crocodile guy is killing me in the ratings, but my show is picking up. I have an opportunity to reach out to the young people. Kofi Annan has said that I have the ear of the next generation. That made me feel very proud.
With the help of Kofi Annan we launched ‘The Wyland Ocean Challenge of America’ in 1998 to celebrate the Internataonal Year of the Ocean’s. Our theme was, and still is, ‘One person can make a difference’. This master curriculum is in three parts and is a creative exploration for kids, from primary to college level, studying the ocean and marine world. The kids create ocean art and as a team learn about volunteering and painting ocean murals at their schools. This is really an international curriculum and the United Nations and Kofi Annan saw that, and every child who participated got a certificate of appreciation signed by Al Gore, U.S. Vice-President, Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist, Daniel Invuye, U.S. Senator, Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary-General, Carl Levin, U.S. Senator and myself.
As I said before, this curriculum went to every school in the United States. 120,000 schools reaching 67 million students. It was a huge challenge to bring this about. This curriculum is timeless. It can be incorporated into any country. My big goal is to get it out to 185 countries, through the United Nations. If we could do that we can have an immeasurable impact on the next generation. I now want to establish a Wyland Ocean Challenge of New Zealand. As we enter into the next century I see great hope knowing that the kids are passionate about this. Today I asked a group of kids that went past while I was painting the Maritime Museum wall, ‘what whale is this?’ and they all said a blue whale. They knew. When I was their age I wouldn’t have known that. This gives me great hope so I will do everything I can to continue to inspire them further, to empower them with knowledge. My ultimate goal is to build a bridge between the world of science and art, because if you look at history you have artists on one side and scientists on the other. In the effort to save the world’s oceans, in the environmental movement, art and science need to work together hand in hand for the big picture. The big picture is that the oceans connect all the countries of the world, all the waterways. We are an ocean planet with all the lakes, rivers and streams. I even have an ocean pledge. I have the kids put their hands up and say, I pledge to keep clean the oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. I am just passionate about the oceans. I love it when I have an opportunity to speak out and inspire kids. I will take the time to empower those kids, one at a time or a hundred thousand at a time or a million at a time, whatever it takes. One of my proudest times was when we had national winners from The Wyland Ocean Challenge come together on National Earth Day, April 22nd 1998. We flew in 33 kids, their parents and teachers for the First Annual Wyland Foundation Awards. It was fabulous to see the looks on their faces. They wrote songs and stories about the oceans, painted murals and ocean art. Sylvia Earle hosted it. An amazing night.
This is where it is at for me now. Finish the 100 walls, do 100 ocean sculptures of all the great marine life as water feature fountains, but continue to bring the message of the sea and the thing that Cousteau started and work with organisations like SCRIPPS, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and National Maritime Museum. All the good people who have knowledge and create a think tank of the great people and thinkers of the world. We have a lot of work to do â¦. but it will be worth the effort. Every individual can make a difference.
Thanks Wyland, it has been an honour to spend some time with you. I am sure the divers of New Zealand and throughout the South Pacific and their children will take on board your message. We will make a difference. Have a safe journey home to Hawaii.
The Wyland Foundation’s Mission Statement
To inspire people to care more about our oceans and life within them and to encourage people to become involved in ocean conservation.
To promote, respect and protect our previous ocean resources through life-size public art, education and awareness.
One person can make a difference.
To become involved as a member of the Foundation which is a non-profit organisation, see their web site at
or write to Wyland Foundation, PO Box 1839, Laguna Beach, California 92651, USA. Fax +714-376-0737
Sponsors of whaling wall #84
New Zealand National Maritime Museum
Aloha Racing America’s Cup 2000 – Louis Vuitton Media Center
Projex Equipment Hire – boomlifts and scaffolding
DAMAR & Amway Industrial Paints WA Stroud – paint equipment
Surface Works – wall priming
TBS Farnsworth – pressure wash
Big Boat CafÃ© – meals
Hyatt Regency Auckland – accommodation
Royal Akarana Yacht Club – volunteer support
Special thanks to the Team at: Dive! Tutukaka for providing two excellent days diving at the Poor Knights. For that informative, personal touch when you go diving contact the team at Dive! Tutukaka, phone 0-9-434-3867 or 0800-689-222.