Wendy Lull | SSC President | originally posted September 28, 2015
For those of us who live in coastal communities, sometimes it’s hard to find good news about the state of the ocean. Sea level rise, storm surge, ocean acidification, degraded fisheries, entangled whales, seals and sea birds starving to death with bellies full of plastic—it’s enough to keep anyone up at night. I’ve worked for the ocean for decades and some days, it’s hard to have hope. A few years ago, I asked Ocean Explorer Sylvia Earle how she can have hope about the ocean: she’s been diving all over the world since 1966, and in her characteristically calm way said simply “because we know now; we know more about the ocean than ever before.” She was right.
Technology has enabled us to see into the abyss and discover an ecosystem not based on sunlight: who knew? We know that there are currents within currents, and that organisms use those currents as we do highways. We know now that the earth’s ecosystem is a complex system and that many of the issues we are facing today, are the unintended consequences of solving problems in isolation. The industrial revolution was a hailed as a great reducer of hard, hard manual labor and completely changed how people, materials and information moved. No one ever envisioned that resulting emissions would endanger our health and change the pH of the largest geophysical system on the planet: the sea.
Some might argue that the very vastness of the sea is why they are helpless to make a difference. What can one person do when confronted with such a big problem? We’ve been here before though, and as individuals and as communities we have been able to turn things around.
As a child, my family moved to Pittsburgh, PA. I remember how upset my mother was when she could no longer hang the sheets out in the summer because of all the soot in the air. In the 1970s (not that long ago) many of our rivers, flowed blood red; some caught on fire. We had hunted whales and marine mammals to the brink of extinction. We began to realize that pesticides and chemicals that we had thought were miracle short-term solutions were really silent killers. The state of the natural world felt overwhelmingly bleak.
In 1970, Roger Paine’s Whale Song album was released and hit the top of the charts. That changed our understanding of marine mammals enough to transform “whaling” into recreational industry: we put down our harpoons and picked up binoculars. A year later, America the Beautiful ran its most famous public service campaign, and we were galvanized. That ad woke us up and we started—as individuals and groups—to clean up our waterways, coasts and communities.
We were able to affect change because of what we learned. That’s why when I start to lose sleep about the ocean, I remember the power of knowledge, and that my work here at the Seacoast Science Center, is part of the solution. Ocean education is what we do so that everyone understands why a healthy ocean matters.
I see the result every day—from toddlers first giggle when tickled by a sea star’s tube feet, to the astonished face of everyone who realizes that young Tofu was just half as big as her mother. Everyone who comes to the Center leaves knowing more.
Still, there is so much more to learn, and so much more that we can do.
Sylvia Earle: Bates Littlehales, National Geographic
Deep Ocean Thermal Vents: WGBH Educational Foundation
Toxic River: Nashua River Watershed Association