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We Can't Survive Without the Fishy Deep, Come Hell or Salt Water

​We'd all be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree that the oceans are anything but a beautiful mystery.
August 10, 2015, 9:00am
Image: The Silent World

We'd all be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree that the oceans are anything but a beautiful mystery—a world more alien than alien worlds, as the cliché goes. But as we slowly peer further into the depths, we learn more and more just how much we've changed the marine environment without even realizing it.

This week we're celebrating the world's oceans on Motherboard, and in looking for inspiration to write an intro to the Hell or Salt Water theme, I pulled up Jacques Cousteau's 1956 classic The Silent World, a work that's irreplaceable in both the oceanography and nature documentary worlds.

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The Silent World introduced audiences to the undersea world like no other work before it, and put Cousteau, whose innovation and outreach fundamentally changed marine research, on the global stage. Of course, 59 years later, plenty of the Calypso crew's antics—including riding a big old tortoise, plundering shipwrecks, and sawing off hunks of coral—would be decidedly (and correctly) gauche in any modern research setting.

But there was one moment from the film that I'd entirely forgotten about: In a sequence starting at around the 46 minute mark, the Calypso crew manages to:

  • jokingly fail at harpooning a sperm whale;
  • accidentally ram a sperm whale with the ship, whose distress calls cause other sperm whales to arrive;
  • run over a juvenile sperm whale, which Cousteau says fell behind the pack with "childish carelessness";
  • harpoon the juvenile and then shoot it with a rifle;
  • use it as bait for sharks;
  • harpoon some of the sharks and kill them too.

All in all, the scene shows just how far research methods have come in the last six decades. If the same thing happened in the time of Cecil the lion, Cousteau never would have been allowed on dry land. Yet even as our growing knowledge of the ocean's secrets has boosted our respect for its wonders, there's a simple truth that runs through most of our stories this week: The sea is a still a vast unknown, one that we still don't treat very well.

From coral bleaching and viral outbreaks to melting glaciers and human smuggling, lifting the veil on oceans means finding a whole lot of bad news along the way. But as we'll see, lifting the veil also means addressing the problems we find, including reviving fisheries, keeping shark fins where they belong (attached to sharks), and protecting ourselves from rising seas.

Even if The Silent World contains a surprising amount of outrage fodder all these years on, Cousteau's legacy is cemented as an educator who made the world understand and marvel at oceans in a way that had never been possible before, and who thus helped spark the modern era of ocean conservation. The takeaway from his exploration still rings true: If we don't know what's down there in the deep, we'll never know what we need to fix.

Hell or Salt Water is a series on Motherboard about exploring and preserving our oceans. Follow along here.