Exploring The Deepest, Darkest Spots On Earth

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Very few people will ever visit the ocean’s depths. This hour, Ira Flatow talks with a few who have, like divers Sylvia Earle and John McCosker, who’ve discovered flashing fish and spotted sharks in the deep. And filmmaker James Cameron joins to discuss his dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

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Segment Guests

Sylvia Earle

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle is founder of Mission Blue and an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society. She’s based in Oakland, California.

James Cameron

James Cameron is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. He is also a filmmaker and is based in Los Angeles, California.

John McCosker

John McCosker is Chair of Aquatic Biology at the California Academy of Sciences. He is based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re here in California, broadcasting from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. And just outside the Golden Gate, of course, is the Pacific Ocean. It is the largest body of water on Earth, and its trenches are also the deepest. You could put Mount Everest into some of them, and the top would not even peek out.

The Pacific covers about a third of the Earth’s surface, yet more people have stood on the surface of the moon than have reached the very bottom of the Pacific. This hour, we’ll be talking with a few people who have been there, diving to some of the world’s least-visited places, like underwater mountain chains, unexplored coral reefs and the least-visited spot on Earth, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.

What’s it like down there? What do you see? Here to talk about it are my guests. James Cameron is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and, of course, a filmmaker, the man behind “Titanic,” “Avatar” and many others. He joins us by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JAMES CAMERON: Hey, Ira. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: You’re very welcome. Thank you for joining us. Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer and the founder of Mission Blue. She’s also an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and a fellow right here at the California Academy of Sciences. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SYLVIA EARLE: Great to be on board.

FLATOW: You don’t mind us calling you by your nicknames, do you?

EARLE: Depends on which one.


FLATOW: And John McCosker is chair of aquatic biology here at the California Academy of Sciences. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. McCosker.

JOHN MCCOSKER: Thank you, Ira. Welcome to the academy.

FLATOW: Jim Cameron, let’s talk about that historic descent to the bottom. You’ve talked about it a lot. How do you summarize that experience?

CAMERON: Well, you know, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. It was the culmination of a seven-year development program to develop the technology and build the submersible, and it was the culmination of a two-and-a-half-month expedition, during which I made nine dives in the vehicle and, you know, went through full sea trials.

But essentially, it was taking an experimental, you know, experimental vehicle into extreme depth. We didn’t have a government program standing behind us. It was just a small group of, you know, passionate and fairly young – myself being the exception – engineers, you know, working on this vehicle.

You know, I think the sum total is we accomplished our goals, and, you know, I got to lay my eyes on the deepest spot in the ocean and kind of bear witness. But we didn’t achieve all of our science goals, and, of course, one never would. It would be the equivalent of kind of air-dropping into a field in the middle of Nebraska at night with a flashlight and looking around and saying you’d explored America.

FLATOW: You described it as almost being as barren as being on a foreign planet or on the moon. Was that surprising to you, by what you saw?

CAMERON: Well, I think part of it was the knowledge, the intellectual knowledge of the remoteness, that it was probably – and arguably – the most remote place on planet Earth that could be reached by humans. And part of it was the actual appearance of the place, which was – you know, I landed in the center of the trench, in what are called the ponded sediments, which are literally flat.

They’re kind of – it’s a natural phenomenon that they’re self-leveling, and I found them to be almost completely featureless. I mean, there was life there, certainly. I saw small amphipods, about a centimeter and a half long, kind of floating in the water columns, swimming around the sub. But I didn’t see the typical marks and, you know, worm tracks and holothurian tracks and so on on the sediment floor, which I was surprised by.

And I was hoping – I made a transect to the north about a mile long, and I was – and about halfway through that, I started to reach where the embankment slopes up, the north slope of the trench. I was hoping to find an exposed fault scarp, you know, a rock face where I might see a different type of animal community, and I never got to an exposed cliff face.

FLATOW: Is that something you would do again? You said there were unfinished – you had unfinished business down there. I imagine you want to go back. What would you do the next time?

CAMERON: Well, absolutely, a lot of unfinished business. I mean, I think we really just started to barely open the door a crack on what is the last great frontier for exploration on planet Earth. If you total up all the deep trenches in all the oceans of the world, even though they are only about one and a half to two percent of the ocean floor, they total up an area almost the size of Australia.

So this is a vast continent that needs to be explored, and it would take – you know, it would take 100 years of exploration to do it. If I – you know, if I were to go back with our vehicle, I would want to look for steeper terrain. I would look for places where there might be a – evidence of serpentinization reaction in progress. I’d look for bacterial mats, because these are things that might do one of two things.

They might shed light on the various – the very earliest life on Earth, possibly even the cradle of life on Earth. And they might also shed light on, you know, what the astrobiology community is interested in, which is extremophile life here on Earth, giving us some clues about what we might find, let’s say, in the oceans of Europa or Enceladus, you know, some of these icy moons in our outer solar system.

FLATOW: Sylvia Earle, you’ve been diving all over the world. You’ve got nicknames like the Sturgeon General and Her Deepness, and things like that.


FLATOW: Are you jealous of Jim Cameron, what he’s done?

EARLE: Oh, I’m just in awe. I think the success is not just going there. I mean, it was building the system and not relying on a big, federal grant of some sort. Jim made it happen from start to finish, including funding it, by and large. You know, the National Geographic was involved, and Rolex, but that came later. The vision and then actually doing what it takes to build the vehicle and then fly the vehicle, then successfully make the trip, I mean, astronauts have somebody else build their spacecraft.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask both of you, and all three of you: Why do we have astronauts who are able to get all this funding to go to another planet, but we can’t do that here, right here on Earth, looking, you know, down into the ocean?

EARLE: It’s a big mystery of the sea.


EARLE: Why don’t people care? It is our life support system. This planet is blue, and we know so little about it, and we’ve allowed terrible things to happen to it. The ocean is in trouble. That means we’re in trouble, and we’re blissfully continuing to do dastardly things to the ocean, and we don’t even – you know, we haven’t made the investment in understanding what’s there. Only about 5 percent has even been seen, let alone explored.

FLATOW: Jim, would you welcome some sort of larger program to do this, give you a hand, or…

CAMERON: Absolutely. I think, in general, you know, there’s such a dearth of funds for understanding the oceans. You know, we need to put big networks of real-time sensors out on the sea floor and flying through the water column so that we can have a sense of what’s happening in the ocean in closer to real time.

I mean, we get little bits of data from here and there, and we try to piece it together and understand it. But, you know, you can take a picture of the whole Earth from orbit, and the meteorologists can figure out what’s happening in the atmosphere. We don’t have anything like that for the ocean.

And if we’re going to understand the impacts of climate change, if we’re going to understand the impacts of pollution and over-fishing and all the things that are threatening the ocean, you know, we need to dump money into this issue.

You know, look, I have a foot in both communities, in the space camp and in the ocean camp. But, you know, if I had to choose between the two, I agree completely: The ocean is our life-support system, and we’re – you know, we’re impacting it very, very deeply. I’m just afraid that, you know, we won’t understand it before we’ve destroyed it.

So we need research, and we need improvements in technology, and not just in the offshore oil and gas business, but in research and predictive modeling.

FLATOW: John McCosker, what would you like to know from these dives like this, as a scientist?

MCCOSKER: Well, I must say that it is so remarkable what Jim has accomplished in not only the getting to the bottom, but the coming back.


FLATOW: That is always something you’d like to do, yeah.

MCCOSKER: It’s remarkable. If I may comment, Ira, about: Why haven’t we as much interest in the ocean as we have in outer space? I think it’s just, looking back, a matter of unfortunate luck and very good PR on behalf of the space missions, because Kennedy wanted us to get to the moon, and we did. And I think the excitement, because we can all walk outside on a clear night and see the stars and see the moon, but the ocean is hard to imagine.

It’s this large, flat, blue playing field that Sylvia and I are interested in, but you can’t see underwater unless you’ve been underwater. And now even tourists are getting down in submersibles and understanding how complicated and how incredible this zone is, and how little we know about it. So I’m hoping that the tide will turn, pardon me, and we will have enough public interest in the oceans, particularly as we’re running out of what used to live in the ocean, and we begin to understand the ecosystem services that all those creatures provide us.

FLATOW: Jim, do you feel that you have the PR pull that you can get more people interested in this? They certainly all respect you and your filmmaking, and now you’re showing them your scientific side.

CAMERON: Sure. Well, you know, Sylvia and John are both beautiful and eloquent speakers for the oceans, and, you know, I’m honored to even be included in the same sentence with them. But certainly, I think anybody that does feel deeply about the oceans and feels passionate about it, feels protective about it, has to step up, has to do whatever they can, marshal whatever resources they can, and that’s how I feel.

I – you know, I’ll readily admit that these dives to hadal depths don’t necessarily shed much light on the, you know, the upper-water-column ecosystem, which is so threatened by human interaction. But it does draw general attention to the oceans and to the lack of funding and research, and to how much greater a commitment I think we all have to collectively make to the oceans.

So, yeah, I intend to continue to raise my voice. I’ve been involved in a lot of, you know, conservation activities in the past. I’m going to continue to do that in the future. I actually debated even doing these dives, because they didn’t deal directly with some of the more proximal threats to the ocean. But, you know, as I said, this project went back seven years, and I’m also not a quitter. I like to see things through.

And I was hoping that, you know, just the spotlight, you know, being, you know, coming my way briefly might give me a little bit more of a soap box to talk about some of the serious problems that we face.

FLATOW: Well, we’re going to talk about it. The soap box is still right there waiting for you when we get back. We’ll be back to talk with James Cameron, Sylvia Earle and John McCosker after this break. Step up to the mics here to ask a question. We’ll be right back after this break. Don’t go away. I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the oceans and the exploration of the oceans with James Cameron, National Geographic explorer-in-residence and filmmaker; also Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and founder of Mission Blue; and John McCosker, chair of aquatic biology here at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Jim Cameron, I know you have to go and catch a flight. Before you go, do you have any advice for people who would like to stimulate more interest in the oceans, young people or what they might do or how – I know that you came by it a little later in life. Give us some advice that you might have.

CAMERON: Well, I actually came by it very early on, my passion for the oceans. You know, this is going to date me now, but it was the mid-’60s and Jacques Cousteau and the amazing imagery that he was bringing back. And I just wanted to go and be a part of it.

I would say if people are really interested in the oceans, you know, step one is to act on your dreams and your concerns and find a way to create a personal relationship with the ocean, whether that’s, you know, going to study or whether it’s just, you know, say learning to SCUBA dive. There’s no stronger or more passionate guardian of the ocean than a SCUBA diver who’s gotten to see the, you know, the wonders and diversity of ocean life and the interaction and come to an appreciation of it.

So I would say to people, you know, don’t think about this – it’s not necessarily the most remunerative thing you could possibly do with your life, but it will be the most rewarding to go and act on your dream and get to become a guardian of the ocean.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us. We’ll look forward to your next dive and seeing the results.

CAMERON: OK, well, thanks for having me on the show. And, hey, Sylvia, nice to hear your voice.

EARLE: Oh, well, see you soon, I hope.


FLATOW: Jim Cameron, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, filmmaker, of course, you know, and he was joining us by phone from Los Angeles. With us is Sylvia Earle, oceanographer; and John McCosker, chair of aquatic biology here at the California Academy of Sciences. Our number is not going to be talked about today because we’re not taking questions by phone, but we’re going to go right to the audience here and get a question right from here. Yes, ma’am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yes, I’d like to know the budget of this ocean submersive project in order to understand the comparison between this ocean exploration and the space, thank you.

FLATOW: Sylvia, can you talk about how much money we spend on exploring the oceans versus…

EARLE: A tiny fraction, and I wouldn’t take a penny away from what we’re putting into aviation and aerospace, but we need equal support, at least, for this part of the solar system. I mean, this is part of the universe, too, this little blue speck that’s in the great blackness of space. And, you know, the whole budget for the National Underwater Research Program is a few million dollars, and it is being zeroed out this year, right now.

FLATOW: Is that right?

EARLE: That’s right. How can that be? I mean, you need – we need to do something about that, let our voices be heard. It supports little Pisces subs out in Hawaii. It supports the lone space station in the sea, the Aquarius down on the Florida Keyes, and this is – it’s just inexcusable that we would allow this support to fade away on our watch when we need so much to explore the ocean.

FLATOW: Wow. Let’s talk about exploring the ocean in a little more detail. John McCosker, one of the areas you’ve been focusing on lately is the Galapagos. Of course, we think about the finches of the Galapagos, but that’s – and the tortoise and that kind of stuff. But you, you’re looking at the underwater Galapagos. What’s down there? What’s so interesting down there to study?

MCCOSKER: The Galapagos is well-known because of Darwin’s landing on the Galapagos. I think he was seasick most of the tour, so he was so glad to get ashore.


FLATOW: Is that right?

MCCOSKER: But as soon as he did, he looked back over his shoulder. He was a keen fisherman, you see, caught 15 specimens of fish, and all were new species. That was how little was known in 1835. I’ve been back about 25 times and gone in submersibles into the deep ocean there, and it’s extraordinary. Every dive we would make, we would make discoveries of new species, new behaviors, and we’d see – even human trash on the bottom of the Galapagos at 1,000 meters depth.

It is a World Heritage Site. It’s a national park. It’s still not that well-understood, and it’s being modestly protected, not adequately protected. And I think when you said Galapagos, I saw so many people in the audience, their eyes lit up because so many of us have now been to the Galapagos, and the few of us lucky enough to go underwater and to have a penguin swim by and a tropical shark swim by on the other side…

FLATOW: I had one. I saw that. That’s unbelievable. I was snorkeling, and suddenly a penguin goes zoom, right underneath you.

MCCOSKER: Yeah, and a tropical shark was probably behind you, and you didn’t even know it.


FLATOW: Thank goodness. I would have been out of that water.

MCCOSKER: But it’s a living laboratory both above water and below water.

FLATOW: Yeah, and Sylvia, I guess a lot of people don’t realize that fish spend most of their time in the dark, right. It’s dark and deep down there.

EARLE: Most of life on Earth lives in the dark, not just in places like Washington, D.C.



EARLE: Did I say that? I guess I did, oh dear. I had just come back from the Galapagos, the – you know, I got the TED Prize in 2009, awarded a wish, and one of my wishes was to get some brainy people together to go and brainstorm what we could do about the ocean. And the mission was to go to the Galapagos.

And just after getting back, what happened? April 20, the big blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which was a wakeup call for those of us who care about the ocean. In such a short period of time we can just change the nature of a big body of water like the Gulf of Mexico and how it’s not just there, it’s the whole planet that we have modified, changed on our watch, more change probably in the last 50 years or so, since John began diving…


FLATOW: He’s just a youngster.

EARLE: It was in the bathtub – than during all preceding human history. We’ve learned more. And thanks to the kind of ingenuity that James Cameron has been applying and other crafty engineers, we have access to the sea that has not been possible before.

A little piece of California went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, by the way. The manipulator arm and collecting equipment was built right across the bay at (unintelligible). So look for some more results coming from that.

FLATOW: Speaking of results, let’s see if we can get some from – yes, step up to the mic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, thanks so much for being here. I’m actually just wondering if there are any ways that you might suggest that just the general public can be most effectively proactive in becoming involved in not only research but preservation and that sort of thing.

FLATOW: Sylvia, have any suggestions?

EARLE: Oh, I surely do. I bet John does, too.

FLATOW: Yeah, we’ll get them from both of you.

EARLE: The first thing I suggest is that you hold up the mirror, and you see what you are, what you can do. I have a daughter who sings and because she has a great voice and can do those things. I can’t do that, but she can, and she uses that power to influence the way people think. Others have a way with math, whatever it is.

My son works for California Fish and Game, expressing his passion and his interest in caring for the place by dedicating his life, for not very much money. But he’s making a difference. And anybody can use your power to make a difference. Are you skilled in law? Are you a kid? Kids really do have power to let those around you know that you want the world that you’re growing up in to be at least as good as the one that we have enjoyed, those who are allegedly grownups.

FLATOW: John McCosker?

MCCOSKER: I’d like to follow-up on what Sylvia was saying, and that is that kids are the future. It’s the ocean that we’ve abused that we’re giving to them and we have to do something about it. And they’re probably not going to allow us to turn it over to them in the condition it currently is.

Through social media and through all the educational programs, through all the public aquariums and museums and schools, the wonderful seafood watch programs that are now international, it’s possible that we can turn some of this around. But I think that the hope – and I travel, as does Sylvia, around the world and talk to kids, talk to fishery laboratories, and they’re feeling a lot of pressure now from young kids who aren’t going to put up with what we are turning over to them.

So I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful. I’m not extremely optimistic about the future, but I am hopeful because the kids are going to turn this around, and now with social media, we can’t let anything slip by.

FLATOW: Well, you have a terrific exhibit here, a coral reef at the California Academy. You get kids coming in here all the time to see it?

MCCOSKER: We sure do, and I think it’s very interesting that those that work here in the aquarium and clean the windows, clean the nose prints off the glass at about that level.

FLATOW: They’ll collect at a certain level.

MCCOSKER: Yeah, their parents are further back, and their grandparents are in the back of the room worried that the shark might somehow escape the aquarium, but the kids love life on Earth, particularly underwater. It’s so dramatic. You snorkel – you’ve seen it. You know what I’m talking about.

FLATOW: Yeah, I want to get in that tank there.

MCCOSKER: I hope you will while you’re here.

EARLE: Yeah. Just one quick add-on here, speaking for Jim Cameron, who said that he lamented that his dive, historic dive, did not – was not more focused on taking care of the place, if you will. And yet I think that his approach to explore, to peel back the layers of the unknown, is one of the most important things that we can do. Ignorance is killing us. And people – if you don’t know, you can’t care. We don’t care much about what goes on in the deep sea because it’s not in front of us. It’s not on our balance sheet. So knowing is the key.

And this is – as never before, we know. We know what we couldn’t know 50 years ago. And the policies that we’re still living by, whether it’s fishing, fisheries, or the law of the sea, a lot of things were laid down in ignorance. Now we know so much more. We have to evaluate what we’re doing based on the knowledge that we now have, and it’s getting better all the time.

FLATOW: OK. Let’s go to the audience here. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We know there’s a trash island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas. So what does that pollution do to the Pacific Ocean? What does it mean?

EARLE: Not good news. It’s not just the Pacific, either. I don’t know about you, John, but in the last 20 years I think I haven’t made a dive anywhere that I haven’t seen some form of junk that has come from us. Even newspapers last a long time in the deep sea. But plastic, most of it tends to float, but it gets loaded up with stuff and sinks. And I’ve even seen sinks on the bottom of the ocean, the kitchen sink.

MCCOSKER: Plastic, unfortunately, looks a lot like some living marine products and is eaten by animals, and it’s more common been the phytoplankton in the Central Pacific, which is hard to imagine. But there’s not a drop of seawater in the ocean, all the way down to the very bottom of the Mariana Trench, that we haven’t, in some way, affected, chemically polluted. And it’s something that we have to do something about. How we’re going to solve the plastic problem, I don’t know.

EARLE: Starts at the source.

MCCOSKER: It starts at the source because it all leaves – we treat our rivers like sewers, and it ends up in the ocean. So we have to stop putting plastic in the ocean, and then remove what is out there in the Garbage Patch.

FLATOW: Let’s talk a little bit about, before the break, what is down there. And we talked – Sylvia was mentioning how dark and deep the ocean is. And one of the things, Dr. McCosker, that you research is – are fish that actually luminesce, right? They luminesce.

MCCOSKER: Absolutely.

FLATOW: They light up in the darkness.

MCCOSKER: Well, it’s very interesting bias we have because our species, and most mammal species, are active during daytime. A few are active at night, but we’re active during daytime. And then since Edison brought on the electric light, we were able to work around the clock. But at this very moment in Beijing, it’s dark. And at January 1st, it’s dark on the North Pole and sunny all day on the South Pole.

So half of all human life is spent in the dark. Yet in the ocean, as Sylvia said earlier, it’s always dark, except for the light that is created by organisms. And it is wonderful. If you’ve ever been underwater at night, without a flashlight – I don’t mean with a diving torch…

FLATOW: Right.

MCCOSKER: …underwater, just calm down and turn your light off and watch the animals behave.


MCCOSKER: It’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it, Sylvia?

FLATOW: And you can see it at the beach too, can you not?

MCCOSKER: Oh, of course.

FLATOW: What is creating the light? Are they bacteria that light up like that?

MCCOSKER: In some cases, it’s symbiotic bacteria. In other cases it’s like fireflies, it’s these organisms just mixing their chemistry. You see, we here in California don’t have lightning bugs. We don’t have fireflies. I wish that we had a museum of darkness that was illuminated by all of the bugs and fish and slime molds and fungi that the rest of the year…

FLATOW: That would get the kids in. That’s for sure.


MCCOSKER: I’ll tell you, once they’ve seen it, they’ll come back.

FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Sylvia Earle and John McCosker about the deep dark sea. We have time for a quick question before the break. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Oh, hi. Thank you, Sylvia, for being at the academy. It’s really important for us to have you here today. I wanted to inject a little hope into the conversation. I’m wondering if you could address what some of our major NGOs are doing. I know that Conservation International is initiating a seascape study, I think, in the Pacific. And what kinds of efforts are taking place that can help us elevate the attention on the ocean?

EARLE: Well, there is plenty of reason for hope, and I think it starts with knowing. Now we know that the ocean is in trouble, and now we know that it matters that the ocean is in trouble, that the ocean governs the way the world works. If you like to breathe, you will care about the ocean. If you like water that magically falls out of the sky, you will care about the ocean. You don’t have to touch the ocean yourself for the ocean to touch you everywhere, every day. We’re just beginning to appreciate that, and knowing that, it is perplexing that it’s taking us so long to take action.

Our perception that the ocean is so big, so vast, we don’t have to worry about it, it’ll take care of itself, persists. It’s there in the way that we treat the ocean, what we put in, what we take out. But just as in the early part of the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt and some of his pals at the time began to take action to protect the land, now in the ocean, starting in the latter part of the 20th century and now beginning to speed up a bit, areas in the ocean are receiving some sort of protection, about 1 percent.

FLATOW: Yeah. They’re like little parks, sort of, in the ocean?

EARLE: Unfortunately, most of them are little.


EARLE: There are about pretty close to 5,000 areas now around the world. There were none when I was a kid.


EARLE: And this country has taken action with the National Marine Sanctuary Program. But within that area, a very small fraction is safe for squids and fish and clams and oysters. It’s managed. The Northwest Hawaiian Islands is one of the areas – the biggest – one of the biggest areas in the world. It’s the biggest, certainly, in this country. It’s a marine monument. It’s 320,000 square miles of ocean – no, sorry, 140,000, coupled with the Mariana Trench and areas in the Western Pacific. And Conservation International is one of the organizations with an oceanscape and seascape areas, regional plate, including the Galapagos and along the whole Pacific coastal area.

But the high seas beyond national jurisdiction is an area that is now beginning to attract attention, the waters around the Antarctica, the center of the High Arctic. You know, we need to, all of us, think about what we can do to use our voices to get that beyond a one percent level. We need to protect the ocean.

FLATOW: All right. We’re going to come back and talk lots more about the oceans with Sylvia Earle and Joe McCosker at the California Academy here in San Francisco and take your questions from the audience. We’ll be right back after this break. I’m Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about ocean exploration with my guests Sylvia Earle, Joe McCosker, and of course people like to tell tall tales about the ocean, a lot of great stories about the seas and the mysteries of the deep. And I know that John McCosker has been talking about the mystery of the singing fish. The singing fish – you helped solve that mystery. Give us a yarn. Spin us a yarn about that here.

MCCOSKER: This is a wonderful personal yarn, but it also relates to the Bay Area because this is so typical of the Bay Area. There was a call that came from the noise abatement bureau in Sausalito to me saying, they say, Doctor, that you know something about fish. Is it possible that fish could make noise? And I said…

FLATOW: The noise – the people who are, you know, worry about you having a party loud at night or something?

MCCOSKER: They’ve spent a lot of money because the houseboat owners had complained because they couldn’t sleep at night because of all the noise in July and August, starting right when the sun went down, and it would last, oh, until early morning, and they couldn’t sleep.


MCCOSKER: But I think this represents to me the fact that we’ve become so citified. We’ve left the farms. We’ve left the coast. And we forgot that animals, when they’re romantic, make an awful lot of noise. And…


FLATOW: I’m not going there with this one, but go ahead.


MCCOSKER: Well, I’m thinking more of bullfrogs and crickets…

FLATOW: Oh, I got you. Okay.

MCCOSKER: But it turns out that these fish, which are in fact called humming toadfish, make a lot of noise. And when I explained, oh yeah, that’s a fish, that’s a fish that makes that noise, nobody wanted to believe it. They thought it was extraterrestrials. They thought it was the military, of course. They thought it was the sewage plant. It’s because I think the so-called yuppies at that time in Sausalito Harbor were unwilling to believe and had long forgotten that animals make noise.

FLATOW: And we actually have a sample of that noise. Let’s listen to that.


FLATOW: Sounds like an airplane engine.

MCCOSKER: Well, it sounds like a squadron of B-17s coming in when you’re trying to sleep. And it’s sort of like the bassoon in “Peter and the Wolf,” but it goes all night long.



MCCOSKER: Does it mean anything for you, Ira?

FLATOW: No, I’ll tell you…

MCCOSKER: It does something for toadfish, because the humming toadfish is hand-size. It’s just a cute little fish. And after I finally demonstrated that this was the cause of the noise, I got a phone call from Eileen Pierce(ph). And she’s 106 years old. And she said, that’s a bunch of claptrap. I’ve known about that since I was a kid. My father used to take me down to the water. He’d put the oar against my ear, and we could hear the fish hum at night. So I think there’s a lot of information that’s lost to us because we’ve become so citified.

FLATOW: And you actually deciphered that that’s what the cause – did you get back to the folks who – the noise abatement people?

MCCOSKER: Yeah. They weren’t happy. When he first discovered that it was a fish, he said don’t tell anyone. And…


EARLE: It should be a tourist attraction. People should come from all over the world to hear the singing fish.

MCCOSKER: You would think. And there’s a lot we don’t know.

FLATOW: But he’s going to want to ask how do you stop it, right?

MCCOSKER: Well, of course. And the interesting thing is, as the bay gets cleaner and healthier, the noise gets louder. There’s more of these toadfish coming back, which I think is just fine.

FLATOW: Well, that is not something he wanted to hear.


FLATOW: So do the fish still sing like that?

MCCOSKER: Oh, of course. Yeah. You can get a chorus of them. Now there’s more and more of them. But interestingly enough, there are studies now being done at a local university to demonstrate that ship traffic has changed the pitch of some of these fish, and the fish are having trouble communicating with each other because of ship traffic. And of course whales have long had this difficulty.

EARLE: Right.

MCCOSKER: There’s just a lot of racket in the sea. If you ever put your hand under water, as you have when you have been snorkeling, you’ve heard all of that racket. But it’s communication.


EARLE: Shrimp. Lobsters. Mantis shrimps make big pops of sound. The pistol shrimp…

FLATOW: Right, right.

EARLE: …really sound like a big bang when they pop their claw. It’s wonderful.

FLATOW: Wow. So you solved the problem but didn’t solve the problem.

MCCOSKER: Well, I identified the problem. That’s my job.

FLATOW: You identified the problem.

MCCOSKER: Let someone else solve…

EARLE: Only problem is the people who are complaining.


MCCOSKER: Get earplugs, I told them.

FLATOW: That’s right. Yes. You have a – let me go this gentleman in the audience here. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So climate change is unfortunately opening up the Arctic waterway. I just heard about the military is planning on swooping in and seeing what they can do to take advantage of it. Are there any scientific plans right now that you know of to look at that area? And what do you think we might find out there?

EARLE: Well, there are programs, projects to explore the Arctic. Oddly enough, not until 2007 did anyone actually get to the real North Pole when Russians Mir subs went to the bottom, where the real North Pole is. The ice on the top, I don’t think, should count, although that’s where Peary and Henson went back in the early part of 20th century.

But, you know, it’s ironic that we know so little about that area, and yet we’re so ready to exploit it, even before we know it’s there. And that – we shouldn’t allow that. I mean, we should at least know what’s there before we start drilling. And, I mean, there are several nations that are gearing up to fish what they think will be unexploited populations of whatever. Who knows what there? But we should know before we go all-out to extract. And, yeah, we have once chance, once chance. Never in all of human history, all of our history, we have never had access to the Arctic Ocean, beneath the ice. Now, suddenly, on our watch, we do, and what is the first thing we want to do? We want to do to the Arctic Ocean what we’ve done to every other place we had access to. Let’s go chop it up. Let’s go consume it. I think our voices need to be heard.

MCCOSKER: I think, Ira, it’s an example of a tragedy that comments, whereby by the international limits are 200 miles offshore. And so the rest of the world is racing in to fish there. And there are some enormous populations of fish, but we don’t really know enough about them and what the pressures could be that would be sustainable for fisheries. So, as Sylvia says, we should understand it before we really begin exploiting it.

FLATOW: Sylvia, have you stopped eating fish now?

EARLE: Long ago. I know too much.


FLATOW: So, not any kind? Not even farmed-raised or…

EARLE: No. When people ask about what the best choices are, I say, low on the food chain, and that means eating plants. All the animals that we raise to eat are plant-eaters, although, ironically, much of the – what is taken from the sea gets ground up and fed to cows, chickens and pigs and farm fish. So for salmon farming, for example, you’ve kept – you take a lot more, like a funnel. A lot more goes in than comes out the other end. Some say it’s only five to one, but it’s actually much more than that if you think in terms of the food chain, how many plants were going in at the bottom of the food chain to come out to make the fish that you feed to the salmon. But whatever it is, it’s a fraction of the real amount.

FLATOW: But we’re all told to eat fish because of the omega-3s and…

EARLE: Oh, but there are other ways you can get your omega-3s, including the way the fish get them. They eat them. They get them with the plankton that they consume.

FLATOW: So it’s not part of the fish normally. They – it’s the food that they’re eating.

EARLE: Fish don’t synthesize them. They get them from the plankton, and there are several companies that actually raise the plankton in big tanks and then make it available without going through and consuming a fish in the process. And you missed – I don’t know. You know, you miss getting the fire retardants. You might miss getting the mercury and all these other yummy things.


FLATOW: John, have you given up fish-eating?

MCCOSKER: No. Sylvia and I have agreed to disagree on this. I am very fond of fish. Fish is very healthy to consume, but only the sustainable kinds of fishes that we can, as another predator, prey upon them without removing so many of them that they can’t continue, as well as eliminating the services that they provide.

Most people don’t really appreciate the fact that although they may be enough sardines or anchovies out there that we can still catch a lot them, they provide services that have be considered as part of the equation. And that’s what we have now discovered is that overfishing has not only reduced the number of fishes, but it’s caused the collapse of ecosystems because the role – particularly of sharks – has now disappeared from the system.

FLATOW: Sharks are gone.

MCCOSKER: When I was a kid, no. Sylvia wasn’t even born then, but there were so many sharks in the sea. Now there’s probably less than 10 percent of the amount of sharks.

FLATOW: Ninety percent are gone?

MCCOSKER: Gone. Gone in my lifetime.

FLATOW: No kidding. And because, people killing?

MCCOSKER: Well, at first, because people hated them, so they wanted to kill them. Then, you know, usually after “Jaws,” people were hitting them with umbrellas and any way they could kill them. Now, it’s because of the increasing wealth of the Chinese economy and shark fin soup, and sharks are just gone from the world’s oceans. It’s amazing how few sharks remain in the world’s oceans. I was recently in the Philippines, didn’t see any sharks at the sea surface in 10 days at the surface. I was in New Guinea a month ago, didn’t see any sharks. That’s one of the sharkiest places on Earth when I was – two, three, five years ago. Now, gone. Even in the Galapagos, they’re removing sharks and fishing – overfishing just to sell the fins. We got to put a stop to it, because those sharks really play a very important role in balancing the oceans’ ecosystems.

EARLE: And one of the sharkiest places I’ve seen recently, though, a sign hope, was at Midway Island, halfway across the Pacific, part of that big protected area that this country has established. And so when you do protect an area and really protect it, like the Galapagos, if the land – 97 percent is protected. The surrounding ocean, pretty much still up for grabs, even though there’s some measure of protection, it’s nothing like the kind of care that is applied to that terrestrial part – same story everywhere, on the land, versus the sea.

MCCOSKER: Let me give you a quick number, and that is 73 million. As many as 73 million sharks are killed every year so their fins can be chopped off. And as many as 10 human beings worldwide are attacked by sharks, which is a sad thing – actually killed by sharks.

EARLE: Could be more.


MCCOSKER: Sylvia, please.


MCCOSKER: And Sylvia is really on the side of the sharks in this. She just studied them. But when you consider that, it’s a tragedy. At the same time, it is a horrific tragedy to realize that that many organisms at the top of the food chain are being removed from the ocean.

EARLE: It’s at the bottom of the food chain, too. They’re like the krill in Antarctica. We really have no business going all the way to the southern part of the most distant parts of the planet to extract wildlife. These creatures, if you think about it, all the wild fish, it’s bushmeat. It’s bushmeat. And most of what we take, like the sharks, are far – much further up the food chain than lions and tigers, and we don’t eat lions and tigers. And now we’re going lower in the food chain, as well. Krill eat phytoplankton, and they’re eaten by almost everybody else: the birds, the seals, the sea lions, the whales, the fish, of course.

And it’s really amazing how our bite out of that part of the ecosystem is bringing about changes in penguin populations, in the health of the whole system. It’s not just pounds of protein at stake, here. It’s the chemistry of the water that is affected when we take out big chunks of the food chain. And acidification of the ocean is a big deal these days.

FLATOW: Yeah, thanks to global warming.

EARLE: That’s part of the chemistry that’s changing. And with respect to protection of big chunks of the ocean, it’s protecting the stability of the systems that work. And here in California – I mean, salute to California. A network of protected areas just from the last couple of years has been put in place, recognizing that it can – it does make a difference.

FLATOW: We’re talking about the ocean this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow, talking with Sylvia Earle and John McCosker. John, I know you – another denizen of the oceans you’ve been studying are eel, eels.


FLATOW: How are they doing?

MCCOSKER: Those eels – most eels are doing very well, thank you, except the eels that the Europeans in the East Coast of America eats. The freshwater eels are doing very, very poorly. Eels are fish. In fact, we have to explain to most visitors here at the museum, they think the fish and the morays, but they are another elongate, slender kind of wonderful, successful fish until humans came on the scene. Those eels would breed the Atlantic species in the Sargasso Sea, and then return to either to Europe or America. And there were so many eels people, feasted on them. And it’s very good protein. It’s very delicious.

It’s the unagi and anago in the sushi restaurants. The problem is there’s only about 1 to 5 percent remaining because the fish can’t return to the sea, or from the sea, return back up the rivers. Much like the salmon trying to get back and spawn, these are trying to get back to the ocean to breed, and we’ve put barriers in their way. Eels are very important to ocean ecology. They’re very important players in the food chain, and they’re disappearing right in front of our eyes, and we’ve got to do something about it.

EARLE: One percent. I mean, any other creature that we know about in the period of John’s lifetime or mine or yours, Ira, or you in the audience. I mean, you don’t have to be very old to realize how fast things are changing on our watch. And we could be the last ones to even know about – to be able to see an American eel or a European eel…


EARLE: …or in the Southern Hemisphere, too. Some of them are in trouble.

FLATOW: And we hear about the coral reefs dying around the world, too.


FLATOW: They’re not doing well.

MCCOSKER: The challenges of the ocean are incredible, and we’re discovering new problems all the time. We can’t give up. Sylvia and I haven’t given up.



MCCOSKER: And we never will give up because there are solutions to these, and anybody can have a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card and know if they should or shouldn’t eat any of the things on that card. It’s – you can’t – you can no longer say I was ignorant when you did it.

EARLE: And that’s it’s. We know, and I think that’s cause for hope. We couldn’t know what we now know, going back a few decades or even 10 years ago, and now we have the means. We got Google Earth. We’ve got the ocean and Google Earth. You can hold the world in you hands and connect the dots. Any kid can do this, any CEO, any mom, dad. John can do it. I can do it.


EARLE: And that access to knowing, I think, is the best reason for hope.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we’re going to end on that hopeful note. I want to thank both of you very much for taking time to be with us today. Sylvia Earle, who is an oceanographer, founder of Mission Blue. She’s also explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. John McCosker is chair of the Aquatic Biology department here at California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Thank you both for taking time to be with us.

MCCOSKER: You’re welcome.

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