|Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Adventures: America's Underwater Treasures: Essay|
America's Underwater Treasures
By Jean-Michel Cousteau
More than half of America's borders are water, stretching over 12,000 miles of coastline. But a country doesn't end at its shores. Extending far into the oceans and lakes, these waters contain some of America's most important natural resources, areas of incomparable beauty, and irreplaceable artifacts of history -- all underwater treasures that, on the whole for the American people, are unknown, unseen, and sometimes at risk.
Important and thoughtful steps have been taken to preserve and protect these resources through a political process that has resulted in an underwater system similar to national parks. Everyone knows Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Great Smokey Mountains. But the national marine sanctuary system and its hidden treasures are virtually unknown to the majority of the American public, and the value of the system is unfamiliar throughout the world. I felt it was time to bring the story of these places to the surface in America's Underwater Treasures.
In 1975, Congress created the first National Marine Sanctuary and a system to manage and protect these areas, which range from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and include some of the most remote island groups in the world.
There are 13 national marine sanctuaries and a newly designated underwater National Monument (the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the subject of Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures: Voyage to Kure) that represent a microcosm of the entire ocean and reflect the best and worst of human activity. There are areas that remain so rich, they remind us what a healthy ocean is like, while other places have been devastated and are being restored.
I wanted to find out what was being done and to see for ourselves if these places are being protected, what use is being made of them, what research is taking place. My Ocean Adventures team and I embarked on an ambitious expedition to visit all the National Marine Sanctuaries, a nine-month odyssey that would cover more than 30,000 miles of highway, 342 dives, and would clock enough air miles to fly around the world 20 times.
While filming America's Underwater Treasures, several themes emerged: the sea is resilient and with proper management can recover from human impact; the vitality of an ecosystem can sometimes be measured by the presence of large fish and mammals; there is a fantastic variety of marine ecosystems that thrive, but they are all vulnerable; everything is connected; and what we do makes a difference.
Here are some of the highlights we experienced and revealed in American's Underwater Treasures:
Our exploration began in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at one of several places where giant Goliath groupers gather annually to mate. As on many of our expeditions, I was joined by my son, Fabien, and daughter, Celine, who would themselves lead several of our visits to sanctuary sites. Fabien assisted at a medical procedure at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, where injured turtles are treated and, when possible, released back into the wild.
To explore the issue of over-fishing, we visited no-fishing, marine protected areas in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the sanctuary nearest a mega-city, Los Angeles. An experiment is in place here to see if creating a network of no-take zones will bring back big fish. This rich ocean ecosystem has also supported a large and profitable squid fishery, California's most profitable, since the late 1800s. Diving at night among a swarm of squid, our divers saw firsthand the single mating orgy that has so far guaranteed the squid's abundance.
Commercial activity in the form of a natural gas drilling platform is very visible in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Fabien dove on the platform among the oasis of life and fish that are attracted to the structure, while I met with industry leaders to hear what they are doing to properly conduct a business that involves some risk to a nearby thriving coral reef. We timed our visit to coincide with the annual coral spawning event that takes place here predictably within a few nights of the full moon of August, one of nature's greatest spectacles. It's a visual wonderland, turning the sea into the underwater equivalent of New Year's Eve.
Off the coast of Georgia, we found a different wildlife spectacle, difficult to predict and find on any given night at the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, a habitat of eroding ledges that attract turtles and site of their annual nesting on nearby beaches. Amid summer storms and on insect-infested beaches, a large female loggerhead was laying her eggs just before dawn and the crew documented her covering her nest and returning to the sea. Offshore and outside the sanctuary, the turtles are at risk from commercial fishing, especially from the shrimp industry.
Far to the west, however, a different issue is receiving attention at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, where National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) personnel and the Makah tribe have created a joint project to remove derelict fishing nets and gear from the sea. This sanctuary is unique in that its territory is shared with indigenous tribal people and subject to long-standing treaty rights.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is dedicated to the protection of one species, in one place, during one critical season. Two-thirds of the North Pacific population of endangered humpback whales comes to these waters annually to mate and give birth before returning to Alaska, where they feed, so this sanctuary now protects this whale at its most vulnerable time and place.
The National Marine Sanctuary system's first designated site in 1975 was not to protect a treasure of wildlife, but a threatened treasure of American history, the USS Monitor. This Civil War battleship sank in 1862 and carried with it the lives of 16 crewmen and technological innovations, like the first revolving turret, that are part of naval history. Its designation as a cultural treasure and sanctuary site allows preservation crews to both study and preserve it and to make its artifacts and story known to the public through the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
The most significant collection of underwater shipwrecks lies far to the north in the
freshwaters of Lake Huron at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Spanning over 200 years of naval history, these shipwrecks are buried treasure for historians with many mysteries still to solve and many human stories still to be told. Our team dove on the wrecks of the Defiance and the Audubon in over 180 feet of depth to document the condition of the ships in hopes of clarifying conflicting reports about their collision in the mid-1800s. But even with sanctuary protection, these artifacts are threatened by an unexpected invader-quagga and zebra mussels from the Caspian Sea that were transported in the ballast water of oceangoing transport vessels. The mussels have overgrown many shipwrecks in a few short years, as well as clogging industrial pipes that border the lakes. There is currently no known, effective solution to this invasion.
Off the New England coast, however, rather than wanting to get rid of a species, there are major efforts trying to keep just one species -- the lobster -- alive and flourishing. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is the site of an historic, four-hundred-year-old fishery, mostly for cod, and is the seasonal destination for a variety of migrating whales. It is also the place of a cautionary tale -- by the mid-1990s cod were declared commercially extinct because of over-fishing. Without the cod, the lobster flourished and now a community long dependent on fishing is dependent on the lobster, a species vulnerable to over-fishing.
At the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the deepest of all the sanctuaries, with a marine Grand Canyon just offshore, and home of the canning industry made famous by John Steinbeck, we found a similar tale of exploitation and crashes in the population of marine life from human impact. In the first half of the 20th century, Monterey Bay was one of the most productive fisheries in the world, blessed with an abundance of fish, year after year. After a 50-year bonanza riding a silver tide of seemingly inexhaustible sardines, finally, the last ones were canned, and Monterey crashed. With commercial fishing in decline, life slowly returned to the Bay where diversity is legendary. Monterey became a haven for research with its deep canyon and confluence of issues including fisheries management, pollution from agricultural and domestic runoff, and scientific research.
In the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the elephant seal, once considered extinct, established a breeding colony in 1972 and continued their spectacular recovery, fortunately, all within the boundaries of national marine sanctuaries. The abundance of elephant seals has seasonally attracted one of the biggest gatherings of great white sharks in the world. But the sea covers a hidden concern in these waters. From the mid-1940s to the 1970s, the Farallone islands were the sight of the largest marine nuclear dump in the world.
The most hidden and most inaccessible of the sanctuaries lies off the California shore at the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the site of a geological feature rising from deep water to within 120 feet of the surface and bathed in nutrient-rich water. It's so inaccessible that no divers had seen the bank in 10 years but it supports a range of sea and bird life in great abundance. Hard to find, in dangerous and turbulent waters, Cordell Bank was a potentially risky dive, in pitching seas and with a strong current, but our team was rewarded with the vision of a carpet of life upon life, colorful, vibrant and thriving, making it especially important to capture these images that are rarely seen.
Half a world away, deep in the Pacific Ocean, lies the smallest and most distant sanctuary and a vibrant coral reef at Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary in American Samoa. Fabien and Celine led the team through a coral reef that has withstood hurricanes, coral bleaching, agricultural run-off, a crown-of-thorns sea star invasion, and has proved time and again to be resilient. The Samoan people have long had an ethic of caring for the sea and the land and for thousands of years, the coral reef and the Samoan people lived in the Eden of a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle.
It has been a demanding, grueling, and exhilarating nine months for our team and a chance to see the most significant underwater environments of one of the largest countries in the world. It was also an opportunity to see an example of national commitment to preservation of the ocean's treasures and a hopeful precedent.
It was so clear to me that the underwater treasures found in these National Marine Sanctuaries are a microcosm of the richness of the world's ocean, and represent the stewardship that must be shared around the world. What we do makes a difference, and we can no longer ignore the effects of our own behavior. What we can do is take action and continue to celebrate the blessings and life-sustaining vitality of this incomparable water planet.