Ocean’s one

Despite the popularity of the recent films Ocean’s Eleven and sequel, Ocean’s Twelve, I have yet to see either blockbuster. I guess I’m just not a Clooney fan. But I am a fan of Ocean’s One. In fact, I just completed the Coastal Ecosystems module in the Florida Master Naturalist Program, meaning that I am now a certified Master Naturalist, having previously completed the Uplands and Wetlands modules. What’s Ocean’s One? Why, it’s the One World, One Ocean concept. Confused? Don’t be. You’ll find out more after the jump.

One of the things that was interesting about the Coastal module of the FMNP was how land-based it was. We didn’t go snorkeling; we never even waded into the nearshore, let alone offshore, environment. So it’s not much of a surprise that I didn’t learn about the seven principles of ocean literacy espoused by the Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence (COSEE):

1. Earth has one big ocean with many features. 
2. The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.
3. The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
4. The ocean makes Earth habitable.
5. The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
6. The ocean and humans are inextricably linked.
7. The ocean is largely unexplored.

Now, these educational principles are more for people educating K-12 students about the ocean than adult naturalists learning practical interpretive information about the coastal environment. But these are some interesting points that I think we could have addressed as easy teaching tools. For example, number 4: without the ocean, life on Earth would never have even started; it’s no surprise, then, that the ocean is what makes the planet habitable now.

Don’t get me wrong: the coastal class of FMNP was excellent, and we did touch on many of the same ideas as those in the list above. It’s just that, even though I grew up surfing in California, my understanding of the coastal environment, of the three course components, was much the weakest. So I would have appreciated a bit more getting wet than we did in this class. After all, it’s in the hands-on learning that I remember things best.

One of the things that Steve Bass, our most excellent FMNP teacher, did do very well, though, was emphasize point 2 above (the ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth). This is particularly relevant to Florida, which has only recently emerged from the ocean (ca. 10,000 years ago), and seems likely to submerge again soon, if current rates of sea-level rise hold steady or, God forbid, accelerate. (Hal Wanless, of the University of Miami, has a truly frightening powerpoint presentation, for those of you with the courage to read it.)

Evidence of Florida’s submergent past is everywhere: in fossils of marine mollusks; in the ancient dunes in central Florida that are now unique ecosystems unto themselves (Florida scrub); in the very color of the sand on the beach (orange sand still bears the traces of the orange coquina clam shell fragments of which it is largely composed).

But it’s point 1 that surprises most people, as it should. We’ve all been taught that there are 5 oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern/Antarctic. Right? Well, no. Just look at the globe. It’s obvious that the Indian Ocean is connected to the rest of the Pacific, and that the Arctic and Southern oceans are just arbitrary designations as well. It’s harder to think of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans being the same body of water, but they are connected near the poles, and were, until relatively recently (geologically speaking) connected in the middle as well, before the Isthmus of Panama emerged.

This World Ocean is an interesting concept; it reminds me of the worldwide, or near worldwide, distribution of most marine fauna. It also reminds me of the kind of categorical thinking that is useful to analysis, but ultimately misleading to understanding. That is, when we analyze something, we seek to break a concept that’s too large to understand into smaller, more digestible chunks. Because we can’t wrap our minds around the entire biotic sphere; instead we chunk it up into Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. Because we can’t wrap our minds around the entire world ocean at first, either, we divide it into more manageable oceanic areas. But we have to remember that these are mental concepts, not facts.

Analysis like this is useful when we are building our knowledge. But if we start to treat the world the way engineers have treated the Everglades (that is, treat our constructed compartments as equivalent to the natural whole), if we mistake our bits and pieces of the world for the world itself, something other than a concept of convenience, we risk the mental equivalent of the draining of the Everglades. By compartmentalizing what shouldn’t be compartmentalized, we lop off the reality of the thing itself.

To take one of the examples above, the classic breakdown of the world into Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: what happens when we discover fungi? Are they animal? Vegetable? What about lichens, a combination of alga and fungus? What about corals, a combination of an animal (various types of foraminifera) and an alga (zooxanthellae), that produces what we often think of as a mineral/rock (limestone)? What about viruses? These organisms don’t fit into our mental analysis and risk being fundamentally misunderstood. And, as either Will Rogers or Mark Twain or someone said, “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

Our mental world benefits, to a certain extent, from analysis. But let’s not mistake our analysis for reality. The ocean is one.