By Sylvia Earle & David Helvarg
We've recently seen the remarkable capacity of youth to mobilize and to inspire us with a message of change in their march against gun violence. Theirs is also a generation equipped with technologies not just to connect to each other but to better understand our blue planet in ways unimaginable even a generation ago. These include satellite tagging and following of migratory species such as whales, sharks and tuna and accessing the deep ocean with both autonomous robots and human occupied submersibles that allow us to dive into the history of our Earth.
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Sometime last year I had the great fortune to be swimming in an extremely remote part of the southern Pacific Ocean. I was floating over one of the last coral reefs to still have some pops of otherworldly, shocking, neon bright color left here and there.
Between the green grey algae coating and the bleached white bones you could still find a mesmerizing hot pink or a blinding chartreuse. Gliding along, looking for some of these colorful signs of life, I spot what looks like a miniature pair of slender legs sticking up from the coral skeletons.
It was as if a very tiny person was diving into another worlds portal.
And sure enough she was ...
I pulled at a tiny foot, and out of the branches of dead coral came a thing from another era.
A coral encrusted body emerged, her long blond hair now twisted with a pale green seaweed. She was a 1970s Barbie stuck for decades, like so much plastic and styrofoam in the ocean, never to biodegrade. Because her head was buried, the last time she had seen this reef was several decades ago, when it was still a veritable rainbow teeming with fish, sea mammals and color.
She'd been transformed not into a Barbie mermaid, but Barbie sea hag, and the reef transformed into a ghostly abandoned shell of its former self.
What a shock.
What has happened.
These last few days I've been swimming again in the clear warm waters of the Pacific.
A part of the world where I first learned to scuba dive when I was a preteen. It was here I first realized that under the sea was another entire parallel world. One that was exploding with amazing, intricate shapes, outrageous colors and filled with all kinds of life forms, striped, spotted, illuminated, transparent, miraculous. It's when I first wanted to be a mermaid.
My heart is breaking now, as I see these corals smothered in slime and find only a few lonely fish dotting what was once a glorious wonder.
Tragically, this is not endemic to one part of the world.
It is a global crisis.
Just recently, reports shocked the world, as news of a massive bleaching event killed off a third of Earth's Great Barrier Reef.
Healthy coral is essential to a healthy planet. Coral provides a home to more than a million diverse species, they give protection to coastal cities and communities, and are a source of medicines that treat dangerous illnesses and diseases. Reefs create food, jobs and income for millions.
In a short time we have collectively exacerbated the death spiral of these fragile life forms and since most humans don't spend much time under water, most are not aware of its dire state.
It is decimated.
It is an emergency.
It is dying, and fast.
But, we know what needs to be done to reverse the destruction of coral reefs. They are big changes, but not impossible and we could save an entire ecosystem from collapse and possibly help save ourselves. Interestingly, many of the solutions to help our ocean and coral reefs are the same required for the revitalization and climate crisis mitigation on land.
To prevent ocean acidification and warming, we need to:
- create more "hope spots," marine sanctuaries, places where fish have the opportunity to repopulate and corals can grow
- reforest and build soil, which helps to secure soil stability and helps prevent runoff, it brings fertility and sequesters carbon
- shift away from industrial agriculture models to sustainable, small scale, non chemical, permaculture agriculture
- create a stringent plan for the runoff from new and existing coastal developments or golf courses which lead to lethal algae blooms
- reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and swiftly shift to clean regenerative energy
- create and enforce more stringent laws that prevent overfishing, including poaching of tropical, algae eating reef fish for the aquarium and pet industry
- ban destructive fishing practices like trawling
- reject or ban non-biodegradable disposable pollution like plastics and styrofoam
- require warning labels on coral killing sunblock
I understand there will soon be a remake of the film Splash. I'm afraid they could search the world for locations to match the corals we swam through in 1984 making the original Splash, and never find them. Ultimately, I'm afraid they will have to simulate them with special effects or computer-generated imagery, just like we will have to make real changes in the way we live on this Earth to reestablish a healthy ocean. I deeply wish, from the bottom of my heart and from the bottom of this suffering ocean, that all those involved might have the opportunity to witness some of its glory, that they may make a film which in some way helps to preserve the life of the ocean that this fairy tale celebrates.
May they fall in love with the ocean, and the magnificence of this underwater world, and may their love for this crucial life support system inspire and galvanize them to help us do whatever is necessary to abate its untimely death.
While making a documentary, Blue Centennial, with filmmaker Robert Nixon, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry and world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle, my son Finn Kennedy, 18, and his uncle Max impulsively dove from a speeding motorboat into a pod of wild bottle nose dolphins carousing in the bow wave.
Three Mammals: Finn Kennedy while swimming with two wild bottle nose dolphins near Buck Island.Bryce Groark, TrueBlueFilms
The dolphins turned and came back to play with them. They spent more than an hour circling and touching Finn as he free dove near Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Skerry and Earl said that, during their decades of studying, photographing and swimming with marine mammals, neither of them had ever observed the kind of intimate, playful and curious behaviors by dolphins that they witnessed that day as the animals interacted with Finn.
Finn's great uncle John F. Kennedy designated Buck Island as the world's first marine park in 1961. JFK ordered a mural of Buck Island painted on the wall of the White House indoor pool where he exercised each day.
"I felt so lucky for that experience," Finn said. "There were six to eight of them. They would follow me down to about 35 feet and brush up against me repeatedly, then accompany me back to the surface swimming tight circles around me till we all breached together.
"They would stop in the water column 10 feet below the surface, stand on their tails to look me directly in the eye, face-to-face. They would imitate whatever posture I adopted under water. If I lay on my side or my back with my head and feet up they would do the same thing, elevating their tail flukes then dropping their tail or pectoral fins as I lowered my feet or hands.
"They were clearly communicating. They were using sign language but it was full of enthusiasm, humor and affection. It was like they were reaching out to distant cousins from across the millennium."
One of the many great films that will be screened at this year's Mountainfilm in Telluride is Mission Blue, a documentary about legendary marine biologist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her personal mission to save the ocean and create a network of protected marine sanctuaries.
Mission Blue was shot throughout three years in numerous locations around the world. The documentary traces Earle’s remarkable personal journey, from her earliest memories exploring the ocean as a young girl to her days leading a daring undersea mission in the Virgin Islands and beyond.
With more than 7,000 hours and more than 70 expeditions underwater, Earle is uniquely positioned to help us understand the best way to restore the health of the ocean. Earle's plan is to create a global parks system for the ocean that she calls "Hope Spots."
Fisher Stevens, director and producer of Mission Blue, guides us through the film.
Mission Blue is a wake-up call that provides answers to the daunting challenge of how to protect the world's oceans that are under attack like never before. For more than 60 years, Earle, National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence, has been leading the charge to restore the ocean to health before it’s too late. As Earle says: “No blue; no green. No ocean; no us.”
Mission Blue will be distributed by Netflix starting Aug. 15.
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