The eyes of RV Heraclitus guide us through the blind squalls at night, and by day, the endless shimmering mirage. Occasionally benevolent, the sea gods yield fish for our bellies and dolphins and whales for our spirits. Life is never boring, rather a continuous and occasionally unimaginable drama. It is this element of uncertainty and the wide open eyed vividness of the lives that entangle us that—along with other more scientific elements—inspire us to make our journeys, to take these chances to greet our world or worlds within worlds and gradually, hopefully—through the open sea—understand some part of it. —Rich Moss, Chief Engineer, RV Heraclitus

The winds have guided her and her crew of 14 three times around the world. Their efforts to sail the great ocean against the harshest storms have led them to far off places we haven't even heard of. Their strength has given them an infatigible spirit of commitment, courage, responsibility. Their struggle is to save what have been called the "rainforests of the sea": coral reefs.

Launched in 1995 by the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation (PCRF), the crew of the 84' long Heraclitus has been monitoring the health of coral reefs worldwide. PCRF hopes to advance knowledge on global climatology, and provide technology for restoration of coral reef ecosystems.

THE MISSION—Healthy Planet, Healthy People

Coral reefs are the barometer of overall health of life on Earth. They are dying. We are responsible. With a growing understanding of our planet's delicate ecosystem, and of the web of life in which everything takes part, it is imperative that we protect what we and our planet would suffer greatly without.

The colorful reefs are a complete community of plants, animals and microscopic organisms. The mission of the PCRF is to better understand this rainforest of the oceans, and do everything we can to preserve it. Save this part of the web of life that is essential to the balance of life that is our planet's ecosystem and save the world.

James Cameron, renowned producer-director of the blockbuster movie Titanic, best explained this in an inspirational message he gave in June at the inaugural Celebrity Sail PCRF fundraising event for which he was honorary chairperson. The Celebrity Sail was an invitational regatta featuring six 30-foot Newport sailboats under the supervision of U.S. Coast Guard certified captains, with crews made up of celebrities and sponsor representatives with little or no sailing experience. Conceived by executive producer Lisa Precious of Matrix Media, the event was organized and carried out by PCRF President/CEO Abigail "Gaie" Alling and Executive Vice President Cynthia Lazaroff, along with Ms. Precious. Here is the text of Cameron's speech:

"Seen from space ours is a blue planet, not a brown one. It is a planet of water, and though we are creatures of the land, we depend on the sea for our survival. The phytoplankton in the seas create the majority of our oxygen and remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. They also act as the bottom of a vast food chain from which we harvest a large percentage of our food. Our destiny is interlocked with the destiny of the sea. If the seas die, we die.

"In the past couple of years I have been privileged to get to know a group of people who are studying the lessons of the sea, and acting upon what they are learning. I met Gaie Alling at the Mars Society conference in 1999, where she was presenting a paper on closed system biospheres for human life support in space. I was doing research for a film project about an expedition to Mars, and I wound up interviewing her, and traveling to Santa Fe to meet her colleagues in the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation.

"They impressed me as a dedicated group of scientist who were putting themselves on the line to protect and to understand Earth's ecosystems. It also turns out that in addition to Gaie's interests in space, she was a diver and a marine researcher who had traveled the globe gathering data on coral reef ecosystems.

"So, as fellow divers we traded sea stories and she told me tales of the brave ship Heraclitus, the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation's research ship, with its crew of dedicated young volunteer researchers sailing distant seas to gather data on the health of coral reefs. I became fascinated by this group of people who had committed themselves so wholeheartedly to the noble cause of saving the oceans, and I pledged to help them however I could.

"I was in Singapore recently with Jean Michel Cousteau and we paid a visit to Heraclitus while it was in port there. The crew invited us to dinner and we spent a fascinating evening hearing about how they work, and tales of adventure on the high seas as they braved storms and pirate infested waters to gather data in seldom-studied places. They seemed almost like a priesthood to me in the way they had dedicated themselves to a belief and a cause, and forsworn the usual motivating forces of our materialistic dot com world.

"Their idealism and self-sacrifice were inspirational to both Jean Michel and myself. Despite their idealism, the folks at Planetary Coral Reef Foundation are solid researchers, and they are out there in the real world everyday getting their hands dirty, both gathering the data necessary and putting into effect a real plan.

"The first step to protecting the oceans, and specifically the fragile coral reef habitats, is to know exactly where they are, who lives there in terms of fish and invertebrate populations, and what condition they are in.

"To this end the RV Heraclitus has traveled around the globe three times since its launch in 1995, gathering hard data in remote places—data which allows the PCRF team to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of baseline data where the reefs are, what species exist in each, and over time which reefs have remained healthy and which have not.

"Sadly, the trends are largely negative. Wherever they go they are seeing bleaching, the signature of stressed or dying coral, and reduced diversity. The reefs are dying at an alarming rate—38% of Florida's coral reefs have died in just four years.

"We think of the oceans as vast and endless, but human population is concentrated mostly along the shore and the life-sustaining biomass of the seas is concentrated over the shallow continental shelves, directly adjacent to the toxic outflow of our industrial civilization so we cannot help but have a tremendous and direct impact on the web of life in the seas. The coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea, the seat of its biodiversity, and the strongest indicator of its health. Rising water temperatures caused by global warming, as well as industrial and organic pollution, are the major factors in coral death. Overfishing denudes the reefs of life, and highly destructive dynamite and cyanide fishing practiced in many third world countries kill not only the fish, but the reef itself.

"I sat in my office a few weeks ago and listened to the head of Scripps Oceanographic Institute tell me that the oceans have about 10 years. What he meant by that was that in the next ten years we could lose the battle to preserve diversity of life in the seas as we now know it.

"I made the decision that day to push back some of my movie projects, and to focus for a while on the oceans; to do what I could do as a filmmaker to remind people of how important this fight is. So, I've teamed up with Jean Michel Cousteau to make a TV series and a trio of Imax 3D films.

"Right now species are dying off at a rate of a hundred thousand times faster than normal evolution. Millions of undiscovered species remain to be identified in the oceans, but we will kill half of them before we will even have a chance to give them names.

"We are the mean old comet this time, we are the Armegaddon. Human beings live in denial most of the time. They deny to themselves that anything bad can happen to them. The passengers on Titanic didn't think anything bad could happen.

"We are on a ship right now—voyaging through space—a ship both vast and grand, and yet also, like Titanic, fragile and complex. And on this ship, if we hit an iceberg, there are no lifeboats.

"The Planetary Coral Reef Foundation is doing something about it, but they need our help. They have a very sound plan to use satellite technology to get global baseline data on reef health, and to correlate that data with groundtruthing from their own research vessel and from other researchers. Only with the data in hand, and with the problem quantified and understood, can the alarm be made clear and credible enough for people to demand that their governments take action."

According to Cynthia Lazaroff, the two goals of the Celebrity Sail were to raise sufficient funds for scheduled drydock maintenance on Heraclitus in Singapore later that summer, and "to build awareness--put the coral reef issue on the map." Ms. Lazaroff told ABILITY that thanks to the enthusiastic support of the sponsors, participants and local businesses, as well as national and Los Angeles area media, both objectives were achieved "beyond expectations."

Coral Reefs

Sixty thousand miles of shoreline along 109 countries—home to half of all fish species on Earth—are vanishing at an alarming rate. An estimated 10 percent of coral reefs have already disappeared and about 70 percent are at risk today. Two-thirds of the world's reefs could become barren skeletons within 50 years, and they could be eliminated from most areas of the world by 2100 unless something is done to save them.

What we can do to Help

Initially, we need to know where coral reefs are located and how they are suffering. Since 1991, PCRF has been actively locating, mapping, studying, assessing, preserving and—when necessary and possible— restoring the reefs. But PCRF cannot save the reefs alone: this is a worldwide crisis. It affects us all, and everyone needs to be aware, and to take action.




More stories from Laura San Giacomo issue:

Laura San Giacomo Interview

ADA Watch; Protecting Civil Rights

National Recreation & Park Association; Inclusion

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