Saved by the Sea

Journalist, diver and conservation activist David Helvarg reflects on a lifelong appreciation of all things oceanic.

By David Helvarg


July 2015

Ocean Waves

“Our bodies, like the planet, are 71 percent salt water, our blood exactly as salty as the sea.”

Photo by Fotolia/Zacarias da Mata

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Every person has their own reasons for becoming involved in the causes they hold dear. For David Helvarg, the sea—whether the Long Island Sound of his youth, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or the icy waters around Antarctica—makes up the world’s final blue frontier. After his true love lost her cancer battle, Helvarg renewed his activism for his first love, the sea. Saved by the Sea (New World Library, 2015), is one man’s journey set beside the global environmental movement’s struggles, setbacks and successes. A single life, it shows, sends ripples into the sea we share. Once shipwrecked, nearly drowned, and rammed by a whale in Antarctica, Helvarg appreciates the dangers of the ocean as well as its beauty and history. He calls overfishing “strip-mining,” likens ocean floor trawlers to chainsaws and bulldozers unleashed in old-growth forests, and sees endangered penguins as the canaries in the ecological coalmine—yet still finds hope in the wonders below and the waves above.

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Into the Blue

The reason why I love the sea I cannot explain. It’s physical. When you dive, you begin to feel like you’re an angel. –Jacques Cousteau

I’m free-falling past a rocky wall, gradually accelerating into the cooler, darker waters of Belize’s Blue Hole when a large cavern appears below and the dive master, who’s been fast drifting into the depths, stops and puts a vertical hand atop his head—the signal for shark. Though I look around and fail to see one, I know they’re here. I’d just spotted a couple of fins while bobbing on the surface. I hold up at 150 feet and enter the cavern swimming around huge column-thick stalactites in what was once part of a massive cave complex before the roof fell in thousands of years ago. After eight minutes of exploring this underwater Howe Caverns, and undoing the chest strap on my buoyancy control vest so that my friend Scott can get a shot of me in my seaweed rebel T‑shirt, it’s time to return to the surface. This is why they call it a “bounce dive.” At this depth we don’t have much time before the nitrogen building up in our tissues threatens us with the bends. But if we keep our bottom time short, we won’t have to do a long decompression stop on the way back up.

Our small group halts at ninety feet, gathering near a sandy ledge as the dive master points up. Thirty feet above us half a dozen large Caribbean reef and bull sharks are circling. Soon I notice more cruising below me. We begin making our way toward the surface along an underwater dune as a dozen of the curious six- to eight-foot sharks slide past us, just beyond reach. But unlike the shallow-water nurse sharks that some retrograde divers like to grab on to and pet, no one attempts to harass these big fellas. Bulls are responsible for more human deaths than any other shark species, though, for prudence’s sake, I’d also keep my distance from whites, makos, and tigers. Some dive charter companies in the Pacific, Mexico, and the Caribbean now promote “shark dives” where they chum the waters to draw large sharks to their boat and then place their paying customers on the bottom to feed and “interact” with the animals, with one human fatality and a number of injuries to date. This is not so different from tourists feeding jelly doughnuts and sandwiches to the bears in Yellowstone National Park, except the park rangers figured out how stupid and dangerous that was years ago and banned the practice. If you want to encounter wild animals in their natural settings it’s best to do so without lures and bait. The thrill of the encounter can be just as spectacular.

I met an old local in Hawaii with a ding in the bridge of his nose where he had done a face-plant bodysurfing the Big Island’s Disappearing Sands Beach. He told me how he and his brother were out surfing Hilo Bay one day, sitting on their boards between sets, and his brother said, “I don’t remember there being a sandbar here.” “There isn’t,” he replied. “Yes, there is. I’m standing on it.” Just then a big tiger shark swam out from under his brother’s feet, circled around, and bit the end off his surfboard. It’s like naturalist author Ed Abbey used to say: “If there’s not something bigger and meaner than you are out there it’s not really wilderness.” Or like my fellow Californian Ken Kelton told me after a great white lifted his kayak fifteen feet in the air, shaking it vigorously like a chew toy with a rattle inside: “The ocean is a dangerous place, but it’s also a place you can still go and have to yourself, a place that’s clean and, yes, wild. If you go into the ocean you’re making a choice. You need to know you can drown, you can get lost, or you can be eaten by great beasts.”

I’ve always been drawn to the sea and its alluring dangers, although it took me thirty years to overcome my schizophrenic lifestyle as a journalist and private investigator. I’d go off to cover wars, epidemics, and politics or work wrongful death and homicide cases just so I could get home to the beach. My water time was spent bodysurfing, snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, scuba diving, or just lying in the sand like some herring-besotted harbor seal, my mind adrift and my skin slowly salt frying.

Finally, around the turn of the century, I was able to focus my energies as an investigative reporter on the waste, fraud, and abuse that’s contributing to the ocean’s unprecedented ecological decline. After writing the ocean book I’d always wanted to write and losing the love I’d always sought, I decided to dedicate the remaining few decades of my life to the protection, exploration, and restoration of our living seas, including those residents of the big blue who were now checking me out as a large, awkward, potential prey item.

Still, the odds are unfairly stacked. Every year some five to eight humans are killed by sharks worldwide while we kill one hundred million of these sleek, slow-growing apex predators, emptying the seas of sharks just as we once rid the plains of saber-toothed tigers and mammoth. Only now that we’ve left the savannah behind and become the planet’s top predator, maybe we ought to take a deep breath and consider where it is we first came from.

Salt water covers 71 percent of Earth’s surface and provides 97 percent of its livable habitat, from the shark fins I saw breaking the surface to the lowest point on earth, seven miles down in the Mariana Trench near Guam, where only three humans have ever ventured. And remember that deep breath I just mentioned? Although the tropical rain forests have been called the lungs of the planet, the oceans actually absorb far greater amounts of carbon dioxide. Microscopic phytoplankton in the top layer of the sea acts as a biological pump, extracting some 2.5 billion tons of organic carbon out of the atmosphere annually, replacing it with about half the life-giving oxygen we need to survive. The top two feet of seawater contain as much heat as the entire atmosphere. It was only in the last few years that scientists, looking at their computer models of industrial carbon dioxide emissions, were able to figure out why the atmosphere wasn’t heating up at an even faster rate. The answer to that riddle, they discovered, is that the ocean has been absorbing about a third of our anthropogenic (human-generated) carbon dioxide.

While the ocean is the crucible of life on our planet, photosynthesis of carbon dioxide by marine plankton and land-based plants was thought to be the basis of all organic life in the universe—until 1977, when scientists aboard a deep-diving research submarine off the Galápagos Islands discovered sulfurous hot-water vents eight thousand feet below the surface. These vents are colonized by giant red-feathered tube worms, big white clams, crabs, and other animals that contain sulfur-burning bacteria, which provide an alternative basis for sustaining life. Now NASA scientists believe similar “chemosynthetic” life-forms may exist around volcanic deepwater ocean vents beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

To date we’ve mapped less than 10 percent of the ocean, but we’ve mapped 100 percent of the moon and Mars. The funny thing is that when we send probes to Mars, other parts of the solar system, and beyond, what’s the first thing we look for as a sign of life? Water! And here we have a whole blue swimming pool of a planet that we hardly connect with even though we all evolved on both an individual and evolutionary basis from salt water. We all went through a fish stage in the womb (there’s even a book, Your Inner Fish, written about this). Our bodies, like the planet, are 71 percent salt water, our blood exactly as salty as the sea (when our ancestors emerged from it). This fact may explain why it’s easier to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. The rhythm of the waves is like our mother’s heartbeat. For seven years I lived in a cliff house in San Diego that shook when the storm waves rolled in every winter. I never slept better in my life.

After the Blue Hole we dive a coral wall and some swim-through caverns where our air bubbles, rolling along the roof like silver pirate doubloons, are investigated by big-eyed orange squirrelfish and more cautious, antennae-probing lobsters before percolating through the porous stone.

We’re off Half Moon Caye in the Lighthouse Reef area. I watch a ray with a six-foot wingspan feasting on a field of queen conchs. Unfortunately, queen conchs are increasingly hard to find elsewhere in the Caribbean due to overfishing.

When I first came to Belize in 1980, escaping from Central America’s nearby wars, we’d eat lobster every day on Caye Caulker, with occasional conch fritters and turtle steaks. Now the nearshore lobster and conch populations are depleted, but the sea turtles are protected, and the island, once home to a small fishing community of fewer than one hundred people, has its own airport runway, bars, restaurants, hotels, and a permanent population of 1,500 catering to laid-back twentysomething tourists who still follow the Gringo trail even though it has expanded to a freeway. Where I once saw an American crocodile sunning itself by a fast-flowing open-water mangrove cut in the coral island there’s now a storm-damaged quay and scrapwood bar advertising a sunny place for shady people.

At our dive site there are big luminescent jade parrot fish grazing the reef, their beaks making scraping sounds as they eat coral and poot sand, a major source of replenishment for those white-sand tropical beaches we all like to visit. I also spot a field of garden eels swaying in the current like living prairie grass.

Having been on the water since dawn, including several hours bucking five-foot seas to get out here, accompanied only by chevron-tailed frigates, flying fish, and dolphins, we take a lunch break on Half Moon Caye. This wild coconut palm and white coral sand (parrot fish excreted) island is chockablock with big chunks of bleached coral and conch shells tossed up by hurricanes: one red-tinged shell has turned to limestone after being colonized by coral. Out on the lagoon’s reef line a large storm-wrecked freighter has turned into a silver and rust-tinged monument to bad luck navigation.

A walk through the mangrove, past orange-blossomed ziricote and gumbo-limbo trees, brings me to an old metal observation tower. Shooing a large lizard off the second step of its ladder, I climb to the top and find myself alone among hundreds of croaking, whistling, blue-footed boobies who’ve colonized the tops of the mangroves with their pent-house views of the aqua, azure, jade, cobalt, and cerulean blues of the Caribbean Sea.

Later, after finishing a simple culinary delight of stewed chicken, plantain, coleslaw, and orange soda, we do a final dive at a site known as the Aquarium.

Along with its predictable litter of colorful fish (hundreds of grunts, wrasses, yellowtail snapper, French angels, sergeant majors, tangs, triggers, and two large groupers who accompany us throughout the dive), this site also has many big healthy corals along with gorgonians, sea whips, and barrel sponges the size of wine barrels. Swimming past the reef’s outer wall at seventy feet, above a three-thousand-foot drop-off with dark branching corals the size of scrub oaks thrusting out from its narrow ledges, I feel like I’m flying with the eagles (or eagle rays), unburdened by the drag of gravity, which I am, being neutrally buoyant.

I’m feeling elated and alive and wishing my late love, Nancy Ledansky, were here with me, which she is, in a way, in my heart. I never feel sad when I’m underwater, on a boat, rushing in a curling wave, or walking by the edge of the sea. Coming back to Belize twenty-five years after covering its independence during a time of war and uncertainty and finding its outer atolls still healthy and vibrant above and below gladdens me in a way that’s hard to express even for a saltwater-saturated writer. All I know is, when I encounter healthy living seas and blue frontiers—be they in Australia, Alaska, or Antarctica—it makes me feel closer to the wildness around me and to the ones I love, even those who’ve crossed over the bar. As Henry David Thoreau once put it, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. . . . ​We need the tonic of wildness.” I’d just amend that to say heaven is also under our flippers.


From the book Saved by the Sea – Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World. © 2010, 2015 by David Helvarg. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

David Helvarg is executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group that hosts environmental summits and presents the annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards. A former war correspondent in Northern Ireland and Central America, Helvarg is the author of Blue Frontier, The War Against the Greens, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Rescue Warriors and The Golden Shore and winner of the 2007 Herman Melville Literary Prize. He has produced more than 40 broadcast documentaries for PBS, Discovery Channel and others, and his print work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic and Parade.