The first time I saw the aquamarine waters of the Florida Keys at the age of 15, I felt I’d come home to a place I’d never been before. For a time, I wanted to be an oceanographer, but the social moments and movements of my youth would take me in other directions. Still, I could never fully escape the pull of the planetary tides ― nor did I want to. For years, I lived in a cliff house overlooking the Pacific, and I’ve never slept better. The pounding of the waves soothed me like a mother’s heartbeat. Bodysurfing, diving, paddling, or just wading along the shore renewed me in ways nothing else ever could.
After too long away from the sea, I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area five years ago. The second-largest estuary on the West Coast, the bay is a shallow brackish nursery for crabs, fish, shorebirds, and generations of people who love the water.
Unfortunately, a few months after I moved into my marina townhouse, the containership Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge, spilling 53,570 gallons of toxic bunker fuel into the water. Soon, oiled and dying birds ― surf scoters, grebes, gulls, and cormorants ― were washing up along the sea wall and wetlands behind my house.
Three years later, I was flying over the Gulf of Mexico in a small plane, passing over oil slicks that stretched from horizon to horizon in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. From above, we photographed more than 100 dolphins and a whale trapped and dying in the oil. The gulf was contaminated with as much as 4,000 times the amount of oil spilled by the Cosco Busan.
Even today, volunteers walking the beaches of Mobile, Alabama, are finding weathered oil and tarballs, and dead dolphins continue to wash ashore with damaged livers and lungs and other indicators of exposure to petroleum.
When we contaminate our oceans, we contaminate ourselves. The sea not only provides fish for our tables and waves for our enjoyment, its waters carry over 95 percent of the world’s trade goods, and its phytoplankton provide half of the oxygen we need to survive.
But the argument against continued drilling and mining of oil, gas, and coal is no longer just about the devastating impacts of pollution. There is now an overwhelming consensus among scientists that consuming these carbon-heavy fossil fuels has begun to disrupt our global climate and acidify our oceans.
Still, I’m more frustrated than despairing about the things I see. We know what the solutions are to heal our blue world. Fish populations can recover when they are protected ― and no wetland was ever destroyed by a wind spill. We just need the political will to change our behaviors.
What You Can Do
If you have a minute: Go to facebook.com/greenpeaceusa and follow the ship-based campaign against Shell oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Use your online network to like, comment on, repost, or tweet about these actions.
If you have an hour: Write to your congressional representative and senators, and urge them to support legislation that will move the country beyond an outdated energy economy based on coal and oil to embrace renewable, nonpolluting 21st century solar, wind, and wave power. Be sure to write a personal letter, which will get more attention than standardized emails. Contact information can be found at house.gov and senate.gov.
If you have a month: Help organize a beach cleanup, or volunteer to make phone calls or attend hearings with your local “seaweed” (marine grass-roots) group. If you’re not familiar with the blue groups in your area, you may find contact information for more than 1,400 organizations listed by state in the Blue Frontier Campaign’s Blue Movement directory: bluefront.org
If you have $1,000: Consider donating half of the money to an ocean- advocacy group whose mission you support. Spend the other half on a family trip to the beach, a whale-watching expedition or learning how to dive ― because you’re more likely to protect the things that you love. And if you want more ideas for things you can do, read my book 50 Ways to Save the Ocean.