Celebrating a Living Ocean of Wonder

Juvenile fish find refuge in a reef in Barbados.
Juvenile fish find refuge in a reef in Barbados.

Update: I have left the Sustainable Oceans Alliance to work on applications of emerging tech (Blockchain, smart contracts, Big Data, etc) to ocean conservation.

Imagine a planet where 90% of the habitable space is unexplored, where launching expeditions into that uncharted territory almost always yields new species and insights, and where the unique features and isolation of a dark world harbor plants and animals that bend the rules of life itself. Now take a breath—half of the oxygen you just inhaled comes from that dark, uncharted realm. The planet is Earth, and the dark realm is our ocean.

What’s out there is astonishing— from fish with transparent skulls, to octopi that flap fins near their head to glide through the sea (aptly named the Dumbo Octopus). Animals in the deep ocean light up in dazzling displays of bioluminescent color. The depths of the sea contain entire ecosystems that never see the light of day. But beyond the wonders of the deep and other mysteries of the sea— the migrations across entire oceans that fish, cetaceans and reptiles undertake, symbiosis and solidarity between species, and the fascinating diversity of marine life—we should pay attention to the ocean for a more basic reason: it makes life possible.

If you’ve taken more than one breath in your life, you’ve depended on the ocean to survive. If you’ve ever eaten food that took rainwater to grow, you’ve depended on the ocean for nourishment. If you’ve enjoyed mild weather, you’ve witnessed the ocean’s gift to Earth.

The ocean gives us half the oxygen we breathe, and redistributes heat through ocean currents that stabilize the climate. It also absorbs most of the extra heat trapped by our atmosphere, and feeds or provides income to over a billion people. The sea is the source of almost all rainwater which falls on Earth and takes in all the minerals and waste that flow out from land through rivers.

If our bodies were a microcosm of the planet, the ocean would be our heart and blood, our lungs, kidneys, food source and fever prevention system. All the vital functions of the planet are executed or supported by the ocean, its “blue heart.” Those functions are enabled by a delicate balance, an intimate connection between biological, geological, and chemical cycles in the ocean. The biogeochemistry of the ocean enables life on our blue planet.

The prefix ‘bio-’ in that word (biogeochemistry) underscores the importance of life to Earth’s life support system. A world of living wonder in the deep and in the shallows interacts with chemistry and geology to deliver the services provided by our ocean. Chemistry and geology contribute to our planet’s vital functions, but the ocean’s bounty is enabled by life, by a living ocean of wonder.

Trillions of plankton take in Carbon Dioxide and produce Oxygen—in aggregate, their movement is powerful enough to affect ocean circulation. Whales redistribute nutrients both from the deep to the surface and from higher latitudes to tropical waters. Androgynous fish bring back nutrients from the ocean to land, where they fertilize forests. The list goes on and on.

Every time we breathe, every time we feel rain on our skin, every time we eat or drink or just enjoy weather that’s bearable, we are connected to the sea. The ocean provides all this through an abundance of life, but its living systems are under threat. We should celebrate all the ocean gives to us. The World Ocean Festival, coming up on June 4th is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the living ocean of wonder that makes Earth a living planet.

Let’s reflect on the importance of the ocean to our own life, not just for enjoyment and inspiring awe, but for our survival. Let’s notice, as Dr. Sylvia Earle says, that “We should protect the ocean as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”

Sebastian Nicholls is the Program Director of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance, a global organization that empowers the next generation to become leaders in preserving the health and sustainability of our ocean. The Sustainable Oceans Alliance is a proud partner and supporter of the World Ocean Festival, a public event to #SaveOurOcean on June 4th in New York City that will include the first-of-its-kind Ocean March, a parade of large and small boats on the water as a statement of unity for the ocean. Learn more at www.worldoceanfest.org

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