It is only relatively recently that it has dawned upon humans that the ocean is not something that can be taken for granted.
Vast, deep, unfathomable in so many ways, the great body of liquid that envelops our planet at an average depth of some six miles acts as the main regulator of our weather and climate, generator of our atmosphere, and provider, directly and indirectly, of our food and freshwater.
As we begin to grasp how totally dependent we are on the sea for our survival, so do we also understand how much we have harmed it.
“We have learned more about the ocean in the last half century than in all of preceding history,” says Sylvia Earle, marine biologist and co-author of National Geographic’s new book, “Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas.”
But at the same time, more has changed, she told me. “We have lost more than 90 percent of the big fish in the sea and many of the smaller ones too. Half the coral reefs are gone or in serious decline. There are an amazing number of dead zones. That’s the bad news.
“The good news: Now we know. It’s only when we know that we can care and act to secure for ourselves an enduring place within the natural systems that sustain us.”
Earle and marine scientist, Linda Glover created the one-of-a-kind “Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas” (National Geographic Books; October 2008; $65).
“There has never been a collection like this, especially with the maps, which are a special feature,” Earle told me in an interview in my office. Watch this video of her talking about the atlas:
The atlas is a lot more than maps and charts and amazing statistics. More than two dozen contributors cover the many facets of ocean life, systems, chemistry, and much more besides.
The book is in three sections: Part 1 provides an overview of the nature of the ocean as a whole, Part 2 covers the five major ocean basins, and Part 3 focuses on the technologies used to understand the ocean, the change brought about by human actions, and finally consideration of the future of the ocean.
In the chapter on ocean life, it is revealed that perhaps more than 40 million species may live in the sea. Only about 250,000 have been named.
And how fantastic is life under the sea, from the algae and kelp forests to the krill and up the food chain to the great mammals, reptiles, fish, and birds, filling every niche from abyss to atoll.
It’s too bad that we’ve gone and ruined so much of this amazing place. The sections in the atlas that discuss the pollution, trashing, bleaching, overfishing, and acidification are depressing, if not alarming.
“There is a wonderful section in this book about the marine sanctuaries,” Sylvia Earle told me, when I lamented the fate of the ocean. “This may mark the beginning of the time when we really appreciated the importance of the ocean and take measures to take care of that big blue part of the planet that takes care of us.
“I am focused on identifying the areas of the ocean that are in critical need of protection, places that are still intact and not seriously disturbed and that will have a favorable impact on fish populations and reefs and other ways to restore the health of the ocean.
I am focused on hope, on finding the places in the ocean that are like the National Parks — places that protect our natural, cultural, and historic heritage,” she said.