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The ocean was a busy place this year! Lots of incredible, wonderful, terrible, inspiring, alarming, and just downright fascinating stuff happened in the high seas. Here’s a rundown of what I see as 5 of the biggest sea stories this year, delivered countdown style.

#5: The Oldest Message in a Bottle…So Far

Winkler 108 Year Old Message in a Bottle

Photo Credit: Marianne Winkler and Winkler Family


Not all that long ago, the world’s oldest message in a bottle was maybe a few decades old. But as time goes on, people keep finding messages in bottles that have been at sea for longer and longer. 99 years. 101 years. 107 years.

In April 2015, retired post office worker Marianne Winkler found a message in a bottle that appears to be a minimum of 108 years old, making it the longest-lived message in a bottle to date. When she contacted the source of the bottle, they mailed her a real, silver, British shilling, as promised!

#4: Louis Jordan Survives 66 Days Lost at Sea

Louis Jordan is a lucky, lucky man. Not just because he survived such a long time stranded at sea—but because his boat was built to right itself after capsizing. Most of the time, when we think of folks being “lost at sea,” we think of guys like Steve Callahan, who drifted for 76 days drinking the blood of sea turtles and spearing the occasional mahi mahi (Callahan’s book, “Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea,” is truly excellent, and a personal favorite. I cannot recommend it highly enough!). Or John Glennie and his crew from New Zealand and America who survived 119 days in an upside down trimaran. Then there’s Salvador Alvarenga who drifted for 438 days in truly dire circumstances.

In contrast, Louis Jordan’s boat righted itself after rolling in a storm, and became “disabled,” meaning that he was left to drift and hope for rescue. Many people criticized his story at first—he didn’t seem worn down enough to have been stranded for so long. But remember: he was able to spend the days in the cabin of his boat, and had access to canned food for at least the first few weeks of his ordeal. Nevertheless, he survived a crazy situation that would have driven many over the edge, and it speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit. Well done, Louis!

Louis Jordan Drift Map

Map of Louis Jordan’s Drift. Credit: New York Daily News.

Jordan’s story may not be as dramatic as Callahan’s or Glennie’s or Alvarenga’s, but it does remind us of something important about humanity—something we often seem to overlook. To quote Jordan himself: “Their sacrifice (the Coast Guard’s and the ship who found him), demonstrates that our basic humanity is to care for and protect one another”.

I hope you’re right, Louis Jordan, I really do. Check out Louis Jordan’s story by clicking the photo:

Louis Jordan with Coast Guard

#3: China Builds Islands in the South China Sea

Yep, you read that right: China is creating islands in the middle of the ocean! Well, to be fair, they are really just pumping a bunch of sediment onto reefs and building them up out of the water until they have a sort of island. Then, they construct buildings on the artificial islands, along with airstrips and other structures. The whole situation is just immense and mind boggling–but I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by such an epic construction effort coming from the country that made the Great Wall.

Mischief Reef China Buildup

The aptly-named Mischief Reef, being turned into an island. Photo: New York Times.

Sadly, these artificial islands completely destroy reef habitats and have a variety of unpredictable negative consequences for marine life in the area–not to mention human life, when you consider the military implications. Anyway, this has to be one of the biggest stories from the sea this year.

The New York Times has an excellent article with the best images I’ve seen on this story–check it out here.

#2: The Sea Turtle and the Straw

Just when it seemed like the crusade against plastic pollution in the ocean had plateaued—that people had heard enough about it and that what had begun to inspire and intrigue people would melt into apathy in the face of a problem too overwhelmingly big to even try to fix, this poor turtle showed up with a straw in its nose. Well-meaning humans attempted to remove from its nose the plastic straw that other, possibly more careless humans, had let loose in the wild… The results were arguably good, but messy, painful, and graphic. You should only watch this if you have a strong stomach:

This turtle became a celebrity in a matter of days as this video circulated the web. People began to reawaken to the nightmarish consequences of our plastic footprint in the ocean. And, perhaps more importantly, viewers of the video were reminded that they can help protect animals like this turtle without even going near the sea—all they have to do is refuse to use single-use plastic items like straws, spoons, forks, knives, cups, bags, etc., which are intended to be used once and then thrown away. “Away” in this case turned out to be a turtle’s nose.

Hot on the heels of this video came another showing humans extracting, this time, a plastic fork from the nose of a sea turtle. Yep, a fork. This one’s a bit hard to watch, too, though there’s less blood:

These are not isolated incidents. Several whales and other sea creatures washed ashore in 2015 and died with digestive systems clogged by plastic. There was this whale, and this one, and this one, and this one (technically from 2014, but reported on in 2015). I could go on, but how many can you handle? I should mention though that it’s not just whales, or the now famous Albatross of Midway Atoll, but also dolphins and other sea critters.

It is becoming painfully clear (well, more painful for the animals than for us), that our single-use, throw-away, red solo cup lifestyle causes a variety of agonizing deaths and injuries among sea life. Human life depends upon sea life, of course, so, here at the end of the year, as we take stock of our lives and reflect on things, let us keep in mind the ocean.

#1: Ocean Sanctuaries!

2015 was the year of the ocean sanctuary! New Zealand famously marked off one such protected space, twice the size of the country itself, in September—check it out:

 

Nice job, New Zealand!

Right after New Zealand’s announcement, Chile got on board and created the largest marine sanctuary in the Americas. National Geographic has the full story:

Nazca-Desventurada Marine Park

Image: Matthew W.Chwastyk, NG Staff. Source: Undersecretary of Fisheries and Agriculture, Chile

Heck, even the President of the United States announced the creation of the first marine sanctuaries in 15 years!

Not to be outshone, though, the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau marked off over 500,000 square kilometers to be protected as marine sanctuary.

Palau_map_final

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, Palau’s President Remengesau said that “Island communities have been among the hardest hit by the threats facing the ocean…[and]…Creating this sanctuary is a bold move that the people of Palau recognize as essential to our survival. We want to lead the way in restoring the health of the ocean for future generations.”

The creation of these marine sanctuaries in 2015 is no coincidence. Global leaders are beginning to realize the scope and severity of human-caused problems facing ocean life, and that there is good reason to be worried about the fallout. Most of our oxygen comes from the sea: if we strangle the sea, we strangle ourselves.

There are three major threats to ocean and human life (and countless less urgent threats): overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change. The creation of marine sanctuaries most directly addresses the issue of overfishing by giving governments more power to monitor commercial fishing operations and enforce existing laws. But when governments make it a priority to protect the ocean, it sets the tone for how we should think about our relationship to the sea. In other words, it’s the “statement” made by protecting these areas that really matters: When people see their governments stand up and say, “This fragile ecosystem is worth protecting,” well, then, the rest of us might begin to think so, too.

So that’s this year’s top 5 stories from the sea! Here’s hoping 2016 will bring more joy from the ocean, and more successes for those protecting it and working to keep it clean. We can all help in this mission—for as Erik Reece writes in Death of a Mountain, “We love what we find beautiful, and we do not destroy that which we love.”

In 2016, say no to single-use plastic, and help make the entire ocean a sanctuary once again.

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