Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet - a stunning combo of imagery and science

What is it that draws some of us to collect ocean-themed coffee table books? Is it the usually sumptuous photographs - pictures of places we have visited or hope to someday? Is it the written word - the in-depth facts or personal stories from leading ocean advocates? Perhaps it's a little of both actually. Personally, I can't seem to get enough. I admire the hard work of others in capturing the beauty of sealife in all its complexity. And there's always more to learn about the oceans; what we have and what's at stake, what's being done to protect the oceans and what challenges still lie ahead. But with my book shelves sagging and my coffee table in need of cinder block support, is there room for one more?

There certainly is. And Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is it.

A Joint Effort
Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is a joint effort bringing together the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, National Geographic, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of
Oceanography, the New England Aquarium and many other organizations and individual contributors. From this extensive aquatic brain trust of science and imagery, comes what can best be called a definitive ocean almanac. It is extensive in scope, full of well-known iconic underwater images as well as new pictures combined with a worldwide scientific-based look at the various seascapes that make up the planet's marine ecosystems and what needs to be done today to preserve them.

The book is actually the 19th volume in a series of conservation publications funded by the CEMEX corporation, a global building materials company. CEMEX began in Mexico in 1906 and has grown into one of the world's largest suppliers of cement and concrete products. While the company promotes conservation and sustainability - with their series of conservation books as outward evidence - some zealous conservationists who question the motives of large corporations might wonder why leading ocean conservation groups would choose to work with an industrial behemoth like CEMEX. I put the question to Cristina Mittermeier, founder of iLCP and who oversaw much of the photography in the book.

"Over the years I have come to realize two things. One is that the private sector and giant corporations, like CEMEX, are the most powerful forces on the planet. They can hold the key to the demise or the preservation of our planet," Mittermeier observed. "The second thing I have found out is that screaming at corporations from the other side of the aisle does not work. It is far more effective to engage the leadership of the corporate world to achieve lasting results."

The writing in Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is definitely international in scope and while it is certainly accessible to any reader, much of it is geared towards the decision and policy makers of the world. If you have ever thought that international leaders needed some sort of primer or solid reference work that could provide them with an overall understanding of the oceans, the challenges, and the possible solutions required, this book would be a great start.

"The goal [of the CEMEX book series] is to find the turn-key audiences capable of making the necessary decisions that will protect this vast ecosystem. Over the years, CEMEX has donated thousands of copies of these high quality books to decision-makers, legislators, academia and educational institutions," said Mittermeier.

Stunning Imagery, Informative Writing
Paging through the book, one cannot help but notice the photographs. This is one gorgeous edition and could stand on just the pictures alone. The iLCP, which provided most of the photography, is a consortium that includes some of the most renown wildlife photographers in the world. And it certainly shows, whether capturing the beauty of the sea or its degradation at the hands of man.

However, beneath the striking images lies some important reading from several of the world's top ocean scientists and conservationists. The book sets the stage by discussing biomes - the major categories of marine ecosystems that make up the oceans - and the range of marine biodiversity, identifying key flagship species like marine mammals, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), turtles, tuna and billfish, and several more. This establishes the main players and from there the book proceeds to focus on ten ocean areas identified as Seascapes, which are deemed representative of critical marine regions that should flourish but are threatened, that can serve both marine life and mankind but are facing severe challenges.

I asked Greg Stone, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International and a lead contributor to the book, if people will be able to relate to these Seascapes, some of which are a bit remote. "We picked a variety of sites from low to high latitudes and places that had good stories and experts who could write informatively. The entire global ocean is relevant to everyone on the planet, so I hope these sites make that clear," he said.

With observations and explanations based on scientific fact (and well annotated in the book's closing reference section for those curious readers who wish to dig deeper), the book lays out the foundation for global ocean management through the concept of the Seascapes Approach.

"Over the last decades, ocean scientists and marine conservationists have come to realize that ocean systems and human societies are interconnected; human societies simultaneously depend on and affect the ocean. The Seascapes Approach is a response to that realization. Seascapes Approach, formally launched in 2004, is a set of strategies ... that foster the effective management of large marine areas so that people can continue to benefit from the many services that healthy oceans provide while preserving the unique biodiversity of the world’s oceans." - excerpt from the book

This is the core strategy of the book and it is the component which makes it both scientifically informative and, in many ways, emotionally uplifting. It recognizes that the future of the oceans must include mankind; we can't be cut out as a solution. In my travels, I sometimes meet ocean enthusiasts who suffer from a sense of "burnout" because they feel overwhelmed by the problems for which we all share responsibility. "If man would just disappear, all would be right in the seas again." Perhaps, but at 6 billion and counting, that won't be happening anytime soon.

While Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet details the science behind the issues and solutions in a manner that recognizes the social and economic needs of mankind, this juxtaposition of both ocean and man doesn't weaken or dilute the magnitude or depth of the problems or the complexity of the solutions. There's plenty that the book covers to reaffirm the notion that what we do right or wrong in ocean conservation within the next 10 years could impact this planet for the next 10,000 years. But it presents these challenges in a way that should resonate with policy makers and politicians who respond to economic opportunities. And for us average joes, it provides us with an understanding of what needs to be done globally, enabling us to effectively judge the efforts of our government officials or international bodies - decision-makers who need to hear intelligent discourse from their constituents in the form of support or criticism, reminding them that they are accountable.

"The starting point for addressing the problems of human impacts on the ocean is to clearly remember that we do not “manage” the natural world - we manage people. Ocean life and ocean ecosystems are fragile, but can be remarkably resilient. If fish stocks are relieved from overfishing, if pollution is abated, and if other pressures are reduced, these systems can recover. These three simple facts—humans, not nature, can be managed; ocean life can be quite fragile; and that ocean ecosystems are remarkably resilient - show us clearly how to set priorities for ocean policy: focus on the human impacts, reduce their effects, and allow systems to respond and recover." - excerpt from the book

Availability Through Today's Technology
Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet is an important work and one that I believe should be appreciated by as many people as possible. But therein lies the rub, it would seem. A large, high-quality coffee table book does not come cheap nowadays. And according to Cristina Mittermeier, CEMEX has chosen to do a limited print run with many copies earmarked for select "turn-key audiences," as she described them. However, for as long as they are available, you can purchase a hard-cover copy directly from the iLCP website.

So why am I promoting what appears to be an expensive and somewhat elusive piece of literature? Because it is available - as an iPad app e-book. And it's free.

The publishers of Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet have made a brilliant move by making the book available for the iPad format. The choice of format was probably dictated by the popularity of the Apple device and the size and quality of its viewing screen. The book's pictures look bright and crisp and the text is easily readable, aided by a dynamic table of contents that allows you to jump to selected chapters. The interactive capabilities of today's app technology is not incorporated here and that is unfortunate - links, searches, live feeds and updates could transform the book into a timely reference source for both today and in the future. However, that is a minor issue when one considers it is currently available at no cost to the reader.

So, if you are like me and would like a stunning and informative look at our water planet, but would prefer not to see your coffee table come crashing down under the weight of one more volume, then do not hesitate. Download the iPad version of Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet from Apple's iTunes. Go to the App Store and type in "ILCP" in the search window and the iPad app will appear. (Or tuck a few bricks under your coffee table for support and order a hard copy.) Either way, you will not be disappointed.

I asked Greg Stone what he hoped the general public would take away from reading Oceans: Heart of Our Blue Planet. "Value the oceans as the most important asset we have on 'spaceship earth,' a vessel on an endless journey with no chance of resupply. We have to make due with and manage what we have."

Order a hard copy from the ILCP website.
Download the iPad app of the book using

Photo Credits:
Purple sea stars - Thomas Peschak, iLCP
School of yellow line scads - Juergen Freund, iLCP
Madagascar fishermen - Cristina Mittermeier, iLCP

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