How Much Wilderness Is Left in the Sea?

After another day of diving at Starbuck, I cannot help but wonder how many such wild places are left in the sea. How many paradise islands inhabited by sharks and other reef wildlife? Perhaps 30? 50? We simply don’t know.

What we do know is that pristine places occupy less than one percent of the shallow ocean. In the deep, it’s probably more than that, but our general lack of knowledge impedes us from guessing a number.

Why are so few wild ocean places left? The answer is simple: Because of humans. A human “footprint” that is truly global: Nobody really “owns” the ocean, though countries claim portions of it as territorial waters. So nobody really takes responsibility for the entire ocean’s health. A recent study showed that about 95 percent of the shallow ocean has been damaged by human activities such as fishing and pollution, and by environmental changes due to humans such as global warming.

Are there good stories in this sea of degradation? Yes, but only when we reduce our pressure on marine ecosystems. For example, the goliath grouper, which can reach nearly seven feet (more than two meters) in length, became so rare in Florida that the authorities decided to protect it. Several years after the beginning of the moratorium, goliath groupers started to be seen again, and a decade later they aggregate around shipwrecks and have become a tourist attraction.

A live fish is worth more than a dead fish—at least, you can sell the same fish over and over to people who just want to see them.

Back to Starbuck: Today we saw more sharks and red snappers, four sea turtles who came really close to check us out, a school of 200 jacks, and many other species. Underwater videographer and photographer Manu San Félix was bitten by a moray eel, and scientist Stuart Sandin, marine ecologist Jen Caselle, and I were all bitten by red snappers. Nothing serious, but it’s no fun to feel those sharp teeth on one’s flesh!

Every new dive site is a surprise. No time for boredom. And guess what we do in our free time? Well, as a matter of fact, we have no free time! After we come back from the last dive at sunset, we rinse our gear, have dinner, discuss the findings of the day while entering data in the computers, and then it’s about 11 p.m. and everybody crawls to their beds to fall asleep like a rock until morning. Now, everybody sleeps with a big smile.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.