Happy World Ocean Day! The following is a guest essay from David Helvarg, president of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of 50 Ways to Save the Ocean and Blue Frontier: Dispatches From America’s Ocean Wilderness.


Blue Is the New Green

Remember Earth Day? Very 20th century, kind of retrograde. Might as well call it Soil Day. Don’t get me wrong — I understand where this prejudice comes from. I’m a bipedal air-breather just like you. Still, on June 8, World Ocean Day, it’s worth remembering that ours is a blue water planet. Seventy-one percent of the surface and 97 percent of livable habitat on this roving round space pool is saltwater.

On land, animals make their homes between the underground burrows of prairie dogs and the treetop nests of birds, maybe 300 feet of living space. The oceans, by contrast, provide habitat for living from their surface waters, where turtles munch on jellyfish (or plastic bags they mistake for jellies) down to the depths of the abyss, nearly seven miles below, in the crushing, cold, black waters of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific. Here, fish, crabs, starfish, and other creatures earn their living from marine debris raining down from above or, amazingly, get their energy from hot sulfur vents spewing from the planet’s core.

Until 1977, photosynthesis of sunlight was believed to be the basis for all life in the universe. That year scientists aboard a deep-diving research submarine off the Galapagos Islands discovered sulfurous hot-water vents 8,000 feet below the surface of the sea. The area around these vents was colonized by giant red-and-white tubeworms, white crabs, clams, and other animals that contain sulfur-burning bacteria that give them an alternative means of sustaining life. Today, NASA scientists believe similar "chemosynthetic" life forms may exist around volcanic deep-water ocean vents beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

When I was a boy I used to look up at the stars and feel cheated that I was born a generation too soon to explore distant worlds such as Europa. But when I began to snorkel and scuba dive, I realized that there are whole worlds of wonder right off our shores. The oceans are a largely uncharted and unexplored frontier wilderness, full of unseen mountain ranges, canyons, and deep abyssal plains. They are filled with unique species of "alien" life, many of which are only now being identified by scientists.

Many new oceanic discoveries — whether about the properties of soft corals in fighting cancer, the unexpected intelligence of octopuses, or the distribution of deep ocean vents, seamounts, and sponges — are unfolding at the same time that we’re destroying these same resources. Ignorance, short-term profiteering, and lack of interest about the ways we interact with our living oceans have led to abuses that threaten the saltwater crucible of our planetary experience. While we like to think of ourselves as an explorer race, we also have to ask this ethical question: If we can’t protect our own planet’s living seas, what right do we have to seek out other worlds?

Problems such as offshore pollution from urban and agricultural runoff, climate change’s impacts on the sea, or the collapse of the world’s fish, seabird, and turtle populations may seem too overwhelming for the average person. "What can I, my family, or my friends possibly do to effect change on such a scale?" you might wonder. Luckily anthropologist Margaret Mead gave us the answer to that question more than half a century ago: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," she said. "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Reports offering hundreds of practical solutions to the cascading disasters facing our seas have been issued by two blue-ribbon panels in recent years, the independent Pew Oceans Commission and federally appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. This spring the chairs of those commissions, Leon Panetta, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton, and Admiral Jim Watkins, a Republican and former secretary of energy under the first President Bush, came to Washington to issue a report card on the government’s response to their proposals. They gave the White House and Congress a D plus, and I believe they still may have been grading on a curve.

Sadly, the failure of our top politicians to take a new approach to the stewardship of our greatest natural treasure reflects back on all of us. Politicians are like sharks — they’re hardwired to certain stimulus, in their case money and votes. Which is why we need to foment a "seaweed revolution," a term recently picked up by several U.S. commission members. By seaweed revolution, I’m referring to marine grassroots activism by coastal residents, sailors, surfers, scientists, divers, fishers, ocean-dependent businesses, and millions of other Americans who, getting so much from the ocean, are now ready to give something back. If we begin working together as consumers and as voters, it may not be too late to turn the tide. We can’t be sure we’ll succeed; we can only be sure that if we don’t make the effort, our oceans will soon become dead seas.

— David Helvarg