By Robert N. Rossier
The world is a complex place. I come to realize this each and every time I turn on the news, log onto the internet, or turn the pages of the local paper. Heck, I can’t even make heads or tails of the local politics in our small town here in rural New England. Beyond the boundaries of our hometown, the mysteries multiply well beyond my comprehension.
At the new Ocean Realm exhibit at the AmericanMuseum of Natural History in New York City, they’ve managed to condense the planet’s underwater inhabitants and ecosystems into a single hall. Detailed dioramas depicting the multitudinous marine ecosystems lie beneath a breathtaking sculpture of a 90-foot blue whale. Like a can of Campbell’s Alphabet Soup(tm), one finds within this exhibit all the basic building blocks, and can extrapolate to the limits of wild imagination. Everything from algae, barnacles, crabs and diatoms to wolf fish, Xiphiidae (swordfish and billfish), yellowfin and zooxanthellae (small algalike plant cells found in the tissues of corals and other species) are represented in their finest form. Just add water, and the contents cook up to a delightful dish, simmering with the very flavors of life itself here on the blue planet.
To a great extent, the exhibits make sense of an otherwise chaotic concoction of organisms. In one display, specimens are organized according to modern scientific classification. At a glance, we can see how the various species fit together in an astounding array, with anatomical complexity increasing as we wind our way up the evolutionary ladder. It’s fascinating to see how hundreds of years of study and scientific research have culminated in an understanding of how many pieces fit into a complex system of life.
Losing Pieces of the Puzzle
Yet, our understanding is far from complete, and we continue to lose pieces of the biological puzzle faster than we can fit them together. Next door in the biodiversity hall, we learn that as many as 30,000 species disappear from the face of our planet each year. It’s sobering news, and the evidence that this is so surrounds us.
A recent study released by the World Wildlife Fund states that nearly a thousand whales, dolphins and porpoises die each day as a result of "bycatch" in the global commercial fishing industry. In an interview with reporter Joseph Verrengia published on CompuServe News, Andy Read of Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C. reportedly commented, "Several species will be lost in the next few decades if nothing happens."
Meanwhile, in my own back yard, a massive die-off of lobsters in Long Island Sound is thought to be a result of environmental pressures such as pollution, sewage, rising temperatures, lowering oxygen levels, and the use of pesticides to ward off the West Nile virus, according to reports in The Day (of New London, Conn.). The list goes on, and it does seem at times that we are the most dangerous species on the planet.
Still, the challenge of our times is to understand what is here on Earth – to identify the species, catalog them, and piece together the intricate ecological structures they form and fit within.
Melting Pots on Land and in the Sea
Standing on the observation deck of the EmpireStateBuilding, some 30 blocks south of the AmericanMuseum of Natural History, you can gaze out over the island of Manhattan and the splendor of man’s creation. Surrounded by a dazzling spectrum of architectural achievements, the area is home to a population of roughly a million and a half. About 70,000 people of untold origin, race, creed and ethnicity fill each square mile in this diverse melting pot of humanity. Compared to my little town of 5,000 people, the relationships between these individuals are simply incomprehensible.
Yet even this pales in comparison, complexity and importance to the natural wonders of the world. To the east, the east rivers meanders toward Long Island Sound, and to the west, the Hudson River comes rumbling down from the Adirondack Mountains, the waters combining in a single current and sweeping past the Statue of Liberty and out into the Atlantic.
And each molecule of water touches another, stretching south until we reach the Great Barrier Reef. Built by tiny coral, the reef is the largest structure on the planet created by living organisms. It stretches for 1,200 miles and is 8 million times larger than the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Coral reefs are the second most complex ecosystem on earth – second only to tropical rain forests – and are estimated to be home to some 700 species of corals, 5,000 species of mollusks, and more than 2,000 species of fish. Manhattan doesn’t even come close.
Further Mysteries in the Sea
Perhaps one of the greatest, most inspiring aspects of diving is our ability to explore, and without a doubt, mystery still abounds in the deep blue beyond. In recent years, U.S. Navy scientists listening to hydrophones placed deep in the ocean to track Soviet submarines during the Cold War have heard strange noises louder than any recognized animal noises. The source: unknown!
In August 2000, an expedition set out to search for the source of another sound from an unknown mammal called "Selma" in Norwegian waters. In July of this year, a gelatinous creature the size of a whale washed ashore on a Chilean beach, stumping scientists who tried to identify it. Deep in the waters off the coast of Cuba, researchers have found the mysterious remains of what some suggest is an ancient civilization.
And there is good news too. An Australian study published last year reported that levels of chlorine-based chemical contamination in the atmosphere are declining, and that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica should close within 50 years, thus eliminating a major threat to life on our planet. (Whew, that was close!)
So while I might not be able to understand the politics of my own little town, or even begin to comprehend the grandeur of life on this planet, I can at least revel in the joy of discovery that comes from venturing beneath the waves. At least I can be a part of the process of exploration that seeks to unravel the twisted strands of life that tie us all together, and begin to understand the mysteries of life on our planet.
About The Author
The father of two future divers, DAN Member Bob Rossier is a former life support systems engineer who worked on projects such as the NASA Space Station and the U.S. Navy Trident Nuclear Submarine Program. Bob is a contributing editor to Dive Training magazine and a commercial pilot in the U.S. Northeast.
The AmericanMuseum of Natural History is one of the world’s pre-eminent institutions for scientific research and education, with collections of more than 32 million specimens and exhibits. The museum is located at Central Park West and 79th Street in New York City, and is open daily, 10:00 a.m.-5:45 p.m. The Museum is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For more information, visit them at www.amnh.org, or call +1-212-769-5606 (9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday – Friday) Fax: +1-212-769-5427