Image via WikipediaFor Deb Castellana, a dive on a reef offshore from Palm Beach Florida in August 2009 was a wakeup call to the degradation of our oceans.
She had returned to re-explore the waters where she learned to scuba dive in the 1980s and went on to become a dive master, teaching the sport there. It is where the Gulf Stream comes closer to land than anywhere else in the United States, keeping the water warm and the underwater life such as coral washed. The reefs were healthier there than most places.
It would not be a happy homecoming.
“The difference in my reef was astounding. I saw bleached coral. When you are doing your ascent and the water is clear it looks like PVC plastic,” says Deb. “When you look closer it is dead coral – coral bleaching.”
There was not only less coral, but fewer desirable fish and a lot more of a troublesome species known as lionfish. Lionfish are native to the Red Sea and the Pacific. “They are very pretty and people had them in aquariums. But some people in Florida released them on the reef and they spread like wildfire. They eat everything on the reef. The pretty tropicals are gone. They (lionfish) have spread as far north as North Carolina. They’re all over the Bahamas and the Caribbean.”
On the positive side, says Deb, the goliath groupers have returned in great numbers. “I worked as a dive master there every day seven days a week for 10 years and I saw one goliath grouper in 2,000 dives. They protected them because they were so rare. The one I saw was in cave and was the size of a Volkswagen. It was amazing. I saw one and never saw another until 2009, when they were all over the place – on all the wrecks and in schools.”
But overall, what she saw on that dive alarmed her. Shortly afterward, she quit her job and devoted herself full-time to promoting environmental awareness.
There was no shortage of causes to address, but probably none more urgent than the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. She found a role with Sylvia Earle, the first female chief scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Administration and also an explorer in residence at National Geographic.
“When the Deepwater Horizon blew up they called Sylvia. They call her ‘Her Deepness.’ She is ocean royalty. Sylvia has been my idol for 30 years,” says Deb.
Sylvia had worked with many ocean conservancy groups and was looking for someone to write a blog. Authorities were trying to keep the media away from the spill area but the story needed to be told. Deb observed from planes and boats the horrific impact of the spill on the environment and wrote about it on both her blog and Sylvia’s.
“We really don’t know how many sharks or whales were killed in that disaster,” Deb says. “There was one pod of resident Orcas in Gulf and it looks like they survived.”
Sylvia’s work also emphasizes the positive. For example, she identifies “hope spots” in the oceans that are still pristine enough to save and reconstruct the healthy ocean environment of 200 years ago. Google Earth records these “hope spots” on its site.
“Sylvia went to Google and said most of the planet is ocean. Since then it is unbelievable what Google has done. You can zoom down and it takes you underwater.”
Deb, who lives in California, has also contributed in determining the status of sea lions, whale sharks and herring in the Gulf of California. “I found that the herring population had collapsed from over-fishing. The Chinese were coming in there and wiped them out. But the herring have come back and the sea lions, too.”
Outside San Francisco’s Golden Gate is the Farallones Marine Sanctuary designated in 1981 to protect the rich biological diversity of the area off the rocky Farallon islands 20 miles offshore from the mainland. Among the 25 endangered species in that area are blue and humpback whales. The sanctuary is run as a non-profit organization and has been a success.
“You would not believe the whales,” says Deb, adding that they see at least three blue whales in those waters, the largest creatures on Earth. “We’re not sure if they’re coming back or not.”
Deb says Oakland is one of the busiest shipping ports in North America and this can be a problem in October when “the water is boiling with sea life.” Last year, a ship came in with a whale wrapped around its bow. At Boston, a similar problem was avoided by changing three traffic routes so ships can stay clear of whales.
Another group protecting sea life is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which patrols in the Antarctica south of New Zealand where there is a southern ocean whale sanctuary. The group’s ships provide a presence to deter poachers in an area where there is otherwise no enforcement.
A world traveller, Deb once lived in Sweden and was impressed with the Swedes’ dedication to environmental conservation. So clean is the water now “they go salmon fishing on their lunch breaks in middle of Stockholm. When they had the very first Earth Day the people in Sweden took it very seriously.”
Deb’s passion for the ocean began with her love of sailing when she lived in New York. “But for half the year my boat was on blocks and I couldn’t sail.” So she moved to Florida, sold her sailboat and bought dive gear. “I immediately became addicted to it. I couldn’t believe if you are underwater you could swim right up to a sea turtle.”
That discovery, in turn, led to her growing awareness of the importance of conserving oceans and the sea life they support.
To that end, she is now working with the Coast Guard in San Francisco to ensure people get hazardous material training and instruction on how to capture and handle birds covered with oil from a spill in the ocean.
“When we had the last spill, well meaning people would start chasing them and they’d fly away and die. We need all hands on deck because an oil spill could happen five minutes from now.”