Saved by the Sea

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


| 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

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.”