June 8 – Deep Blue

Today’s factismal: It is World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

Today is World Oceans Day, an international celebration of all things briny. And as my part of the celebration, I present ten fast facts about the ocean and the critters that live in it:

"The Big Blue Marble" (Image courtesy NASA)

“The Big Blue Marble”
(Image courtesy NASA)

1. The oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface but only make up .023% of the Earth’s mass. Looked at from space, Earth is clearly not an earthy planet; it is a watery one. You could fit all seven continents into the areas covered by the oceans twice over and still have room left over for a few islands of your own. But the ocean is actually just a thin skin on the outside of the Earth. It is thinner than the skin of an apple but just as important.

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

2. At least 90% of Earth’s life lives in the ocean! Being an air-breathing, formerly brachiating land-dweller, I tend to focus on things that are like me: chimpanzees, cats, and even earthworms. But it turns out that things that are like me are very rare indeed in the grand scheme of life on Earth. Instead, most of the life on Earth dwells in the ocean; somewhere between 90% and 99.7% of all life on earth likes its environment to be very wet indeed. And though the ocean holds the world’s largest creatures, mot of that life is in the form of tiny little organisms known as plankton. These tiny wonders are smaller than a grain of rice and yet they are responsible for most of the life on Earth.

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada (My camera)

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada
(My camera)

3. Scientists  estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic trash in the ocean; that plastic trash weighs some 269,000 tons or about as much as 1,350 blue whales! That trash ranges in size from small beads used in “exfoliating” scrubs and body washes to giant fishing nets used to catch tuna and cod. The plastic trash can grab onto other stuff floating in the ocean to form “plastiglomerates” that dirty up our shorelines and threaten the habitats of sea creatures worldwide!

Cloudy water offshore Australia (My camera)

Cloudy water offshore Australia
(My camera)

4. All of that trash has helped to make the ocean 40% cloudier in the past fifty years.  That means that less light makes it through to small critters known as phytoplankton. As a result, there are fewer and smaller phytoplankton . And that means a decrease in both the amount of CO2 taken up and the number of fish that grow up.

Seagrass provides a home for many fish (My camera)

Seagrass provides a home for many fish
(My camera)

5. Seagrass in the ocean absorbs more CO2 than all of the rainforests on land combined. Seagrass lives in shallow water where it uses the abundant sunlight and nutrients to grow rapidly. And that rapid growth means that it also stores CO2 rapidly; some biologists estimate that seagrass absorbs more than twice as much CO2 per square foot than a rainforest would. All told, seagrass absorbs about 1/8th of the CO2 that goes into the ocean, making it one of the world’s greatest tools for fighting climate change and species loss.

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer (Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer
(Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

6. The most critically endangered animals on Earth lives in the ocean. Perhaps the most famous “living fossil” in the world, the coelacanth was discovered by accident at a fish market in Indonesia. Unfortunately, though the coelacanth has survived more than 400 million years, it may not last another century. That’s because it is frequently caught by accident as the local fishermen angle for oilfish. And it is because the coelacanth appears to be highly local for an ocean-dwelling fish; it is only found off of the east coast of African and near the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Thanks to the high bycatch and limited distribution, the numbers of coelacanths have dropped to the point that both known species are considered to be endangered, making the coelacanth the most endangered animal in the world.

Wilma at peak strength (Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma at peak strength
(Image courtesy NASA)

7. The strongest storms on Earth start over the ocean. Every year, there are hurricanes in the ocean (though the ones in the Pacific part are typically called “typhoons”, they are the same type of storm). And every year, those storms do millions of dollars in damage and kill hundreds of people. But the most intense storm ever recorded happened in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma formed. At her worst, Wilma had an eyewall just two miles across (the smallest known) and peak winds of 185 mph! Those factors combined to give Wilma the lowest known pressure of any hurricane at just 882 mbar; to put that in perspective, remember that normal air pressure at sea level is 1013 mbar.  Wilma killed at least 62 people (mostly through flooding and landslides) and caused $29 billion dollars in damage.

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

8. The world’s largest fish eats plankton and gives live birth. At 32 ft long and 20,000 lbs heavy the whale shark is the largest living fish. They can dive to 4,200 ft in search of food, which is mainly plankton and small fish. But the most amazing thing about the whale shark is how it gives birth. Once the female mates, she produces baby sharks (known as pups) at a steady pace by fertilizing the eggs one by one and allowing them to hatch inside her body before giving birth in a process known as ovoviviparity (“egg live birth”). And what a process it is! A female whale shark caught off of Taiwan in 1995 had 304 pups inside, at stages ranging from just-fertilized to “ready to pop out”.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

9. The blue whale is the largest and loudest animal on the planet.  This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. The cry of the blue whale is used for echolocation, but it may have other uses such as long-distance communication and self-defense.

A scallop meets a lobster (Image courtesy NOAA)

A scallop meets a lobster
(Image courtesy NOAA)

10. Every year, more than one billion scallops off of New England are caught for food. But this wouldn’t have happened without the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. In 1990, the annual scallop harvest had dropped to dangerous levels. Using data from fishermen, NOAA lobbied for stronger control of New England waters and Congress granted it to them. Thanks to their work, the number of scallops has grown by ten times, allowing for a larger and more sustainable harvest every year.

And now that you know everything there is to know about the ocean, go out and celebrate World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

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