The Sargasso Sea has no shores. The 2 million-sq.-mi. body of water in the middle of the Atlantic is defined by two features: the ocean currents forming the North Atlantic subtropical gyre, which cycles around the sea, and sargassum, the free-floating golden-brown seaweed. The sargassum can be found scattered throughout the sea, sometimes entwined in vast waterborne mats. When Christopher Columbus encountered the sargassum while crossing the Atlantic, he ordered his men to fathom the depths, believing he had struck land. The oceanographer Sylvia Earle, though she prefers not to think in land-based metaphors, calls the sargassum "the golden rain forest of the sea," a base for scores of juvenile creatures, a floating nursery in a sea that was long believed to be a watery desert. She has traveled to Bermuda, on the western fringes of the Sargasso Sea, to see the sargassum and the ocean life she has worked for decades to protect. "The sargassum is the shelter," she says as her boat passes beyond Bermuda's coral reefs. "It is the island in the stream."
It's an island that can be tough to find. The late-summer hurricanes that plague the Atlantic had churned the waters off Bermuda like an eggbeater, breaking up the biggest sargassum mats. But eventually, after the shallows give way to the cobalt blue of the open ocean, the signal is given: Sargassum, ho! Woven into the weed are pink filaments of coral spawn, eggs and sperm together "a starter kit for a new coral reef," according to Earle, who slips over the side and into the ocean. The warm water is deep, but the sun can shine through the sea more than 200 ft. down, the light broken only by the golden shade of sargassum mats. Beneath the surface are thousands, perhaps millions of coral eggs, each smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, leaving Earle to swim through a sea of stars. After nearly an hour, she emerges from the water, dripping and smiling. "Every time I see a big batch of eggs, I know another generation is coming," she says. "I know there's hope."
In her more than 50-year career in ocean science, Earle has studied the deep, dived it and written about it. Now she's trying to save the oceans, and she's focusing on one simple idea: protect them. Create true reserves marine protected areas (MPAs) on the high seas, sanctuaries for everything that swims, just as governments have created parks on land. About 12% of the planet's land surface is conserved in some way, but little more than 1% of the 139.5 million sq. mi. of the oceans have any protection whatsoever.
To Earle, that discrepancy helps explain why we've treated the oceans as a "supermarket and a sewer." First through overfishing: factory trawlers and long-liners, operating with generous government subsidies, have stripped the seas of their abundance, and many scientists estimate that we've lost at least 90% of large predatory fish like sharks and swordfish as populations of once abundant commercial species like bluefin tuna have crashed. Our appetite for fish has disrupted the aquatic food chain, degrading the coral reefs that sustain ocean life around the planet. Pollution and fertilizer runoff from agriculture have helped push one-third of the more than 700 reef-building corals close to extinction; 70% of all coral reefs could be gone by midcentury.
Even worse are long-term changes to the very chemistry of the seas. The oceans have gradually warmed, depriving species of nutrients and triggering deadly coral-bleaching events. Unusually high temperatures this year could wipe out coral around the planet, accelerating the destruction of the most valuable habitats in the oceans. Thanks to all the fossil fuels humans have burned, the seas have also become more acidic because dissolving CO[subscript 2] in water lowers the pH the oceans store 50 times as much carbon as the atmosphere does and that change will have consequences no one can predict, though none are likely to be positive. The seas seem as invulnerable as they are immense. But if we thought the oceans were too vast for human beings to affect or we were counting on the waters to purify themselves, we were wrong. "The loss we could suffer goes beyond aesthetics," says Josh Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group. "It's a loss to ourselves."
Earle aims to stop it. She has launched the nonprofit Mission Blue to build support for marine sanctuaries around sensitive hot spots she calls them hope spots in the endangered oceans, including the high seas beyond any one country's control. If her goal is audacious we don't even have the legal institutions yet to protect international waters so is Earle. "I can't think of many others who've been as persistent and vocal and forward-thinking on the oceans as Sylvia," says Greg Stone, chief scientist for oceans at Conservation International. "The world is opening up to her message." The often fractious marine-conservation movement along with new corporate allies like Google is making a concerted push for attention under the Mission Blue banner, focusing on reducing overfishing and expanding protection. The island nations of the central Pacific home to some of the last truly pristine open waters on the planet are moving to create a network of protection across their oceanscape, and the Obama Administration has announced an oceans policy that involves managing U.S. waters, not just exploiting them. "This idea's time has come," says venture capitalist David Shaw, who has devoted time and money to Earle's ideas. "And Sylvia embodies it."
From Pioneer to Protector
When Earle began working in marine science in the 1950s, there were few women in the field. She was allowed on a scientific voyage in the early '60s only after she agreed to help with the dishes and the cooking. She began diving off Florida at 17 using a helmet, compressed air and weights and by 1970 she was an aquanaut, leading an all-female team of scientists who lived and worked for two weeks in an undersea station off a Caribbean island. It was then that she learned to love diving deep, seeing the ocean far below and far away from human beings.
The desire to go deeper eventually pushed Earle out of academia. She co-founded a company to design and build her own subs, and in 1979 she set the record for solo untethered diving, walking on the seafloor 1,250 ft. below the surface in a JIM, or atmospheric diving suit. She's spent about 7,000 hours diving that's nearly 10 months of her life, sleeping and waking earning her the nickname Her Deepness. At 75, the elfin Earle still dives. "Every time I slip into the ocean," she says, "it's like going home."
She began her career in the heroic age of ocean exploration, when Jacques Cousteau roamed the seas in his ship Calypso and the Trieste went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But she's also seen the degradation of the oceans up close the tortures endured by her home waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the steady evidence that we were fishing out the seas. And she is aware that we've lost far more than we can know. There is evidence, sketchy but still there, that sea life was once far more robust than it was even in our recent memory, that cod off New England were once so abundant that the fish jumped onto ships, and oysters so plentiful that 700 million were sold in New York City in 1880. The result is what the French marine scientist Daniel Pauly has called "shifting baselines": we can't tell how bad it's gotten because we don't remember how good it was. "The seas today are at very low abundance for many of the things that we rely on for food," says Callum Roberts, a marine-conservation biologist at England's University of York. "Many species have fallen a thousandfold from what they once were."
Earle has always been involved in conservation she was the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the early 1990s and is an explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society but over the past few years, she's looked to intensify those efforts. Marine conservation, however, has always been a stepchild in environmentalism, and the groups involved are often small and fractured. Earle was looking for a big stage, and she got one in 2009, when she addressed Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), the major conference that connects tech heavyweights with innovative scientists and thinkers. Every year TED grants a prize to one speaker who makes a "wish to change the world." Earle's was simple: "a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas." She won the prize. "We recognized that her mission to save the ocean is one that can only be achieved if we harness all of the resources available to us," says Chris Anderson, TED's curator.
Parks of the Sea
MPAS aren't a new idea. Countries have been giving some protection to priceless pieces of the ocean, like Australia's Great Barrier Reef, for years. The MPAs have even been growing in number recently. In 2006, President George W. Bush created the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in northwestern Hawaii, protecting nearly 140,000 sq. mi. of ocean, and this year Britain created the largest MPA in the world, around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Studies have shown that MPAs can allow fish and coral to recover from exploitation, and they have spillover benefits for unprotected waters outside their borders. But MPAs still make up just a tiny fraction of total ocean area, and in most of them, fishing is still allowed. (Imagine if hunting were permitted in Yellowstone Park and you have an idea of the difference between land conservation and its blue counterpart.) And there is virtually no protection for the high seas, the 64% of the oceans that is beyond the jurisdiction of any single nation. (Governments have claim to the waters in their exclusive economic zones, extending 200 miles beyond their coastlines.) Though there are a number of global bodies that deal with parts of the high seas, from regional fishery organizations to the International Seabed Authority, there's no clear way to create reserves in international waters. "The high seas are the least protected areas in the world," says Elliott Norse, head of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.
That's why Earle has decided to focus on creating MPAs in the high seas, the heart of the ocean. As part of her prize, she received support from TED to form Mission Blue and launched it with a special TED conference held on board a ship off the Galápagos Islands this April. (She chose the Galápagos for more than just the scenery. Although 97% of the islands' land is strictly protected, just 3% of the surrounding ocean is, and the difference shows.) Philanthropists, venture capitalists and celebrities including the greenish actors Edward Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio listened to marine scientists and environmentalists detail the global ocean crisis; the result was $17 million in commitments for a number of initiatives, including the creation of the first real high-seas MPA, in the Sargasso. "This is new territory for all of us," says Dan Laffoley, marine vice chair for the International Union for Conservation of Nature's World Commission on Protected Areas. "The Sargasso Sea could provide a road map for creating more protection elsewhere."
That's because the Sargasso has one feature going for it that Earle's other hope spots which range from the Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic to the Ross Sea off Antarctica lack: Bermuda. The 21-sq.-mi. island, a British overseas territory, has a long history of acting for ocean conservation, having passed a law in 1620 prohibiting the killing of young sea turtles. "We look at the sea every day," says Phillipe Rouja, acting director of Bermuda's department of conservation services. "You can't tell us that we don't care about it." Though conservationists still need further approval and support from other nations bordering the Sargasso Sea including the U.S. and Britain Bermuda's leadership has helped the idea take off. And if Earle's vision catches on and other nations start working together to put aside open ocean, Bermudan officials believe that leading the charge could pay political and economic dividends for their people, as well as for the planet. "We are absolutely interested in saving the Sargasso Sea," says Ewart Brown, Bermuda's Premier. "We're in the perfect location for Bermuda to become the center of this."
Thanks to the work of scientists at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), one of the oldest oceanographic institutes in the world, parts of the Sargasso Sea have been more closely studied than almost anywhere else in the open ocean. And there's something magical about the Sargasso, a symbol of borderless mystery. The European and American eels hatch in the Sargasso Sea, then travel to coastal and inland waters, in one of the most enigmatic migrations in the natural world, before returning to the sargassum to spawn and die. And while its remoteness has so far saved the Sargasso Sea from the damage done to other parts of the ocean, there are emerging threats, including the risk that the sargassum might be harvested for biofuel or fertilizer, robbing this aquatic nursery of its cradles.
Earle, for her part, is an absolutist. She won't eat fish any longer "I don't eat my dive buddies," she says and urges others to do the same. When she talks about creating protected areas, she wants true marine sanctuaries, where fishing would be largely off limits, at least for a time. That brings opposition from the fishing industry, which has long been skeptical of the value of MPAs and doubtful that the seas are really in danger of being overfished. That's hard to believe. Fishermen have been able to mask the drop in fish populations only by going farther from shore and going farther down the aquatic food chain while taking advantage of improving subsidies and technology. Eventually they'll run out of room and fish. But MPAs alone, no matter how large, can't save vulnerable areas of the ocean from the impact of warming and, worse, gradual acidification, which will alter the chemistry of the oceans in a way the world hasn't seen for millions of years. "Once you screw with acidification, no one knows what's going to happen," says Tony Knap, executive director of BIOS.
To Earle, however, climate change and its effects are just more reasons to get serious about carving out MPAs. Areas of the ocean with protection are more resilient to nearly all threats than those left undefended. And even fishermen should support the idea of marine reserves. Research from economist Rashid Sumaila found that overfishing leads to global catch losses costing the industry up to $36 billion a year. If the global fish population is a bank account, we're cutting into our principal by overfishing, and we should all know by now that's not sustainable. Creating reserves and giving fish a breather allows the interest to build back up. "You fish less, and you end up catching more," says York University's Roberts.
Bringing Order to the Open Seas
What this means, ultimately, is that we can no longer treat the open ocean as ungoverned space for our sake (Earle is fond of reminding people that the oxygen in every other breath comes from the ocean) and the sake of all that lives beneath the surface. The good news is that there's evidence of a sea change in attitude. Earlier this summer, the Obama Administration created a federal oceans policy that aims to govern U.S. waters in a comprehensive manner instead of keeping fishing, recreation and energy in separate silos. The National Geographic Society has taken Earle's Mission Blue and built on it, seeking to establish a unified and global ocean-conservation movement. (Earle herself has launched a side group called SEAlliance, which will focus chiefly on MPAs.) Google is getting into the action. After Earle pointed out that the Google Earth application treated the seas as one big blue blank, the company added new functions that allow users to plunge into the deep. The nations of the Pacific, led by the tiny island of Kiribati, are working toward creating the Pacific Oceanscape, a linked, protected area in the middle of the world's biggest body of water. "We need to move beyond our coasts," says President Anote Tong of Kiribati. "The ocean is much larger than any one nation."
The ocean is bigger than all of us, and yet each of us can affect it via our actions. That might be the scariest news of all for the blue. If the oceans are suffering in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, more than 60% of whom live on or near a coastline, what will happen when there are 9 billion or more? "It's really hard to conjure up much of a sense of well-being, because it just keeps getting worse," said oceanographer Jeremy Jackson aptly known in science circles as Dr. Doom in a talk this year.
Think about it too long and it's easy to sink into despair, but Earle floats above or perhaps below it. "There is no other planet," she says. "No water anywhere else. We have to save this." If it becomes too much, she can always slip into the sea, where she's spent so much of her life, moving with a balletic grace, in sync with the sea life she loves. On her most recent dive in the Sargasso Sea, Earle drifts past an algae-covered shipwreck, one of scores of vessels claimed by Bermuda's reefs. Seven thousand hours of diving, and every minute beneath the waves still excites her. She lands gently on the seafloor, following the path of a tiny arrow crab, one of the few signs of life in the gorgeous but empty waters. The sediment rises around her, and she disappears in a cloud of underwater dust. She's at home.