Last month I boarded a small ship in Cape Cod and headed out to sea in search of whales. The going was easy, the day pleasant, the seas calm. The voice of a naturalist wafted from the loudspeakers, filling our heads with biological facts and pointing out shearwaters as they skimmed above the surface of the water on lance-like wings. And the whales! We observed cetaceans of the filter-feeding mysticetes variety. Humpbacks rose from the water, just a hint of their immense size revealed with each surfacing, ?carrying their tonnage / of barnacles and joy,? in the words of poet Mary Oliver. Three traveled together, each emergence and descent repeated in the same order?one, two, three. One minke whale penetrated the surface of the water just off the ship?s starboard side, and vanished a second later.
At any one moment, only a fraction of the leviathans were visible, but even with their immensity, the whales only represented an infinitesimal percentage of the abundance of life we witnessed that day. The color of the water revealed much of the rest. Water, alone, is colorless. Come winter I?ll crave the crystal-clear liquid that hugs the equator, warm and wet, as will the humpbacks that will travel there to calve. But those tropical waters are aquatic deserts where life hovers only around the oases of coral reefs, many of which are dying. Here in the North Atlantic, the deep blue-green waters teem with untold existence?carbon-sucking, oxygen-generating, bottom-of-the-food-chain, maybe-not-so-charismatic-but-unbelievably-important phytoplankton. Without these creatures, an entire web would unravel.
That day, we were in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected marine habitat, but ?protected? is a hugely ambiguous word. Our whale-watching ships with their on-board biologists kept a respectful distance from the baleens. But we saw one private motorboat race dangerously close to a few whales, as though its passengers wanted to feel the spray of water bursting from the blowholes. And everywhere were fishing boats trailing long lines and hooks, kites flying above to hold the bait perfectly in place, hopeful for a bluefin tuna catch.
When we returned to shore, we of course wandered next door for the obligatory fish and chips meal, sitting around the picnic table and retelling the stories of our adventure.
It got me to thinking about the state of our world?s waters and the life contained within them. A recent report from the International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) gave a dire picture about the entire system of oceans and seas that dominate the planet?warming and acidifying waters, dying coral reefs, collapsing fisheries, rising sea levels. Let?s dive in, I thought. Over the next few weeks, I?ll take a closer look at some of these aquatic worlds and the way that they?re changing, as well as the people and organizations who still hold great hope that we can clean up our act (literally and figuratively) and reduce our adverse impact on the waters that sustain us, along with everything from phytoplankton to humpback whales.
In the meanwhile, before summer ends, rush to your nearest body of water?salt or fresh, tidal or still?and explore it. Go to where you can still enjoy the abundance of the sea (or lake, river, or stream) around us, that you might hear Mary Oliver?s words live on:
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself?
Image: humpback whale (U.S. Sanctuary Collection, 2005, Wiki. Com.)