Our Awesome Oceans

During my degree we were coached in “writing science” and while it serves the purpose of allowing scientists to connect with other scientists in a universally understood language, I found it restrictive, one dimensional and frankly sometimes quite boring. It made writing literature reviews beyond tedious, wading through paper after paper making use of complicated scientific jargon that ends up limiting the audience, leaving some uninterested and uninspired. Maybe it’s just me and my short attention span but this just seems counterproductive, by not allowing our enthusiasm to seep into our writing; an assignment becomes just that, another assignment being written for the sole purpose of achieving a specific grade rather than an opportunity to explore a school of thought and possibly witness its revolution. I realise that science is focused on the salient facts and for good reason, without getting bogged down by personal preferences and opinions, but is it so bad to allow our enthusiasm for our chosen subject to be reflected in our writing?

On more than one occasion I was reined in when researching and writing about a topic. Instead of being allowed to “think outside the box” and question age-old theories, I was told to rather stick to the more mainstream topics, the more commonly cited papers and the more conventional opinions of the lecturers. Would it not be more beneficial for young, studying scientists to be allowed to flex their argumentative muscles and attempt to provide evidence in support of their point of view rather than blindly follow in the footsteps of their lecturers? At the same time would it not also be beneficial for them to be instructed in writing and presenting their findings to a wider variety of audiences and in so doing become adept in altering the tone of their research to better include and inform all manner of relevant groups. How about instead of having degree candidates presenting their research to bored professors who sit through the same topics being argued the same way year after year, have them present to high school students in an attempt to inspire and inform young, budding scientists? Why stop there, even facilitating access to current research and discoveries that has been “de-jargoned” and made suitable for kids in primary schools has the potential to inspire. In my opinion, the impact of your research is going to be severely diluted if it cannot be effectively communicated to all relevant audiences. There is no age limit on curiosity!

Pumpoentjie Search

There is no age limit on curiosity!

With these thoughts, of scientific information being made accessible to all ages, in mind; I write this post with the purpose of conveying scientifically relevant information on the “big, blue wobbly thing” that surrounds us in a tone befitting an energetic and enthusiastic class of kids with anyone of them possessing the potential to become the next Jacques Cousteau or Sylvia Earle. My sister’s primary school class is currently in the midst of becoming experts on our awesome oceans and she asked me to uncover interesting facts to pique their interest in this all important topic. So Miss Sivewright’s second-grade class… this one’s for you!

To start with, there are a handful of essential facts that anyone calling themselves an ocean expert should know…

  1. Our earth is covered by 71 % water and yet we have such limited knowledge about these environments. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own ocean floor (Vaughn 2009).
  2. There is a difference between the terms “sea” and “ocean”. While people often use these names interchangeably there is technically a difference, typically seas are smaller than oceans and are also partially enclosed by land. Some of the largest seas that form part of the Pacific Ocean include the Sea of Japan, Coral Sea, Yellow Sea, Bering Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea and the Tasman Sea.
  3. There are five oceans (it can be argued that there is only one ocean as water continually moves between the oceanic basins); Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans. These bodies of water have sea surface temperatures ranging from -2° C (28 F) in the Polar Regions to 35° C (95 F) in the equatorial tropics of the Persian Gulf, an extension of the Indian Ocean.
  4. The oldest of these five oceans is the Pacific with the rocks making up its floor dating back 200 million years (that’s heaps older than you and even your parents!) while the Southern Ocean has only recently been acknowledged as a distinct ocean in its own right. The Pacific is also the largest of the oceans.
  5. Some regions in the ocean are deeper than even Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on land. The deepest known point lies in the western Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench, at approximately 10.99 km (6.83 miles) deep. The next time you are out walking, ask your parents to help you count your steps. When you have reached about 28 872 steps you will have reached the depths of the world’s deepest trench, look back and see if you can spot where you started.
  6. If you think that is long, try walking 73 920 000 steps (35 000 miles). That is the length of the world’s longest mountain range, the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, running through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and creeping into both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  7. The Great Barrier Reef on the east coast of Australia is the most extensive coral reef system in the world and can be seen from space.

Now for some truly fascinating facts about our awesome oceans and the creatures that inhabit them…

Some fish species inhabiting the frigid waters of the Antarctic have developed a natural antifreeze agent in their blood so that they don’t freeze while swimming about in search of food. These fish are able to survive in this extreme Southern Ocean environment by producing proteins that bind to the ice crystals developing in their bodies and stop their growth (Cziko et al. 2014).

You could be drinking water that has passed through a dinosaur. I love the idea of this! The total mass of water on earth has remained relatively constant since life first began. As you will later learn the water on earth is recycled through the water cycle; evaporating from the oceans and, once clouds have formed, returning to the oceans through rain or melting snow. There are places on earth where this cycle takes up to 20 000 years to complete, the deep ocean waters and the water found deep underground. The reign of the dinosaurs, the Mesozoic Era, occurred 66 million years ago and lasted 186 million years giving these ancient beasts plenty of time to drink earth’s water. So it has been said that while most of the water molecules in your glass have not passed through another human (we have only inhabited the earth for approximately 200 000 years), almost all have passed through a dinosaur so enjoy your glass of T-Rex pee (Carslaw 2008).

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T-Rex “making” our water (Mom 2015).

No matter how far away from the coast you may live, the oceans will always have an impact your life. From the food that you eat to the ingredients in your cosmetics and medicines, from the weather you experience to the air that you breathe; all are regulated and influenced by the world’s oceans. Aquatic plants, like the brown kelp species seen lining our coasts, produce more than half of the oxygen present in our atmosphere while the oceans absorb nearly half of the carbon dioxide produced by humans (Pickrell 2004).

Recycling will help improve the health of our oceans. Simply put: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. More often than not, irresponsibly discarded rubbish ends up swirling around in our oceans affecting all manner of sea life. Check out this cool simulation of the journeys carried out by marine debris. It has been estimated that 269 000 tons of plastic are bobbing about along the currents and affecting the deepest of marine habitats. This is equivalent to lining up 2-litre soda bottles end-to-end from the earth to the moon and back… twice (Global Ocean Commission 2014). Check out the sites listed below to see how you can help save our oceans and other marine environments.

The oceans are home to an enormous collection of creatures that inhabit all regions; from the sunny surface layers of the water column (like the Floating Blue Community) to the deep, dark waters of the ocean basins dominated by scary looking animals that in all probability are the root of a number of maritime myths and legends. Images of these creatures could quite easily conjure up tales of sea monsters and sailors battling the mighty Kraken. One of the cutest looking deep sea inhabitants, contradicting all stereotypical images springing to mind when thinking of these mysterious waters, are the dumbo octopus species (Grimpoteuthis spp.). These little creatures inhabit an environment between 3 and 4 km (1.86 and 2.49 miles) deep and are named after the Disney elephant character, Dumbo, because of the ear-like fins sticking out of their heads (MarineBio 2013).

Dumbo Octopus - Marine Bio Conservation Society 2013

Dumbo octopus (MarineBio 2013).

A creature more aligned with the deep sea of our imaginations is the giant squid (Architeuthis dux). These elusive and misrepresented giants are deemed to be the biggest invertebrates on earth, weighing nearly a ton, but also possess the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, 25 cm (9.84 inches) in diameter. They prowl the inky black depths 3 km (1.86 miles) from the ocean’s surface (National Geographic 2015).

Giant Squid - 7 m female but grows to 18 m - South of Tokyo - attacking a bait squid - Kubodera 2006

Giant female squid photographed attacking a bait squid, off the Ogasawara Islands, south of Tokyo. This specimen is only 7 m long, they can grow to  18 m (Kubodera 2006).

Considering that you can’t as yet voyage off into the sunset in search of distant lands and creatures awaiting discovery, you can marvel at the wonders lurking in the crevices of the many rock pools scattered along your local beach, try to spot the differences between birds strutting along the sand in search of a tasty morsel or poke around in the seaweed for washed-up treasures (especially fun after a storm).

I came across these marine creatures while exploring rock pools in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth:

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Plum anemone (Actinia mandelae).


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Spiny chiton (Acanthochitona garnoti).


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Species of hermit crab.


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Spotted sea hare (Aplysia dactylomela).


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Crevice anemone (Anthopleura michaelseni).


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Sand shrimp (Palaemon peringueyi).


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False plum anemone (Pseudactinia flagellifera) are very aggressive and have the most potent venom of the anemones. It inflates its vesicles and rakes them over unrelated and intruding individuals to sting or repel them.

How many differences can you spot between these two bird species? Do any of you know what function of the red spot on the bill of the kelp gull is? Hungry chicks peck the spot on their parent’s bill to stimulate the regurgitation reflex.

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Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus).


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Hartlaub’s gull (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii).

There is mystery and enchantment surrounding you… in every little crevice, in every sunrise or sunset, around every corner, in every step along a tangled garden path… patiently awaiting you opening your eyes and becoming aware of it.

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One of Mother Nature’s wonders… every sunset is unique and paints the sky a fusion of beautiful colours!

Explore. Dream. Discover.

Useful sites to find out more about the health of our oceans and what we can do to help:

References:

Branch GM, Griffiths CL, Branch ML & Beckley LE. 2010. Two Oceans: A Guide to the Marine Life of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik Nature.

Carslaw K. 2008. Drinking water that dinosaurs drank? [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/questions/question/2065/

Cziko PA, DeVries AL, Evans CW, & Cheng CC. 2014. Antifreeze protein-induced superheating of ice inside Antarctic notothenioid fishes inhibits melting during summer warming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(40): 14583-14588.

Global Ocean Commission. 2014. From Decline to Recovery, A Rescue Package for the Global Ocean. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.globaloceancommission.org/wp-content/uploads/GOC_Summary_23.6.FINAL_.ENG_.pdf

MarineBio Conservation Society. 2013. Finned Deep-sea Octopuses, Grimpoteuthis spp. [ONLINE] Available at: http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=558

National Geographic. 2015. Giant Squid (Architeuthis dux). [ONLINE] Available at: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/giant-squid/

Pickrell J. 2004. Oceans found to absorb half of all man-made carbon dioxide. [ONLINE] Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/07/0715_040715_oceancarbon.html

Vaughn A. 2009. 15 Fun and surprising facts about the earth’s oceans. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/nature/fun-surprising-facts-about-the-oceans.aspx

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