A Sweet Spot in Time

An essay of hope, or why the ocean matters to everyone, everywhere



Pristine coral reefs like this one in Fiji inspire hope and optimism in divers. Despite the threats of overfishing, global warming and ocean acidification, our oceans have the capacity to thrive.

When I was born in the mid-1930s, Earth's 2 billion people were about to enter an unprecedented era of prosperity. Despite crippling wars and diseases that took the lives of millions, economic recovery surged through the aftermath of the Great Depression and two world wars, the population doubling in less than a half a century to reach 4 billion by 1980. With nearly 7 billion of us on Earth today and 2 billion more expected by the middle of this century, our growth as a species may appear boundless.

But this growth is not without cost. About half of the world's original forests have been consumed, most of them since 1950. Ninety percent of all large wild fish (and many small ones as well) have disappeared from the oceans, the result of devastatingly efficient industrial fishing. Entire ecosystems with their treasuries of distinctive plants and animals have been extinguished, both on land and in the sea. Only in times of great natural catastrophes, such as when comets or meteors collided with our planet, has the way forward been so swiftly and dramatically altered. Never before have such powerful changes been caused by the actions of a single species.
A Legacy of Abundance

Sylvia Earle in 2010.
I experienced my first breath underwater as a young scientist in 1953, and I marveled at the clarity of the ocean and the wealth and diversity of life during trips to the Florida Keys. Pink conchs plowed trails though seagrass meadows, and schools of colorful fish crowded the branches of elkhorn and staghorn coral. Long, bristly antennae marked the presence of lobsters under ledges and crevices, and elegantly striped and irrepressibly curious Nassau grouper followed me on most dives and likely would have continued onto the beach but for the limitations of fins and gills.

Six decades later, I note the difference. Globally, about half of the coral reefs that existed when I was a child are gone or are in a state of serious decay. The waters of the reefs where I made some of my earliest dives are not nearly so clear as they are in my recollections. The great forests of branching corals are largely gone. The pink conchs and Nassau grouper are mostly memories — the remaining few are protected in U.S. waters because of their rarity.

With care, there is a chance that these and many other species may recover, but some losses are irrecoverable. I missed meeting, for instance, one of Florida's most charismatic animals, the Caribbean monk seal, a playful St. Bernard-sized creature that once lolled on beaches throughout the region, sometimes ranging as far north as Galveston, Texas. The last one was sighted in 1952. The species is now officially listed as extinct.
The World Below
Our exploration of the ocean has increased significantly over these six decades as well. Unknown until the late 1970s was the existence of deep-water hydrothermal vents that gush a hot soup of water, minerals and microbes. They foster complex communities of creatures, including a previously unknown kingdom of microbes that synthesize food in the absence of sunlight and photosynthesis. No one attained access to the deepest sea until 1960, when two men descended to 35,797 feet (greater than the height of Mount Everest) in the submersible bathyscaphe Trieste for a brief glimpse of the deepest point on Earth — the Challenger Deep — in the Mariana Trench near Guam. No one returned to those depths until March 2012, when Canadian explorer and film director James Cameron ventured there in his personal one-man submersible.


Google Earth now allows a means to explore the ocean as well.

Technologies that enabled humans to go to the moon and send robots to Mars have given us a vitally important view from afar of Earth: a living blue jewel in a vast universe of unreachable, uninhabitable planets and stars, suspended in apparent emptiness. On a cell phone, iPad or computer, 10-year-old children can now view Google Earth, zoom from space to their own backyards, fly the Grand Canyon, and, since 2009, dive into "Google Ocean" to vicariously explore the depths of the sea.


The Great Barrier Reef is so immense it can be seen from space.
New methods of gathering, connecting, evaluating and communicating data, of measuring change over time and projecting future outcomes based on knowledge that no other species has the capacity to acquire are all causes for hope. But these gains must be approached with a healthy dose of caution. Even now, with all our advances, less than 5 percent of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored or mapped with the same precision and detail available for the moon, Mars or Jupiter.

The great conservationist Rachel Carson, who summed up what was known about the blue part of the planet in her 1951 book, The Sea Around Us, was unaware that continents move around at a stately, geological pace, or that the greatest mountain chains, deepest valleys, broadest plains and majority of life on Earth are in the ocean.

"Eventually man … found his way back to the sea," she wrote. "And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents." In Carson's lifetime (1907 to 1964) she did not — could not — know about the most significant discovery concerning the ocean: It is not too big to fail.
The Sweet Spot
Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean or what we could take out. Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now. We are in a "sweet spot" in time. Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can ensure an enduring place for ourselves within the living systems that sustain us. We are at an unprecedented, pivotal point in history in which the decisions we make in the next 10 years will determine the direction of the next 10,000.

"If I could be anywhere in time, it would be now. If I could be anywhere it would be here," croons singer-songwriter Jackson Browne in a lilting tune he composed in 2010. Why here? Why now? Where would you choose, given the power slip into the future or glide back decades, centuries or even millions or billions of years from our "here" on Earth and our 21st-century "now."

Some might say, "anywhere but here and now." Wars rage around today's world, and poverty and hunger haunt hundreds of millions. The global economy is deeply troubled, and diseases are rampant. The natural fabric of life on Earth is in tatters — with consequences that threaten our own existence.

Earthlings take for granted that the world is blue, embraced by an ocean that harbors most of the life on the planet, contains 97 percent of the water, drives weather and climate, stabilizes temperature, generates most of the oxygen in the atmosphere, absorbs much of the carbon dioxide and otherwise tends to hold the planet steady. It makes our world a friendly place in a universe of inhospitable options.

Owing to more than 2 billion years of microbial photosynthetic activity in the sea and several hundred million years of photosynthesis on land, Earth's atmosphere now is just right for humans: roughly 21 percent oxygen, 79 percent nitrogen and trace gases that include just enough carbon dioxide to drive photosynthesis and, thus, the continuous production of oxygen and food. One group of inconspicuous but enormously abundant sea-dwelling, blue-green bacteria, Prochlorococcus, churns out 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, supplying one of every five breaths we take. With other planktonic species as well as seagrasses, mangroves, kelps and thousands of other kinds of algae, ocean organisms do the heavy lifting in terms of taking up carbon dioxide and water via photosynthesis, producing sugar that drives ocean food chains and yielding atmospheric oxygen in the process. As much as 70 percent of the air we breathe is produced by creatures of the sea.

Two of my friends, Nancy Knowlton, Ph.D., and Jeremy Jackson, Ph.D., both highly respected marine scientists, are affectionately known as the Doctors Doom and Gloom — and for good reasons. Keen observers, they have witnessed and documented a swift, sharp decline in the world's ocean ecosystems. Some once-common species will likely be extinct soon no matter what we do. Hundreds of "dead zones," which result in large part from recent land-based pollution, plague coastal regions globally. Enormous "garbage patches" of plastic blight the sea, some sinking into the depths, some cast ashore in great windrows and all destined to be permanent evidence of our carelessness.


Vast fields of elkhorn coral like this were once common in the Florida Keys.

There are plenty of reasons for despair, but I see it another way: Half the planet's coral reefs are still in good shape. Ten percent of the sharks, swordfish, bluefin tuna, groupers, snappers, halibut and wild salmon are still swimming. Best of all, there is widespread awareness that protection of nature is not a luxury. Rather, it is the key to all past, present and future prosperity. We may be the planet's worst nightmare, but we are also its best hope.
Making Peace with Nature

The Napoleon wrasse is overfished solely for the pseudo-value of its lips.
Early in the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt was among those who led a movement to protect natural areas, watersheds, landscapes and places of cultural and historic interest as National Parks — a concept that Ken Burns called "America's best idea." Other nations followed suit, nearly all adopting the concept, and protected areas now encompass about 14 percent of the planet's total land area. At present, less than 2 percent of the ocean is protected, but that may soon change.

In the past, the ocean did not require specific policies to protect it from human actions. Polar regions and the deep ocean were protected by their inaccessibility, and returning to the same place in the sea was more art than science until recent technologies made pinpoint navigation possible. Comprehensive knowledge of currents, tides and temperature along with weather forecasting and advanced communication capabilities now make all parts of the ocean safer than ever before for shipping, fishing, mining, finding and retrieving lost ships and much more. Technologies as sophisticated as those used to access outer space are being applied to exploit the ocean's deep inner space for oil, gas, minerals and marine life. Changing, too, are policies about ocean governance. Historically, property rights and boundaries — and thus protection — were easier to establish and manage on land than at sea.

Well into the 20th century, nations claimed jurisdiction over the ocean from the shoreline to just three nautical miles offshore — the range of a cannon shot in the 1600s. Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius articulated in 1609 the widely adopted concept of "freedom of the seas" in international waters as "the common heritage of mankind," in which peaceful navigation and access to fish, minerals and other assets would be freely available to all. Even today, nearly half the Earth — the "high seas" — is regarded as a largely unregulated global commons, used by all and protected by none.

In the mid-1970s, Australia established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the United States gave sanctuary status to the historic shipwreck Monitor, the first of more than 5,000 ocean areas that have since been designated around the world. Most are small with only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of all the planet's waters set aside for the protection of marine life. This is far short of the goal of 30 percent we were supposed to reach by 2012, a goal set by the World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, in 2003. Clearly it is not enough to maintain the vital functions the ocean provides: the basic life support mechanisms that we have heretofore taken for granted.

In 2009, in response to being awarded a TED Prize — $100,000 and the chance to make a wish big enough to "change the world" — I suggested the following: "I wish you would use all means at your disposal — Films! Expeditions! The web! New submarines! — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, ‘hope spots,' large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet. How much is large enough? Some say 10 percent, some say 30 percent. You decide: How much of your heart do you want to protect? Whatever it is, a fraction of 1 percent is not enough."

At the rate we've been going, it will be near the end of the century before we can attain the 30 percent goal targeted by the World Parks Congress. All the same, there is a growing awareness that our fate and the ocean's are closely linked. If the ocean is in trouble, so are we. It is, and we are.
Awareness on the Rise

Healthy shark populations are worth more to mankind (in terms of tourism dollars and ecosystem stabilization) than dead sharks.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. A global conference in Dubai in December 2011 focused attention on "blue carbon," acknowledging the ocean's important role in taking carbon dioxide from the air and the urgent need for greater ocean protection globally. The World Economic Forum in Davos in 2012 for the first time devoted several major sessions to critical ocean issues, and soon thereafter the British publication The Economist sponsored a World Oceans Summit in Singapore, which brought together leaders in industry, science, technology and conservation to discuss the connections between human prosperity and healthy ocean systems.

Ocean issues were prominently on the agenda of the 170 leaders who gathered at the United Nations' "Rio+20" conference in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, but one of the most pressing topics — a plan for governance of the "high seas" (the vast blue global commons) — was tabled for two years. As Ghislaine Maxwell, founder of the TerraMar Project, put it, "No one and everyone owns the high seas."

Dozens of scientists worked together to produce a sobering report, the Ocean Health Index, which was released in the summer of 2012; it offers a comprehensive system for measuring and monitoring the condition of the world's coastal waters, country by country. Topics such as fisheries, tourism, biodiversity, carbon storage and economic well-being were considered. The global score, 60 on a scale of 0 to 100, suggests cause for hope but demonstrates an urgent need for improvement.

Since my TED wish in 2009, several nations have shown leadership in increasing ocean care. The tone was set in 2006 by two presidents: George W. Bush, who designated major areas in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the western Pacific, and Anote Tong, leader of the Pacific island Republic of Kiribati, who declared protection that year and in 2008 for 158,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the nation's 33 atolls and islands. Another island nation, the United Kingdom, followed in 2010 with what is presently the world's largest fully protected marine reserve: 225,810 square miles around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In November 2012 Australia created a network of marine reserves covering 888,035 square miles of sea and bringing the total area of Australia's protected ocean to 1.2 million square miles.

Small island nations including Fiji, Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Gilberts, the Maldives, the Seychelles, the Bahamas, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, and dozens of others have quite suddenly become "large ocean nations," with major voices in the politics of ocean management. Some have aligned with Japanese interests in continued hunting of whales, and many have sold licenses to take fish and minerals for cash and economic assistance. But there is a growing consciousness that protection can yield greater and more enduring financial and social benefits than traditional exploitation.

In August 2012, I witnessed leaders from 16 Pacific Island nations gather in the Cook Islands for their 43rd annual meeting to discuss topics of mutual concern, including sea-level rise, declining fish stocks and growing dependence on imported fossil fuels and tourism revenue. The Cook Islands has a population of 20,000 people who live on 15 islands, which together have a landmass slightly larger than that of Washington, D.C. Their ocean mass, however, occupies more than a million square miles.

In late August, Henry Puna, the charismatic prime minister of that country, announced the creation of a 424,000-square-mile protected area encompassing most of the southern Cook Islands, an area bigger than France and Germany. He observed, "The marine park will provide the necessary framework to promote sustainable development by balancing economic growth interests such as tourism, fishing and deep sea mining with conserving core biodiversity in the ocean … a contribution from the Cook Islands to the wellbeing of not only our peoples, but also of humanity." New Caledonia, too, announced its intention to create a marine park covering more than half a million square miles of ocean.



As many as 100 million sharks may be killed annually, primarily for the devastatingly wasteful shark-fin trade.

Prior to the meeting of island leaders, I accompanied a small group from Conservation International (CI) for several days of diving around Aitutaki, one of the atolls of the Cook Islands. We were thrilled with our repeated encounters of a Napoleon wrasse, a large and spectacularly ornamented fish. Valued in Asian markets as delicacies (especially their large lips), the once-common species is now extremely rare. We were also pleased, but sad, to see a shark. We saw just one in a part of the ocean that should have had hundreds. My dive buddy, Greg Stone, leader of CI's marine program and an ocean policy strategist, has worked closely with President Tong, Prime Minister Puna and other island leaders to foster a grand vision for an integrated "oceanscape," a concept based on the cooperation of all the region's island nations toward the goal of protecting their shared ocean assets. The presence or absence of sharks and other large fish are good indicators of reef productivity. "Healthy reefs need sharks, and sharks need healthy reefs," Stone noted. "Both are worth more alive than dead."


Caribbean monk seals were hunted to extinction by the early 1950s.
Linking "natural capital" to human prosperity and continued survival is an idea whose time came too late to save Steller's sea cows, Caribbean monk seals, great auks and gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean, and it may be too late for many other species and systems now on the edge of oblivion. But it is not too late to restore some of the world's damaged reefs, mangroves and marshes and to make the blue planet safer, healthier and more resilient. Lucky us: We are residents of Earth, the sweetest place in the universe, at this, the sweetest time.

© Alert Diver —Spring 2013
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