Why we’re optimistic we can save our oceans

For all the threats to the ocean—warming, overfishing, pollution—a veteran undersea photographer sees ways to help and reasons for hope.

The world’s oceans, more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, are rife with problems: Overfishing, warming and acidifying waters, plastic pollution, a loss of abundance and diversity.

Finding solutions, or even reasons for optimism, can seem a daunting task. But that’s what we seek in this special issue. It’s dedicated to our seas, the people who explore them, and the creatures that inhabit them—from enormous whales to the tiniest corals.

To care about the ocean in the 21st century is to feel conflicted: despairing what’s been lost, optimistic about what we can save. To discuss this tension, I called photographer David Doubilet, who went on his first National Geographic assignment 50 years ago. By Doubilet’s calculations, he has spent more than 27,000 hours underwater—or just over three of his 74 years.

Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes photographed this issue’s story about the changes to coral reefs. In the opening image, you’ll see Doubilet holding a photo he’d made on the same reef, in the same spot, in 2009—and what that reef looked like nine years later. Seeing the decline “has been completely draining,” he told me. Before, “it was like a bouquet of corals—and I went back to a boneyard.”

And yet Doubilet and Hayes remain hopeful that we can turn a lot of this around. They talk about places where the coral’s still healthy and is even being used to develop new strains of more resilient coral. And they believe their work documenting all of this—the good and the bad—can inform and inspire.

“The one thing about this time in the sea, it has given me a priceless perspective,” he says. “I can make pictures that bear witness. Pictures have this power to educate.” But he is careful not to show only pictures that make people feel bad—what he calls “pictures of gloom and doom. We need pictures that also show hope and resilience.”

That’s the message of this issue: There is reason for hope and a lot that each of us can do. We’d like to help you make a difference. Throughout this issue and across our digital platforms, look for “How You Can Help” boxes and the Planet Possible logo. There you’ll find ideas for addressing the problems and being part of the solutions.

As Doubilet puts it: “With hope, there’s always the ability to change. Whether we choose to drive a hybrid car or not, whether we choose to turn down the temperature, whether we use sustainable energy. Above all, there is hope.”

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

This story appears in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Learn more about National Geographic Explorers Diva Amon and Salome Buglass.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer David Doubilet’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of ocean Explorers.

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