Breath-taking, calming, surreal, wild, thrilling, humbling; these are just a few words that people have used to describe the mighty ocean. It can thrill you, calm you and even scare you, but it will always draw you back to it, over and over again.
Covering over 70% of our planet’s surface, the ocean is the world’s greatest and most shared resource. The ocean is a treasure trove of delights; the world’s longest mountain chain, an incredibly diverse range of marine species, marine plants, watery habitats such as coral reefs and kelp forests, not to mention the shipwrecks and ‘rivers and lakes’, yes, rivers and lakes flowing underneath the ocean.
A quote from Arthur C. Clarke gets it right: “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when clearly it is Ocean”.
Ocean Life – Amazing Biodiversity
‘Ocean Life’ outnumbers those on land, as 94% of living species are aquatic. From the largest ocean mammal-the Blue Whale which is also the largest animal on earth, to the smallest sea animals like zooplankton which can only be seen with a microscope – marine species outnumber those on land. The ocean supports a great diversity of life. Frolicking dolphins, breaching whales or a turtle popping up through the surface of the ocean to breathe; what we see on the surface of the ocean is only a fraction of life that is below the ocean’s surface. Taking advantage of the enormous volume the ocean comprises, marine life inhabits warm waters near the equator, icy waters of the earth’s poles and the darkest depths of the ocean. There is more life below the ocean’s surface than on land, with experts predicting that there are more than 300,000 different species underwater.
It is said that there are more living things in the sea than there are stars in the universe.
Life is dependent directly or indirectly on the energy from the sun and all organisms in an ecosystem can be placed in trophic levels depending on what energy source they rely upon and how they provide energy for other organisms in the food web. Every creature that lives in the ocean plays a vital role in the trophic chain of the ecosystems.
The ocean also supports a rich tapestry of plant life; from microscopic algae, such as phytoplankton, which produce an estimated 50-70% of the oxygen that humans and other land-dwelling creatures breathe, to larger algae such as kelp and seaweed that provide food and shelter for marine animals.
Every Breath We Take – Producing Oxygen
For every breath we take, we can thank the ocean, as ocean plants contribute over half the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine photosynthesizers such as phytoplankton, kelp, and algal plankton. These plants photosynthesize by using carbon dioxide (CO2), water, and energy from the sun to make food for themselves, and oxygen is released as a by-product. Phytoplankton are tiny ocean plants that live near the water’s surface. They drift with the currents and are responsible for producing most of the oxygen we breathe. One type of phytoplankton ‘Prochlorococcus’, is the most abundant photosynthetic organism on the planet. Scientists discovered this only in 1988 and have estimated that it provides the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take. This superabundant photosynthesizer is so small that millions can fit in one drop of water.
The ocean’s photosynthesizers are amazing. They live in the top layer of the ocean illuminated by sunlight. This is called the ‘photic zone’ and is about 200 metres (656 feet) below the surface of the ocean. However, scientists have discovered a type of red algae called ‘Corallinales’ 270 metres (886 feet) below the ocean’s surface, which produces oxygen despite receiving only the smallest fraction of sunlight. The only light that penetrates these depths is blue and green light, and the pigment which gives the algae its red hue enables it to absorb this light.
‘Sea’ Food – Serving Us Protein
Home to countless fish, shellfish, and sea plants, oceans have always been an important source of food. Cod, trout herring, sea bass, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, lobster, crab, oysters, and clams are just a few of the numerous delicacies we get from the ocean. Globally, the ocean is the primary – and often the only – source of protein for over three billion people. Providing us with over 15% of our high-quality protein, oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein.
Food from the ocean is not limited to fish; seaweed has been traditionally consumed raw as food, and various sea plants and algae have been used for cooking. Seaweed is an important ingredient in the food industry due to its high viscosity and gelling properties. It is used in a variety of food products such as ice cream and hot fudge as a texture modifier, as it helps to make them smooth and easy to eat. For centuries, Asians have used seaweed in salads, stews, and soups. Seaweed is an excellent nutrient source containing many vitamins and minerals and providing many health benefits.
Keeping Us Warm – Regulating Our Climate
The ocean plays an important role in regulating the earth’s climate. It keeps our planet warm, acting like a massive heat-retaining solar panel, absorbing a majority of the radiation from the sun and helping distribute heat around the globe. As the planet warms, the ocean absorbs excess heat from the atmosphere, with the top few metres of the ocean able to store as much heat as the Earth’s entire atmosphere. The ocean soaks up the heat, and the currents drive the weather patterns. The major ocean currents referred to as the ‘great ocean conveyor belt’, transport warm water and precipitation from the equator toward the poles and cold water from the poles back to the equator. This activity helps to counteract the uneven distribution of the solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface, thereby preventing extreme weather and making more of the Earth’s land habitable. Without ocean currents, temperatures in the regions would be more extreme—scorching hot at the equator and frigid toward the poles.
The ocean regulates the earth’s climate by regulating the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, partially buffering the greenhouse effect. It functions as a global climate control system, playing an important role in the carbon cycle. Referred to as a ‘Carbon Sink’, the ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere that would otherwise stay there, thereby balancing the Carbon cycle and temperatures on earth. The ocean acts as a storehouse for carbon and has been estimated to have absorbed about 30% of all CO2 emissions from human activities within the past 200 years. Research confirms that the effects of climate change, such as extreme storms and wildfires, would have been much worse if it weren’t for oceans.
The ocean also plays a key role in the ‘Water Cycle’ of precipitation, evaporation, freezing, and melting and condensation; a global process of water circulation from clouds to land, ocean, and back to the clouds. The ocean holds 97% of the total water on the planet and rainfall on land most often starts off in the ocean as a result of ocean evaporation. This process of evaporation increases the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air, forming rain and storms which are then carried by trade winds.
Coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs help protect communities and cities from storm surge and wave damage.
Sea Activities – Ocean Economy / Supporting Economic Growth
The ocean has supported livelihoods and trade throughout the ages. For centuries, the main economic activities supported were fishing, trade, and transport. With an increasing population and the search for new resources, the ocean has become a new economic frontier. Technological innovation, economic growth, and globalisation has expanded the economic force of the ocean to include renewable energy, coastal and maritime tourism, mineral resources, offshore oil and gas, aquaculture, biotechnology, desalination, port infrastructure and services, shipbuilding, beachfront hotels, seaports, shipbuilding and ship repair, beachfront hotels, commercial fishing, and coastal development.
‘Ocean Economy’ as defined by the ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD), is the sum of the economic activities of ocean-based industries, together with the assets, goods, and services provided by marine ecosystems. OECD predicts that ocean activities will shift dramatically in the coming decades and will include tidal and wave energy, seabed mining, oil and gas exploration, and production from previously inaccessible waters, among others.
“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not, it’s in the ocean,” said Jayne Stowell, who oversees the construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. The ocean supports our voracious demand for communication and entertainment with nearly 750,000 miles of undersea cables connecting the continents.
The pharmaceutical industry is another area that benefits humans, where over 1 million different species that live in the ocean supply a growing number of medicines and drugs.
Soothing Our Soul – Therapeutic Benefits
The ocean is therapeutic; it makes us happy and peaceful as we see the ocean, smell the brisk ocean air, feel the ocean breeze, and dance amidst the waves as it breaks on the shore. Research findings reveal that people who visit the coast at least twice weekly tend to have better physical and mental health. A weekly two-hour visit to the ocean, or even ocean views, have been associated with better mental health. The ocean and coastline, as well as other water bodies, are referred to as ‘Blue Space’. Researchers say that spending time near a ‘Blue Space’ such as the ocean has even greater health benefits than visiting a forest or park. Water has a psychologically restorative effect and the reason it is mentally therapeutic may be due to the open vistas, reflected light, and associated soundscapes. Coastal environments have been shown to ‘reduce negative mood and stress whilst inducing positive mood’, ‘reduce psychological stress’, and ‘improve health in body and mind’, whilst offering many other benefits such as higher levels of vitamin D as well as better social relations.
Being by the water is good for both body and mind. Humans also experience the ‘mammalian diving reflex’ when their face touches water. Seals and dolphins have this as well. As soon as our face touches water, our heart rate immediately slows down, and blood moves from the extremities to the brain, heart, and vital organs of our body, waking us up and making us feel vibrant and alive.
Our Happy Zone – Ocean Holidays
The ocean is like a vast and beautiful playground; the waves, the beach, the breeze, the sun, the sand, and the amazing vistas are a constant delight to the senses. The smell of salty seawater evokes a holiday feeling and the sea breeze helps to revive and clear one’s mind.
There are a multitude of fun ocean activities that one can engage in, from the ‘mild’ such as swimming, paddling, building sandcastles, snorkelling, recreational fishing, sailing, yachting, whale and dolphin watching, stand-up paddling and cruising; to the ‘wild’ such as boogie boarding, diving, kite surfing, windsurfing, SNUBA diving, SCUBA diving, sea scooter snorkelling, parasailing, underwater BOB adventures, flyboarding, sea caving, and swimming with sharks for the bravest of the brave.
Sensation, solitude, energy, the ocean provides them all, awakening our senses, soothing and calming us, and also exciting and thrilling us.
“The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.” – Robert Wyland, American artist and conservationist.
The ocean cares for us and it’s our responsibility to care for the ocean whilst enjoying its magnificent beauty and multitude of resources.