I moved back to Washington with our cat, not sure what to do next, not sure I wanted there to be a next. I found I had three options. I could return to California and do more PI work for Scott, a lawyer friend and diving buddy, but I’d already done enough of that. I could return to war reporting, as President Bush was then planning a preemptive war on Iraq. That had some appeal, war having once proved an effective antidote to depression. I also started meeting with Ralph Nader, who had read my book and encouraged me to organize the Seaweed Rebellion that I describe in its final chapter. He offered me some support, including free office space amid a rabbit warren of public interest start-ups in a building near Dupont Circle.
After a lot of reflection I decided that while we”ll probably always have wars, we may not always have wild fish, living reefs or protective coastal wetlands. I thought about the work of people who had inspired me: David Brower, Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, David Suzuki, Ralph. I decided to go with my surviving love. Plus if I went to war I didn’t know what I’d do with the cat. So the Poose, who hated getting even her paws wet, brought me back to the sea.And there were these other factors, of course.
Salt water covers 71% of the earth’s surface and provides 97% of its livable habitat. While the tropical rain forests have been called the lungs of the world, the oceans actually absorb far greater amounts of carbon dioxide. Microscopic phytoplankton in the top layer of the sea acts as a biological pump extracting some 2.5 billion tons of organic carbon out of the atmosphere annually, replacing it with 70% of the life-giving oxygen we need to survive. The top two feet of seawater contains as much heat as the entire atmosphere.
Photosynthesis of carbon dioxide by plankton and terrestrial plants was thought to be the basis of all organic life until 1977, when scientists aboard a deep-diving submarine off the Galapagos Islands discovered sulfurous hot-water vents 8,000 feet below the surface colonized by giant tube worms, clams, white crabs and other animals that contain sulfur-burning bacteria, which provide an alternative basis for sustaining life. Now NASA scientists believe similar “chemosynthetic” life-forms may exist around volcanic deep-water ocean vents beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Like I said before, whole other alien worlds right here on our own ocean planet, strange worlds both awesome and familiar. Our bodies, like the planet, are 71% salt water, our blood exactly as salty as the sea (when our ancestors emerged from it). This fact may explain why it’s easier to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. The rhythm of the waves is like our mother’s heartbeat. For seven years I’d lived in that cliff house in San Diego that shook when the storm waves rolled in every winter. I never slept better in my life.
And so I followed the rhythm. In December 2002, after talking it over with many seaweed (marine grassroots) activists I’d met and deeply liked, I established the Blue Frontier Campaign. The idea was to strengthen the ocean constituency and help mobilize a blue movement that could change policy from the bottom up. My sister was happy I wasn’t going back to war.
In the next few years we got a lot done with a staff of two and many interns, friends and volunteers. We held book events and “Celebrations of the Sea” for over 3,000 people including scientists, fishermen, surfers, divers, members of Congress and others. We held a three-day conference for 250 activists from 170 organizations, and a smaller Mid-Atlantic regional conference at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We produced the first Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide in print and online, listing some 2,000 “blue” groups and ocean parks. We established a website and a monthly “Blue Notes’ ocean policy newsletter, wrote guides for activists, distributed free books and other materials, and produced articles, videos, opinion pieces and radio reports for a range of national and global media. I spoke to anyone I could and wrote 50 Ways to Save the Ocean (New Word Library) (with a foreword by Philippe Cousteau and illustrations by “Sherman’s Lagoon” cartoonist Jim Toomey) as a way for everyone and anyone who gets something from the ocean, whether it be recreation, transportation, energy, security, protein or spiritual renewal, to give something back. The number-one suggestion is “go to the beach,” because you’re more likely to protect that which you love.
The biggest personal setback was that in trying to save the ocean from a concrete-covered swamp—Washington, D.C.—I had far less water time. And so, recently thinking about the time we’re allotted and the need to do what gives us passion and be where we belong, I moved back to California, a place my nephews also like to visit.
And here I am, back in cold water with Captain Jessie Alstatt of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. We’re off Anacapa Island, California, where the keepers are tending the first-ever open ocean eel grass restoration project, part of the panoply of solutions that could still help turn the tide. The bottom where we drop in is litte
red with brittle stars. Closer to the eel grass beds are freestanding stalks of giant kelp, señorita and lizard fish, gobies, sand dabs, orange-throat blennys peeking out from abandoned worm tubes, and a big bat ray just hanging out. And because each dive’s unique, I get to meet my first sarcastic fringe-head, a mottled shovel-mouthed fish that, if it were nine feet instead of nine inches, would be the terror of the sea.
Back on board we watch leaping dolphins, sea lions and diving pelicans feeding on a live bait ball. I am cold, wet, salty and grinning like a fool. At moments like this, enveloped by the wonder of the everlasting sea, it’s hard, despite the best available science, not to be optimistic.