Where blue meets blue

The upcoming Earth Day (April 22) will be the 40th; I’ve been lobbying, quietly, that this time-round the day be labeled Ocean Day instead. In part because this is without statistical question more of an ocean planet than a continental one, and because I think right now around the world there is a tsunami wave of interest in all things “ocean,” particularly the threats to its health and its fisheries.

(To that end, my new book is called simply OCEANS, Threats to the Sea and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide. Companion book to the new Jacques Perrin/DisneyNature film of the same name (OCEANS), both are officially out on Earth Day/Ocean Day. )

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 is it that this planet is called Earth, when seventy five percent of it is Ocean? That this is not known as Planet Ocean speaks only to the ego of man, since 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.

Put me on the edge, on or in the ocean at sunrise, sunset, under a blazing midday sun or even a small storm and I am content. For the past twenty years I’ve managed just that countless times. A wide 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, 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 long sandy beaches in Gabon and India and 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. Though their cultures may differ – dress, food, religions 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 for what it might portend. Increasingly too, each is impacted by a handful of environmental risks now impacting the ocean, its coastlines and both its marine and human populations.

As the human population grows, headed fast towards nine billion, the planet’s coastlines grow ever more crowded. Fourteen of the planet’s seventeen largest cities are built on the edge of the ocean. Nearly half the world’s population – more than three 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, I wonder, stop to ask, How is this big, beautiful ocean of ours doing? While it has long seemed limitless, its resources infinite, there are myriad signs that we’ve now abused the ocean to the point of no return. The list of harms is long and includes threats from climate change (rising sea levels and acidification), various pollutions and over fishing. Eat fish? If so, you have to be concerned about the ocean; experts predict that by 2050 all of the fish species we currently survive on will be gone. Like tuna sashimi? Get it now since all of the world’s bluefin is anticipated to be gone by 2012. Forever. Fresh water supplies are endangered globally, with new reports suggesting that even in the wealthiest of nations (the U.S.) twenty million people drink polluted water every day.

There is some room for hope and 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 that they can 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.

At each of my coastal stops during the past twenty years I have paused for long minutes, sometimes an hour and occasionally more, often far off the coast in the middle of the vast ocean, to ponder the horizon line, to watch the sun fall into the sea, or rise again. In each of those scenes I have found an incredible renewing energy. And it is the memories of those horizon lines – and the people I’ve met along the ocean’s edges — that keeps me going back for more.