06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Revisiting Pandora's Box - Providing 'Hope' for the Ocean

It is said that in Greek mythology when Pandora opened Pandora's Box, instead of finding gifts she discovered evil and plagues. But the gods had put among the evil creatures a single good one called Hope. When Pandora replaced the lid all the evils had escaped leaving just Hope at the bottom. The world soon found though that without Hope to accompany all their troubles, humanity was quickly filled with despair. It was a great relief sometime later when Hope was let out as well.

And so it is with the ocean. Without a hearty dose of hope we might now be despairing over the state of our seas. Forty years ago it might have been unimaginable to the first Apollo astronauts viewing the blueness of our world from afar to even think that we might impact such a vast ocean. Yet the intervening years have shown that we have measurably changed the seas, predominantly in ways that do us humans that crowd in increasing numbers on the third of the Earth that is dry land, few favors.

We have simply put too many things into the ocean, and extracted too many things from it, for it to remain in a healthy state. We now know that 90% of the large predatory fish have gone - we have eaten them. We have simply decimated populations of large species such as whales, sharks, turtles, skates and rays - we have either directly targeted them or killed them as a consequence of our rush to take more fish. Whilst such impacts may be reversible through prudent management, others will definitely not be - plastics that last for centuries now occur throughout the ocean and we are even naming major features after this problem - the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is a prominent example.

Our modern societies are exhausting mineral wealth from the ocean such as oil and gas in some places - using the energy it provides in our cars, homes, offices and factories. We now extend our search for more oil and gas to extract, and more fish to catch, to ever deeper and more remote seas. We now know that there are few places left that don't show the footprint of our activities. Over 40% of the ocean is heavily affected by the multiple consequences of our ceaseless exploitation. In short there is every reason for despair.

But as in Greek mythology there is also now much room for hope, hope that sets the worst consequences of our actions in a better context, and provides conditions for the types of ambition and opportunity needed to redress some of the problems of the past. There are many opportunities I can recall over the past years for hope for the ocean. Perhaps it was the creation of an individual marine protected area providing a safe haven for wildlife. Perhaps it was a decision to better regulate certain activities or to remove the most damaging activities from an area - a decision incidentally that often benefits not just the environment but frequently the wellbeing or enjoyment of other sea users.

All these actions count and do add up to a significant and progressive movement towards giving the seas the respect they deserves. This may be for the support the ocean provides us with, perhaps just as a place of enjoyment but also for the food it provides, such as the fish and shellfish we eat. Or it may be more indirectly from the ocean from the oxygen it gives and the carbon dioxide it takes from the air. Few people even realize that the most abundant living oxygen giving organisms on Earth are not some species of tree or variety of grass, but a type of microscopic plant that floats in vast numbers in the surface layer of the ocean. For all these wonders, for all these benefits, and after all our efforts though we have still only managed to protect less than 1% of the ocean.

Sylvia Earle's TED Wish to establish more 'hope spots' in the ocean and the way in which this will be achieved through the Mission Blue TED Ocean voyage to the Galapagos represents one of the rarest type of hope. Through the position and influence of TED, and with the support of influential people from industry, finance, commerce, government and conservation on the ship, we have a new opportunity like Pandora, to go back and open that box, and see what creative and collective hope we can give 'outside the box' to better protect the blue heart of the planet.

It is through such innovation, alongside progressive actions already underway from so many people throughout the world, that we can bring renewed hope, and with it, relief for the ocean.