Our Blue Planet
My ocean. That’s what my professor has on his license plate. That’s what he teaches to the largest class at Cornell University. He teaches that even here in the middle of New York State, even in Kansas and Germany and Paraguay and Chad people should care. It’s our ocean. And more importantly, it’s your ocean. You have the power to make it what you want.
Introduction to Oceanography has over 1,000 students when Professor Bruce Monger teaches in Bailey Hall every fall. Many, if not most, of the students who walk through those doors three days a week are not marine biology, or even science, majors. But this class isn’t for those people who already love the ocean. While they will learn how currents work and what climate change is doing to coral reefs and how we have brought back certain fisheries from the brink, everyone is exposed to the wonders that lie beneath the surface.
And there are multitudes of wonders that most people never get to experience. Sure, you may go out for the occasional sushi night, visit Sea World or your local aquarium, or maybe you have gone snorkeling or scuba diving along a barrier reef. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a house by the water or you take yearly family vacations to the beach. But do you think of the ocean as your ocean?
When you think of natural resource management, is the ocean the first resource you think of? Even though I have spent every summer on the beach in New Jersey from the year I was born, before coming to Cornell I have to admit I’m not sure I would have thought of the ocean either.
Long Beach Island is my second home. My big, loud, and fun extended family has been renting the same house every summer for thirty years. This place — the beach, the ice cream in the fridge, the sunshine — this place means everything to me. I grew up here, and probably feel more comfortable here than in my own house. Eating fresh fish and learning to windsurf, looking for dolphins and pelicans and surf fishing with my gruff neighbor, and visiting the Alliance for a Living Ocean to talk with scientists and advocates are all staples of my trips to the beach. I learned to bodysurf from my cousins in the waves and I learned to walk up stairs in that house when I was little.
I expanded my ocean horizons, both literally and figuratively, by spending last summer in Hawai`i. I had an internship with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), that when applying I thought was a pipe dream. I swam with more turtles than I can count, learned to identify more fish than I could imagine, and worked to promote marine science having an impact on the world. The almost uninhabited pristine beaches of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the deep sea of the Marianas Trench are places that few people will ever go, but I grew to love them through all that I learned about them.
Marine debris is one of the major threats to our oceans, and it ends up in places where there aren’t even any people, like the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The islands act like a comb in the middle of the ocean currents circulating in the Pacific, just raking and catching all of the plastic, glass, rubber, and random items that end up in the ocean. NOAA sends teams to these uninhabited places to remove all of the traces of human garbage that they can find, but more always finds its way to the shore. Birds, marine mammals, turtles, and fish are all negatively impacted by the amount of trash in the ocean. There are options for people across the globe as simple as using reusable drinking cups or making sure that plastic bag actually ends up in the trash can. Unfortunately, so much more needs to be done.
Belize was a whirlwind marine adventure. Situated on an atoll, a ring of islands or reefs around a lagoon, is a Wildlife Conservation Society research station. I was there for a week: waking up and going out on a boat every day to hand-line for bait and ultimately finding sharks. I was there with a group of volunteers assisting in shark and stingray research as part of a larger project called Global FinPrint. The volunteers that I was with came from all walks of life: some were lawyers, recently retired businessmen, environmental activists, aquarium docents, and students. We all had in common a curiosity and an interest in the majestic creatures that call the ocean home. We snorkeled, marveled at the diversity in the patch reefs, and were fascinated watching reef sharks hunt stingrays from the tops of reefs. We happened upon a gigantic dog snapper spawning aggregation and were in awe of the hundreds of thousands of fish that we were in the middle of.
Shark finning is another deadly threat to the inhabitants of the ocean, and Global FinPrint is trying to assess shark and stingray populations around the world. The popularity of shark fin soup as a delicacy has led to the mass slaughtering of many different species of sharks and stingrays. The numbers are staggering. I always remember a campaign from the World Wildlife Fund. One picture shows a shark fin just breaking the surface of the water and the caption reads: Horrifying. The next panel shows the ocean without the shark and the caption reads: More Horrifying. An ocean without sharks and stingrays is not the ocean that I want.
Throughout all of my experiences two things have been constant: the ocean and the people. We are our greatest resource. From the more personal side of the ocean, where my family and I gather for our annual traditions, to the more professional experiences that I had in Hawai`i, to the volunteering in Belize, the people made the ocean a thing of beauty. At NOAA in Hawai`i, I helped run a week-long science camp for eighth graders. At the end of the week, one of the comments that a student left in response to what he learned was “everyone at NOAA makes a difference.” That’s the ultimate goal. These students who applied to spend a week of their summer in science camp at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, really saw how marine science could make a difference in the world. All of the volunteers on my trip in Belize were in awe the first time that we found a shark. They were blown away by the science of marine conservation, and were shocked by the disastrous effects of shark finning. The ocean is for everyone. Children from ages 1 to 99 are just waiting to explore what, to them, is the unknown.
A love for the ocean can be found at any time, and that simple love and appreciation can lead to a realization that conserving the natural world doesn’t have to be a grand gesture or a life-long career battle. David Orr, a well-known environmentalist, writes in his book Earth in Mind, “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.” Anyone can love nature. Anyone can love the ocean. And anyone can make a difference, no matter how small. Just by keeping the ocean in mind.
Now, I think of the ocean as my ocean. I think of the ocean as our ocean. And I think of it as part of my duty to protect it and protect everything that it stands for in my life. Apart from the fact that I (almost) have an Environmental and Sustainability Sciences degree, apart from my love of all things wild and natural, the ocean represents my childhood, my family, my experiences in the great outdoors, and my ever-expanding horizons. Just as looking to the end of the ocean is impossible, knowing where I will end up throughout my life is not predictable. What I do know is that I will fight for my ocean, your ocean, and our ocean. I will fight to protect everything that the ocean represents to me, and everything that the ocean could come to represent for you and for the future of our blue planet.