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Scanning the depths

Catherine von Ruhland

They surround us, nourish us and occasionally terrify us - but do we take our Oceans for granted? Catherine von Ruhland dips a toe in the new Census of Marine Life and feels a renewed awe.


There's a reason the Earth is nicknamed the Blue Planet. Viewed from space, it is the oceans, marbled with clouds and covering 71 per cent of its surface, which stand out against the pitch black infinity of the cosmos. Strange then that until relatively recently we knew more about the surface of the Moon than the deepest recesses of the sea on our doorstep.

But all that is changing. The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed an unprecedented blast of oceanic research, crowned towards the end of last year by the publication of the Census of Marine Life - a 10-year 'scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans.'1 A global network of researchers from 80 countries has for the first time compiled a comprehensive list of all forms of life in the sea.

For Christians, there's something particularly resonant about this startling and mammoth scientific operation. It takes us back to the creation story, when God entrusts Adam with cataloguing the creatures he had made: 'He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.'2

The process continues today. Scientists have to designate both familiar, often self-explanatory names alongside scientific labels. There is something delightful about their decisions, as if their first instinct is to ask 'What does that remind you of?' before they get down to the nitty-gritty of giving it its proper name. The delicate fluttering 'sea angel' appears as exactly that, though in actual fact it is a clione or sea slug of the family Cloridae and classed as a Gastropod. And the 'yeti crab' is actually a blind lobster with hair-like tendrils on its claws: its furry look justified its species name, hirsute. The Dumbo - named after the Disney character - is a cirrate or finned octopod which happens to swim with ear-like fins. Like latter-day Adams, it is a privilege to be given the opportunity to name these new finds. The Census of Marine Life concluded that 'the deep is home to more than a million species - of which less than a quarter are described in the scientific literature. Around 16,000 species were added to the COML database and more than 5000 are still being worked on by scientists.'3

Naming and measuring things can be a double edged sword, of course, giving us the impression that we are therefore in control of them. Judaeo-Christian teaching sometimes does little to dispel this illusion, assuring us that we have been given dominion 'over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'4

Any resulting hubris was historically tempered by the reality of our ignorance in the face of nature. Back in 1521, part-way through the first circumnavigation of the Earth, Ferdinand Magellan sank a weighted rope into the Pacific to measure its depth. Since at 700m below it still hadn't touched the sea floor, Magellan could only conclude that the ocean was endlessly deep, beyond measure and therefore literally unfathomable.  

But there's no reason why the exponential growth of knowledge since then should make us cocky. Quite the reverse: the oceans literally put us in our place. The Pacific Ocean alone is the Earth's largest single geographical feature. At 155,557 sq km, it contains enough water to swallow every one of the world's land masses and still have enough space left to contain another continent the size of Asia.

It may sound less poetic than the 'Seven Seas', but the World Ocean is only the modern collective name for the five interconnected oceans separated by submarine ridges that limit the exchange of waters between one ocean and its neighbour. Indeed, there are places in the world where you can look over the side of a ship and see where two oceans meet. In descending order of size these oceans, each with their own properties, are: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, the Southern (which completely surrounds Antarctica), and the Arctic. Since the Pacific and Atlantic are both further divided into North and South Oceans, the total remains a poetic seven.

There is 190 times more space for creatures to live in the sea than on the land. While on land nothing lives permanently above 100 metres, which is the height of the tallest trees, available living space in the oceans has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. With an average depth of 3,800 metres, the oceans offer 99 per cent of the space where life can develop on Earth.

Creatures have been discovered living as deep as 11,000 metres, despite high pressure, intense cold and absence of light - which in turn is assisting our understanding of the possibility of life on other planets. The sheer weirdness of the species discovered so far down - from oil-eating tubeworms to 15-tentacled sea cucumbers - is beyond anything we could have imagined.


And yet we have grown blasé about the oceans. Even as we discover new species of the Deep and begin to understand the mechanisms that enable their survival, the relentless activity of human consumerism is endangering their future. Even the very sound of cargo ships' and ocean liners' propellers is effectively 'blinding' whales, which depend on their acoustic habitat to survive.

A mere 29 per cent of the world is above sea level and that area is set to shrink as the world continues to grow warmer and thermal expansion of sea water cause levels to rise, and the melting of the polar ice caps discharges more water into the sea. Our disruption of ocean systems and the water's dependent life forms suggests that our traditional understanding of the hierarchy of creation is wrong. The way the planet is suffering reveals the sheer interconnectedness of everything that exists here. For it is the oceans which regulate land temperatures and the atmosphere above them - like a huge planetary cooling and heating system which we tamper with at our peril.

The ocean conveyer belt - thermohaline circulation - is the prime force driving both the cold and salty deep currents and shallow oxygen-rich warm currents around the globe to sustain life below and above sea level. The surface level stream of warm water is the world's longest river, snaking its way from the Pacific Ocean, past northern Australia and round the Africa's Cape of Good Hope towards the Atlantic where it becomes the Gulf Stream. The warm water gradually evaporates on its journey and loses heat to the European landmass, and as it grows colder it becomes more salty and dense. Close to Iceland, it sinks, propelling the global conveyer belt and flowing back toward the Pacific along the ocean floor until it rises to the surface again to repeat its planetary circulation.

The flow of the Gulf Stream around the edge of northern Europe up to the tip of Greenland perhaps best exemplifies the value of the ocean's water circulation to species living on land. For it is this current of warm water, heated at the Tropics by the sun, that pushes the winter temperature of countries including the United Kingdom between 9-18 degrees higher than those of comparable latitudes elsewhere (for example Canada's very chilly Labrador.) Averaged over a year, the Gulf Stream provides Western Europe with a third as much warmth as the Sun does, or the equivalent of one million power stations worth of energy.  

While the conveyor belt rolls on, the waters also move tidally, drawn by the gravitational attraction between the Earth and its Moon. And of course there are less benign movements in the form of tsunamis which are powered by the planet's internal heat forcing undersea earthquakes and landslips.

Our recent knowledge of the latter reminded us of our own puniness in the face of such forces. 'The planet we live on has merely to shrug to take some fraction of a million people to their death,' pointed out James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory5, sounding like an Old Testament prophet in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. 'But this is nothing compared with what may soon happen; we are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does most of us, and our descendants, will die.'6

Our influence on this fragile life support system is increasingly understood, and threatens us all. A small shift in one ocean system has a knock-on effect across the world. Every 2-7 years, for example, the El Niño current of warm water emerges out of the Southern Ocean and flows for around a year through the eastern Pacific, off South America's west coast bringing in its wake storms, floods, and drought and famine across the globe. And it is poor communities based on marginal land who feel the biggest impact.

Our interconnectedness with such global phenomena should not really surprise us. We learn in our earliest school geography lessons that the planetary system is a cyclical one in which the amount of water remains constant, so the very water that baptized Jesus in the River Jordan could today fall on us as rain.  

Given this very physical link through the ages, can the Bible give any useful clues about the way we should treat the oceans? In the Old Testament they seem chiefly a manifestation of God's incredible power - the waters swamping almost all life in the Flood and later parting to let the Israelites cross the Red Sea. But by the New Testament, water references are parochial and its purposes personal. John the Baptist's ministry comes to fruition as he finds himself face-to-face with his cousin in the Jordan, and one of Jesus' final communal acts before his ascension is to catch, cook and eat fish by the shore with his disciples. The nearest he comes to Old Testament style dominion is in stilling the waters of the Sea of Galilee in the face of human fear.


So dominion clearly doesn't mean using the world's resources as we please just because they're available. We need to use our God-given intelligence in a more considerate, resourceful way working with the forces of Creation rather than against them.   


Even if we live inland, we must recognise that our actions can damage the ocean. Whether building on flood plains or simply tarmacing over our front gardens, any rain which should have filtered down through the soil to replenish the water table and help prevent drought, is instead channelled with all the other oil and muck via street drains into rivers and to the sea. We should take care too of what we personally flush into our water systems and pour down drains. Untreated waste and used engine oil can devastate marine habitats, while chemical pollutants enter the food chain. We can protect fish stocks by purchasing only fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Such actions can seem trifling when compared with the estimated 4.4 million barrels of oil spilt into the Gulf of Mexico before the BP well was capped7. But our contribution is easier to see in the vast, slow-turning Pacific gyre of plastic detritus covering an area larger than Texas. There's evidence in Hawaii indicating birds and turtles are starving because they have ingested plastic 'disposables' like toothbrushes, lighters, ballpoint pens - each of them the recognisable product of our individual lives.

The Census has emphasized how many of the planet's future discoveries potentially remain below the water, whether in unimagined new species able to exist at depths previously not believed possible at active hydrothermal vents, microbial diversity, or sources of fuel and energy.

But if we wish to see them survive, we need to take action, however small, to express our esteem for the life support system that encircles this blue planet. In taking care, we humbly recognise our role of coexistence alongside the flora and fauna with which we share it. Their very fragility is our own.

2 Genesis 2:19
4 Genesis 1: 28.
5 The Gaia Theory posits the Earth as a self-regulating superorganism with species, environment and atmosphere a finely-tuned balancing act.
6 Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia. Allen Lane, 2006, p1.