Oceans - the Origins of Life

How deep is the ocean...
How blue is the sea...
In all ways, forever -
It speaks life to me.

Indian Ocean

Oceans cover nearly three quarters of our planet and it is the wonderful element of water that makes life on Earth possible. All life originated in the ocean and was nourished by it. Even the blood flowing in our veins is little more than modified seawater. It is the reason too that most of us find the sea undeniably fascinating – at a cellular level it reminds us where we came from.
Oceans contain the secrets of the origin of life and there are more life forms in the sea than on land including some of earth’s most amazing creatures, amongst them, the largest of all, the Blue Whale. This behemoth grows to between 24-27 meters in length and weighs up to 200 tons. A human could swim down its blood vessels and its tail is the width of a jumbo-jet’s wings. It has a tongue the size of an elephant and it can cruise effortlessly at 20 knots….. yet it feeds on krill, a small abundant species of crustacean. It consumes this in quantities of up to 4 tons a day by straining it out of the seawater through the baleen plates in its mouth. In summer months they find their food in the nutrient rich Arctic and Antarctic seas.

World war II exposed how much of what was known about the ocean wasn’t fact. Knowledge until the 1950’s was very limited. Since then the oceans have been subjected to determined scientific scrutiny.

It is appreciated that oceans have their own topography. It goes as deep as landforms go high. The deep seabed has uncovered evidence of the advance and retreat of glaciers at varying intervals over the last 2 million years. Under-water exploration had exposed a mighty chain of mountains encircling the earth. Ocean storms and water-borne sediments weather them in a manner similar to how mountains are weathered on land. There are landslides and mud flows. Currents of powerful seabed rivers etch deep canyons into the seascape and they have their own rapids and waterfalls within the ocean body.

Fish of the ocean Deep It was first thought that creatures and plants couldn’t live in the ocean depths where it is pitch dark because there is no light penetration. However discoveries of marine life in its deepest parts have proven such assumptions to be wrong. Lack of oxygen and extreme cold inhibits life on top of Mt Everest, our highest mountain, but marine creatures have adapted to the ocean deep. Fishes living at great depths either produce their own light or receive it from bacteria they host in exchange for food and shelter.

The source of our planet’s life and the source of our life, demonstrates our dependence and interconnectedness. Without the oceans from which water evaporates and falls as rain no life could exist. The sheer number of 7 billion humans on our planet now, demands that we consider how we are treating this life source today.

The Plight of our Oceans

"Humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish" - Wendell Berry

Samples of ocean garbage collected by organised sweeps over a set grid area.

750 million tons of sediment is carried annually into coastal waters by the rivers of the world. Some is deposited on the seafloor and some dissolves. This sediment contains many vital nutrients to nurture the creatures of the sea. However, because of man’s mistreatment of natural resources on land, added to the mega-erections of oil-rigs at sea and great numbers of ships cruising the world’s oceans, sediments have also come to contain many harmful substances such as heavy metals, oil spills and pollutants, sewerage and garbage.

Penguin Rescue Video

Here's a video containing the personal account of a penguin expert who got involved with a rescue of over 20,000 endangered African penguins whose two main breeding colonies were threatened by a serious oil spill along the west coast of South Africa in June 2000.

Our oceans are becoming gigantic sewers - a massive toilet - only once humanity’s debris and toxic waste end up in the ocean, there’s no place for it to go. There is no mammoth handle to press to flush it away.
the scourge of the plastic garbage dump
There are patches in all the oceans called gyres, where there are few ocean currents surrounded by strong ocean currents. They create spinning vortexes and once plastic floats into the area it cannot escape and so accumulates over time. They are like islands covering tens of kilometers and much of it is below the surface.

These five major oceanic gyres all form large synthetic soups! The Pacific Gyre was discovered in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore and was the first to be documented. Organised sweeps of the ocean have revealed bottle caps, bottles, shotgun shells, crates, toothbrushes, plastics of every shape and size and a myriad unidentifiable chunks. The maximum 'plastic density' was 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometre. It is impossible to measure the exact size of the patch as much of it floats beneath the surface. It may be regarded as a great “Garbage Patch” It is a worldwide phenomenon and international problem that most nations don't want to face up to or take responsibility for, so it remains a sinister escalating death-trap to ocean life.

Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algarita Marine Research and Education says that as a result of these huge areas of plastic debris ”the base component of the marine food chain is being displaced by a non-digestible, non-nutritive component which is actually out-weighing and out-numbering the natural food.”

Plastic waste kills Albatross chicks When plastic is in the sea for a long time it photodegrades into smaller and smaller pieces until it is small enough to be ingested by organisms near the surface - thus entering the food chain. Food and beverage packaging contains potentially toxic chemicals such as Bisphenol-A found in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Leaching out of ingested plastic pieces they can cause hormonal dysfunctions and alter cellular processes in plants and animals and by implication, humans.

In 2007 Kenneth Weiss won a Pulitzer Prize for his multi-part series in the Los Angeles Times explaining, among other things, how bottle caps, toy soldiers, toothbrushes and spray nozzles are choking hundreds of thousands of albatrosses to death on Midway Atoll, about 1,000 miles from the nearest city.

Pair of Black-footed Albatrosses

Marine scientists know that marine organisms are consuming plastics because of the noticeable effect they are having on seabirds, albatrosses in particular. For example, the Black-footed Albatross mistakes floating plastic pieces for food and offering it to its chicks, reduces their stomach’s capacity for proper food. Sea turtles also ingest plastics wrongly identifying it as food.

Hawaian Green Sea Turtle

Besides the seaborne plastics' danger to birdlife and marine life, the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater,such as:

  • PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) that are persistent organic pollutants that resist environmental degradation and their chemical compounds can cause endocrine and neurological malfunctions.
  • Another component is DDT(dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane) a harmful synthetic pesticide. Used initially to control maleria, typhoid and crop pests, it was widely applied between 1939-1972 until it was banned worldwide after the publication of the book “A Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson birthed the environmental movement.
    DDT was found to thin the eggshells of many birds. Birds of prey and waterbirds seemed the most susceptible. The eggshells of Wagtails a popular garden bird were severely affected during those years and their numbers dwindled. With the banning of DDT their population has since recoverd as has the Bald Eagles, USA’s national bird that hovered on the brink of extinction. Contact with DDT through crop handling can cause several allergic reactions.
  • PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) occur in oil,coal and tar deposits and in foods that are braaied or barbequed. They are found to be,
    • carcinogenic - cancer causing
    • mutagenic – able to change the DNA of an organism
    • teratogenic – causing birth defects and congenital malformations

    These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish. Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. As we’re at the top of the food chain we experience the cumulative effect of all the toxins that have entered our food at each level in the process of it becoming our food. No wonder there are so many life-threatening diseases affecting us today. Food is not synonymous with nutrition anymore.

    Human health reflects environmental ills because our bodies are not a boundary. They are permeable and affected by what they come into contact with. We are part of the vast ecosystem of earth.

    Earthquakes and Tsunamis in the oceans

    Earthquakes occurring under the ocean floor have triggered destructive tsunamis – giant waves - such as those that struck on 26 December 2004. The Indian Ocean was the site of the Sumatra – Andaman earthquake. It was a quake that registered 9.3 on the Richter scale. 30m high waves engulfed coastal communities killing 230,000 people in 14 countries (more than 168,000 in Indonesia alone) making it one of the 10 worst recorded earthquakes and one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. Over half a million people alone were displaced in Northern Sumatra.

    84 aftershocks took place over the following weeks and months relating to the gravitational adjustment of crustal material disturbed by the earthquake. It is nature’s way of restoring stability to the region. Sumatra - Andaman earthquake A survey of the seabed in Feb 2005 by the Royal Navy vessel, HMS Scott revealed that the earthquake had made a huge impact on it. The fault line along the India/Burma plates meets at the Sundra Trench where rising pressure and temperatures caused the magma to push-upwards. This created a fault that ruptured along 1600kms raising the sea-bed by several meters and displacing an estimated 30km3 of water that resulted in the destructive tsunami waves.

    Table of Earthquake severity

    Indonesia sits on the so called “ring of fire” where the meeting of continental plates causes high volcanic and seismic activity yet there is no Regional Tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. In October 2010, the region was struck by another earthquake of 7.7 magnitude and 3m high waves swept away 10 villages on Sumatra in one of the world’s top surfing spots.

    Sumatran island in ruins

    While emergency services were attending to dead and injured victims, some hundreds of kilometers away and less than 24 hrs later, the Mt Merapi volcano errupted on the island of Java causing thousands to flee in panic. 25 people lost their lives.

    Unfortunately, many countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have dynamited coral reefs off their coasts to facilitate coastal shipping. This has compromised their shores with regard to Tsunamis. Coral reefs slow down the waves as do mangrove trees and coastal sand dunes which have been removed to allow for coastal residential development. By ignorantly interfering with and damaging their natural environment, people have to some extent, jeopardized their own safety.

    That said, an early warning system coupled with public awareness and earthquake education could have prevented many thousands of deaths in this vulnerable area of the world. Sri Lankan hotel badly damaged
    At the time of the Tsunami, South Africa, some 8000 kms away experienced unusual tidal activity roughly 24 hours later. From Richards Bay in the south-east to Port Nolloth in the south-west, the sea level rose in some places between 2-3 meters and 12 hour tidal cycles were compressed to 20 minutes. Water surged up some estuaries, ripping boats from their moorings. At Nahoon near East London, extraordinary wave regression revealed a large portion of the seabed not ever exposed under normal circumstances. Beaches were flooded at Coffee Bay and Port St Johns. 34 swimmers needed rescuing. 8 people died including a baby.

    For good information and pictures of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami click here.

    In mid January 2011 seismic activity 50 kms off-shore caused a mini Tsunami to hit Victoria Bay, the surfers' paradise between Wilderness and George. It slammed onto the road that runs next to the ocean with such force that if any car or person had been there they would have been washed into the sea with little hope of being rescued alive from the violent water.
    (photos courtesy of Willie Du Plessis)

    Victoria Bay surfers' paradise

    Victoria Bay hit by freak waves

    Sometimes I have this thought - I wonder if nature isn’t retaliating to our abominable treatment of Mother Earth – our home! At some level we are the cause of what we are experiencing. Although history shows that Planet Earth goes through periods of heating and cooling, we are definitely implicated in the evidence of climate change – global warming, the relentless exploitation of the earth’s finite resources such as fossil fuels and the degradation of our natural environments. Daily, species are driven into extinction by our greedy, thoughtless and unsustainable behaviour.

    Most of what happens in the oceans is hidden from sight and passes unnoticed by us but we know now that there is no uniforn stillness in the ocean’s depths. It means that there is no safety in dumping some of man’s most deadly substances in it. Countries and governments have to consider seriously whether they can continue to dispose of the by-products of the atomic age, namely radio-active waste, into our oceans wthout critically threatening the future of mankind on earth.

    “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction." Rachel Carson said in her ground breaking book, "Silent Spring" She was losing her battle with cancer even as she wrote this but she challenged the wisdom of governments in allowing toxic chemicals to be put into the environment before knowing the long-term consequences of their use. "Technology is moving on a faster trajectory than mankind's sense of moral duty." she said. The public outcry this book created, initiated the environmental movement."

    Waves - the oceans' heartbeat

    How rich and diverse life is on this tiny planet we can’t begin to comprehend. How complex and interconnected it is, we haven’t yet fathomed. Not all the collective brains of the world’s scientific community are able to understand yet how it all fits together. Yet masterminded it is on a level beyond our thinking. We will learn most by being humble and open-minded instead of arrogant and presumptuous, and by realising we don't own the planet and thus respecting our place in the scheme of things, a component of the ocean of life. When we know better, we ought to do better.

    Return from Oceans to the Garden Route National Park

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