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Ocean Day, As Seen from 36,000 Feet

I spent the bulk of Earth/Ocean Day on airplanes, hardly the most environmentally healthy thing to do. I would have much preferred a long walk on a beach somewhere … anywhere … but ultimately escaping my week-long lockdown in London and avoiding that long bus-ride to Madrid to get off the continent was worth it. I arrived at Heathrow armed with several different airline reservations and flew back to New York on a plane oddly only half-full and laden with more smiles than I’ve ever seen in any airport scenario in a well-traveled life.

Being at 36,000 feet and looking out the window for several hours did give me an opportunity to ponder just how the orb below is faring. I would have liked to divert and fly over the Icelandic volcano that had so handcuffed much of the world’s air travel for the past week, though the pilots probably would not have been inclined to test their engines by flying into the ashen sky; I wish I could have talked them into detouring south and flying over the Gulf of Mexico, for a bird’s eye view of that horrific/spectacular fire burning on the Deep water Horizon oil rig, a reminder of one of the real impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels; if they’d been willing to drop even lower, I imagine we could have skimmed over the surface and seen those growing gyres filled with plastic in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But from high altitude it is hard to see the pollutants threatening the ocean. Truth is, it’s even hard in most cases to see them at sea level. Which is a big part of the problem when it comes to environmental protection. Out of sight, out of mind. (As spectacular as the images are of that oil rig ablaze, for example, it’s 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Very few people will see it up close, thus its damage will always seem very far remote.) The fact that the ocean has been altered by man over the past century – polluted, its acidity levels altered by carbon dioxide, over fished, its reef damaged – is indisputable. That in so many cases the ocean still manages to look pristine and unharmed almost works against it. I’ve fallen victim to that myself, both at sea level staring out at that place on the horizon where blue meets blue, and from up high looking down on a watery landscape that often – mistakenly — seems the very definition of pacific.

If you want to see some of the ocean’s greatest beauty, slip out in the next few days and see the new Jacques Perrin/Jacques Cluzaud film OCEANS (their last together was WINGED MIGRATION). I’m biased, since I’ve done the companion book to the film (Oceans, The Threats to the Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide), but the $75 million movie – distributed in the U.S. by DisneyNature – strings together some of the most incredible ocean footage ever. And for the first week it’s out, Disney is donating a dollar per ticket to a Nature Conservancy program to set aside a marine protected area in the Bahamas.

A feature film of course can only go so far in regard to making a difference. Sitting in theater “observing” the ocean is only half the battle. If you really want to affect change in regard to the ocean, the first thing we have to encourage is changing rules and regulations to protect it. On a more personal level I think you have to go out and get in the ocean every once in awhile to remind you of its beauty, its power and its fragility. To save the ocean, I’m afraid, you’ll have to get wet.

Volcano Hell

Day Five. That’s how long I’ve been stuck in London, waiting out the drift of volcanic ash, incredible governmental indecision and dilly-dallying, increasing anger from the airline representatives and observing an incredible amount of human patience. As I write – 18:39 on Tuesday – it appears this tragic-comedy travel adventure will definitely last into Day Six, Seven, Eight and beyond.

It began with my arrival in the U.K. at Heathrow, early last Wednesday morning. I took a bus directly to Oxford, intending to be across the pond for just 48 hours, come to moderate a panel on the future and perils of our ocean at the Skoll World Forum and intended it to be a short trip because I had a big week ahead: My new book – OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide – was published last week, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and I wanted to get back home quickly in order to help promote it.

It was on my way into the panel on the early afternoon of last Thursday that I first learned from my friend and colleague Jake Eberts – executive producer of the new OCEANS movie, out on Earth Day and which my book companions – that we might not be getting out of town as planned. We were planning to travel together over the next couple days to San Francisco and Los Angeles, to screen the film, promote the book and more.

Obviously that plan went slightly awry. On a beautiful spring morning, last Friday, we traveled by hansom cab from Oxford to London, where Jake would wait for many hours to get on a jam-packed Eurostar train back to his home in Paris. By the end of the morning the volcano had completely halted all air travel in and out of Europe and stymied it in much of the rest of the world. I’ve been stuck, albeit comfortably in a hotel along the River Thames, ever since.

With four confirmed air reservations out of London’s Heathrow over the next few days, normally the busiest airport in Europe, I went to bed last night confident I’d be home soon … only to wake up this morning to the BBC telling me a sizable new ash cloud was headed towards UK airspace. During the course of today not a single plane left Heathrow, though they did with some regularity from Paris and Frankfurt. The projection – gamble — is that no flights will leave from London during the next few days.

Which for me means a complete reorganization. I have to get out of this hotel, if just to save my sanity. The best option, it appears, is Spain. So it looks like I’ll get to spend twenty-plus hours viewing the lovely Spanish coast from a bus window.

Which will give me plenty of time to ponder the whole event. The last time this particular Icelandic volcano erupted it blew for a full two years. Who knows, maybe a similar two-year cycle began a week ago. We, mankind, have gotten so spoiled, thinking we can go and do whatever, whenever we choose, that a natural act like this is a great reminder. In 1815 a volcano named Tambara erupted in Indonesia, wrapping the entire planet in a veil of sulfur, blocking the sun’s rays for an entire year and creating what was known then as “the year without summer.” Bitter cold and frosts devastated North America and Europe and famine led to the last great subsistence crisis in the western world. Who knows, we might be on the precipice of that again.

A mere 74,000 years ago another volcanic eruption — by Toba, also in Indonesia — was so powerful it nearly obliterated the entire human race.

So … our Icelandic blow could have been far worse. Maybe it will simply serve as one of a variety of reminders that man is not in control. I would think that recent tremblors, in Haiti, Chile and China, would have already reminded us of that very well.

On the bus to Madrid I’ll be traveling with a handful of international environmental luminaries, also escapees from last week’s Skoll World Forum, who’ve been stuck ever since. While we are all desperately scurrying to get home, traveling by car, bus, train and plane on the days surrounding the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m sure the subject of the individual carbon footprints we are stamping out will arise. Once home, I’ll bet we all vow to stay put … for awhile.

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