“No water, no life. No blue, no green.” — Marine biologist Sylvia A. Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Rosemary and Roger Enrico Chair for Ocean Exploration. Photo by Natalie B. Fobes/National Geographic.

We Need More Days Like This

Friday was a Great Day for Oceans

Last Friday, I was traveling with National Geographic explorers in the middle of the Gobi Desert — seemingly as far as possible from water — while the rest of the world was celebrating our ocean. On August 26, President Obama announced the largest marine protected area in the world. On the same day, the Russian government’s announced the largest marine reserve in the Arctic.

I would like to thank President Obama, as well as National Geographic Society Board Trustee Jane Lubchenco, who did so much around getting the coalition of supporters lined up for the President’s announcement. The efforts to expand Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are the direct result and the life’s work of many contributors, but especially Explorers-in-Residence Sylvia Earle and Enric Sala, who have used the power of the yellow border as a catalyst for helping sustain our planet in this most profound way.

Laysan albatross juveniles congregate on a lagoon on Midway Atoll, in the protected waters of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo by Frans Lanting, National Geographic Creative.

Sylvia Earle, an Ocean Elder and vocal proponent of ocean protection, often reminds us that, “we need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.” Sylvia’s lifetime of work has been geared toward helping us understand the vulnerability of the ocean. She has given us a great deal of insight and information — but more importantly, hope. She says it’s not too late, and is calling on all of us to make this century the Blue Centennial.

“We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.” — Sylvia Earle

Over the past six years, we have supported Pristine Seas — a project to explore and document the last undamaged places in our ocean and inspire local governments to protect these beautiful and ecologically important places. In 2012, Enric led an expedition to Russia’s Franz Joseph Land with the Russian Geographical Society and representatives of the Russian Arctic National Park to gather scientific evidence and documentation of the region. This research was provided to the Russian government, which no doubt influenced their decision to protect the area.

A polar bear searches for ice amid melting glaciers in Franz Joseph Land, part of the Russian Arctic National Park. Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic.

Most people probably don’t know that the ocean is part of every breath of air we take and every drop of water we drink. It is a vital life-support system we often take for granted — probably because we don’t always see or think about what is happening below the water line. The ocean is one of our most vital life-support systems, but communicating its importance is a challenge. Because for many, what’s out of sight is out of mind.

We need the ocean; we rely on it — for nourishment, for economics, for communications, for pleasure and for health. More than 2.6 billion people depend on the ocean as their primary source of protein. Ninety percent of global trade moves by marine transport, and submarine cables carry 95 percent of all global telecommunications. Coastal tourism is the largest market segment in the world economy — nearly seven percent of global employment. And, the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly looking to the ocean for the latest medical breakthrough — and in fact, has already found hope for cancer treatment and pain relief from sponges and snails.

And yet, we know very little about the ocean. It is estimated that we have only explored about 10 percent of it. Exploration, therefore, is critical for its protection.

This is why we have our renewed commitment and focus as an organization: to support exploration in a bigger way than ever before — both through an endowment that is now over $1 billion and an incredible media reach to 750 million worldwide. On a personal level, this is incredibly important to me — as a father, a CEO, and global citizen — because there has never been a more urgent time for us to see our connection with the natural world, and not only document it and try to understand it, but also to act on it.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala swims through the coastal waters of Palau, one of many areas where he has taken Pristine Seas expeditions. Photo by Manu San Felix/National Geographic.

We want to join forces with partners who can maximize this commitment — to help us find and invest in bold people with transformative ideas, like Enric. To further our understanding of the world — like Sylvia has. And to foster a global community of change, National Geographic is heading to Hawaii later this week for the World Conservation Congress, held by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We are collectively, as a global community, facing a planet at a crossroads — and it is only together that we can put a stop to polluting our oceans, trafficking wildlife, and clearing away critical habitats. We are proud to be a part of this Congress, which is being held in the United States for the first time ever.

There isn’t much blue in the Gobi, except for the sky — and the silence is a sharp contrast from the roar of ocean waves. Still, I’m grateful to have experienced this contrast. The Gobi has a beauty all its own, but the ocean gives life — a vitality we have to protect with every resource at our disposal.

These marine protected area announcements are certainly a victory for oceans. But still only a drop in the bucket. Given the various efforts of ocean conservationists — including but in no way limited to Enric and Sylvia — we have doubled the percentage of the ocean protected from one to 2 percent. It’s not enough. We have to keep going.