The ocean is the best friend we don’t know | Alistair Dove | TEDxPeachtree

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Translator: Leanne Ma
Reviewer: Elena Montrasio Earlier this year,
I led a scientific expedition to St. Helena Island. It’s one of the most remote
inhabited islands on the planet. It’s about halfway between
Angola and Brazil, smack in the middle
of the South Atlantic Ocean. And with no flights yet, the only way to get there is the same
way they have for five hundred years, by ship. Takes about five days, each way,
from Cape Town. It is a fascinating
and somewhat forbidding place. It’s ringed with cliffs, pretty much
all the way round. And many of those have fortifications
on the top from the time
when Napoleon was exiled there, at the beginning of the 19th century. We went there to study
the world’s biggest fish and also one of its most mysterious, “whale sharks”. These giant but peaceful animals visit
St. Helena as a part of an incredibly long global
movement patterns. And we wanted to know
where they come from, what they’re doing in St. Helena and where they go when they leave. But while we were there, we took a break from our
“whale sharking” activities and went to visit the one and only beach that they have in all of St. Helena. It’s a black-sand beach,
called ‘Sandy Bay’. And on the beach of ‘Sandy Bay’, here is what we found: All those little bits of white and blue
and other colours standing out against the sand: pieces of plastic. And this isn’t plastic discarded
by the people of St. Helena. This plastic’s got history. This plastic has traveled thousands of miles on ocean currents since being discarded by someone else, somewhere else. More recently, I had a chance to visit
the Galapagos. Again, to study whale sharks. and all the other incredible life that makes its home in those islands made famous by Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle. And again, on tour to Good Bay Beach, in amongst those amazing marine iguanas, we found plastic. As a marine biologist, I came away from these experiences
deeply conflicted. The discoveries that we’ve made about whale sharks in St. Helena
and the Galapagos were exhilarating. And so was seeing all the other
amazing life in these very special places. But ever since I got back, these images of plastic
on a far-flung beach have been a real mental splinter. They are nagging reminder to all of us that even the remotest parts of the ocean are being affected by our actions, here on land. It’s quite a strange sensation to plan and carry out
expeditionary research to very remote locations only to find out that banal items like a drink bottle,
or a cigarette lighter or a plastic bag beat you there. When it comes to environmental problems, acute issues,
like the Deep-Water horizon oil spill are certainly very important and they definitely attract
the lion share of media attention. But in the long run, it is the chronic problems that are the greater existential threat
to the oceans, things just like plastic pollution. I can’t help but wonder what impact
all those little bits of plastic have on the whales harks that I study. Whale sharks are filter feeders. They make a living by separating plankton from huge volumes of water, and I’m all but certain that they ingest
this stuff while they are doing it. The truth is, I don’t know yet, what impact plastic has
on the health of whale sharks. And scientists are only just beginning to unravel the impacts of plastic on other species. But what we do know is that the plastic problem in the oceans is getting worse. In a recent report, the ocean conservancy estimated that within 10 years, within 10 years, for every 3 pounds of fish that live in the ocean there will be a pound of plastic
floating around. For many of the animals
that make their home in the ocean, that amounts to death by a thousand cups. Chronic problems like plastic pollution, are incredibly important
because of all of the things the ocean does for us. This one globally connected layer
of salty water that covers 70% of our planet serves us as a highway, a pantry,
a pharmacy, a sewer. It’s the very lungs of the Earth. In fact, the ocean does so many
things for us that it may very well be our
very best friend, and yet, we don’t know it very well. And in a lot of ways, we don’t treat this friendship
with the respect that it deserves. Let me share just a couple of the things
that our friend, the ocean, does for us. There is an old saying that, ‘A true friend is someone
who helps you move’, and by that yard stick, the ocean
is a very good friend indeed because about 90% of global commerce takes place on the oceans. The majority of things
you and I touch every day were on a ship at some point, in either their raw material,
or their manufactured form, maybe even the seat
that you are sitting on. The ocean is a pantry. It’s the last significant remaining
source of wild-caught food on the planet. About 3 billion people rely on the ocean
every day to provide them with the significant portion
of the protein that they need. It’s been said that if it swims, wriggles,
or oozes through the ocean, someone, somewhere eats it. Coral reefs are the rainforest
of the sea, or as marine biologists
like to think about it, rain forests are the coral reefs
of the land. A healthy coral reef is one of the most
spectacular natural things you can experience: overflowing with colour, and more types of animal life
than you can find anywhere else. And all of that diversity is a veritable goldmine
of potential scientific discoveries, including the largest natural repository
of pharmaceutical drugs that we can use in the fight
against disease. The National Cancer Institute maintains
a list of promising anti-cancer compounds and right now, more of those candidates come from the ocean, than anywhere else. Most people think the air we breathe
comes from trees. That’s only half right, because half of the oxygen – actually more than half of the oxygen
in the atmosphere comes not from majestic forests, but from tiny, single-celled
planktonic algae that float around in the ocean. Untold billions of little green
microorganisms are keeping you and I alive every day by providing half of the oxygen
that is in your lungs at this very moment. So, if you don’t believe the ocean
is a good friend to you, try skipping every other breath. Finally, the ocean is doing us
a huge favour by regulating and buffering our climate. Ocean current systems,
like the Gulf Stream, play critical roles in redistributing the Sun’s energy from the equator
towards the poles which drives seasonal weather patterns that are essential for agriculture,
bird migrations, little league games, and pretty much everything else. And ever since the industrial revolution, the ocean has absorbed a quarter
of the carbon dioxide emissions, and almost all of the heat that’s been trapped
by the greenhouse effect so far. We have a tendency to think
about climate change as an atmospheric phenomenon, something that happens up there. But, climate change is really
about the oceans, every bit as much as it’s
about the atmosphere. So, if I have convinced you that the ocean is truly
a good friend to us, providing us with all kinds of benefits
and favors, what scientists and economists like
to call ‘ecosystem services’. But I think it’s fair to ask, What kind of friend
are we to the oceans? How well do we really even know
this friend that does so much for us? I don’t think we know
as much as we should, and we definitely don’t know
as much as we need to in order to navigate the challenges
of the coming century. How is this possible? How is it that in the 21st century
our knowledge is deficient about the dominant geographical feature
on our planet? By contrast, earlier this year, NASA was able to send us back
high-resolution images of Pluto, a dwarf planet that is more than
four billion miles away from Earth. That’s a truly staggering
scientific achievement. And yet, we’ve still only documented
a few percent of our own ocean floor. On defence of the marine scientists, NASA has a much bigger budget
for exploration. But, the ocean is also
a challenging place to work. in many ways, it’s just as challenging
as space, and in a number of very important ways, it’s maybe even more challenging
than space. As a result of the difficulties
of working in the ocean, our understanding of what the ocean
is like is lacking. And public perception of the oceans
is very very biased. I want to give you a very simple example: I’d like you to hold in your mind,
if you would, for just a moment, a mental image of an average bit
of the ocean and what that’s like, just an average bit
of the open ocean somewhere, while I show you what 94% of the ocean
actually looks like, in fact, I have already showed you. Are you ready? Looks like nothing! 94% of the ocean is a pitch-black,
formless void. That’s because sunlight only penetrates
about two football fields, below the surface. The rest, about 11,000 feet, on average
looks like this: completely dark, 24/7, 365, apart from the occasional
flash of bioluminescence. If you compare that with your mental
image of an average bit of ocean, I am willing to bet
that they are different. And that’s what I mean when I say our perception of what the ocean
is really like is biased. But it doesn’t stop there. The ocean is colder than you think, too. Beyond the reach of sunlight, it hovers just above the freezing point, everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are off the coast
of Greenland or off the coast of Hawaii, the overwhelming majority of the ocean is in a state of frigid,
perpetual darkness. There are two main reasons why our friend the ocean
is so inscrutable to us, and it’s not the cold,
and it’s not the dark. The first is that you have to go there
to see it. You can stripe on a scuba tank
and jump in. I like to do that. But the bit you can see that way
is less than 1 % of the average depth. So, if you want to get to know the rest, you have to use other methods. But they can’t be remote methods, at least not in the NASA sense. When NASA sent
that New Horizon probe to Pluto, it sent back its treasure trove of data
by radio waves. But radio waves don’t penetrate
through sea water. So, if you want to get to know the oceans, you really have to go there and see them. Sound, in the form of sonar, remains the best way to send
and receive information under water. And to be honest,
from an engineering perspective, it’s not very good at it. If you want to get to know the oceans, you have to go there, you have to take a submersible, or you have to go out on a ship, and take one of these tethered remotely
operated vehicles with you. But you have to physically go there. And that’s when the second problem
gets you. because if you try to go there, the ocean will try to stop you, or even kill you. Undoubtedly, the most hostile aspect
of working in the deep oceans is pressure. At the bottom of the deepest part
of the ocean – that is the Mariana’s Trench,
off the coast of Guam – the pressure is more than 1100 times what we are experiencing
sitting in this room. What does that even mean? Well, it’s about the same pressure
that takes place for a split second in the chamber
of a gun when a 357 magnum round goes off. But down there, it’s like that
all the time. Ever since Malaysian airlines flight 370
went missing in 2014, it’s the difficulty of working
under those kinds of conditions that have made it so hard to find, to the surprise of everybody, it seems, except oceanographers
and marine biologists. Maybe it’s no surprise
that we have only been to the bottom of the deepest part
of the ocean in person precisely twice in human history. Once in 1961,
and once a couple of years ago. More people have walked
on the surface of the Moon than have been to the deepest part
of our ocean. Blows my mind. We can’t fully appreciate yet exactly how much our present and future
existence on this planet depends on the health of the oceans because we just don’t know them
well enough yet. But what we do know suggests
that we ought to cultivate this friendship
a little bit better. The Senegalese Conservationist
Baba Dioum said, ‘We will only protect what we love
and we only love what we understand.’ We need to make an effort to understand everything that the ocean does for us in all of its magnificent complexity so that we might be better stewards of this fate that we are both
going to share. We shouldn’t shy away from the challenges
of working in the deep ocean. We should embrace them
as opportunities. There are fantastic chances waiting
out there for us to explore and discover, invent things, solve problems, and inspire new generations
of scientists, engineers and leaders. There are acute and chronic problems
facing the ocean. It’s true. The good news is that science tells us the ocean
is a resilient place. The other good news is that we know what many
of the solutions are already. It’s really just a matter
of implementation. Activation energy, if you like. Based on what I saw in St. Helena
and the Galapagos, if I could ask you to do one thing
for the oceans today, it would be to cut down on plastic. Bring a cloth bag to the supermarket. Say no to the straw. Recycle. These are small, simple, easy,
local changes in behaviour. And if f we all do them, they really can
and they really will, make a real difference to this problem
that occurs because the ocean is downstream
of everything else. If you are a business person, ask yourself what opportunities
the ocean offers for business success while at the same time achieving lasting and positive
environmental change. We need more solutions like this one: This is the Baltimore trash wheel,
a solar powered device that pulls plastic garbage out
of rivers and streams before it even reaches the sea. What a fantastic idea! There are markets
for these kinds of things, and if we really set our hearts to it, we could fix this problem. If we are willing to invest a little bit
of our time, some money, and a whole lot of creative energy in rebuilding our relationship
with the ocean, we should have a bright future together. There is no reason we can’t continue
to use the ocean to drive international commerce. We will find ways to feed
a growing population through fisheries managements
and creative aquaculture. The search for drugs in the ocean
can continue, and we will all be able to breathe
a lot more easily, if we can cut down
on the carbon emissions, and restore the balance between
the ocean and the atmosphere. But we have to get cracking. The ocean cannot continue
to take the hits for us forever. If we can rise to these challenges, then I get to achieve my greatest dream which is to leave to my kids an ocean that is as dark and cold and clean
as they need it to be and in the surface layers, at least, also, as blue and as beautiful
and as brimming with life as they deserve. And I hope I am not alone
in having that dream. So let’s embrace our friend, the ocean
while we still can. Thank you. (Applause)

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