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Challenges Beneath the Waves | Bob Davidson

Learn about the challenges that our curiosity and engagement can do more to address.

Full talk transcript

Water. We all know it's important. This morning each of us used water in many ways. We drank it, we cooked with it, we showered, we took a bath in it. At the same time, we appreciate and fear the tremendous power of water in a hurricane, a tsunami or a flood. I actually brought some water with me this morning, fresh from Puget Sound, in this miniature aquariam. An aquarium is a concept, as much as an object. This one is pretty small, but what do you suppose makes this an aquarium? I suggest it's very simply: Life.

This aquarium contains life in many forms. What we see under a microscope is plankton, living by the billions at the baseline of sea life, and key to the health of the oceans. This tiny aquarium gives us a glimpse, up close, of fascinating creatures in that aquatic environment that sustains all life on Earth. It, and other aquariums, give us a personal, visceral connection to that life force. In fact, the oceans themselves are aquariums of a kind, and, as it turns out, are much more fragile than we have ever understood.

In fact, the oceans themselves are aquariums of a kind, and, as it turns out, are much more fragile than we have ever understood.

From the birth of humankind, people have been fascinated by the mysteries of the deep and life within the seas. Jules Verne, in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, painted a terrifying picture of Captain Nemo, faced with the giant squid as it circled its arms around his submarine, Nautilus. I think, in our times, the underwater threats are every bit as terrifying for us as Captain Nemo's giant squid. It's just that we don't yet appreciate the threat. I'd like to spend my time with you today prompting your curiosity to think in some new ways about these things, maybe to move beyond curiosity to actually caring, and even urgency. And to think how we might act, how we must act, in the face of these daunting new challenges.

A look at the Earth from space shows more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface covered with blue ocean, but that has been its downfall. Because we see its vastness, but we don't really, truly understand how it works, nor do we really understand the impact that humans are having on the health of the ocean. On land, we can smell polluted air, we can see toxic trash, but only recently have we had the tools to see beneath the waves. So I'd like to take us under the waves, through four stories. The first of these is ocean acidification. So, we've all read about ocean acidification. It's hugely important, but our understanding of it and the research data are relatively recent.

What we know: We all know that humans burn fossil fuels. This gives off carbon dioxide. This has a much bigger impact today when there are seven billion of us on the Earth burning fossil fuels. Scientists now know that the oceans absorb about one-quarter of all of the carbon dioxide produced through burning of these fossil fuels. This is changing the chemistry of the sea. The acidity of the ocean is increasing at a rate ten times higher than that of any time in the last 50 million years, and that is simply taxing the power of life in the ocean to adapt.

This remarkable adaptability is being pushed too far, and this has an impact and implications for the entire food chain, and recognize that humans are at the top. In Puget Sound, we have a great window on these impacts. Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the United States — it's home to sharks, to whales, to octopus, all kinds of living creatures. In fact, under the aquarium we have 12-foot-long sharks swimming around with our researchers who are photographing them, tagging them for future research. I confess I have passed on that volunteer sign-up. We also have, in Puget Sound, a tiny sea snail called Pteropoda. Pteropods are about the size of a pea and they are a basic food source for many animals, ranging from krill to salmon to whales. It's very important to this sea life. Changing ocean chemistry is dissolving the snail shell, causing massive deaths of pteropods.

Another species where we're seeing the same phenomenon is oysters. You can imagine that a shell is pretty important to an oyster. Well, we're seeing die-offs at the larval stage of oysters in Puget Sound, in the billions, each year. There are several ways that we're involved with this at the aquarium. We're working with some of the world's leading scientists at the University of Washington and Noah Research Labs, and they've installed monitors under our pier at the aquarium. And these monitors are sending data, in real time, to their research labs and they're able to have that and factor into their understanding of what's happening here in Puget Sound.

This is good for that, but the scale of what's needed for measurements is simply not enough for the existing sensors. So, the Ocean Health X Prize has put up two million dollars to challenge inventors all over the world to come up with new sensors that are durable, accurate, cheap, and that can be used by non-scientists around the world. And this is being tested at the Seattle Aquarium, the semifinalists, in January. With the result of these tests and this prize, we hope that the ability of data gathering all around the world will sharply increase the ability of scientists to understand what's happening.

A second story I want to touch on is sea star wasting disease. We all know sea stars, starfish, [they are] among the most common animals on every beach. And what we found, in 2013, was incidences of disease and die-off, off the coast of Washington and British Columbia.

The areas where there have been plentiful sea stars are now virtual sea star ghost towns, and it's like a horror movie with this death.

Today millions of sea stars have died, up and down the entire western coast of North America. And they've died a gruesome death, because the way that this progression works is in 24 hours the sea star essentially melts into a gruesome mess. The areas where there have been plentiful sea stars are now virtual sea star ghost towns, and it's like a horror movie with this death. So, people see this, and they're afraid. Researchers have been working on this and there has been some positive, very recent developments.  A research team, headed out of Cornell and the University of Washington Friday Harbor labs, have identified a virus which appears to be the common thread in this disease.

I would say that that discovery puts us at the beginning of the process of figuring out what's going on. And the virus gives us baseline information to track against. But now the question is, what are the other things that trigger this disease? This particular virus has been in evidence in sea stars since the 1940s, so what is it that's moving the disease now? This is an area of science that people are working on and we look forward to that progress. The Seattle Aquarium, Monterrey Bay Aquarium and others, and universities have been involved with this particular team and with the process and it's an example of how this collaboration works.

Another story has to do with global floating plastics. When I was growing up, we would see an occasional coke bottle on a beach, glass. Today, the increase in population and the explosion of plastics as our preferred container has resulted in plastic containers, of all shapes and sizes and colors, on every beach, not only in the United States, but around the world. And as these containers find their way into the oceans, they break apart, but they never truly dissolve. So, what happens is they break into smaller and smaller parts, and the bits of plastics are called micro-plastics.

These micro-plastics are floating all over the world. The United Nations estimates that there are 46,000 bits of micro-plastic on every square mile, floating on every square mile of the ocean all over the world. So people are beginning to recognize this threat and organize. Here in Seattle, one of our volunteers at the Seattle Aquarium, Annie Spalding, who works in a dental clinic, came and learned about this floating plastics issue through our training, and she went back to work with her colleagues and said, "Hey, something's going on here and we can do something about it." And so they figured out how they could reduce their use of throw-away plastics. This was so successful that Annie went out to start working with other dental clinics, and now is working in the whole medical field to face up to this problem. So that tiny aquarium window for Annie, in her training, inspired her to act, and she's making a difference.

Final story I want to share is with regard to the Giant Pacific Octopus. This is the world's largest octopus species — they live right here in Puget Sound, they can have an arm-span of up to 20 feet, they can weigh up to 150 pounds, and late in 2013, a young man killed a Giant Pacific Octopus. This is all perfectly legal, but the image of that dead octopus, tossed in the back of his pickup truck, went viral. And not only did it catch the imagination and concern of our community, but we had people expressing concern and outrage all over the world.

The aquarium has been a resource for the study of these animals for more than two decades.

So at the Seattle Aquarium, every day, we can see the Giant Pacific Octopus. In the wild, however, you have to be a diver to see them. The octopus is a food source for marine mammals and for humans, but it's also a fascinating, charismatic, intelligent animal. So the aquarium has been a resource for the study of these animals for more than two decades. Every two years, we invite researchers and scientists from all over the world to come and share their papers, their research, their findings, their observations about this creature, and we've learned a lot. There have been articles and books.

After the incident in 2013, we worked with the state of Washington and the dive community to try to evaluate what's going on with this reaction. What are people thinking, and what would an appropriate response be? Out of that, the state of Washington decided to create seven new marine protected areas so that divers could, in a safe environment, observe and learn more about the Giant Pacific Octopus. I would say this is an example of the dynamic nature of how humans view other creatures. And how we look at an octopus may be different in 50 years than it is today.

So, today we've touched on ocean acidification, changing sea chemistry, the Giant Pacific Octopus. We've talked about sea star wasting, that eerie, eerie disease, and global floating plastics. Stories of discovery and of positive action. Each of us has a personal aquarium window that magnifies and clarifies the world around us. Illustrates areas where we know something, but not enough, yet opens up ways for us to connect to the world's oceans. Through this lens, if we're lucky, we may feel a child's wonder. The power of water, every drop touching us to act, while there's still time. Thank you.

Bob Davidson


Speaker Bio

Robert W. Davidson (Bob) became the President and CEO of the newly nonprofit Seattle Aquarium on July 1, 2010, after serving as CEO of the Seattle Aquarium Society since 2002. Davidson guided a repositioning of the Aquarium Society leading to the successful Aquarium Operations and Management Agreement with the city in 2009. A key component was the $41.5 million public/private New Currents Aquarium expansion in 2007, which has increased attendance and made the Seattle Aquarium the country’s ninth largest aquarium. Read more

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