From Skateboarding to Scuba to Shoes: a profile of OM Alumnus Alex Dann
by Laura Parker Roerden
“I think about that trip all the time, Laura. I know that sounds hard to believe all these years later, but it’s impacted my life in so many ways; it’s impacted my life decisions.”
I recently caught up with Alex Dann, an alumnus of Ocean Matters summer marine biology program in 1998, to discuss how his time spent surveying coral bleaching in Grand Cayman for the Caymanian Department of the Environment (DOE) so many years ago has impacted his life today. It’s clear mere minutes into our conversation that Alex has retained his sense of wonder and the passion that he exhibited all those years ago as a teenager when he first showed up in Grand Cayman carrying a skateboard under his arm.
Now a Senior Footwear Designer, Alex has designed shoes for Professional Skateboarders, NBA players, Professional Saltwater Anglers/Captains while at his time working for major brands such as Ugg, Columbia Sportswear, Osiris Shoes, and Peak. Alex has incorporated marine science and his passion for the ocean into his professional life with every opportunity he gets.
“I’ve worked at several different brands: a skateboarding brand, an outdoor hiking brand, and a fishing brand, and without me necessarily pitching it, I have shark or fish or ocean-themed shoes in every brand that I’ve worked for. A large part of my success in completing those projects is because of my time with Ocean Matters and the knowledge I’ve gained.”
Alex is describing the challenges of designing footwear that can be safe and comfortable during hours standing on the slippery surface of a fishing boat or durable enough to withstand the impact of grip tape on a skateboard.
“I love marine science so much and I love animal behavior—all these things—and I draw inspiration from it. Take a shark for example, they’ve survived as a species and gone unchanged for over 150 million years so they must be doing something right. The fusiform body shape, gill slits, and their skin were all points of inspiration when designing the S18 Megavent II PFG shoe. I wanted an aggressive, streamlined, quick drying, breathable, yet supportive shoe for the saltwater angler and used the Mako shark’s features as a starting point.
To prevent ‘heel slip’ in the shoe I took inspiration from how the dermal denticles (shark’s skin) has evolved to be smooth in one direction and rough in the other. While the shark uses this feature to become more streamlined in the water, a human can design a material for an end use with these same principles. As someone slips his foot into the lining of the shoe it’s supposed to be an easy-on, effortless, streamlined experience. As you walk and lift your heel during the gait cycle the lining is now loosely gripping the back of your sock keeping your heel locked in place (like how a shark’s skin is rough in the other direction due to it being tiny, microscopic teeth). I now looked at the sharks’ gill arches that informed the structure, breathability and even draining aspect of the shoe, (which you can see from the triangle shaped forms along the side of the shoe). These forms not only act as a type of ribcage for support around the foot, but allow for water draining and airflow in between for a quick-dry feature consumers are looking for.”
Alex is looking for the right words to explain to me why this thread that has run through his life has so much meaning to him and how it connects to our time so many years ago scuba diving daily on the coral reef. There is a something deeper from nature he took from then that he has come to rely on that shows in his designs.
“Biomimicry is so close to the heart for me; it’s such an emotional connection—because nature has all the answers already.”
I comment to Alex on how so few of our alumni work in the marine science field and how that is not our goal as a nonprofit; but Alex is two steps ahead of me on this point.
“That time in Grand Cayman made me an advocate. Even though I’m not in NOAA or in an environmental field, the field I am in—which is footwear design—I’m working on ways to improve our environmental impact. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability within footwear and all signs point to the major footwear brands following this trend, because it has been a very toxic industry in the past. With all my factory trips to China, I can say it is very eye opening what the impact can be.” Alex’s tone of voice conveys the seriousness of the situation.
“In the areas in which I can influence, such as materials used and processes used that are less toxic, I do that.”
I ask him about his thoughts on the footwear from discarded fishing gear that Adidas created with Parlay for the Oceans.
“I love the premise. It’s trendy to be sustainable and eco-friendly now, but there’s always more that can be done. They’ll always be better practices we can find to leave this place better than we found it.”
Looking back at himself as a teenager, Alex can recall how the program gave him an extra boost of confidence for when he arrived at college.
“I’m a freshman, just arrived at college and am in an Intro to Marine Geology class and the professor had a coral picture up on the screen—just the picture of it—and he asked, ‘Does anyone know the name of this coral?’ And someone gave the common name for it. The professor quickly replied and said, ‘No, no, no. The real name.’ So at this point I half raised my hand, because nobody else was responding in this lecture hall with 70 people in there and I didn’t want to show off. But the professor calls on me anyway and I say, ‘Acropora palmata?’ And he goes, ‘Yes, that is right.’ So many people in that class, who were used to being the smartest one in their high school, later came up to me and said, ‘Alex, I had no idea. How did you know that?’”
“I think (my time in the Ocean Matters Program) is what gave me an extra sense of confidence, but also solidified who I thought I was at that time. I had been watching the Discovery Channel and thought of myself as someone who was really into the ocean and could someday be a scuba aficionado, but I had never tested that. I had never even tried scuba diving in a pool and now here I was diving every day and doing research 40ft underwater in Grand Cayman on the coral reef. I can confidently say that experience was that much of a game changer in my life.”
We start trading stories from our time then underwater. Alex surprises me by reminding me of the name we had given the French angelfish we would see daily on the reef: Pierre. Alex has so many wildlife encounters underwater that he still to this day not only remembers, but treasures.
“I tell my kids these stories at bedtime sometimes. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that program,” he says laughing good-naturedly as he pivots to sharing some of his favorite ones: the time that he saw a moray eel hiding in a crevice on a data dive or when he saw a baby manta ray, which had an 11-foot wingspan.
“Our dive instructor Peter had been on like 11,000 dives and never seen a baby manta ray and here we are on our eleventh dive and we saw one!”
Or the time the dangerous sea wasps came in while we were exiting the water from a night dive. “To this day, I distinctly remember Peter waiting at the ladder and ushering us all in, one-by-one. He was the last one out of the water to make sure we were all safe.”
Or another time on a night dive stumbling upon an arrow crab that was missing a bunch of legs.
“It only had one claw, so it was a hurting unit. I shined a light on it and all the worms in the water came straight to him—they were attracted by the light and now the arrow crab could see them and he was grabbing at them with his one claw and was having a feast of a dinner. So, in a way, I felt good about helping him.”
Even then, the early incarnation of Ocean Matters that Alex attended focused on a combination of service learning and scuba. Our original plans for our service project that summer was to study the diversity of coral present at two sites with different scuba diving pressure: one a very popular dive site and the other one that was not frequented. The Caymanian DOE was in the process of thinking through a management plan for the coral reef that might include establishing a carrying capacity for scuba diving, a controversial plan to say the least.
That summer, however, we experienced the first truly major global coral bleaching event, with an El Niño heat wave warming waters and leading to over 40% of coral cover world-wide being affected, including in the Caribbean. Our service project quickly shifted to a look at how coral bleaching was impacting the reef in Grand Cayman.
The youth spent time each day calculating the percentage of coral cover that had bleached, which involved being suspended upside down holding slates counting squares on quadrats, trying to maintain buoyancy on scuba.
The mounting evidence on the scale of the bleaching we were seeing that summer was concerning, but what really resonated with Alex was the beauty he experienced underwater.
“I remember coral bleaching was a big topic of conversation and learning about how just this slight temperature variation could make a difference to the health of the reef and how many animals depend on the coral and the ecosystems involved.”
The students had presented their findings to the Caymanian Department of the Environment, who had taken their research seriously. The national press had covered the event and put the students on the front cover of the Caymanian Compass.
“But I don’t recall feeling doom or gloom at all at the time,” Alex commented.
“What really stuck with me was that there was still plenty of biodiversity and beautiful colors to take in.”
Many years later, Alex met a member of his company’s board of directors, who was also a scuba diver and had recently been diving in Grand Cayman, and she gave him the most heartbreaking news.
“She had said, ‘Oh, Alex. Don’t bother going back. It’s all gone.’”
“Still, I would have to see it myself in order to fully believe it, because it’s one of those heartbreaking things you don’t want to believe,” Alex related.
“It breaks my heart not only for myself, but for my kids—that they wouldn’t be able to experience what I did. I want them to witness everything I did and have the first-hand account of these incredible bed-time stories that I always share with them.”
Sometimes Alex goes to YouTube to watch videos from the special underwater spots on the coral reef in Grand Cayman that impacted him so deeply.
“To this day, I wish I could take just five minutes of that time from when we were all in Grand Cayman and use it later in my life when I might want to get away from things.” Alex’s voice is trailing off as I can imagine he now has transported himself back to that reef with Pierre, the Queen angelfish; the moray eel; a lucky arrow crab; and a baby manta ray.
“I thought about that even then—when I was 17 and there—how this was so special, because we were all just living in the moment.”
“It was one amazing dive after another, and I would remind myself to just be present and take this in, because nothing is forever and someday, I know I’m going to need it.”
You can learn more about Alex’s Design Work here.
If you know a teenager (ages 15+) who could benefit from an Ocean Matters experience, you can learn more about our Florida project, held this summer in Clearwater and Key Largo, June 20-30, 2023, which includes scuba training and a coral restoration service project. Scholarship is available.