Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

090: Cities Under the Sea

After editing underwater footage on the computer all morning, I like to spend my afternoons either underwater or out in the sun reading. This past week I enjoyed the beautiful Catalina weather doing both. My selection this week was a book by an old friend, Dr. Richard C. Murphy, entitled Coral Reefs: Cities Under the Sea. "Murf" had given me a copy last time he stayed at my house and I'd been looking for the right opportunity to read it. The hot sun reminded me of Belize and other tropical dive sites so it seemed appropriate.

I've known Murf for 30 years, having met him during the early planning stages for Jean-Michel Cousteau's "Project Ocean Search Catalina." As The Cousteau Society's former Vice President for Science and Education, Murf dove more places around the world than I could possibly dream of. His understanding of coral reefs is comprehensive. More important, Murf is one of those rare scientists who can translate science into something easily comprehended by the non-scientific public. His current book is no exception.

I was not surprised to see Murf compare coral reefs with human cities. He has long held that ecosystems like reefs can teach us much about how human societies should function to minimize their impact on the Earth and its oceans. For example, our disposable plastics-based society should emulate the reefs where "wastes" become resources for other members of the community. Little is wasted.

Our own solid waste issues here on Catalina illustrate this point. Twenty-five years ago, while working on the mayor's select committee for water conservation, I pointed out the problems that were sure to affect our community due to the limits of our solid waste landfill. Those concerns have become reality over the years. We are a tourism oriented economy. The relatively large number of visitors to our small community make issues like water conservation and solid waste even more critical than in similarly-sized communities elsewhere.

For example, think of how many empty glass beer bottles have entered our waste stream over the years. I once suggested, partially in jest, that restaurants and bars be required to serve only draft beer since the kegs would be reused. You'd be surprised at the number of empty beer cans that appear in the dive park (especially since good divers don't mix the two, at least at the same time). I don't want to pick on one of my favorite beverages. The same problem exists for the many plastic soda, salad dressing, and other containers we use these days. In my youth (aren't I still there?) I remember collecting glass soda bottles for recycling. It was easy to find enough (at 2 and 5 cents each) to buy a Milky Way or Jujubes (back when they were a mere nickel). Of course if bottle deposits were adjusted for inflation since then, we'd be paying about 75 cents deposit on a recyclable two liter bottle. Hmmm... come to think of it, where does the return deposit we pay here go???

Another lesson Murf points out is the need to change our dependence on energy from fossil fuels to include a much higher percentage of energy from renewable resources like solar and wind. How many of you know that earlier in our island's history we depended to a large extent on solar energy? Look back at pictures of buildings from the 20's and 30's and you often see solar water heaters on top of them. Where did they go? I know my electric water heater is one of, if not the, biggest energy consumers in my house. With electric rates forecast to increase, more of us (including myself) may consider a return to solar water heating for economic if not environmental reasons. Long before the Iraq intervention I felt that the best way to reduce Middle Eastern tensions towards our country was to employ effective conservation measures to reduce our dependence on that source of oil. This would also reduce the influx of money that supports some questionable national governments in that region. Of course Vice President Cheney did not invite me to his energy policy meetings (just who did you invite?).

Environmentalists have long warned that we are heading towards serious ecological problems due to our dependence on fossil fuels, lack of real energy conservation policy, and failure to reinstitute recycling programs that existed decades ago. With current gas prices (artificial or otherwise) and threatened increases in other energy prices, we are faced with serious economic issues as well. I've long felt that good ecological or environmental practices are also good economic ones.

Murf is absolutely correct... there is much to learn from the coral reefs. These systems derive almost all their energy from a renewable source, the sun (available for at least the next 5-10 billion years). Many species like the symbiotic reef building corals and the zooxanthellae that live within them contribute their "waste products" as usable resources for their ecological partners. The motto of these and other ecological systems is "solar power, reuse and recycle." I should add that our own giant kelp represents a massive collector of solar energy, converting it into chemical energy that feeds hundreds of other species. When the older kelp fronds die off, the "waste products" of their decay provide food for other organisms including detritus and filter feeders. I hope some day humans evolve to the point where they can follow the examples set by the "lesser" species on our planet. It could ensure our continued survival.

© 2004 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Natural solar energy collectors- coral (top) and kelp (bottom).

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2004 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia