Into the Communication Age
By Jean-Michel Cousteau
Last June I attended the National Oceans Conference in Monterey, California, as the recipient of an "Environmental Heroes Award." During this fascinating event, President Bill Clinton announced the formation of a panel of experts who will develop a comprehensive national oceans policy for the United States. Then, as if it were already coming true, scientists, conservationists, fishermen and representatives of government and the military got together and discussed their varying interests with regard to the sea.
It was a remarkable moment. Never before had I seen such an holistic approach to ocean issues at such a high political level. Here were experts accustomed to working within their own separate worlds, actually communicating about shared concerns!
And there was more good news. The President announced a coordinated plan for protecting reefs and backed it up with a pledge of $6 million to restore 18 damaged reefs in Florida, the Keys, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam. To make sure communication continued to protect reefs, the President proposed guidelines that would make it easier for agencies to stay aware of the impacts of government programs on ocean environments. That means one agency's efforts to help reefs won't be undermined by another agency's decision to sacrifice coastlines to development.
For me it was very gratifying on many levels.
Humans talk all the time. In fact, we probably make more noise than any other species on Earth. Most of it is probably not worth listening to. But when we really put our minds to it, we can use our ability to make and hear noise to transmit ideas and be understood by someone else in a way that brings us closer together. Consensus and teamwork happen. Things get done. Wars are ended, injustice overturned, symphonies performed, spaceships sent to other planets. Yet for all the noise we make, little of it concerns the oceans, the most obvious feature on the surface of the Earth. Little communication means little knowledge. This ignorance is not just embarrassing, it is dangerous to our own future as well as to the health of the sea.
The communication gap is ironic, because as any diver knows, the sea is the ultimate medium for transporting information. Noise travels well underwater. Whales communicate hundreds of miles through water, making the world's oceans one big cetacean "chat-room."
The National Oceans Conference demonstrated that people in policy-making circles may be starting to look at the sea as the whales experience it: a fluid continuum that connects each place on Earth to every other place.To take this conviction beyond the conference rooms, I participated in a unique video uplink from nearby Monterey.
Submerged in a kelp forest setting typical of many along California's central coast and Channel Islands, I was surrounded by shafts of sunlight and shiny schools of darting fish. There is something cathedral-like about the California kelp forest and it is not only the visual atmosphere, but also the sense of peace and serenity that comes from the gently undulating kelp fronds. In a relaxed mood, it is easy to practice good eco-diving skills: patiently observing sea life with a minimum of effort and impact. When we take time to stop and watch, the sea adjusts to the human presence and reveals itself. Gradually we become aware of the tiny crustaceans foraging on the stipes and blades of the kelp, as the light filters down through the canopy. Such is the quiet magic of the kelp forest.
But how can we help nondivers appreciate this, so they will want to protect it? We can't get them all in the water. Pictures and videos only go so far. They are remote, like tiny windows in a world that is otherwise static and landlocked. One flip of the switch and the window is shut, the ocean is gone and people resume their normal lives, unaware of the impact their actions have on distant ocean environments.
But now there is a way to bring people into the ocean without getting them wet: video uplink.
Our teams have been using uplinks in educational situations for about five years now. In resorts and on cruise ships this technology allows nondivers to virtually participate in a dive by following, on TV monitors, the explorations of a diver in the waters nearby. Because the diver is wearing a full facemask with communication devices installed, the nondivers can ask questions and have them answered. Age, infirmity, distance and fear will always prevent people from taking their bodies into the water, but they no longer prevent the immersion of the imagination.
With all this in mind, I watched the sun stream through the kelp, but what I was hearing was very different. It was the voice of my dear friend, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed explorer and former chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"Hello, Jean-Michel," she said, "are you there?"
"Yes, Sylvia, I'm here," I answered. But I was also "there"-in Lisbon, Portugal, projected onto a huge screen in the U.S. Pavilion at Expo '98 and being watched by the more than 1,000 people gathered there. Together, Dr. Earle and I were spokespersons for the pavilion, whose theme is "oceans" in keeping with the International Year of the Ocean.
Dr. Earle introduced me to two Portuguese young people, chosen as spokespersons for their peers, who proceeded to ask me questions about the state of the sea. I was in the perfect position to answer. Not just as a diver, filmmaker and explorer, but as someone who, at that moment, was actually immersed in the sea. They asked questions concerning the future of the oceans and the world they will inherit: Why are the oceans being overfished? Where does pollution come from and how can we reduce it? How many people can the coastal zone sustain? And many more.
The questions revolved around a central concern: the need to manage human marine activities for the greatest ecological health of the oceans. This is not for the oceans' benefit but ours. We cannot survive with dead seas. Cutting mangroves, filling in coastal wetlands, polluting rivers, dredging seagrass beds-all these activities undermine marine health by introducing toxins into the water cycle and depriving fish, seabirds and other animals of the coastal nurseries they need to mature and become commercially valuable for us.
The answers revolved around a central truth: we know certain practices are harmful and yet they continue. It's time to take responsibility and stop them. To do this, we need to communicate.
Communicating directly from the kelp brought the discussion into immediate contact with the ocean, the long-suffering "silent witness" of our environmental debates. The more people can experience the undersea world in real time-via diving or uplinks-the more likely they will be to understand, to sympathize with and to communicate with others their concern for the ocean.
The transmission came to a close and the world resumed its normal human dimensions. But for a while there, I swear I knew what it must feel like to be a whale.
Beneath The Sea's 1999 U/W Photo/ Video Competition: The deadline for the contest is December 31, 1998. The grand prize for photography, the David Doubilet Award, is a one week trip on the Little Cayman Diver II. The grand prize for video, the Stan Waterman Award, is a one week trip on the Fiji Aggressor.
For further information, call (718) 409-0240 or Beneath The Sea at (914) 664-4310; fax (914) 664-4315. Or visit the internet site at www.cyberus.ca/~bts/ to see previous winners' images and for an application for the Beneath The Sea 1999 Photo/Video Competition.