Life in the Ocean

James Nestor wrote the book, Deep: Free Diving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, after traveling to the Mediterranean to watch a free diving competition.  Prior to the competition he was a certified scuba diver, but it was not until he learned about how the human body reacts to the depths of the ocean without scuba gear that Nestor really began to understand the importance of the ocean.  He did not just study free diving and human physiology in the water, but he worked to understand all aspects of life in the ocean. Nestor writes, “The ocean occupies 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and is home to about 50 percent of its known creatures — the largest inhabited area found anywhere in the universe so far.”

 

I love learning about how large, deep, and diversified our oceans are.  I live in Reno, NV, in one of the only places on Earth that does not have a river that eventually makes its way to the ocean.  Our high desert climate is about as far from the ocean as one can be, which perhaps is why I am so fascinated with the life in water.  Learning about the varied life in the ocean fascinates me because we have only studied the ocean to a very limited extent, and in many ways the deep ocean can be compared to outer space in terms of how difficult it is to reach and the extent to which it has been explored and understood.

 

In Nestor’s quote he writes that the ocean is home to about 50 percent of Earth’s species, and what I find interesting is that many marine biologists believe that we do not know all of the creatures and life forms living in the ocean.  We have truly only explored a small percent of the ocean, and there are many more living organisms to be discovered in the vast depths of the worlds oceans.

 

For me, thinking about the ocean in this way forces me to think about human relationships with the ocean.  Many of our relationships are not positive, through history we have not done a good job thinking about ocean health.  It is easy for our trash to accumulate in watersheds that drain into the oceans, and oil shipping and exploration have had many negative consequences for ocean life.  In addition, we have inhabited huge areas, typically bays and estuaries, along our coastlines and reduced the habitat for many marine species.  While human societies should not be constantly limited in order to save animal species, thinking about how we can live in a state of harmony with oceans and marine life is not just a nice thing to do, it is a necessary responsibility of all humans.

Our Connection to the Ocean

In his book Deep, James Nestor describes how he became passionate about the oceans, marine life, and our connections to the water as humans.  When he began his research of free diving and started to study marine mammals and our resemblance to marine life, he was surprised. Nestor wrote, “We’re born of the ocean.  Each of us begins life floating in amniotic fluid that has almost the same makeup as ocean water.” Nestor begins with human life as a fetus comparing human embryonic development to that of fish.  “Our earliest characteristics are fishlike.  The month-old embryo grows fins first, not feet.”  As he continues, Nestor spends a lot of time discussing the similarities in our development to that of marine mammals and marine life to show that somewhere in our human past we began life in the ocean, and evolved from life in the ocean.  His position is strengthened when he compares the chemical composition of human blood to sea water, noting the similarities of our blood PH, and he continues the comparison by examining what many call “The Master Switch of Life”, or the mammalian dive reflex.

 

Nestor first encountered the mammalian dive reflex when he watched a group of people exploit our amphibious reflexes to dive to depths of nearly 300 feet in a free diving competition in the Mediterranean.  He was amazed by the capacities of the human body to adjust in water and accomplish things that seemed impossible below the surface, but he was abhorred by the competition aspect of free diving that pushed people beyond their limits and often left competitors bloody and semiconscious.

 

Throughout his book Nestor continually refers back to the idea of human closeness to the ocean. By describing our developmental similarities and evolutional ties to marine life in the quote above, he sets a foundation for the rest of his book that shows how natural free diving and unassisted human exploration of the ocean can be.  He rejects the competition aspect of free diving because it leaves the competitor at a point where they no longer focus on the ocean and their connection to it, but rather push through the water ignoring all senses until they reach a desired depth.  For Nestor, understanding our connection to the ocean means understanding human beings and life in a more intimate way.  Seeing ourselves as evolutionarily bound to the ocean allows him to paint a new picture of the oceans importance for us, and became truly captivating for Nestor who had previously never given the ocean a second thought.