The seas of my youth
Natural History Museum, London
13 September 2022
They say a picture is worth a thousand words; but we can do better, you and eye.
I wish I could take you down there with me. Submerge you in all seven seas.
Keep you above the thermocline – where the water is warmer.
That you could see all this through your eyes, see beyond some of the disguise.
But these are not the seas of my youth.
They are no longer the seas in which we could look down 15 meters from a boat and see every strand of Posidonia, every fish swimming through its watery world,
every coral in a topographic wonderland, a conglomeration of living, photosynthesizing structures.
No longer the seas of endless exploration, abundance and discovery.
These are not Cousteau’s seas.
These are seas which have lost 68% of their wildlife over the past 4 decades. Bodies of water in which a third of all cetacean and shark species are highly threatened already.
There has been a 71% decline in shark numbers since 1970. Oceanic Whitetip Sharks have declined 97-99% since the 1950s. Numbers are down for everything from Hammerheads to threshers, blue sharks to great whites.
The Vaquita and the Yangtze River Dolphin have gone extinct in my lifetime. Other species are on the same course. Only 350 or less Northern Right Whales remain.
We are dumping a truckload of plastic in our oceans every minute – to the extent that, by mass, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050. If we carry on as usual, it will increase to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.
In some studies a hundred percent of turtles assessed contained plastic in their stomachs; and plastic has now been found in virtually every species of marine organism and the most remote parts of our oceans.
Sea is drowning in garbage.
These are seas whose rise is already causing island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives to vanish -- that could soon submerge parts of Karachi, Mumbai, New York, Miami, London and Mombasa.
Seas in which increased carbon levels, acidity and excessive warmth have bleached mile upon mile of coral, affecting 90% of the Great Barrier Reef.
Sea is gasping for oxygen.
Overfishing is rampant. A full 90% of the big fish are gone. Half of global fisheries stocks are overexploited, and another 40% are pushed to the limit.
The number of dead zones, places which literally cannot sustain life, has grown exponentially. Places that you and I can imagine will be nothing but ravaged wastelands, fallow aquatic fields in a few short decades.
So far we have only managed to fully protect about 7% of the ocean.
The old goal -- to protect “20 by 2020” -- unmet, has since been postponed and recalibrated to 30% by 2030.
These are seas which, for lack of political will, for hubris and sheer stupidity we have failed to protect.
We know some solutions…
Marine protected areas WORK. Nature, as Sylvia Earle says, can bounce back.
Hope spots like Cabo Pulmo in Mexico exist.
Cabo Pulmo with its GIGANTIC school of bigeye jacks I had the immense privilege of getting lost in, zigzagging in a finny, shiny paradise that goes on for what seems like miles in front and miles behind you. Pulmo, with its thousands of Amarillo snappers, characteristic golden groupers sticking out like sore thumbs in a crowd, schools of porkfish, giant hawkfish and barnacle blennies, saw a 400% increase in biomass within a few years of its establishment.
There are AMAZING places to see, to cordon off and preserve … like Raja Ampat, “the last paradise”, located in West Papua, one of the 2 most biodiverse underwater places around the globe. Where every single exploration is in technicolor.
Raja with its blue-girdled and yellow-masked angelfish, midnight snappers that look like they’re wearing lipstick… a myriad critters and multitude of corals to satisfy the parrotfish that munch on them … and triggerfish that rummage among them.
Raja with its psychedelic fuchsia flatworms, its sweetlips surrounded by glass fish at the overhang, and soft coral crabs so hidden you wouldn’t see them without your guide.
Other paramount Marine Protected Areas include Isla Del Coco and The Galapagos, the sharkiest places on Earth.
Galapagos with their preposterous-looking red-lipped batfish… sunbathing turtles, lounging sea lions and unique marine iguanas – little Godzillas that literally sneeze salt.
SEA TELLS STORIES
I might bring you on dives that are soo boring, dives in currents so treacherous or engendering discomfort so severe there’s nothing you’d like more than to be 5 again, cradled in your mum’s arms or sitting on her lap.
On dives that are magnificent, snorkels of joy…
Have you experience loneliness in great empty spaces/total desolation,
delight in the tumult, chaos, cacophony and confusion of the masses and teeming reefs,
experience respite on the sandy seafloor in the shallows,
adrenaline in the rush of great and rogue predators.
Moments where your chest feels remarkably unified, your arms controllable, but your legs dangly, distant and easily detached.
One might have you followed by a lethargic and large grouper moonlighting as an energetic companion in Corsica.
A fish we found in a cave a couple of minutes after entry that followed us into daylight and stayed with me like a friend for nearly the entirety of two hour-long dives.
It left my side only once we reached the anchor chain.
You would never eat groupers, by the way, if you saw how endearing and charismatic they are under the surface. Or knew how terribly their numbers have declined.
I’d bring you on a ridiculously early sunrise dive in Malapascua in the Philippines – to see the deep-water elusive thresher shark with a tail the length of its entire body, used to stun its squid and fishy prey, and with eyes so enormous they look like cartoon features.
The threshers rise from the deep to be rid of parasites at a ledge 30 meters down, arriving at the site at 5 a.m. before abandoning you cruelly by 5:15.
I would DEFINITELY take you to Hanifaru in the Maldives where over 150 reef mantas have been known to gather and feed on plankton in a bay the size of a football pitch.
Unlike their cousins, the oceanic mantas that can reach a wingspan of nearly 7 meters, reef mantas reach a magnificent width of about 4.5.
At any point in time you can witness backward somersaults out of this world in grace, elegance and mastery of space.
Mantas chain feeding or even cyclone feeding -- where animals form a loop and rotate together to feast.
Mantas are remarkably intelligent and curious creatures – owning the largest brain of all fishes, capable of recognizing individual divers and known to essentially thank people who help untangle them from nets or remove fishhooks from them.
I can’t tell you what it was like to swim with one for fifteen minutes in Mexico or have one in Ecuador play with me for nearly half an hour, turning towards me again and again, showing off its belly… and then swimming below me, belly skywards… locking its eyes with mine.
You would be mesmerized by the magic and mystery of a manta, too.
Mantas are now killed for their gills in the tens of thousands. For “traditional medicine” although this has only been going on for about 2 or 3 decades – so not that traditional after all.
They’re occasionally killed just to use as bait.
You must know that all animals exhibit some sort of character, express preferences, demonstrate specific abilities and can surprise even a seasoned observer.
In the words of Anthony Douglas Williams: There are many great minds on Earth, and not all are human.
An octopus, for example, really DOES have a garden – just like the Beatles told us.
It tends diligently to its home, a hole or crevice, collecting shells and pebbles, broken off coral and even trash to hide from the world and sneak peaks at potential prey.
It will studiously move every object out of its way before leaving its den… and pull them back towards it, closing the gap once it’s come home.
I would want you to experience an outing with my GPS Batfish in the Maldives! A member of a species that usually schools, this loner was an independent thinker, Descartes perhaps, who practically greeted us on entry, accompanied us down to a wreck, WAITED while we explored, and then accompanied us back to the surface, listing the entire time.
A fish with goals.
I’d have you approached by a supremely calm, superbly confident pufferfish that introduced itself to everyone in its territory one Egyptian afternoon…
Making an impression on every diver there, this was a fish with character.
I’d have you experience the confusion, angst and agency of a remora without a host animal in the Bahamas.
Attempting to attach itself to every one of us and suffering incessant rejection, this was a fish with abandonment issues.
You might consider eloping with a young Nassau grouper at Danger Reef in the Exumas that showed remarkable curiosity and courage and didn’t leave my side for at least 8 minutes. A fish with flair.
In my youth this beautiful fish was everywhere – on every underwater exploration in the Caribbean. Yet now it is critically endangered.
Mass spawning events in Belize are fractions of what they were in the past.
You would be dumbstruck by the beauty of Banggai cardinalfish, in utter awe of their design and manner. And you might think removing these magnificent creatures from their habitat a travesty.
Now endangered, they apparently barely try to elude nets and face extinction due to the aquarium industry.
The Napoleon wrasse, another fish I saw nearly everywhere in the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea in the past, is now critically endangered too.
Somber and sobering stories about the harm we’re inflicting – knowingly and frequently unflinchingly – on fellow species we should celebrate… Testimony to our mindlessness and greed.
If I could, I would have you chased by Crazy George, a humpback in Tonga who has been known to lift people clear out of the water on his nose – an experience I longed for until he was basically pushing me through the water, his eye a meter and a half from mine, and I was scared like a 7-year-old child in an empty mansion during a thunderstorm at night.
I would hope you could experience the utter thrill and delight of being caught in a game between four boisterous and athletic humpbacks diving, swirling, curling, and rushing all around your friends and you, totally negligent about the size differential and their strength.
The timeless, unexpected and heartwarming experience of seeing a whale calf eye to eye, have it play with you, show off its new skills, or bump you, innocently and haphazardly, before moving on.
Or have one hang at the surface, gentle and motionless, right in front of you for minutes, practically posing before letting itself slowly sink towards the deep, its head pointing skyward.
You would find out, with each encounter, that it feels like a whale sees through you.
Because it really can.
I wish I could transport you instantaneously to a mother humpback and her calf, have you witness the love, trust, and loyalty they share.
Feel targeted by the mum’s watchful eye as she allows her calf to ascend, unaccompanied, for a breath … and brave stupid bipeds at the surface.
Speaking of breath, one thing you DON’T want when you work with whales and dolphins is the lungs of a hamster.
But that’s what I have – and it feels an outright miracle when things work out.
Like when you’re under the surface and there’s a spinner dolphin down below your legs and your camera won’t shoot.
And the dolphin keeps rising, the camera refusing even when the animal is at your chest… all seems futile as you’re about to die of asphyxiation.
But then the animal rises into the light, you arch your back and manage just one click before your breath explodes at the surface.
One of the indisputably greatest privileges of ALL must have been a two-hour and fifty-five-minute swim with Monkey and Jammin, bold and beautiful young spotted dolphins in Bimini, who showed up literally as we were raising the anchor to cruise home after an uneventful 2 weeks.
We swam over 3 miles together, the cetaceans playing with sargassum, with our group and with jellyfish, savoring every moment while ending a voyage with vibrancy and celebration.
One time I became a Hussain sandwich! No delicacy and with nothing but salty water for a condiment I was squeezed, deliciously and amorously, between a pair of mating loggerhead turtles. A whirlwind embrace. This was, to me, the highest honor – to be let in among lovers after watching them rediscover each other.
Another time, my buddy Oli and I were acquainted with a DAINTY, DELICATE DARLING of a little hawksbill turtle at Highbourne Cay. The sweetest girl in the world, she gave us all her time and her attention, posing for me, exploring the sites with us and even feasting at our feet.
Let’s not forget the gooey spaghetti-spewing turtles of Egypt! Those my friend Jim and I stayed with for hours, hawksbills feeding on soft coral, filaments and balls of a milky substance collecting as they ate.
Unbelievable to see, unimaginable to witness.
And there are of course the beautiful green turtles, resident at the Seaquarium site in the Exumas, that allow me among them for hours on end.
Would you believe that 6 out of 7 sea turtle species are now endangered? Hawksbills critically.
Might I please tell you about one exotic, exquisite, romantic escapade that is folded forever deep inside my brain, engraved in my heart and tattooed on my soul?
The doe-eyed sea lion pup at Los Islotes in Mexico who flitted and flirted and flaunted, waltzed and tangoed with me, pulled at my gear and sat on my shoulders, playing for a full hour, melting my heart – and fissuring my soul when it didn’t return for a second outing.
This image is called “Isa lion” because of the resemblance to my Isabella.
When you witness a sea lion playing you understand why people sometimes refer to them as the dogs or puppies of the sea.
And that’s not even mentioning the stowaways and unexpected divers…
I bet you’ve never heard of an after-party shark! I hadn’t either. And yet this oceanic whitetip at Elphinstone only arrived AFTER Simo and I had started removing our gear – after an hour-long wait in a place you’re virtually guaranteed to see a shark.
With no weight belt on and in a mad rush this is all I managed to capture.
There are silky sharks that scare with their speed, gigantic harmless hammerheads.
Nurses that only bite Instagram models, whatever those are.
Tiger sharks that lean on you and learn.
Without a doubt you would want to experience an outing with a young male dugong in Egypt.
A voracious goliath with a herbaceous appetite. A creature with features so ridiculous you might laugh. Valves for nostrils, pinhole ears, bulbous eyes, and a flat face with moustache and beard.
These 400 kilos of adipose tissue 3 meters long, moving at a snail’s pace, had us hyperventilating as he led us all around his gigantic bay in a current.
The thought of this sea cow leading to mermaid lore would explode your cerebrum.
As a photographer I’d be tempted to share with you what it’s like… to have your cameras or reflexes fail you at essential moments, rendering you unable to capture miraculous sights you’ll never witness again.
To miss, by a fraction of a second, a giant frogfish yawning.
To capture the more boring parts of two full afternoons of pilot whales only to find that your lens isn’t ideal to help record the very best, least expected moment – when the tired whales had stopped moving entirely and rested, immobile, for many minutes at the surface.
Or when you’re finally in the water with great whites… caged of course, and neither camera shoots.
You go home, your dreams a little broken, your shopping list a little swollen and your memories mixed at best.
In our exploration of the oceans there is simply no way you should miss the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi, Mecca of muck diving – where you literally hover over muddy and dirty sludge with occasional spatters of plastic pollution, food leftovers, boat debris and sometimes the horrific sight of hundreds of fish corpses.
Muck you don’t want to disturb for it clouds your view instantaneously if you do.
Lembeh’s critters, an outlandish cast of characters, like those of Bohol and Dauin in the Philippines, are bizarre, bashful or beautiful; not bountiful.
Ghost pipefish that blend so well with their background it’s preposterous, an affront.
Ghost pipes come in species of ornate, robust, Halimeda and “what the hell is that?”.
Orangutan crabs that look just as you’d imagine.
So very many cephalopod species. The flamboyant cuttlefish, smaller than most. White, black and yellow, they look like rhinoceroses, crawling over the seafloor rather than hovering above it.
Blue-ringed octopus that are tiny and have a green base color, which pulsate blue rings when they’re excited or angry.
Shy and non-aggressive as this tiny gem may be, it carries enough venom to kill 25 adult humans.
Reprehensible and disreputable they are clearly neither monogamous nor restrained, as this image demonstrates.
The unbelievable Mimic Octopus, which lives in a sandy burrow and can impersonate sea snakes, flounders and many other fish.
Its close relative is the Wunderpus.
Seriously, they named this creature Wunderpus photogenicus.
It, too, has eyes on stalks and is ridiculously versatile. Miraculously mobile. Unlike the mimic it has a reddish coloration and spreads its arms out a little wider.
Starry night octopus that look nothing like a starry night.
COCONUT OCTOPUS that frequently carry half a coconut with them or hide between shells.
Broad-club cuttlefish and long-armed octopus whose arms are… well, not short.
There are mantis shrimp which seem torn among personalities, their eyes on stalks frequently moving in different directions and the animals between two minds about whether to rush at you or retire in the burrows behind them.
For good measure there are also HAIRY FROGFISH, ribbon eels and even snake eels.
BOBBIT WORMS that will forever haunt your dreams, populate your nightmares.
Despite this rogue’s gallery, there is beauty and romance here I swear!
Mandarin fish with their intricate colors, gymnastic mating rituals and endless flutter of pectoral fins.
There are harlequin shrimp and sexy shrimp – yes, really –
as well as emperor shrimp that dwell on sea cucumbers, pillow stars and even nudibranchs.
There are masses of nudibranchs – whose lungs are naked and sit, bouquet-like, on their backs. Slugs with ridiculously bright colors that ward off predators, advertising that they’re poisonous to eat – their toxins resulting from a diet of things like poisonous sponges.
Although nearly all nudibranchs max out at about 12 centimeters, the “solar powered nudibranch” is one exception.
I thought our guide was joking when he mentioned that name; but they can photosynthesize, and spots on their bodies are food factories.
Another large favorite, whose geographic range is gigantic and which is found elsewhere in Indonesia, is the Spanish Dancer, a nudibranch up to 40 centimeters long that one might compare to a flamenco dancer as it undulates, unfurls, retracts and fascinates.
Found in Komodo but also as far afield as Hawaii, the Maldives and Egypt, even the name of this nocturnal denizen of the deep – Hexabranchus sanguineus – tells us it’s blood red.
Thirty to 33 meters down in Lembeh, the Philippines and Raja Ampat you can visit the minuscule, camouflaged, stunningly beautiful but obnoxious and camera-shy pigmy seahorse.
A seahorse so small it would probably get lost in your porridge, so blended into its coral base it’s shocking.
Frightfully difficult to photograph as the coral is so thin and these hateful creatures twist, slouch and bend -- turning away from the camera however they can.
The bigger seahorses of Lembeh look maudlin and miserable – faceplanting into the sand or listing, a tortured expression on their faces.
Forgive me for anthropomorphizing!
All exoskeleton and infinitely bizarre, seahorses are nevertheless bona fide fish.
Unfortunately, 14 of the 46 species are clearly threatened. Across the family, various estimates put the yearly death toll of seahorses we kill, whether via untargeted bottom trawling or their planned demise for traditional medicine and sale as curios, at 37, 76 or even 150 million.
Even in Portugal, the population of 2 species has gone from about a million apiece to a hundred thousand or less due to surreptitious fishing.
It would be rude of me not to take you to what was once known as the Reed Sea. To witness Egyptian reefs, still quite intact, lionfish and cornetfish, coral groupers, Picasso Triggers, exquisite clouds of GLASS FISH, resplendent, blue-spotted stingrays, refulgent Klunzinger wrasses and rusting wrecks.
We have now traveled the world together and my youth is fading.
But our seas don’t have to.
Many scientists believe we can restore our oceans to their former glory within 30 years’ time. Science and technology are at their pinnacles and developing apace.
Jane Goodall believes our youth and technology will save us. And who am I to contradict Jane Goodall?
Sea is changing under threat.
People sometimes ask me how they can assist in our current crisis, feeling powerless to effect change.
And whilst I wish they would ask people wiser or older than me I might simply suggest:
PLANT A TREE, lots of trees,
STOP using PLASTIC,
Educate as you can with all that you know. Anyone & everyone around you.
Respect life – all life.
Limit your fossil fuel use.
DON’T WASTE THINGS.
Watch documentaries – it’s easy; even I do it!
You can flip your diet on its head – be more of an iguana and less of a lion.
You can be a demanding consumer and a nagging citizen.
Volunteer if you want. Give if you can!
This museum is one of the best on the planet, its mission has never been more important, its goals loftier, its reach more global.
An institution like this and wonderful NGOs and charities of all kinds, some of which are even represented in this room tonight, could use more resources..
Wildlife and ecosystems desperately need your help.
And your voice.
And Sea is calling your name.
Thank you very much.