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How Does The Ocean Affect All Life On Earth?

How Does The Ocean Affect All Life On Earth?
Why should farmers in the Midwest care about what's happening in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? How might the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico impact the health of the world's oceans? We speak to the author of "Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean."

Julia Whitty will be discussing and signing copies of "Deep Blue Home" tonight at 7 p.m. at Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're being told by officials not to exaggerate the impact of the millions and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP oil spill. Some say the ocean is very big and has survived many ecological disasters. And President Obama claims proper cleaning can bring back the Gulf even better than before. But a study of the complex ecology of the earth's oceans and how deeply connected the ocean is with life on earth, shows we have reason for concern, and not just from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I’d like to introduce my guest. Julia Whitty is author of "Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean," and environmental correspondent for Mother Jones magazine. Julia, welcome to These Days.

JULIA WHITTY (Author): Thank you, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think human activity is damaging the ocean’s ecology or can the earth’s oceans take care of themselves? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Julia, what is the focus of your book “Deep Blue Home?”

WHITTY: Well, I think at its root, it’s a love story for the ocean, and it’s my life story and my love story for the ocean. And it tracks, lightly, my own life through the waters, first in science and then as a nature documentary filmmaker and now as a writer and reporting about the oceans and the science of the oceans. And woven throughout are the wonderful stories of the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, a lot of the fantastic science, the gee-whiz stuff, the wonders of the deep blue home. And also the threats facing it and how these are interconnected and how even if we live far inland we are affected by the health of the ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder, how did you fall in love with the ocean because, you know, many people like the ocean a great deal and even some love it but from looking at your book, from reading large sections of your book, there’s a connection and a really deep love that you have for the ocean that I don’t think too many people share. So how did that happen to you?

WHITTY: I think both my parents loved the ocean. My father took me sailing as a child and I spent some – a lot of my summers out on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. And I fell in love with the water and the more I experienced the ocean, it is such a frontier. You go out into the ocean and it’s – you do not know what you’ll see any given day. Is it going to be a whale surfacing beside your boat? Is it going to be an otter coming and dipping down into the water with you? It’s full of mystery and unpredictability, and I love this aspect of it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Julia Whitty. She’s author of "Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean.” If you’d like to join our conversation, it’s 1-888-895-5727. Now one of the themes of your book is how things that happen out in the ocean affect life all over the planet even in the middle of continents. You don’t have to be on the shoreline to be affected by the ocean. Can you give us some examples of that?


WHITTY: Well, for instance, a large part of the rain that’s produced in our planet is actually – the nuclei of the raindrops are emissions from phytoplankton, the plant plankton that make the bottom of the food web in the ocean. So if we didn’t have this massive, tiny, singular – single-celled organisms in the ocean producing and releasing certain gases that become the nuclei of rain, so a lot of the rain falling on the American midwest or anywhere far inland may have been born from phytoplankton in the Pacific ocean.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. You think of the – I think of weather being created in the sky but you’re telling me now it’s created in the ocean.

WHITTY: Really, the ocean and the sky are – And it’s interesting because the ancient Greeks talked about their ocean god. Oceanus was actually – he was embodied as a river that surrounded both the ocean and the atmosphere and they saw the ocean and the atmosphere as connected, as one force. And, increasingly, science is showing us that the ocean and the atmosphere are very much interconnected and driving our climate, driving weather, driving rain.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, you find a lot of wisdom in ancient myths and legends connected to the ocean. Is this, in a way, the deeper truth of this, is this something that we’ve forgot in the modern age?

WHITTY: I think it’s very good to go back and touch back with what we understood of these huge elemental forces that controlled our world and controlled our planet because as much as we think we are in control, we aren’t. And so I think the ancients had a good sense of these massive forces. They gave them names. We don’t always have to do that but I love touching back into that mythology and finding the modern day metaphorical reality behind those ancient myths.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the things that is suggested in ancient myths and legends but something we’re really learning about scientifically now is how the world’s oceans connect together. Tell us a little bit about that.

WHITTY: Well, we’ve arbitrarily named these basins separately but we now realize from the study of oceanography that, really, there’s a huge ocean conveyor that connects all the bodies of water on earth. And so that a drop of rain that falls in the north Atlantic may actually emerge in the north Pacific 1600 or 2000 years later. And that these waters are moving at different depths, at different speeds and in different directions and they are carrying the waters through this huge conveyor belt all around the world ocean. And increasingly, oceanographers think of our planet as having a world ocean.

CAVANAUGH: Right, I’ve heard oceanographers talk about earth’s ocean rather than earth’s oceans so just this big, this mass of water in all its complexity and we have just sort of, as you say, arbitrarily divided it up with different names.

WHITTY: Yeah. And, in fact, you know, our history in science really is the tendency to divide more than things need to be divided. And as we mature in science and mature in our understanding, we actually get broader and broader in our ability to bring things into the fold and kind of knock down the barriers. The barriers are almost a childlike way of looking at things and, in reality, the world is far more complex and there are far fewer boundaries than we’ve been inclined in our early understanding to put around things.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when you talk about ocean conveyors, deep sort of water – are they really underwater rivers in a sense?

WHITTY: Yes, there are underwater rivers. So, for instance, we have off the – In the Atlantic, we have the Gulfstream, one of the most famous currents, a very fastmoving, northward flowing current, surface current. But directly underneath it is a current going in exactly the opposite direction, so down at about fifteen, seventeen thousand feet, we have a very cold, deep current that’s flowing slowly south towards Antarctica and it’s actually the same water separated by time. So the Gulfstream has flown north and as it gets up into the north and its temperature drops, it sinks and begins this reverse southward flow. This is going on all over the globe and I describe it as like a freeway interchange system if you were to do an exploded 3-D look at the ocean. There’s – Its freeways interchange with directions of travel in all different speeds and directions, temperatures and densities, salinities, all these things that affect currents in the ocean. So it’s a fascinatingly complex – We are still only beginning to decipher it.

CAVANAUGH: So that’s not just a bunch of water there.

WHITTY: Not just a bunch of water.


WHITTY: Lots of fun dynamics underway there.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds like it. Julia Whitty is my guest. She’s author of "Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean." We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and Marzan is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Marzan. Welcome to These Days.

MARZAN (Caller, La Jolla): Thank you very much. And I have one question and a comment for Ms. Whitty. I grew to love the oceans, too. I’m a passionate diver and I began diving in one of the world’s most renowned areas. I’m sure Ms. Whitty has heard about it, the Indian Ocean, the Islands of the Maldives and then the Seychelles and was heartbroken when most of the coral reefs died by the mass bleaching in 1998. So my first question is whether Ms. Whitty has any recent statistics on the status of the corals in the ocean and the Indian Ocean. I want to compare mine with hers. And I also wanted to say how sad I am about the status, the state of the oceans in and around La Jolla and San Diego where I live, the pollution and the disrespect towards wildlife that we have, you know, especially close to where I live the sea lions at Goldfish Point and the harbor seal rookery in the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. I don’t think the city has done anything to protect them despite a city council vote. So basically my main question is what is the status of the ocean’s coral reefs and particularly the ones that we find that are so rich in biodiversity in the Indian Ocean?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that question.

WHITTY: Yeah, thank you very much for that question, and my previous book was largely about coral reefs so I do know that the Maldives have been hit quite hard in this recent El Nino so some of the reefs were beginning to recover and this last El Nino that’s just finished about now, sadly, I did read that the Maldives has been hit pretty hard again. The Indian Ocean seems to be taking the real beating in our warming climate, and our changing El Nino cycles are increasing, El Nino cycles. We do know that the downside is that coral reefs are extremely vulnerable to the problems that are affecting the world ocean right now, not only a changing climate but we – with that changing atmospheric, this is the connection between atmosphere and ocean. Again, I was talking about we’re having ocean acidification going on and that means that it’s going to be hard for creatures like corals to even make the little shells or to make their little – their coral reefs, to make the – and all shelled animals to make their shells. So these are serious, legitimate concerns. On the good news side, we’re also finding that there are some corals that are learning to adapt to higher temperatures. There are some corals that are already naturally more adapted to higher temperatures. So there is an effort, you know, nature tries, struggles very hard to balance itself against these assaults and nature’s working overtime right now to try and deal with the problems we’re throwing at it. I’m hopeful that coral reefs will remain in our world through this century. Some people are not optimistic about that. I think there will probably be places where corals remain. I don’t know about the Maldives. It’s really the frontlines of the war.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, since we’re talking about this and since you mentioned the Gulfstream when we were talking about underwater rivers. I’d like to get your thoughts on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

WHITTY: Well, you know, I’ve just been down there reporting on it so I’m just back from there and I’ve just written up an article for Mother Jones. It’ll be in the September issue. And I’ve – It’s worse than you might imagine. It’s horrible. It’s really – I feel like I’ve come back from a war zone, honestly. I feel pretty traumatized. I happened to be working on an article about the deep ocean when the spill happened and, really, what’s going to be severely impacted by this spill in the Gulf of Mexico is this deep ocean, not just the sea floor but what lives in the water column. And this is what oceanographers refer to as the deep scattering layer. It’s actually the largest biomass of life on our planet. And everything that we know from the surface waters, the whales, the dolphins, the sea birds, virtually all of them dive down to feed into this deep scattering layer which stays below the cusp of perpetual darkness. In daytime, it’s down deep. At night it rises up to the surface. And virtually everything – It makes this huge, twice daily vertical migration. It lives and moves all the time, and now we have this massive amount of oil in the water column in the Gulf of Mexico. Not just oil, we have methane that’s bubbling out of this thing, not just methane, we have methanol, which, sadly, BP is treating it with, and we have Corexit, the dispersant that is more toxic than oil itself. So we have all of this stuff circulating in the deep, which is the foundational tier of the life of the Gulf of Mexico. And I fear, really, for what lies ahead for that body of water.

CAVANAUGH: I saw testimony before Congress. A scientist was speaking before Congress saying that they should stop putting in the dispersant because all it does is it’s a PR move to make this spill look less than it really is but it’s more damaging to the ecology perhaps than the spill itself. Tell us a little bit more about that.

WHITTY: Absolutely true. We know that oil is toxic. We know that Corexit is toxic. What’s worse is oil that’s been treated with Corexit. That’s the worst of all. So they’re doing this simply to make less oil come ashore so it’ll look – and they’re going to be held legally liable by what our estimates of how many barrels were spilled. They’re trying to make that number hard to guess, hard to know. And they do that and they’re still treating this, they’re treating it aerially and they’re treating it deep underwater at the source. No one has ever treated oil underwater at the source at 5,000 feet deep so that now you have this dispersed oil. And natural state oil would float quickly to the surface and could be skimmed, now it’s being dispersed. It’s remaining semi-submersible forever. It may never come up to the surface in its current state. It could be circulating down there forever. And it’s not going to – it’s in a largely closed ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, which is bad, but it’s also going to escape. All of the computer models show it will escape through the Straits of Florida and just shoot up the Gulfstream as far as Europe.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the ideas of what it will do? What, if that kind of treated oil escapes from the Gulf of Mexico, goes into the larger earth’s ocean, what might the effects be?

WHITTY: It depends how much of it comes out obviously. I mean, if we can cap this thing quickly and it’s still a huge amount of oil but let’s just say the worst case scenario happens and we actually have fractures of the sea floor and it’s uncontainable, which is one real sad possibility. We have, by some estimates, 250 billion gallons of oil in that reservoir. It would probably be leaking for decades. And it would not just destroy the Gulf of Mexico, it would seriously impact the North Atlantic as well. And so it’s very, very bad. Hopefully, we’re going to be containing it. But, honestly, I covered a story last year in depth that no one else seemed to notice, which was a very similar oil spill off the coast of Australia, way off shore, 100 miles off, took five relief wells to get that thing capped. Yeah…


WHITTY: …so no guarantee we’re getting this done on the first go.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Julia Whitty about her new book, the "Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean." Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Sunny is calling us from Mission Hills. Good morning, Sunny. Welcome to These Days.

SUNNY (Caller, Mission Hills): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. Fabulous program. And I’m so glad that people are getting to know the actualities of the problem that we have. I said to your screener the words that I think that are missing in American vocabulary and perhaps other places in the world are honor, respect and revere. That we don’t realize how much has come to us through the seas, how balanced the ecosystem used to be, and I think the attitude in many people is I want what I want and I want to get it and I don’t care about anything else, which is a shame. And I’m reading a great book called “The Living Shore,” and it’s about the oyster beds in British Columbia. And we need to remember there were generations of people before us who took from the land and the sea because they honored it and they revered it. Thank you very much for your time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Sunny, thanks very much for that comment. Let me ask you a couple more questions about the Gulf oil spill, and it’s really a leak more than a spill. The Gulf of Mexico was already pretty polluted before this oil leak from BP is that not right?

WHITTY: The Gulf of Mexico was suffering some severe environmental threats on a variety of fronts, not only pollution. I mean, obviously we have 30,000 holes punched in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. 27,000 of them are abandoned and unmonitored wells. But at the moment, there’s just thousands of other rigs out there. It’s like nothing – I’ve described it as an urban ocean. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, really. So – And then it’s also the site of the second largest dead zone on earth, the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Over-fertilizing the land is running downstream and basically over-fertilizing the ocean, depleting it eventually of oxygen, a fairly complex process. But at any rate, nothing can live there other than jellyfish. Well, the jellyfish are getting hammered by the Gulf oil spill, I can tell you that because I’ve seen lots of dead jellyfish down there. So one of the few things that can still live in the seasonally dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico is also getting killed. We have many species on the verge. We have lots of cetaceans, whales and dolphins, we have a population of sperm whales that a recent estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said that if even three of that Gulf population were killed by human cause, the entire population would be at risk. These poor whales are feeding right now in the Mississippi canyon at this time of year, right where the deep water horizon blowout is. We know that blue fin tuna, extremely endangered Gulf of Mexico, blue fin tuna are spawning right now at the Mississippi Canyon where the deep horizon is. We have Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, this, the only – they breed on one beach essentially on the coast of Mexico and they’re migrating directly through the oil spill to get there. So we have a system that’s under terrible stress initially anyway and now we’ve added this horrible, brutal assault and obviously there are going to be some things that will not recover.

CAVANAUGH: Now let me ask you, so if you were in charge of the cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico with the current spill and with the situation that – what should we being doing to try to clean up this – the mess that’s been created in the Gulf?

WHITTY: I think a much better job could’ve been done than has been done. We should not be using dispersant whatsoever. We should be allowing that oil to pop up to the surface as soon as possible and we should have every boat that we can possibly manhandle out there just to skim and scoop. We haven’t done that. There’s been remarkably little skimming and scooping going on. Why is that? It makes no sense to me. I would not have BP running this. I mean, Carl Safina put it best when he said you don’t have the murderer running the murder trial. And, really, this should be a federalized response. We should’ve taken this away from them. And we need to be working independently because, really, what they’re doing is attempting to mask the reality by using these dispersants, by using methanol on the methane that’s coming out. They’re making the problem much, much worse. We have a point source pollution which, in pollution terms, is a good thing. This pollution’s coming from one place, a hole in the sea floor. That’s containable, workable, doable. They’re turning it into a non-point source pollution, which is just drifting all over the Gulf of Mexico. We will never be able to recover it, and it’s going to foul that place for years and years and years to come.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Sam is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Sam. Welcome to These Days.

SAM (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Just a quick question. I turned in late and I heard mention of possible other fractures in the sea floor. Is that just a possibility or is there any validity to that?

WHITTY: I’ve heard various engineers saying that they are fearful they may be seeing signs of that but I don’t – we – I have not heard any absolute evidence. We can only hope that is not the case and that we can actually get a relief well successfully drilled before that’s – Because basically it’s a race against time. That’s going to be happening if we can’t get a relief well drilled fast enough. We have all of this oil and gas under huge pressure that’s scouring its way to the surface, basically, right now. The way it’s working in that reservoir it’s scouring and enturbulated and if we can’t get to it fast enough, it will bust out through the sea floor in numerous fractures and then there’ll be nothing we can do and the 250 billion gallons or whatever is really in there will be leaking until it’s empty.

CAVANAUGH: As I said in my introduction to this, the Gulf of Mexico is, of course, the ongoing ecological disaster that’s happening in the ocean right now but there are many other things that you talk about. You just talked about dead zones. We hear time and again about over-fishing and the depletion of fish populations. Are there some areas that you think cannot come back of the ocean now that, in a sense, we’ve lost with our interaction with the ocean?

WHITTY: Yes, definitely. There are parts of the ocean. I mean, I write extensively about the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and the cod fishery up there that ran that, not just that province but really the cod fishery of the North Atlantic that ran Europe for 500 years. You could say that the fuel for 500 years of Europe was cod to a large extent, as well as the – It had a lot to do with the founding colonies of America as well, and we over-fished that to the point where we had what was called a trophic cascade, and that is we had four layers or tiers of animals that eat each other that were affected and changed. Down to a microbial level, there were changes in the ecosystem of the North Atlantic. That means that it will almost never come back. The cod themselves changed. They became smaller. They can no longer – They’re no longer big enough to eat their former prey. And they can hardly elbow their way back into this ecosystem because now they’re competing with other things that were that size. They had to breed younger to try and compensate. So we’ve had a four level change that goes to the root of the ecosystem and it will probably never come back to anything like what it was.

CAVANAUGH: So when people do say either out of optimism or ignorance that the ocean is vast and it is – it’s self-healing and so forth, that’s not – it can be true in many instances but it’s not always true.

WHITTY: No, things change. Things will change beyond recovery. On the other hand, you know, nature wants to heal itself and there is a lot of energy spent developing and healing and changing and adapting. That’s the good news. That’s what we have to work with. And we need to know that. We need to know that for every like one molecule of effort that we’re going to put into solving the problem, nature’s going to put ten in with us. You know, we’re – And if we can just switch our focus so that we’re actually putting in that one molecule of effort, we’re going to have this enormous ally on our side, the ocean. The entire ocean will be working to help heal itself alongside us if we can make those changes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this is a book, very largely your book, “Deep Blue Home,” is a book of wonder, it’s a book of, as one of our callers said, reverence and honor. And I’m wondering what it is that you would like people to take from this book?

WHITTY: Well, again, I think of it as my love story, you know, and we read love stories because we like to feel that love. We all know love. We know that feeling and we want to feel in our systems. And I want – I would love for people to read this book and feel that love and, if anything, I would love people to say I think I’ll take my children to the beach this weekend, if they’re near a beach. Or I’ll just take my children outside. You know, I want people to connect back to the outdoor world. I think it heals us and I think it heals our planet when we have a relationship with the outdoors. So I hope that that would come from this book.

CAVANAUGH: We do go to the beach a lot here in San Diego but I’m wondering, if I went with you, what would I notice that I don’t notice on my own? What is it that you can point out that people perhaps overlook?

WHITTY: I definitely see what’s going on on the natural scale when I go out. So I’m – I might be seeing birds and I might be seeing little tracks in the sand, and I might notice something out in the kelp beds and that’s what I would be looking at and I – I’m very interested in how nature reveals itself to us in the – Nature writes a book every day and in the beach, it’s written in the waves and in the sand and in the air, and I always go out and read it. That’s what I like to do.

CAVANAUGH: Excellent. Well, thank you so much. So much good information. Thank you, Julia. I appreciate it.

WHITTY: Thank you, Maureen, very much.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking Julia Whitty. She will be discussing and signing copies of "Deep Blue Home" tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla. If you would like to comment, if we didn’t get a chance to ask you a question on the air, please go online, You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS-FM.