The Grim Reaper Haunts the Ocean

On October 3, 2013, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) released its most recent State of the Ocean Report to the public. The report said its latest review of the oceans revealed the ocean to be in a “critical state.”

The IPSO report, as bad fortune may have it, could be an understatement based upon a revealing first-hand true story of an extensive ocean trip by Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. ((Greg Ray, The Ocean is Broken, Newcastle Herald, Oct. 18, 2013.))

Mr. Macfadyen’s story, as told by Greg Ray, is a heartbreaking account of the disgusting condition of the ocean. The storyline of his journey shows the stark contrast to his prior trip only 10 years ago, when he traveled the same course.

Brace yourself; Mr. Macfadyen’s story is so horrifying and ghastly that it is difficult to read and accept without experiencing deep melancholy. It is frightfully nightmarish.

The First Leg of Macfadyen’s Trip

The first leg of Ivan Macfadyen’s journey was from Melbourne to Osaka, and this leg of the trip was a far cry from anything he had experienced before. There were no seabirds, no fish, and no signs of life.

On his previous trip ten years ago, flocks of seabirds often times surrounded his yacht, occasionally landing on the mast to perch for a rest, and as well, on the horizon, large flocks could be seen skimming along over the water, feeding on pilchards. But, the ocean changed these past 10 years. There were no seabirds on this recent trip.

On his previous trip, the whistles and cries of the birds were omnipresent, like a symphony on the seas, but not this time; the ocean was deafeningly quiet. The great natural symphony was gone. The only noises were eerie winds whistling through the yacht’s rigging and waves sloshing against the hull, a monotonous repetitive reminder of the deadened waters.

Moreover, on his previous trip, he caught fresh fish to eat on a daily basis by simply tossing a baited line overboard. As such, everyday during the course of his month-long journey he caught good-sized fish for fresh meals. This year they only caught two fish during the entire journey from Melbourne to Osaka over a period of 26 days.

However, fortuitously as well as ominously, they did spot an enormous fishing trawler working a reef north of the Equator beyond New Guinea. Most likely, the trawler was working the reef because: According to IPSO, the world’s coral reefs are home to nine million species of marine life.

Macfadyen watched as the enormously large ship worked, trawling back forth around the reef, again and again and again, dropping miles of net to comb the ocean, utilizing flood lights at night to continue its prowl (24/7).

At one point in time, Macfadyen and his crew received a surprise visit from the gigantic trawler when it sent a speedboat to their yacht. The Melanesian crew from the trawler offered Macfadyen five huge bags filled with fish they pulled from around the reef. By way of an explanation for their apparent generosity, the Melanesian crewmembers, shrugging their shoulders and smiling, told Macfadyen they were only interested in catching tuna. Everything else died and was dumped back into the sea. Furthermore, according to these crewmen, this modest offering only constituted a tiny fraction of one day’s catch.

At the Osaka sojourn, Macfadyen picked up a new crewmember, restocked his yacht with supplies and headed out for the long challenging trek to San Francisco.

The Second Leg of Macfadyen’s Trip

The second leg of Macfadyen’s journey was more dreadful and ghastly than the first. This second leg was from Osaka to San Francisco. Indeed, this was another death march, but in several ways, it was more disquieting.

He only saw one whale, and it appeared to be out of sorts, rolling along in a helpless manner on the surface, and it had a deformed lump on its forehead. Whereas, on Macfadyen’s previous trip, he encountered numerous whales that playfully and artfully navigated the waters.

Likewise, Macfadyen’s earlier trip encountered sea life throughout the long cruise, like turtles, dolphin, sharks, and sizeable flocks of feeding birds. This year, rather than encountering marine life, Macfadyen saw tons of garbage, but no turtles, no dolphin with their remarkable leaps, no shark fins roaming the waters with their feisty, sharp turns, and no flocks of birds dipping into the water to catch a meal, as his yacht traversed 3000 nautical miles.

In part, the daunting volumes of trash came from the Japanese tsunami. Often, Macfadyen’s yacht was forced to weave around mounds of garbage, large containers, a boiler chimney, tangles of synthetic-rope, cable, wooden power poles, toys, broken chairs, bottles, cans, the ubiquitous plastic, as well as innumerable nets that entrapped chunks of polystyrene. Even though a tsunami may be an unavoidable accident, over 3000 nautical miles?

When Macfadyen’s yacht approached Hawaii with its sparkling clear waters, he was able to see to the bottom of the sea. It was there he discovered that the gruesome trip he experienced since leaving Melbourne was not confined to the water’s surface; it was on the sea floor as well. He saw litter and pieces of junk from bottles to metal hunks, maybe sea containers, the size of a car on the ocean floor. These were haunting visions never before experienced.

These endless encounters of junk strewn across the seabed, and on the surface, as well as the absence of wild life, foretells a sorry story of humankind’s challenge to the wherewithal of its most precious resource. As it is, seaman Macfadyen’s story is but a microcosm in a larger swath of impending trouble for the world’s ocean.

Acidification Becoming Deadly

The following excerpt is taken from an interview with Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean:

The change we’re seeing at the moment is taking place extremely rapidly… We’re seeing levels of pH [a measure of acidity] in the ocean that probably haven’t been experienced for 55 million years… I find it very difficult to tell people what a scary situation we’re in at the moment. The oceans are changing in a huge way, and I am particularly worried for my grandchildren. The changes we thought would happen in the future… We’re actually seeing them now. ((State of the, Video Interview, Dr. Alex Rogers.))

And, according to Philippe Cousteau, we are facing the very real prospect of the catastrophic collapse of the ocean ecosystems, and the situation is so severe that we are already changing the chemistry of the ocean. ((Oceans: Environmental Victim or Savior? By Philippe Cousteau, Special to CNN, March 27, 2013.))

Changing the chemistry, i.e., ocean acidification, is a result of too much human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, of which the ocean absorbs 30%. This toxic mix is already starting to impair the life cycle of shell fish off the western coast of the United States, and it is endangering the very lifeblood of marine life by altering the reproductive cycle and growth development at the base of the food chain, phytoplankton.

In that regard, oceanographers have visible, documented scientific proof that acidification of the ocean, caused by elevated levels of CO2, is already severely damaging these amazing creatures at the very base of the marine food chain, impairing the source of nutrition for everything from krill to large whales. ((As follows, here are a couple of examples from among several sources documenting the acidification issue: Abstract: Extensive Dissolution of Live Pteropods in the Southern Ocean, by N. Bednarsek, G.A. Tarling, D.C. E. Bakker, et al., Nature Geoscience, Aug. 20, 2012 as well as: Acid Test – The Global Challenger of Ocean Acidification, Natural Defense Resource Council, Narrator: Sigourney Weaver, interviewing Ken Caldeira, Ph.D. (Carnegie Institution-Department of Global Ecology), who with Michael Wickett coined the term ‘ocean acidification’.))

What if the ocean dies is not an absurd question. It is already in a slow motion death march that seems to be accelerating. The consequences for humankind will be horrendous, for example, one half of all the oxygen for the planet comes from the ocean and 90% of all life forms on this wondrous planet live in the ocean.

This brings to mind the question of what can be done about this impending travesty. Unfortunately, nobody knows whether it may already be too late. Notwithstanding this gruesome thought, it is worth noting that no major nation-states of the world are addressing the problem, and as for green technology, this may help the ocean survive by switching away from humankind’s cocaine-type-addiction to fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. In fact, this would likely be a fix for the acidification problem.

And, maybe limit overfishing?

After all, this is a matter of life or death.

Postscript: The last line of defense for the ocean is you, and even though it is not possible to know how accurately Macfadyen’s story truly depicts the conditions of the ocean in toto, it is hoped this article will prompt people to discuss the issue, bringing it out into the open as much as possible. Hopefully, if enough people recognize the problem, the U.S. government will somehow be forced to reverse its federal energy subsidy policies from 100-to-1 in favor of dirty fossil fuels to 100-to-1 in favor of clean renewable energy, as it was between 1994 and 2009 when the U.S. fossil fuel companies received government subsidies totally $447 billion; renewables received $5.93 billion. ((Eric Savitz, Government Subsidies: Silent Killer of Renewable Energy, Forbes, Feb. 14, 2013.))

Writer’s Footnote: The tenor of this article is quite pessimistic, which viewpoint mirrors the tone of Macfayden’s story, which is equally gloomy. Thus, Macfayden’s experience is captured true-to-form. However, based upon an analysis of dozens of scholarly articles about the status of the ocean, it is not believed, “the ocean is broken.” Severely damaged may be a better description, but there is little room for doubt, given enough time, burning fossil fuels will kill the ocean. Hopefully, this can be prevented. Also, it is worth noting there are most likely extenuating circumstances behind parts of Macfayden’s story. For a balanced review of the Macfayden story, it is recommended one read Carlos Duarte. ((Is the Ocean Broken?, Conversation, Oct. 22, 2013.)) Professor Duarte is Director, Oceans Institute of University of Western Australia.

It is also worthwhile pointing out the success of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) around the world, especially in parts of Madagascar, the Mediterranean, and California where the MPAs have met with success in revival of marine life. As noted by François Sarano, the well-known oceanographer, “Nature doesn’t need to be maintained; it only needs a little breathing room.” ((Samantha Murray, The Top Three Lessons From MPAs Worldwide, National Geographic, Oct. 23, 2013.))

Withal, I’ve yet to find a marine scientist who is optimistic.


Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.