Who isn’t made blissful sitting at the edge of the ocean, feet dug into the sand, staring out at that indefinable line where blue meets blue? I’ll wager that a majority of people on the planet feel that seaside allure. I mean, more than half of the human population actually lives within an easy drive of a coastline.
What is it about the ocean that is so meditative, so curative? Why do we long for it when it’s not nearby? Why does it feel so good when we return to its edge?
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and adviser to environmental groups and think tanks, is an accomplished ocean doer. Over the past decade, he’s started a handful of grassroots organizations aimed at protecting species (turtles) and spaces (the wild coast from Oregon to Mexico). He’s also something of an ocean big-thinker.
Here are some of the questions roaming around in his mind: “Why does the ocean really make your brain and body feel so good?” “Ever wonder why ‘ocean view’ is the most valuable phrase in the English language?” And “Why is the ocean so romantic?”
To help answer some of his own questions about the lure of the ocean, Nichols has organized an event he’s dubbed BlueMind at the CAS on June 2, with the support of Nautica, lumosity.com and Light and Motion. The goal is to explore the link between mind and ocean.
Nichols has gathered neuroscientists, dopamine addiction experts, neurosurgeons, evolutionary psychologists, explorers, futurists and biologists to engage in the conversation. He hopes the day-long, livecast summit will draw some 4,000 to a NightLife Ocean celebration. Check out www.mindandocean.org.
TakePart caught up with the ocean researcher to find out what’s in his head in advance of the gathering … and what he hopes to gain from others.
TakePart: Okay, I’ll bite. Why is “ocean view” the most valuable phrase in the English language? What is it that so connects us to that place where blue meets blue?
Wallace Nichols: We’re going to find out “why” once neuroscientists and ocean folks connect. But consider that a house, apartment, hotel room or bowl of clam chowder can have a 50 percent “ocean view” premium attached. In San Francisco, I know of two identical (down to the doorknobs) penthouse apartments that are differentiated by $500,000…the only difference is that one comes with an “ocean view.” Add up all those premiums, and we’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars. I find it incredibly fascinating (and understandable) that people are willing to open their wallets and bank accounts so readily to “own” a glimpse of ocean.
TakePart: What do a neuroscientist and a deep ocean diver have in common when it comes to a love of the ocean? Do they have similar motivations, a similar worldview?
Wallace Nichols: You can say that both explore the depths of our planet. Both are intellectually and emotionally stimulated by the activity. When we all get together, it will be mind-blowing (pun intended).
TakePart: If someone lives far from a coastline, but loves the ocean … how do you encourage them to stay connected?
Wallace Nichols: The human mind is amazingly powerful. Conjuring up the ocean is one way to visit the ocean. Many great photographers and filmmakers make it easier for us, not to mention a variety of ocean sound apps. Many people stay connected by connecting with each other. There’s even a thriving ocean advocacy community in Colorado that meets each month for Blue Drinks. They plan trips, share information and build camaraderie.
TakePart: We’ve been talking a lot recently about the 100th anniversary of Jacques Cousteau’s birth. What do you think JC would make of the state of the ocean today? He knew how to use “anger” in proper settings … Do you think he’d be angry about the current state of affairs? Or still preaching love?
Wallace Nichols: I think he’d be very upset. No, make that pissed. And he’d be as passionate as ever, as his son and grandkids are. Anger combined with inspiration can motivate us for sure. But it comes back to love…as Jacques always said. One goal of BLUEMIND is to give scientists permission to talk about love in public.
As the world’s attention rushes from one natural disaster to the next—tornadoes, 100-year floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis—let’s not lose track of all the radiated water that continues to leak into the ocean along the Japanese coast.
Photo: Ho New / Reuters
While natural disasters are bad by definition, it’s the continued leaking of the Fukushima nuclear plant that may have the most long-lasting environmental impact due to the partial meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and fires that released unmeasured amounts of radioactive contaminant into air and water.
The plant’s operator, TEPCO, initially dumped 11,500 tons of highly contaminated water on land, which quickly made its way to the ocean. In just the first six days of the spill, which began on April 1, more than 520,000 tons of high-level radioactive water is believed to have reached the sea. That’s 20,000 times the annual allowable limit.
Efforts to cool the reactors with seawater and fresh water continue to poison the ocean more than six weeks after the earthquake—as does fallout, precipitation runoff, and newfound leaks.
At this point no one knows exactly how much contaminated water has been dumped or how truly degradading the spill will be in either the short or long-term.
In separate reports issued this week, Greenpeace and the Japanese government say that samples collected near the plant have shown elevated levels of radiation. Both suggest “containment” is next to impossible.
According to Greenpeace, 10 of 22 seaweed samples collected showed levels five times higher than the standard set for food in Japan. “Radioactive contamination is accumulating in the marine ecosystem that provides Japan with a quarter of its seafood, yet the authorities are still doing very little to protect public health,” Greenpeace radiation expert Ike Teuling said in a statement. So far radiation has only been found in one fish species, the Japanese sand lance.
Any such statistics must be worrying to Japanese citizens, for whom seaweed is a dietary staple.
The government’s report was based on studying the radiation levels of garbage, which at one point after the spill spiked to 85 times the allowable levels of radioactive Iodine-131.
Why is the garbage so laced? The government thinks it’s related to rain carrying radiated water into gutters, storm sewers, and dumps.
Oceanographers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are on the scene in Japan and suggest the groundwater around Fukushima and sediments in the seafloor nearby “will likely be contaminated for decades.” At this point the long-term impact on marine life, fish, and other marine animals can only be guessed.
One of those guesses suggests that the radiated water will only impact the coast of Japan; Woods Hole is readying a research ship to begin observing there.
The leak of contaminated water offers researchers a unique opportunity to test both currents and the longevity and dilutability of a variety of radioactive isotopes. Several types of long-living isotopes will be tracked as they move across the Pacific Ocean (Technetium-99, for example, which is thought to have a half life of 210,000 years and Iodine-29, which has a half-life of 14 million years).
The general current sweeps west from Japan across the Pacific towards the west coast of the U.S.; it’s expected the contaminated water will reach Hawaii in about a year and California in two to three years. By that time it should be “significantly” diluted.
As the growth of nuclear energy continues to expand around the globe during the twenty first century—and as inevitable accidents continue — governments will most likely get better at assessing and tracking radioactive contamination…just as they did pesticide pollution during the 20th century.
The first time I met Richard Branson, we were in the kitchen of a small bed and breakfast in the high-Arctic Inuit village of Clyde River. Taller and blonder than I expected, the Virgin entrepreneur was dressed in full cold-weather gear and had just flown in by private plane to join a dogsled expedition. Slightly bemused, he was struggling to figure out how to microwave a cup of tea.
I picture that scene whenever Branson announces that he’s setting off on a new adventure—whether by hot air balloon, cigarette boat or, as of last week, in a one-man submarine. While the intention to explore the bottoms of the five oceans, by diving deeper below the surface than any man or woman before, is exceedingly bold, Branson’s microwave fumbling worries me that technology may not be his strong suit.
His $10 million Virgin Oceanic continues a project begun by Branson’s friend and former ballooning partner Steve Fossett (whose small plane mysteriously disappeared over the Nevada desert in 2007). The goal is to take the ultra-lightweight sub to the deepest, least-explored parts of the planet. These dives might be conducted simultaneously with the launch sometime later this year of the first Virgin Galactic rocket carrying paying passengers ($200,000 per seat) into space.
Branson’s become the Steve Jobs of high-end adventure. Anything he proposes is quickly bought up by wealthy folks who seem ready to follow him anywhere. Sir Richard’s attitude is equal parts measured and cavalier. “I have a great difficulty saying no,” he admits. “Life’s so much more fun saying yes.”
The Deepflight Challenger is the brainchild of renowned ocean engineer Graham Hawkes and was built by Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Point Richmond, California, the leader in sophisticated submersibles. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Moss Landing Marine Labs have signed on to support what Branson’s calling the Virgin Oceanic Five Dives project. The 18-foot-long, 8,000-pound craft will study marine life, the tectonic plates and help Google Ocean map the ocean floor in 3D.
Hawkes has constructed submarines for explorations of the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, and a multi-year ocean expedition led by venture capitalist Tom Perkins.
“I love a challenge,” says Branson. “When I learned that only one person had gone below 18,000 feet under water and the sea goes down to 36,000 feet, it seemed too unbelievable. And talking to scientists and finding out that 80 percent of species on earth haven’t been discovered yet—that’s unbelievable. Knowing there are thousands of shipwrecks on the bottom of the sea that never have been discovered is pretty good fun as well.”
A leak or engine malfunction at depths where pressure is 1,000 times normal won’t be much fun, for man or machine.
The first of the Five Dives—which are intended to set 30 world records—will take place as early as this summer. Explorer Chris Walsh is expected to captain the sub to the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, more than 30,000 feet below sea level. Branson intends to captain the next trip, to the bottom of the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench, a mere 25,000 feet below.
The other three areas to be explored are the Indian Ocean’s Diamantina Trench (26,041 feet), the southern Atlantic’s South Sandwich Trench (23, 737) and the Arctic Ocean’s Molloy Deep (18,399).
The carbon fiber and titanium submarine should be able to drop seven miles below the surface and snoop around for up to 24 hours. The hope is that each descent and return will take no more than five hours. The craft’s “wings” will essentially allow it to “fly” over the ocean floor collecting data.
Before each dive, remote-controlled vehicles (ROVs) armed with bait will be sent down to stir up marine life, which will be filmed by the submarine that follows.
Branson already owns a three-person version of the sub, also built by Hawkes—the Necker Nymph—which he rents for $2,500 a day at his Caribbean island resort.
“This experimental trip to the bottom of the ocean could lead to bigger crafts,” said Branson. “We’ve coined the phrase aquanaut—anyone who goes below 20,000 feet—there’s only one person at the moment, and it would be fun to make as many aquanauts as there are astronauts.”
Branson is familiar with adventuring risks. In 1972, marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles to shore when his boat was swamped by 10-foot waves. He’s been nearly killed skydiving and rappelling down a Las Vegas hotel, and plucked from the ocean on numerous occasions when his balloons went down. In 1977 he was the first to fly a kind of tricycle with wings and managed to land it after soaring hundreds of feet off the ground; its inventor was killed a week later doing the same thing.
When we traveled together in the Arctic, Sir Richard (only his mother still calls him Ricky) told me about getting lost in the north woods of Canada when one of his ballooning adventures went awry. “We called on the radio and told the guy who responded that we were on a frozen lake surrounded by fir trees. He paused a minute before saying, ‘Well, this is Canada … you could be in any of 10,000 places.’ “
A rescue chopper picked up the expedition eight hours later.
Swooping rescuers won’t be an option at 25,000 feet below; if something goes wrong down there, dashing Sir Richard will need an extra set of wings.