Beneath the soothing sway of kelp fronds and meandering fish, tables with white cloths and flickering candles create an inspiring atmosphere in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forest exhibit hall. People start to enter, mingling and chatting excitedly amidst the tables as the crowd grows.

Before long, dozens of the best and brightest ocean leaders have gathered, and for good reason—this impressive group has converged in Monterey to celebrate the recipients of the 2016 Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, often called the ‘Academy Awards for the Ocean.’  Each year, the Awards honor ocean heroes in several categories for their ingenuity and dedication to protecting the ocean. This year’s Awards Ceremony was held at the Aquarium on May 20th, followed the next day by an Ocean Leadership Forum featuring talks by many current and past Benchley awardees.

Woods Senior Fellow Barbara Block (Biology), the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, received this year’s Benchley Award for Excellence in Science. Block, also a member of COS’s Science Advisory Committee, joins a prestigious list of past honorees including Steve Palumbi (Director of Hopkins Marine Station), Daniel Pauly and Steve Gaines, among others.

Block was recognized for her groundbreaking research focused on understanding the physiology and ecology of migratory marine animals such as white sharks and bluefin tuna. Using satellite tagging data and innovative tracking techniques, Block and her team have discovered previously unknown migratory ‘super highways’ and hot spots that are the local feeding grounds for these species. Armed with this knowledge, Block stresses the importance of using this science to create larger and more dynamic protected areas to reduce human impacts (e.g., commercial fishing) on vulnerable species like bluefin tunas.

“We have to think bigger than sanctuaries,” Block said during her talk at the Leadership Forum. “We need to protect entire ocean highways, like the California Current, and migratory pathways that stretch across the north Pacific.” She cited the wide-ranging migrations of animals such as Pacific bluefin tunas that criss-cross the Pacific ocean as juveniles and adults, leatherback sea turtles, many of which travel from the beaches of Indonesia to Monterey hot spots to lunch on jellies, and seabirds that travel from New Zealand to the North Pacific. Block also described the impressive diversity of marine life drawn to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s rich ecosystems.

“Monterey Bay truly is the blue Serengeti,” she said. “Many people don’t realize we have something as special as Kruger National Park right here in the Bay. We need to be doing more to protect it.”

Chris Costello of UC Santa Barbara, this year’s Benchley Ocean Award winner for Excellence in Solutions, has also dedicated a large part of his career to researching fisheries and working to make them more sustainable—both for fish and for people’s livelihoods. Costello and Block led a conversation at the Ocean Leadership Forum focused on sustainable fisheries, and how the latest science and technology can help us improve fisheries management.

Costello and Block joined a cohort of impressive awardees for 2016, including Palauan President Tommy Remengesau Jr., Ocean Champions Co-Founder David Wilmot, New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, French non-profit research group Tara Expeditions, Imperial City Mayor Serge Dedina, and Georgetown undergraduate Daniela Fernandez, winner of the Christopher Benchley Youth Award.

Other issues discussed by the awardees during the Leadership Forum ranged from climate change and political campaigns to how to engage Millennials in ocean protection. While the group acknowledged the severity of the challenges facing our oceans, there remained a sense of cautious optimism throughout the two-day event.

Perhaps Sylvia Earle, Master of Ceremonies, said it best: “We are racing towards tipping points, but it’s not too late. We are here to celebrate hope. We have the power.” If the accomplishments of the current and past Benchley Ocean Awards recipientsare any indication, there surely is reason to have hope for a bright future for our oceans.