Hollywood would have us believe that space is the final frontier. However, far less is known about what lies under the ocean at our doorstep.
Ocean covers more than 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface and accounts for 99 per cent of the living space on our planet.
Throughout human history, oceans have provided food and forced us to seek shelter. They have both separated and joined populations, spurring evolution of new species and new cultures, while also serving as a global highway for travel, trade and the exchange of ideas, technology and genes.
Oceans allowed first Asians, possibly the Polynesians and then Europeans to colonize this coastline. They define weather and climate, and their effects reach far inland to influence insect infestations and forest fires. Oceans help maintain our atmosphere and make our planet habitable for life-forms as we know them.
Most of British Columbia is made of terranes that formed deep underwater and were then scraped and piled onto North America’s western prow. On a daily basis, the sea shapes those scrapings by eroding coastlines and birthing storms that track inland to wear down mountains and wash soil and dust into streams and rivers.
Victoria is an island city in a coastal region. The ocean affects us every day. It has shaped our past. It moulds our present. It directs our future. And yet we have better maps of Mars than of the ocean floor. We know more about the moon than the plants and critters that live deep underwater. Despite centuries of maritime exploration, we know little of the world beneath the waves.
In part, this is because of the ocean’s forbidding environment. Its salt is corrosive. Its cold is unrelenting. Its darkness is impenetrable past depths of 200 metres.
Pressure presents another obstacle. At sea level, we endure one kilogram of pressure per centimetre of our bodies. We don’t feel it, because our bodies’ fluids push outward with the same force.
But for every 10 metres we sink beneath the ocean’s surface, pressure increases by another kilogram. Without the assistance of submarines, humans can dive to about 150 metres and survive, although a hardy few have made it to 200 metres.
At the depths of some of the deep-sea observatory nodes run by Victoria-based Ocean Networks Canada off Vancouver Island’s west coast, organisms and equipment must withstand 266 kilograms of pressure per centimetre. With those pressures, every leak becomes a disaster, every expedition requires complex, costly materials and technology, and every malfunction means millions of dollars lost.
But the ocean is also self-effacing. It hides its secrets by deflection and misdirection. When we peer into the water, what we see distorts. Light bends at the surface, displacing images, and the water filters colour. Nothing below is as it seems from above.
If you see below at all. Look upon the Salish Sea, and you see blue, green or grey surfaces. If it’s calm, you see sky, islands and distant mountains. The sea presents itself as a mirror to humans, and humans, with our species’ short and self-involved attention span, are easily distracted by the reflection. Mirror, mirror, made of water … Why, isn’t Mount Baker lovely! Like Narcissus in the myth, we look at the ocean and see ourselves and our own, familiar world.
Which is why organizations such as the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, Sidney’s aquarium; Ocean Networks Canada, which operates the network of deep-sea observatories off B.C.’s coast; and the Fish Eye Project, which connects communities to the ocean via interactive, real-time live dives, are so important. Although they operate in different ways, at different scales and with different objectives, they share similar missions — to part the sea-foam veil on the ocean environment, and bring that little-known world to light.
Celebrate the sea this year — take a moment to look into the ocean through any of these projects’ eyes and marvel.
World Oceans Day is June 8; activities in the region include:
• The Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre hosts games, live music and many ocean-themed booths from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today: oceandiscovery.ca.
• The Fish Eye Project streams live at Imax Victoria on Wednesday: youtu.be/L2jjJiPl80k.
• Ocean Networks Canada shares its 2016 deep-sea expedition via live video feeds, from June 14 to 26: oceannetworks.ca/expeditions/2016