Exploring the Wild Ocean

Sylvia A. Earle, National Geographic Explorer in Residence
Heart of Winter 2007

If I could, I would transport all who are reading these words to reefs as I knew them decades ago: the Florida Keys, where golden branches of staghorn and elkhorn coral sheltered glittering schools of damselfish, parrotfish and large, curious grouper; the reefs of the Bahamas, where corals shaped like large, fragile dinner plates fringed deep indigo drop-offs and walls, and the shadowy gray forms of sharks added spice to every dive; or to Micronesian reefs in the tropical Pacific, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the amazingly diverse coral islands of the Western Indian Ocean and many more.

If I could, I would take you to those same places now to understand how much has changed as a consequence of what we are putting into the sea – and what we are taking out. Few large fish remain, and masses of dark algae blanket the dead coral mounds and branches. In half a century, about half the world’s coral reefs have either disappeared or are in a state of alarming decline. But half the coral reefs worldwide are still intact, which means we have a chance to do what it takes to reverse this alarming trend and restore health to many reefs while there is still time. Even in the Florida Keys, where losses are among the most dramatic, there is clear evidence that modest actions can make a big difference.

Coral reefs are especially well-known because many occur in the sunlit surface waters of the sea where people can see and enjoy them, but many corals live in waters deep, dark and, until recently, mostly inaccessible to fishermen and scientists alike. New technologies now make it possible to deploy gear to capture deep-sea fish – and in the process, destroy the coral forests that are their home. To see and understand the nature of deep coral reefs, it helps to be able to climb into a submarine and go down to where they are. During a single dive in the one-person submersible Deep Worker, 100 miles offshore from the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, I became immersed in the history of life, surrounded by creatures whose close relatives prospered in ancient seas nearly half a billion years ago. Tinged with green at the surface, the waters below took on increasing intense shades of blue – pale sapphire, deep indigo, violet blue, blue-black, then, at 1,000 feet, utter darkness, sparked by pinpoints of bioluminescence. I switched on the sub’s bright lights and continued to descend through a column of water alive with crystalline comb jellies, translucent shrimp with ridiculously long antennae, slender glassy arrow worms, a small fleet of pale squid with enormous eyes. On the bottom 1,800 feet down, I landed next to a cluster of yellow sponges and a mound of tube worms, a colony of hundreds of pencil-thick animals intertwined with dozens of crimson crabs, transparent shrimp and knobby orange starfish. The lacy branches of a six-foot-high black coral were intertwined with the arms of large red brittle starfish. Throughout my descent, I caught glimpses of fish – a school of small jacks near the surface, tiny lanternfish and light-spangled hatchetfish below the twilight zone and, on the bottom, a bright red gaper and the distinctive form of a small, sleek shark.

Wildness is what I love most about the ocean. Every time I move from an atmosphere of air into one of liquid blue, there is a thrill of anticipation, the joy of knowing that I really don’t know what I’ll see – or what creatures will be seeing me – from one moment to the next. As a child, it seemed to me that the world generally and the ocean particularly were so large, so vast and so resilient – so wild – that there wasn’t much that people could do that could change the basic nature of land and sea. Now we know that isn’t true. The good news, however, is that we have the power not only to destroy but to restore and, especially, to protect what remains of the natural systems that sustain us. Worldwide, there is new appreciation for the importance of biodiversity on the land and in the sea, yet only a fraction of 1 percent of the ocean enjoys protection.

Just last year, through presidential action, 140,000 square miles of wild ocean surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands gained full protection as a national monument, joining a network of 14 U.S. national marine sanctuaries that are ocean counterparts to terrestrial national parks. Worldwide, actions are being taken to gain appreciation for, and protection of, vital ocean ecosystems – from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Costa Rica’s offshore waters to the 64 percent of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction known as the high seas. As never before, we have a chance to act on the knowledge we have to save the wild ocean. The sea is the cornerstone of our life-support system: by taking care of it, we take care of ourselves; abuse it, and we put ourselves at risk.

About the Author

Dr. Sylvia Earle is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. Sometimes known as “Her Deepness” or “The Sturgeon General,” she was named Time magazine’s first “hero for the planet” in 1998, was chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has pioneered research on marine ecosystems, leading more than 60 expeditions totaling more than 7,000 hours underwater. She holds diving records, including solo diving at a thousand meters (3,300 feet).