Tuesday, 30 Oct 2001

SANTA CRUZ, Calif.

My bike ride last night was awesome — I saw a mother wild pig with three piglets and, even more exciting, a bobcat that bounded across the road in front of me. I love seeing wild animals in nature; these kinds of encounters make me feel more connected to my environment.

Now, though, it’s back to work. Yesterday I was so excited about my weekend dive experience that I forgot to tell you anything about myself and my job. I live in a small cabin in the mountains just north of Santa Cruz, Calif., five miles inland from the ocean. I have a full-time job with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, but to save on fuel, highway clogging, and the time wasted driving to and from the office, I work out of my home. Since I have been working with Jean-Michel for 33 years, it’s pretty easy for us to communicate, even when we’re not physically in the same place.

Jean-Michel and I have had some amazing adventures together during the last three decades: diving with whales, climbing the mountain at the headwaters of the Amazon River, and filming coral reefs in places like Papua New Guinea and Fiji. (If you don’t already know where those places are, you may want to check them out on a map. One of the great things about my job has been all the unexpected lessons in geography and culture; I’ve learned a lot from traveling and being around people who see the world very differently than I do.)

Part of my job with Ocean Futures is to dream up new programs to help us educate people about the wonder of nature, its value to humans, how our behavior affects the world, and how we can live more sustainably on our little oasis in space — Planet Earth. (I think it should be called Planet Ocean, since most of the surface of our planet is covered with water.)

Today I received an email from Jean-Michel, asking me to think about a presentation he has been asked to make on how coral reefs are being affected by global warming and carbon dioxide emissions. This should not be too difficult because last year I attended the 9th International Coral Reef Symposium, where scientists from around the world came to share their research findings.

These white corals are suffering from water that is too warm.

Photo: Ocean Futures Society.

What I learned at the symposium was pretty grim. As of last year, 27 percent of the world’s coral reefs had been effectively lost, primarily as a result of warmer ocean temperatures, which cause corals to bleach and die. Bleaching means that corals turn white because they have lost the microscopic algae that live inside them and give them their color. The worst year in history for coral bleaching was 1998, when weather patterns known as El Nino and La Nina wreaked havoc on ocean temperatures.

El Nino and La Nina are natural occurrences, but our use of petroleum and the resultant release of carbon dio
xide is causing unnatural weather patterns: our climate is getting warmer, which is threatening coral reefs. One scientist at last year’s symposium foresaw a truly bleak marine future: “I surmise that reefs as they are known today will disappear.”

If we want to avert that fate, we need to reduce our energy use and increase our energy efficiency, for example by buying cars that get good gas mileage. I believe we can make a difference, but to do so every one of us will have to do everything we can to save energy. If we are able to face the reality of what is happening around us, we will be better able to make changes that will improve the health of coral reefs and of our planet.