The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide


Edited by Participant

Edited by Jon Bowermaster

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This unique tie-in to the major motion picture Oceans — coming this April from Disney & National Geographic — explores the health of our oceans, and what we can do to improve it.

More than 75 percent of the globe is covered by the oceans. It is sometimes difficult to understand why it is called Planet Earth rather than Planet Ocean. Since half the world’s human population lives within a stone’s throw of an ocean coastline, the oceans’ health is increasingly important. Rich with resources and potential — as a source of renewable energy, new drugs, drinking water — for years we have treated them as both infinite and undamageable. But they are not.

Over-fishing, climate change, pollution, acidification, and more have put the world’s oceans and marine life at great risk.

Oceans gathers some of the most insightful visionaries, explorers, and ocean lovers — marine biologists, politicians, environmentalists, fishermen, sportsmen, deep divers, and more — in a unique anthology, in which each speaks to a unique aspect of our world’s most dimly understood dimension.


Food, Inc.
Edited by Karl Weber

There are officially five oceans—Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic,
and Southern—though it is easy to see by looking at the map
that a strong argument could be made that there is just
one big and connected ocean, covering 70 percent
of the planet. Labeled are many of the locations
visited by our authors in the course
of various explorations and in
their writings.

Where Blue Meets Blue: Trouble on the Horizon
Jon Bowermaster
Who isn’t made blissful sitting at water’s edge, staring at the horizon, hypnotized by that delicate, nearly imperceptible yet somehow distinct line where blue meets blue? Who among us doesn’t count those solitary, sun-washed moments—whether afloat on a boat or feet dug deep into the sand—as among the favorites of a lifetime?
Cliché? Perhaps. But if the views off land’s edges are not the most soothing, the most renewing on the planet, why do so many of us flock there to live, to work, to rejuvenate? Which raises the issue of why we call this Planet Earth when 71 percent of it is ocean. That this is not known as Planet Ocean speaks only to the ego of man because it has nothing to do with reality. It also raises the question of exactly how many oceans there are. Go get your atlas. Inside, you’ll find five mildly distinct bodies with labels (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern). I, like most whose writing graces these pages, believe there are no real distinctions, that this big body of water encircling the planet is just one ocean.
For the past twenty years a variety of explorations have given me a unique perspective on both the health of the ocean and the lives of people who depend on it. I’ve followed a meandering route leading me from remote Bering Sea and Pacific islands; down the coasts of Vietnam and all of South America; around the various seas that surround Europe; parallel along sandy beaches in Peru and India; and along rocky ones in Croatia, Tasmania, and Kamchatka. At each stop, I have spent time with the people whose days are most defined and shaped by the ocean.
For all the differences each place offers—from browsing forest elephants and surfing hippos along the beaches of Gabon to eighty-mile-an-hour winds raking the Aleutian Islands, from horrifically polluted bays off the South China Sea to centuries-old ritual celebrations still practiced on remote South Pacific atolls—similarities link them all. The same is true for ocean people. Although their cultures may differ in dress, food, religion, and more, the people who live along coastlines have far more in common than they have differences. Instinctively, the very first thing each does in the morning is scan the horizon line, the seascape, checking the morning sky and what it might portend. Increasingly, too, each is affected by a similar handful of environmental risks now exerting impacts on the ocean, its coastlines, and both its marine and human populations.
As the human population grows, headed fast toward 9 billion, the planet’s coastlines grow ever more crowded. Fourteen of the seventeen largest cities are built on the edge of the ocean. Nearly half the world’s population, more than 3 billion, lives within an hour’s drive of a coast. The rich go for the views and refreshing salt air, the poor for jobs and big dreams, holiday-goers for a brief respite. But we humans are a rapacious species, seemingly incapable of taking good care of any place; over the past five centuries or so, we’ve done a very good job of taking from the ocean without pause to consider its fragility and the damage we’ve done to it by our indifference.
How many of those billions who glimpse a sea with frequency wonder about how this big, beautiful ocean of ours is doing? Although it has long seemed limitless, its resources infinite, there are myriad signs that we’ve now abused the ocean to the point of almost no return. The list of harms is long. Acidification, global warming’s evil twin, threatens to make all life in the ocean impossible for many species. Plastic waste is now so pervasive that on many beaches around the world, washed-up flip-flops and bottles are more prevalent than seashells; remote parts of the ocean are choking on it, and it is so dense that it has invaded the very pores and guts of many fishes and seabirds. Warming air and sea temperatures have put the planet’s ice at great risk, threatening an unprecedented sea level rise, with severe implications for the 145 million of us who live just a few feet above sea level. Various pollutions, especially fertilizers and runoff from industry and development, threaten our estuaries and gulfs, creating dead zones that kill everything. The reefs that circle the globe, the ocean’s warning canaries, are dying from a variety of ills. Eat fish? If so, you have to be concerned; experts predict that by 2050, all the fish species we currently survive on will be gone. Do you like tuna sashimi? Get it now because all of the world’s bluefin is anticipated to be gone by 2012. Forever. Freshwater supplies are endangered globally; new reports suggest that even in the wealthiest nation (the United States), 20 million people drink polluted water every day.
The bottom line is that what happens to the ocean affects each of us, whether we know it or not. As so many of the writers in the pages that follow suggest, as goes the ocean, so goes the human race. There is some hope for optimism, with marine reserves and both national and international laws in the works that may help make a difference. Let’s hope they are enacted and enforced quickly enough to have an effect rather than just preceding an inevitable demise. Around the globe, for example, far too often marine reserves have been set up only after the last fish was taken.
Our book, with writings from some of the most thoughtful and committed protectors, explorers, and interpreters of the ocean, is not intended to scare but to inspire. Now is not a time for complacency regarding any environmental concern; it is not a time for modest steps. Rather, now is the time for action. We hope you will find some clues in these pages for how you might change your individual life to help keep the ocean both viable and welcoming for centuries to come.


On Making Oceans
An Interview with Filmmaker Jacques Perrin
Veteran filmmaker Jacques Perrin is best known outside of his native France for his bold, technology-pushing wildlife films, Microcosmos and Winged Migration. His latest film, Oceans—eight years in the making—breaks new ground in terms of both the story it tells and the incredible beauty of its subject matter. I spoke with Perrin on a sunny, early winter day in Paris, two months before the film’s release in the U.S.
It started with a simple dream: to swim with the fish and the dolphins, to accompany them underwater and as they crossed the oceans. The desire to forget the little we do know in order to rediscover it and see and hear it anew. To invent a camera as fast and nimble as the sea lion, a camera made for the big screen but using short focal lengths so we can get up close and personal with the animals, sparking new relationships and emotions. To stop watching the spectacle and be a part of it. To never slow down—the sensation of speed and vitality is far too precious. That’s what we wanted: a living camera dancing with the whales, leaping with the dolphins, bursting forth with the tuna, and gliding with the manta rays.”
That was Jacques Perrin’s goal for his new film, Oceans. Aided by a cast of many hundreds—including the top echelon of his team: the film’s co-producer Jacques Cluzaud, executive producer Jake Eberts, and biologist and writer Francoise Sarano—he managed to pull it off, creating a jaw-droppingly beautiful and powerful film.
Conceived in Perrin’s head a decade ago, the filmmaking required to match his vision had been a monumental project, taking the mostly underwater camera crews to fifty-four locations around the globe. (At one point, twenty-six location managers and nineteen cameras were in the field on a single day.) Perrin’s films have always been major events. Oceans, funded by a long and varied list including the expected (film companies and television channels) and the unexpected (NGOs and philanthropic foundations, banks, businesses, and regional councils) is no different.
His team built thirteen specially modified digital camera systems and sophisticated waterproof housings for each. The camera operators had to be able to use rebreathers to allow them to stay down for long periods and dive without bubbles; each cameraperson was assigned a security diver-rebreather instructor who shadowed his every flipper-stroke and was responsible for managing and maintaining the dive equipment so the cameraperson could focus solely on the pictures. When the diving site was more than two hours from the closest first aid center specializing in diving accidents, the expedition traveled with a pressurized stretcher and an emergency doctor trained in hyperbaric medicine. They built a high-tech crane dubbed Thetys, using military secrets; a remotely controlled helicopter camera they called Birdy Fly; a torpedo-cam that could be dragged 300 feet behind the boat; and a pole-cam for getting up close to the fishes from above sea level. All that time, energy, and money is apparent on the screen.
They were after something bigger than a nature film or documentary. In the words of the film’s co-producer, Jacques Cluzaud, “To tell the story of the oceans, we had to go beyond statistics, following avenues that opened on a magical and fantastic world, revealing the wonders of the microcosm of the coral reef, the heroism of charging dolphins, the graceful dances of the humpback whales and giant cuttlefish, the horrors of the assault on the ocean and its inhabitants, the incredible spectacle of the raging sea in a storm, the silence of a museum of extinct species, and the questioning gaze of a grouper or a sea elephant. Oceans was not intended to explain behavior patterns and provide information about species. It was not designed to teach, but to make the audience feel.”
Jon Bowermaster: What was the inspiration for this new film?
Jacques Perrin: The idea for Oceans came to me about ten years ago when we were finishing Winged Migration. Still vague, it was an idea for a fiction film about a defender of whales and oceans based on the story of Captain Paul Watson. Then the sea animals grew increasingly important. Of course, the story continued to fill out, getting richer with more and more characters and points of view—that of the sailor, the diver, the oceanographer, the fisherman, the judge, the polluter, and the ocean traveler—to represent every aspect of the ocean. But it was never enough; the ocean has too many faces. And, more and more, the sea creatures were taking over our script, ever more discon - certing. Clearly, there wasn’t just one ocean but thousands of them, making up the great global ocean we couldn’t ignore. It filled us with enthusiasm over the days and nights and years that we worked on the script. Jacques Cluzaud and I surrounded ourselves with an indispensable, unbeatable team who helped us develop an intimate understanding of the oceans.
JB: How did the project evolve from there?
JP: After three years of collaborative work, we realized the script we had finally finished was a dead end; at three and a half hours, the film wove the stories of human characters and sea creatures into the greatest impressionistic vision of the ocean—and was way too long. We came to an abrupt, painful stop.
We had to start over, build it from the ground up, using only what was essential: the marine creatures, the best advocates there are for the ocean. As long as you’re not just in it to film pretty pictures or vent your pessimism, this kind of filmmaking is the best weapon you have to testify, take a stand, denounce, and convey your indignation, no matter how complex the subject. The evocative power of cinema could truly resonate with that of the ocean.
JB: What were your biggest challenges?
JP: Of course, we’re not the first to make a movie about the sea. But we wanted something else. Wasn’t it possible to make something different and innovative using images we might have seen before? Naturally, it wasn’t easy. The breadth of the ocean cannot be defined from a single point of view. It took a long time: three years of writing and pre-production, nearly four years in production, endless trial and error that allowed us to pinpoint our desires and better define our intentions as we went along.
JB: How did the making of Oceans compare to that of Winged Migration?
JP: Though Winged Migration was a challenge, Oceans was incredibly more complicated. Underwater, our cameramen were physically and visually handicapped, too slow to swim as fast as fish and in an environment where visibility is rarely greater than fifty feet. Yet we wanted to express the life and movements of sea animals as different as the cuttlefish and the sailfish. Oceans isn’t a documentary; it’s a wildlife opera, and each animal played its part, contributing a few notes to the score.
The essence of a documentary is that you start off with a theory that you wish to explain using pictures or images. In a way, it becomes an illustrated text. Our case was a bit different because we spent a long time listening to scientists, learning from them, digesting that information, and re-expressing it by giving full throttle to nature itself, allowing nature to express itself fully, getting really into the heart of what nature could show us, which is a very emotional way of expressing it, and the viewer should feel that emotion.
It’s a bit like the end-of-the-nineteenth-century painters doing seascapes, for example. They would show you colors of the sea and colors of the sky and would perhaps describe scientifically what was happening at a particular point of time. What I hoped to do was convey that expression and that emotion in a similar way.
JB: Filming birds in the air versus fish in the sea requires very different techniques. What were your biggest challenges?
JP: With Winged Migration, we were trying to see things that we know, animals that we know, but see them differently and therefore discover new things about them. We’ve done that in this film in different ways, first in the way in which we filmed and then in the way it’s been edited. It’s presented to give you that very close feel to the animals, especially by filming them extremely fast, in the speed of their movement. For example, if you are following a dolphin at 10 knots in the water, or 22 knots outside water, you see things differently, in a new light, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. So we’re very close to them.
We had all sorts of advisors, but scientists were not dictating to us to do certain things. We just followed the animals; they guided us, kind of telling us what to film, what not to film, and how we should feel. We might be right in the middle of them, but their behavior didn’t change with our presence, which is what makes it so special, the fact that we are there, we observe them, but they continue to behave in a completely natural way without being modified in any way.
JB: What do you hope viewers will take away from Oceans? What has been your experience so far?
JP: We have heard several times, after private viewings of Oceans, people coming out of the theater saying, “We didn’t realize the diversity that we talk about so much is an expression of life and movement.” To us, that is what is important to show. We are not just talking about ordinary fishes; we are talking about predators and prey, about innate and acquired behavior. We’re not just talking about fish that are going to be eaten or displayed in a store or a market but about beautiful, graceful animals moving in a natural, balletic way. What we are trying to do is show that this diversity is something that we belong to as well, that we are not more than these animals, that we are not in any way better or greater but just another species, part of the huge diversity that exists on the planet. We are not just showing them a gallery of pretty animal pictures but all of life’s theater, which we hope is going to move them, blow them away.
JB: After all these years of such intense filming, do you find you are more concerned about the ocean and its creatures?
JP: Absolutely. During these eight years, several species of fish have disappeared forever.
JB: What can be done to save the rest?
JP: I truly think individuals can change things. Otherwise, it’s just like going to church and lighting a candle and hoping that something is going to happen. We need to do more than that. We need to have tighter regulations, a United Nations of the Sea so to speak, and it should no longer be mere rhetoric for conferences and discussions. We’ve got to go much further and really have an armed sense of protection of the sea and its nature. I think, however, that more people are becoming aware of these issues and that they are going to put real pressure on governments to take action along these lines.
The ocean is really quite strong and capable of regenerating itself if it is allowed to do so. I think our film is an ode to the ocean, and I think if we sing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, and we sing in tune, we can make a difference.

The World Is Blue
Sylvia Earle
Known around the world as “Her Deepness,” Sylvia has ocean experiences that span seven decades and that have taken her to every corner of the ocean planet. She is the first to remind us that we know very little about 95 percent of the ocean, its undersea world. When she talks, all of the world’s ocean lovers listen.
Standing on the shore and looking out to sea, the boy said, “There’s a lot of water out there.” And the wise old oceanographer responded, “And that’s only the top of it.”
Richard Ellis, Singing Whales and Flying Squid
One hundred miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River, where green inshore water gives way to the ethereal indigo of the open sea, I was lowered over the side of the NOAA research vessel, Gordon Gunter, in a one-person submersible. According to old records, deep coral reefs should be somewhere nearby on the seafloor 1,800 feet below, and I hoped to document them with the camera mounted on the outside of the little sub.
Water swirled over the clear dome covering my head, and free of the deployment hook and cable, I touched the sub’s foot pedals and began to descend. Shafts of bright sunlight illuminated the surface waters, a vast arena of pale blue shading downward to deepening shades of sapphire. I powered down slowly, passing through a mass of plum-sized comb jellies, translucent animals with eight bands of iridescent cilia rippling with rainbows as light struck them at certain angles. Minute flecks of life and small clumps of organic “snow” were barely visible as I passed one hundred feet, about as deep as scuba divers usually go. I was aware at two hundred feet of how nitrogen muddles a diver’s mind and how increasing pressure decreases the time allowed without incurring long decompression penalties. Inside the sub, I was protected from the pressure imposed by the weight of the water and had hours, not minutes, of time to explore and no need for decompression.
At four hundred feet, I was at the edge of the almost-light, almost-dark “twilight zone,” where the deepening blue fades into a continuous velvety darkness. Sparks of light appeared, the living fire of deep-sea animals whose bodies contain bioluminescent bacteria or the basic chemicals needed to create the flash, sparkle, and glow deep-sea creatures use to signal one another, attract prey, or confuse would-be predators.
At one thousand feet, more than halfway to the bottom, I was keenly aware of how few humans had been privileged to be immersed deep in the heart of the ocean and how much of the planet’s liquid space remains unknown, unexplored. The average depth is two-and-a-half miles, the maximum, seven miles, and less than 5 percent has been seen, let alone mapped with the accuracy of what has been charted of the surface of the moon or Mars. I thought how easy it is to go to a place on Earth no one had ever been to before. All you need is a little submarine!
As I approached the seafloor, a scattering of shrimp-like creatures and small fish appeared, then shadowy mounds of what looked like waist-high shrubs. Not coral but, rather, the closely intertwined branches of a very different kind of animal, bearded tube worms, each pale, slim body crowned with a tuft of bright red plumes. Discovered late in the twentieth century, these creatures helped transform concepts about how energy is fixed and passed along by pathways other than those originating with photosynthesis. Here, beyond the reach of sunlight, chemosynthetic bacteria within the worm’s tissues and in the surrounding water generate food for themselves, the worms, and a rich assemblage of fish, crabs, starfish, shrimp, anemones, and many others whose history precedes that of humankind by hundreds of millions of years. I felt like a time traveler with a passport to glimpse life on Earth as it existed long before dinosaurs, birds, trees, and flowers appeared.
Diving into the ocean is rather like diving into the history of life on Earth. Nearly all of the major divisions of plants, animals, protists, and other forms that have ever existed have at least some representation there, whereas only about half occur on the land. In a single gulp of plankton-filled water, a whale shark may swallow fifteen or so of the great wedges of animal life, fish, copepods, arrow worms, flatworms, jellyfish, comb jellies, salps, the larval stages of starfish, sponges, polychaete worms, peanut worms, ribbon worms, mollusks, brachiopods, and more. Some think of the ocean as a great basin of sand, rocks, and water, but it is really more like an enormous bowl of blue minestrone where all of the bits and pieces are alive. During thousands of hours suspended in the ocean’s embrace, I have glided side by side with dozens of dolphins; been nose to nose with humpback whales, wreathed with jewel-like chains of luminous jellies and followed around coral reefs by large inquisitive groupers; and had close encounters with curious squids.
I have come to understand that every drop of ocean has carbon-based life in abundance, although most is too small to be seen without powerful magnification. Thousands of new kinds of microbes recently have been discovered thriving in each spoonful sampled of what appears to be clear, lifeless seawater. Some miniscule blue-green bacteria are so abundant and productive that they generate the oxygen in one of every five breaths we take, but their existence was not detected until the 1990s.
More has been learned about the nature of the ocean—and its importance to all that we care about—in the past half century than during all preceding human history. A turning point came with the view, first seen by astronauts, of Earth as a blue sphere gleaming against the vastness of space. With increasing urgency, people wondered, “Are we alone? Is there life elsewhere in the universe?”
The quest begins by asking, “Where is the water?”
That’s the first question astrobiologist Chris McKay poses in his ongoing search for life on Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond. “Water,” he says, “is the single nonnegotiable thing life requires. There is plenty of water without life . . . but nowhere is there life without water.”
No water, no life; no blue, no green; or, as poet W. H. Auden points out, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
Earth is blessed with abundant water, and most of it, 97 percent, is ocean. It follows that 97 percent of the biosphere is thus ocean space. Yet, far into the twentieth century, basic knowledge about the scope and scale of even basic features of the sea was unknown. Discovery of the tallest peaks, deepest canyons, broadest plains, and longest mountain ranges on Earth awaited technologies that did not exist prior to the 1950s. Some questioned the existence of life in the deepest parts of the ocean until 1960 when two men confirmed the presence of numerous creatures, including a flounder-like fish, seven miles down in the Mariana Trench. A new kingdom of life, the Archie, microbial forms that synthesize sustenance and provide the basis of rich communities of life in the absence of sunlight, was not discovered until the late 1970s.
What else is out there, down there, that we need to understand?


On Sale
Mar 23, 2010
Page Count
336 pages