Earlier this month, Kevin and Melissa Barry were diving near the Monterey breakwater when Melissa found a small, velvet-lined box with an elegant latch. Inside was a plastic bag.
“It was a dog’s ashes,” says Kevin, a San Jose-based scuba instructor.
He was surprised to encounter a pet’s remains, but he had come to expect the unexpected during local dives.
“Of all the places I’ve been, I like Monterey the most,” he says. “Every dive, you see something new.”
Gazing at the shimmering blue waters of Monterey Bay, it’s easy to forget what’s hidden here. But those who plunge beneath the ocean surface know that a box of ashes is only one bizarre example of the human footprint on the seafloor.
Barry’s parents co-own the San Jose dive shop Any Water Sports, and they have long been aware of the underwater pollution problem. As early as 1990, they were organizing “garbage dives” and offering prizes to local divers who collected the most (or the most unusual) trash.
Today, Barry follows his parents’ example by participating in Project AWARE’s ‘Dive Against Debris’ program.
Founded in 2011, ‘Dive Against Debris’ is responsible for the removal of over 400,000 pounds of trash from the world’s oceans.
“Trash in our oceans doesn’t do anything good, and none of it belongs there,” says Ania Budziak, Project AWARE’s associate director. “Scuba divers are equipped with some unique skills. They can breathe underwater and are the only people who can really remove trash.”
Barry leads local Dive Against Debris events annually. The dives tend to draw about 20-30 volunteers with one common goal: to gather as much underwater trash as they can. Afterward, they record when and where each piece was recovered. The data is entered into the Dive Against Debris website, where it falls into the hands of Budziak and her colleagues.
“There are cars, there are shopping carts, there are beds,” says Budziak, recalling some notable items. “I don’t think we really lose this stuff. A lot of it must have been dumped.”
Project AWARE has been gathering debris data for years, but until recently, organizers hadn’t found a good way to summarize and share the data with the locals who gather it. “We didn’t have any way of telling the story of trash comprehensively,” Budziak says.
Now, Project AWARE is compiling the data into the first-ever interactive map of underwater trash. The website, launched April 22, allows divers worldwide to see their uploaded data.
Budziak is optimistic this one-of-a-kind map will help convey where underwater litter is concentrated.
“This is not an effort to scientifically assess how much trash is underwater,” she says. “But it is an attempt to visualize what divers see underwater.”
James Watanabe, a biology lecturer at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, sees a bright side.
“The problem of trash in the water depends on the kind of trash,” explains Watanabe, who often leads students in underwater classwork. “Big things with hard surfaces get disguised pretty quickly. Everything here is so prolific in the way it grows. Some pieces of trash become habitats.”
Underwater litter tends to be especially problematic near Monterey Harbor and around Fisherman’s Wharf, he adds. But even there, conditions have been improving.
“It used to be that when we collected octopuses for class, we would dive at the marina and pick up as many beer bottles as we could. Almost every one would have an octopus [inside],” he says. “Now, though, there are fewer bottles.”
Watanabe warns that trash is only a small drop in an ocean of marine conservation issues.
“Trash is the easy stuff, and we need to talk about the hard stuff, the complex stuff,” he says. “But if [picking up trash] changes people’s perspectives on where we are in the biological world, it’s a good thing.”
Changing perspectives is what Dive Against Debris is all about. Budziak says her next step is to survey volunteers to assess whether the project has had any lasting influence on their views or lifestyles.
Barry thinks it probably has.
“It’s kind of a subconscious thing,” he says. “Now, whenever I see a piece of trash, I pick it up.”
Visit www.projectaware.org to join a Dive Against Debris event or check out the new map of underwater trash.
The life of a Great White Shark
The great white shark, known scientifically as Carcharodon carcharias, embodies the apex predator of the ocean. This majestic creature’s life is a testament to survival, adaptability, and the intricate balance of the marine ecosystem.
Born in the waters off coastal regions, a great white shark begins its life as a pup within the safety of nurseries, typically found in warm, shallow waters. The pups, measuring around 5 feet in length at birth, are immediately equipped with an innate instinct for survival.
As they grow, great whites embark on a journey, venturing into deeper and cooler waters, often covering vast distances across the ocean. These apex predators are perfectly adapted hunters, relying on their impressive senses to detect prey. Their acute sense of smell, aided by specialized sensory organs known as ampullae of Lorenzini, helps detect the faintest traces of blood in the water from several miles away.
Feeding primarily on seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals, great whites are known for their powerful jaws lined with rows of razor-sharp teeth. Their hunting techniques often involve stealth, utilizing their streamlined bodies to approach prey from below and striking with incredible speed and force.
Despite their fearsome reputation, great whites play a crucial role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. As top predators, they help regulate the population of prey species, preventing overpopulation that could disrupt the balance of the food chain.
Reproduction among great white sharks is a slow and careful process. Females reach sexual maturity between 12 and 18 years of age, while males mature earlier, around 9 to 10 years old. Mating occurs through complex courtship rituals, with females giving birth to a small number of live pups after a gestation period of about 12 to 18 months.
However, the life of a great white shark is not without challenges. Human activities, including overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction, pose significant threats to their population. Additionally, despite their formidable presence, great whites are vulnerable and face dangers from entanglement in fishing gear and accidental bycatch.
Despite these challenges, great white sharks continue to inspire awe and fascination among scientists and nature enthusiasts. Their presence in the ocean serves as a reminder of the delicate balance and interconnectedness of marine life, emphasizing the need for conservation efforts to protect these magnificent creatures for future generations to admire and study.
Want to learn more about sharks? Visit The Shark Trust website: www.sharktrust.org
Book Review: Sea Mammals
This is a book packed with information about some of the most iconic and charismatic marine species. I have a particular soft spot for the pinnipeds, seals and sea lions, due to some incredible diving encounters over the years. So these were the pages I first turned to.
Once picked up this book is hard to put down. Polar Bears, Narwhal, Sea Otters, manatees, whales and dolphins adorn the pages with beautiful photographs and illustrations. Each turn of the page lures you in to discover more about a species you love, one you want to learn more about, some you have never heard of and even includes the details of fascinating animals that are sadly now extinct.
I think what I love most about this book is how it is organised. Rather than simply lump the animals into taxonomic groupings, they are put into chapters that tell you a story about them. Whether it is the story of their evolution, how they were discovered, their biology, behaviour or need for conservation. Once you have decided on an animal to delve deeper into, each species has its own story, as well as key information about size, diet, distribution, habitat and conservation status.
There is plenty to enjoy in this delightful book. Plenty to learn too. As the cold dark nights draw in, I can see myself delving into this book time and time again. This is a perfect gift for anyone that loves the ocean and its inhabitants. Or just treat yourself.
What the publisher says:
From the gregarious sea otter and playful dolphins to the sociable narwhal and iconic polar bear, sea mammals are a large, diverse, and increasingly precious group. In this book, Annalisa Berta, a leading expert on sea mammals and their evolution, presents an engaging and richly illustrated introduction to past and present species of these remarkable creatures, from the blue whale and the northern fur seal to the extinct giant sperm whale, aquatic sloth, and walking sea cow.
The book features more than 50 individual species profiles, themed chapters, stunning photographs, and specially commissioned paleo-illustrations of extinct species. It presents detailed accounts of these mammals’ evolutionary path, anatomy, behavior, habitats, and conservation. And because these are key species that complete many food chains and have the widest influence of all sea life, the book also offers insights into a broad variety of marine worlds today and in the future.
About the Author:
Annalisa Berta is professor emerita of biology at San Diego State University. A specialist in the anatomy and evolutionary biology of marine mammals, especially baleen whales, she formally described a skeleton of the early pinniped Enaliarctos. She is the author of Return to the Sea: The Life and Evolutionary Times of Marine Mammals and the editor of the award-winning Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises: A Natural History and Species Guide.
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 26th September, 2023
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