In 2005, I swam in the Southern Ocean, just off Antarctica. It was cold — very cold — when I swam over a graveyard of whale bones near an old whaling factory. As far as I could see, there were bleached white bones piled up on the seafloor. Man hunted whales almost to the point of extinction, not seeming to care that we could lose one of the wonders of the sea forever. It is the coldness of the water that preserves the bones and makes it look as if they were left there yesterday, but I like to think they are there as a reminder of man’s potential for folly.
Fortunately, in 1986 most countries ceased commercial whaling, and some whale populations have made a spectacular recovery. Whales like the Southern right were brought back from the brink of extinction. Their numbers are now increasing 7 percent year after year. If we can do it with one species, surely we can do it for entire ecosystems. We just need to give them the space to recover.
Marine protected areas, which are like national parks for the seas, are the best way to make that happen. In the Red Sea, I saw no coral and no fish. It looked like an underwater desert. But then, a little more than a mile later, I swam into a protected area, where fishing had been restricted. It was a sea as it was meant to be: rich and colorful and teeming with abundant life.
We need far more of these protected areas. They allow the habitat to recover from overfishing and pollution, which helps fish stocks recover. When we create them, we protect the coral, which protects the shoreline and provides shelter for fish. They become places people want to visit for ecotourism. They are good for the world economy, for the health of the oceans, for every person living on this planet.
This year in the Aegean I swam over tires and trash. In a few years, I hope to return, and swim over thriving coral reefs.