In the past four years I’ve sought, occasionally, to learn something factual about life, to take a break from the fun world of literary fiction. I desire new and refreshing knowledge, education regarding what the world is like now and what it used to be. Non-fiction. I want to investigate different topics like history, science, philosophy, or economics. Astronomy was one of the first subjects I studied in depth. In constant awe of the night sky, I was spurred to learn about outer space and the planets and the possibility of life outside Earth. This year, in 2018, I’ve studied Oceanography, as well as its twin sister study, Marine Biology.
I traveled to the beach with my grandmother several times during my childhood. Fascinated with the ocean, I swam joyfully in deep, salty water, pushed amusingly against the sandy shore by strong waves. The sky blue expanse stretched beyond a blank white horizon, hypnotizing me with wonder. Several video games I played as a child contained aquatic themed stages, like Jolly Roger Bay in Super Mario 64, Jolly Roger’s Lagoon in Banjo-Tooie, The Lakebed Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and the Hydrocity Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. In high school I wrote a short story called “Timothy’s Fish,” where a young boy and an FBI agent travel to the Pacific Ocean to rescue the boy’s parents (who are marine biologists) from a sea monster. The ocean is one of Earth’s ecological biodomes, hosting a vast array of wildlife and numerous physical and chemical properties, inspiring creativity all over the world. I mused on these things this year and one day, while at the McDowell County Public Library, I viewed some Youtube videos concerning the ocean.
I’ve also been reading a book from the American Museum of Natural History called Ocean: The World’s Last Great Wilderness Revealed. The purpose in writing this is to sum up, at least as best I can, what I’ve gained from the book. Hopefully this piece will solidify my knowledge into another area so that, in the event I should forget what I’ve learned, I can return to it and be reminded of all the amazing facts about the deep.
When considering the sea, one must first examine the obvious: water. A molecule of water is two hydrogen atoms connected to one oxygen atom. The molecules are drawn together through positive and negative charges of electrons, constituting hydrogen bonds. These connections cause water to have a high level of surface tension. If you’ve ever seen rain fall on a glass picnic table, you may have wondered why the droplets are oval-shaped. Since the hydrogen bonds exert more force on water molecules than gravity, the molecules congeal closer together instead of falling apart in every direction. This quality allows water to transport food to plants and animals. A kind of liquid boat ferrying important passengers to their destinations.
Water also stores mass amounts of heat (in the case of ocean water, from the sun). Ocean currents carry thermal energy around the globe, stabilizing national climates and animal feeding zones. As the temperature of water changes, so does its form (as with most chemical substances). Water is unique in that its solid form is less dense than its liquid form, which is why ice floats in water rather than just sinking.
Water is constantly recycled through a miraculous natural phenomenon known as the hydrologic cycle. The sun first evaporates water from the land and oceans. Next, clouds form in the sky, eventually releasing water back to the earth and sea as rain, sleet, snow or hail. Lakes and rivers are replenished through run off, as well as providing an important survival need for plants, animals and humans. Then, as the sun rises once again in full force, water is evaporated and the cycle continues. A liquid wheel.
The ocean’s waters contain 85 percent sodium chloride (salt). Scientists call this aspect its salinity. There are also different nutrients and gases in the sea that plants and animals use everyday. Chemists often observe temperature, density, or how heavy the water is, and the pressure it exerts. Different marine animals can dive different distances in the ocean. Scuba divers can also descend to a certain limit, but that’s it. If they’re too daring, the water (which is heavier than the open atmosphere) can literally crush their lungs. Even submarines can only go so far. The farthest mankind ever went down was over 35,000 feet in the 1960’s.
Light and sound react interestingly in water. The reason the sea is often blue is that, when water molecules absorb sunlight, the blue wavelength of that light is left behind. You could say that the ocean is a liquid mirror of sorts. Sound travels faster and through longer distances in water than in air. Whales often use sound waves to communicate to other whales across the sea.
The ocean floor is Earth’s crust shifted around and shaped by a geological process known as Plate Tectonics. Scientists believe that when Earth first formed, plates of rock split from, and crashed into, each other, a rigorous law of Nature that still continues to this day. The energy caused from this chaos can create earthquakes and tsunamis. Magma carries the slabs of rock around the globe, forming mid-ocean ridges, mountain chains stretching all around the deep, rising up to the surface to form volcanic islands. At the bottom of the sea, sediments many miles across form abyssal plains, and colliding plates create deep depressions called trenches, the lowest places in the ocean. As to the origin of the water itself, scientists guess that it originated from ice brought from comets bombarding Earth in its early days of development and from water vapor condensing over the forming planet.
The Earth’s rotation causes winds to blow over ocean water. These winds travel at different speeds and in different directions year round. Breezes and cyclones form depending on the pressure and temperature of the air. Hurricanes form when warm air constantly circulates over tropical waters, causing a ring of clouds swirling furiously in the sky. Wind also creates surface currents that move water from one place on Earth to another. Waves can be said to be energy caused by wind, traveling across the deep to finally crash on shores, from small ripples to the terrifying rogue waves. Even the gravitational pull between the moon, the Sun and the Earth play a role in ocean cycles, as tides cause the sea level to drop and rise. Whirlpools are caused by currents and tides. Some examples of whirlpools include The Old Saw Whirlpool near Maine, The Lofoten Maelstrom off Norway, and the Naruto Whirlpool near Japan.
There are different kinds of landscapes that meet the ocean head on, like a second half of a marriage portrait. Coastlines are either submerged in water or rise to tall heights, forming cliffs and rocky, staircase-like platforms. Waves carrying nutrients and sediments cause rocks to gradually decay into sea caves, undercut cliffs and sea stacks of limestone. Sandy shores called baymouth bars and spits extend in a circular pattern off shorelines. Some examples of popular coastlines include the two peaks of Les Pitons in the eastern Caribbean, the White Cliffs of Dover of England, Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, the beautiful, colorful Amalfi Coast of Italy, the Nile Delta in Egypt, the deadly, sailor-killer Skeleton Coast of Africa, the rocky Twelve Apostles near Australia, the busy Hong Kong Harbor off China, the 2,000 limestone islands of Ha Long Bay off Vietnam, the rocky, sandy coast of Big Sur of California, and the Hawaiian Lava Coasts.
Beaches are broad deposits of sediment and minerals above the low-tide line. Waves and tides constantly shift sand around, which can lead to large dunes over the beaches. Humans often construct sea walls or dam-surge barriers to protect coastlines from flooding and erosion, like the Netherlands does. Some examples of beaches are the Pink Sands Beach in the Bahamas, the pebbly Chesil Beach in England, the festive Copacabana Beach in Brazil, the raging, surfing waves of Jeffreys Bay in southern Africa, the white Shell Beach of Australia, the long Dungeness Spit off Washington State, and the crescent Tamarindo Beach in Costa Rica.
Next you have estuaries and lagoons. Estuaries are the mouths of rivers meeting the open sea, and lagoons are similar except they are more enclosed, connected to the ocean only by a narrow channel. When thinking of these environments, consider Chesapeake Bay in eastern Virginia, Laguna Madre off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the Amazon Estuary at the end of the Amazon River in Brazil, the Venetian Lagoon off Italy, the Yangtze Estuary off of China’s Yangtze River, the enclosed Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, and San Francisco Bay in California.
Salt Marshes are coastlines partly flooded by the sea at high tide, a marshy swamp. They are often connected to broad areas of sand and mud called Tidal Flats. You can think of several places when considering this, like the South Carolina Low Country or the Alaskan Mudflats. Another kind of area is a Mangrove Swamp. They thrive in intertidal environments in the tropics and subtropics, protecting coastlines from erosion and providing shelter for fish and other animals. Examples include the Everglades in Florida and the Madagascar Mangroves near Africa.
Sometimes fish hide in rocky crevices submerged below the shoreline, live off the shelves of continents, swim through tall green kelp forests, or hide inside sandy sea beds. Then there is a special area called a coral reef. Coral reefs are formed from the remains of small organisms. Limestone skeletons. Fringing reefs border shorelines, barrier reefs are separated from the coast by a lagoon, and an atoll is a ring of coral reefs enclosing a lagoon. Some examples of reefs are the Bahama Banks off Florida, the wide Lighthouse Reef in the western Caribbean, the chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean called the Maldives, and the tall Aldabra Atoll near Madagascar. The largest and most popular coral reef is the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.
The open ocean is divided into zones. With each zone there is lessening sunlight, different kinds of exploring animals, and deeper water pressure. There’s the sunlight zone, the twilight zone, the midnight zone, the abyssal zone, and the bottom hadal zone, in that order. Animals use different survival techniques in these areas, like mutualism, where they feed and shelter each other, lethal, poisonous stingers, or bioluminous energy, light created from bacteria.
The living kingdom relating to the ocean is vast. You have tiny bacteria and small organisms recycling nutrients in the water and small protists forming current-drifting plankton. You can have flatworms, segmented worms, and ribbon worms. Red and brown seaweeds are more like algae whereas green seaweed is more like an average plant on land. Some examples of the red and brown are giant Kelp, gnarly Knotted Wrack, hollow segments called Neptune’s Necklace, the strawy Japweed, the dark looking Irish Moss, and the glowing Spectacular Seaweed in the ocean. Your green seaweeds include Sea Lettuce, Sea Grapes, the oval, emerald Sailor’s Eyeball, and the cup-like Mermaid’s Wineglass. In addition to fungi and moss, you have plants nearer shores like coconut trees and mangroves.
Then the kingdom becomes more specific. Here’s a rough outline:
Sponges: Tube Sponges, Blue Sponges, Barrel Sponges, and the Lemon Sponge.
Cnidarians, like jellyfish and anemones: Moon Jellyfish, Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, the Mauve Stinger, the poisonous Box Jellyfish, orange Sea Pens, Cloak Anemones, and glowing Jewel Anemones.
Mollusks, including octopuses, squid, clams, oysters, nautiluses, and sea slugs: Atlantic Thorny oyster, Giant Clam, Venus Comb, Bubble shell, Chromodorid Sea Slug, the memory-enhancing Hermissenda Sea Slug, Giant Octopus, and common squid.
Arthropods, like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp: American Horseshoe crab, Peacock Mantis Shrimp, Antarctic krill, common lobster, hermit crabs, Japanese Spider crabs, cute Nodose Box Crab, and the migrating red crab.
Echinoderms like starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers: seven arm starfish, Icon star, Crown-of-Thorns starfish, purple sea urchins, sea lilies, and tropical feather stars.
Jawless fish like lampreys and hagfish.
Cartilaginous Fish like sharks and rays: plownose chimaera, rabbit fish, frilled shark, velvet belly lanternshark, Pacific angel shark, longnose sawshark, tasseled Wobbegong, whale shark, hammerhead shark, basking shark, sandtiger shark, great white shark, goblin shark, blue shark, tiger shark, Atlantic torpedo, manta ray, sting ray, and the spotted eagle ray.
Bony fish: eels, coelacanths, anchovies, cat fish, salmon, reef lizardfish, Pacific blackdragon, sea dragons, sea horses, opahs, Atlantic cod, Oyster toadfish, stonefish, deep-sea anglerfish, Atlantic flying fish, fangtooths, Lionfish, Fairy Basslet (orange), bluecheek butterflyfish, Queen angelfish, Potato Grouper, clownfish, cleaner wrasse, Wolf-fish, common stargazer, barracuda, mackerel, swordfish, tuna, and the Porcupinefish.
Reptiles: sea snakes, sea turtles, marine iguanas, and the salt water crocodile.
Birds: penguins, pelicans, seagulls, albatrosses, ducks, geese, great shearwaters, boobies (not breasts, my friends, but blue-footed birds), great frigatebirds, black-winged stilts, terns, dublins (cute), and the pied kingfisher.
Mammals, including seals, dolphins, walruses, manatees, and whales: polar bears, sea otters, common seals, sea lions, northern and southern elephant seals, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, dugongs, west African manatees, grey whales, humpback whales, sperm whales (Moby Dick!!!), and narwhals.
Wheew! That’s it for the list of animals!
But there is one animal I neglected to include. In my opinion, the most fascinating animal on Earth. And no, it’s definitely not human beings.
The blue whale. The largest animal to have ever lived (as far as our knowledge goes). 80-90 feet long, it can weigh around 132 tons, about the size of three regular school buses combined. It’s heart is mentioned in the text to be the size of a small vehicle. They travel many, many miles through the ocean to mate and eat, treating the waters like a vast interstate system. They swallow tons of krill each day through toothbrush-like bristles called baleen. Although it isn’t hunted by whalers as much anymore, it is still, sadly, on the endangered species list. That such an animal exists just inspires awe inside me. The natural world….boy, it is something else, my friend. Something else…..
The last section of the book is an atlas of the oceans. There are five major oceans throughout the world. The Pacific, Arctic, Atlantic, Southern and Indian Oceans. These oceans are separated, in a way, by 7 tectonic plates: the Eurasian, Pacific, Australian, Antarctic, North American, South American, and African plates.
The Arctic Ocean lies in the northern hemisphere, characterized by sea ice and ice shelves, which can sometimes break off as icebergs. Some of these icebergs float from Greenland and into the Atlantic. Scientists believe one such Iceberg caused the Titanic to sink. Oil is often drilled in this cold region, as Icebreaker boats crash through the ice in the name of economics. Areas of interest include the Northwest Passage, Baffin Bay, Beaufort Sea, the Barents Sea and the Greenland Sea.
The Atlantic is below the Arctic, more in the middle of the globe. The Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift play a major role in the climate here. Hurricanes are a serious weather threat every year in the southern part of the ocean. Wind power is also harnessed for countries in some bodies of water. Areas of interest include the Denmark Strait, Reykjanes Ridge, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Gulf of Maine, Grand Banks, the Norwegian Sea, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, Bay of Biscay, Azores, the Canary Islands, the Gulf of Mexico, The Caribbean Sea, the Sargasso sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the oxygen free Black Sea (scary). Don’t forget the longest ocean ridge in the world: the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The Indian Ocean is between Australia and Africa. It is the third largest ocean in the world. Tsunamis are known to be a frightening, very real weather forecast in this region. In 2004, a tsunamis around India killed thousands of people with 50 foot waves! Areas of interest include: The Arabian Sea, the Maldives, Bay of Bengal, Java trench, Andaman Sea, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Strait of Malacca, Timor Sea, and the Mozambique Channel.
The Pacific is on the western and eastern sides of the planet, the largest body of water on Earth. It hosts dozens and dozens of island chains, volcanic hotspots, tourist attractions, coral reefs, and fishing areas. Places to see are the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, the Sea of Japan, the East and Southern China Sea, the Philippine Sea, the Mariana trench (which is the deepest area on Earth, whenever you dive below), the Marshall islands, the Emperor Seamounts, the Midway islands, Gulf of California, Bismark Sea, Coral Sea, the Marquesas Islands and Cook Islands, Easter Island (with all those statues!), Tasman Sea, New Zealand, and the Galapagos Islands.
The Southern Ocean resembles the Arctic in that it too contains much ice breaking off and forming together year round. It’s found north of Antarctica. Scientists conduct many experiments under ice shelves to study the water’s temperature, density and salinity. Some areas to visit could be the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea.
And that it is. These paragraphs roughly sum up all I’ve learned about Marine Biology and Oceanography.
As with Astronomy, I cannot stop thinking about how grand and marvelous the natural world really is. How so many animals can thrive in places that human beings can only dream of let alone survive for more than ten minutes. How the oceans are constantly regulated through winds and currents, affecting our daily lives in one way or another. How water is recycled seamlessly for our benefit and how no landscape is as serene as a nice, sandy beach.
And how somewhere out there, many feet deep, a blue whale swims its gargantuan body with simple grace, singing strong melodies for all his playmates to hear.