THE ALL-ENCIRCLING SEA
Within the lifespan of most people alive today, our relationship to the ocean has fundamentally changed. In 1951, in her classic, The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson wrote, mankind “cannot control or change the ocean as he has subdued and plundered the continents. In the artificial world of his cities and towns, he forgets the true nature of his planet and its long history in which man has occupied a mere moment in time.”
Since then, we have learned more about what this “mere moment in time” means for the oceans. The signs of human impact are evident. Among them are rising sea levels, acidified and warming waters, depleted fish populations and dying coral reefs. In contrast to this dire list, we know the oceans still have stunning diversity, beauty and abundance. When author and marine biologist Carl Safina addressed the Song for the Blue Ocean conference at Oregon State in 2012, he talked of witnessing the seasonal migrations of fish and birds from his home on the shore of Long Island. He said, “I still find sanity and solace and delight in the power and resilience of living things.”
Last fall, as friends and I approached the shoreline at Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach, we saw an unexpected display: Humpback whales were breaching, one after another, close to shore and far away. Others lay on the surface, slapping their tails on the water. People stood on a windy bluff watching, mesmerized. Some were excitedly talking to friends on their cellphones. Parents were pointing as children ran in the grass. Exclamations came rapidly: “There’s another one!” “Did you see that?” “Over there!”
Looking for an explanation, I sent a message to Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute. The whales had come unusually close to shore, he said, because a huge area of warm water — a phenomenon known technically to scientists as “the blob” — had reduced their prey farther out to sea. They were simply looking for food — the plankton, krill, herring or anchovies that were still to be found in coastal waters.
As ocean waters warm and become more acidic, humpbacks may have a harder time of it. And they’re not alone. Salmon, oysters, sea stars and corals face threats. Things are changing, and scientists are racing to understand what’s happening throughout the ecosystem, from micro to macro, from virus to whale. Oregon State’s Marine Studies Initiative serves as a rallying cry and organizing focus for this urgent work.
More than 65 years ago, Rachel Carson captured the grand scale of what’s at stake: “… he knows that his world is a water world, a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents only here and there emerge above the surface of the all-encircling sea.”
— Nick Houtman