by Sylvia Earle and John Bridgeland
Citizens with big ideas and the will to act have often transformed our country and world. The national park idea is one area where this has been true.
In 1861, a young gold prospector turned photographer named Carleton Watkins took photographs of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks and Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley of California and changed history. The photos inspired Congress and President Lincoln to pass and sign legislation three years later granting Yosemite Valley to the State of California "for public use, resort and recreation...for all time."
A decade later, painter and photographer William Henry Jackson joined the Hayden expedition to the Yellowstone region of northwestern Wyoming and his photographs helped inspire Congress and President Grant to create the first national park in the United States and world.
Moved by this photographic history and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, filmmakers Bob and Sarah Nixon, photojournalist Brian Skerry, and a group of oceanographers, scientists and teenage aquanauts set out on a year-long journey to explore and film areas in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific to prompt action to bring the national park idea to where it is most needed now -- the ocean. The filmmakers were, in turn, inspired by the young aquanauts, some of whom had seen evidence of threats to the ocean and all of whom wanted to make a difference in turning the tide.
Rob Edwards and Ashley Dawkins from southeast Washington, DC, grew up in poverty on the banks of the Anacostia River. Having never seen the ocean, they joined other high school and college students across America to explore the ocean in special places, including Cashes Ledge off of Cape Cod, Buck Island in St. Croix, Ewing Bank in the Gulf, and the waters off Ni'ihau, the westernmost island of Hawaii.
Their journey, as catalogued in the National Geographic feature film, Sea of Hope, not only opened their eyes, but helped encourage President Obama on the heels of the National Park Centennial in August 2016 to create the largest marine national monument in the world (Papahanaumokuakea in the Northern Hawaiian Islands) and the first marine national monument in the Atlantic (Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off Cape Cod). In the process, National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry captured the first photograph of a U.S. President underwater, as President Obama swam off the coast of Midway Atoll in the area he had just protected under the American Antiquities Act.
The young explorers learned that just as the 20th century ushered in protection for more than 84 million acres of land in the United States through the National Park Service, the 21st century, with their education and engagement, could become the "Blue Centennial" that brings that spirit of inspiration, conservation and management to the ocean.
They heard one of us, Sylvia Earle, who participated as lead scientist in the expeditions, say again and again, "what happens in the next 10 years in the ocean will affect the next 10,000. We need a new motto - 'no child left dry.'"
A century ago when our nation created the National Park Service, Americans and people around the world knew very little about the ocean. What we now know serves as a challenge to this next generation of Americans. They must understand how critical the ocean is to planetary chemistry, regulating temperature, governing climate, generating most of the oxygen in the sea and atmosphere, powering the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles, holding 97 percent of both the Earth's water and biosphere, and harboring millions of species, most of which are yet undiscovered. A healthy ocean is central to a habitable planet.
During the yearlong expeditions, as young people interacted with local fisherman off U.S. coasts, they also learned that 90 percent of many fish--cod, sharks, tuna, swordfish, halibut and marlin - are already gone and half of the coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows and much of the phytoplankton have disappeared or are in serious decline. And they learned the power of fully protected marine areas to help ecosystems recover and that such protection has been a bipartisan issue across decades, prompting action from Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
Marine Scientist Richard Pyle from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, whose grandfather participated in the Tanager Expedition in the 1920s to the place that became Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006 and expanded in 2016, laid out the challenge and opportunity for our young aquanauts and their generation. At least 30 to 50 percent of the ocean must be fully protected to restore its health. Today, they learned, only about 2 percent of the ocean is protected from destructive activities, including industrial-scale fishing and mining.
Just as the early national parks of Yosemite and Yellowstone set off a ripple of hope whereby nearly 100 countries now have national parks, this next generation can set off a wave of protection that brings the national park idea to the ocean around the world. Using the power of photography and film once again, the Sea of Hope is the beginning of an effort to educate and engage this next generation in what's at stake and what they can do to protect our planet.
Dr. Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, National Geographic Society explorer in residence, Ocean Elder, and former Chief Scientist of NOAA. She is featured in the Emmy Award winning documentary film, Mission Blue, released on Netflix in 46 countries. John Bridgeland is Executive Producer of Sea of Hope and was former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, member of the National Park System Advisory Board, and co-leader of the cabinet-level review of climate change in 2001. The Sea of Hope film is produced by Bob and Sarah Nixon. For more information, please go to: bluecentennial.org.