It seems like not much is new anymore. Stories penned by intrepid travelers document the most remote places on Earth littered with plastic and other signs of human invasion. Undeniably, manmade refuse has permeated all corners of the ocean, but that does not translate to human knowledge of the ocean. Less than 5 percent of the ocean is known, meaning that with a bit of curiosity, patience and observation, anyone has a good chance of discovering a novel species of marine life. You don’t need to be a scientist working at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Informal study by curious naturalists (like you, perhaps?) repeatedly visiting the shore or dipping into the water and surveying from a goggled vantage point directs one to learn deeply about that area, which improves one’s prospects of noticing something different, odd or out of place. The San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park is as good as anywhere to make a unique find. And, as proof, I discovered an epiphytic red alga embedded to its kelp host when it washed onto the sand at La Jolla Shores following a winter storm. Despite my local and international efforts, it has yet to be identified.
Taking a longer view from my own nature studies, discovery includes not just what’s new to the experts in a field but what’s new to me. I am constantly wowed by the ocean’s diverse life and the myriad ways species cope with their adverse world in hopes of coming out of the battle victorious. Over time, I fit together bits and pieces of my ongoing observations as a way to personalize for myself how sea lifeforms connect to each other, to their environment, to the terrestrial world and to me. It is a continuing process wherein insights often spring to mind long after I’m out of the water.
For example, I’m amazed how a garibaldi fish builds and grooms a nest; it is not altogether unlike the nest building of birds, demonstrating that on land or in the sea, nature has similarly addressed and adapted to the need of a species to signal a nest site to the appropriate partner. I marvel at the way an octopus matches color and texture to rock, sand or whatever it alights on, much as a chameleon mimics its background. The black-eyed goby fish, a loner virtually all the time, briefly pairs up with a mate for reproductive purposes, then each goes its own way. The solitary panda can relate. And a school of fish, like a herd or flock of animals on land, similarly bands together for individual protection and ease of finding a mate.
Unfortunately, society in general still thinks the environment ends at the shoreline. We need a sea change in people’s thinking, understanding and assumptions about our blue marble world. While interest and concern about the value of nature and the environment in general has become a partisan issue, no one need be ashamed of being curious and supportive of nature. I suggest that this is what we have brains for and that the greatest insult to nature — and to ourselves — is to be indifferent to or uncaring about the natural world. After all, on the most basic level, we all breathe the same air, drink the same water and, hopefully, want to leave a legacy to future generations of which we can be proud.
All life exists for reasons we don’t yet know, which is reason enough to protect what we have. Humans, only one link in the mysterious web of life, have a moral obligation to repair and preserve the ocean environment, not only for our survival but because it adds much intrinsic interest and beauty to our lives. The more we understand about the ocean, the deeper we will understand ourselves and our role on Earth. Become an emissary for the ocean in 2009 by investing a bit of time into exploring and learning about the inner workings of the ocean world, then share your knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Maybe you will discover a new species, but if not, you are guaranteed to be satisfied making discoveries that are new to you. Happy Blue Year!
— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to email@example.com.