Should we put | our ocean first?

The ocean is a rich source of life and we have much to learn about it. It makes complete sense to put it first, right? But what does this mean and how can this be balanced alongside other environmental issues humanity faces? Mmm, let's dive in...

Test your knowledge of the sea!

Breaking it down...

  1. Ocean vs oceans: which to use?
    1. Water is one of the defining physical features of our planet, covering 71% of the Earth's surface (source). 

      But when we speak about it should we say the 'ocean' or 'oceans'? It might feel logical to use the plural 'oceans' since the planet has multiple ocean basins: the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern (Antarctic). However, many people, including ocean scientists, argue for the use of the singular form as it's referring to one connected body of water which is controlled by the same tidal system (explained in the video below). If something happens to one part of the ocean then this affects another part of it.

      Those in favour of the singular form, say that this is key to our ocean literacy (i.e. the way to understanding our relationship with the ocean). There are six other ocean literacy principles (source). These include:

      1) The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.

      2) The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.

      3) The ocean made the Earth habitable.

      4) The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

      5) The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.

      6) The ocean is largely unexplored.

      So if we have one global ocean, what do we mean by a sea then? The word 'sea' tends to refer to a smaller part of the ocean that is partially enclosed by land. The United Kingdom is bordered with three seas: the North Sea, Irish Sea and English Channel. The latter of which separates the UK with mainland Europe. To the west, the UK is also bordered by the Atlantic Ocean.

  2. What does it mean to 'put the ocean first'?
    1. To 'put something first' means to consider an issue as most important or more important than other factors (source). In the case of this Big Question, this could mean to prioritise conservation efforts and funding towards protecting the ocean over other environmental issues such as deforestation or climate change. This could relate to how policymakers decide upon new laws and regulations that govern how we interact with the ocean or it could be something on a smaller scale such as the choices individual people make. For example, to use less water, choose nontoxic household chemicals and dispose of these responsibly, shop with reusable bags, and so forth. To find out further ideas on how to protect the ocean. 

What secrets has our ocean unlocked?

Marine biologist, Dr Lucy Woodall (University of Oxford) explains what researchers have learnt about our ocean with a particular focus on the discovery of hydrothermal vent systems. She considers what makes this natural phenomenon unique and why it's important to protect them.

Tenby beach in Wales

Caption: Beach in Tenby, Wales

When you think of the ocean, different images might come to mind… playing at the beach… crashing waves… the many plants and animals that live in the sea!

The ocean gives us so many things. It provides life on Earth with clean air, a rich source of food and a home to thousands of diverse species. In fact, the Ocean Biodiversity Information System, state that there are 137,117 accepted species in the ocean (source). However, scientists also estimate that 91% of ocean species are yet to be classified (source).

The study of the ocean – known as Oceanography - brings together experts from a range of subject disciplines from Biology, Physics and Zoology through to Engineering and Geography. It has also been a point of fascination and curiosity to those working in the arts and humanities such as writers and artists. 

One of the first global ocean expeditions, called the Challenger Expedition, dates back to 1872- 1876 and was led by chief scientist, Wyville Thomson. H.M.S. Challenger travelled 68,890 nautical miles venturing into the North and South Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and the polar seas. The crew took various measurements at 362 different sample/observation stations. This included: water depth, bottom water temperature, and the rate and direction of the current. They also took samples of the water and animal life (fauna) to study. Marine biologist, Sir John Murray (1895) described the Challenger’s findings as: "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries". Read more.

Since then researchers across the world have been leading many different studies to deepen our collective understanding of the ocean and the life it supports. For example, the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute have been working to find out more about how our ocean functions and how human activities impact it. In the short video below, Principle Scientist at Nekton, and Senior Research Fellow at University of Oxford Dr Lucy Woodall explains how the lead research on the deep sea and what these methods can tell us:

From the deepest ocean to lifesaving research 

One particularly ground-breaking discovery which continues to intrigue oceanographers and unlock secrets about the remarkable power and resilience of the natural world is that of hydrothermal vent systems

Hydrothermal vents are like hot springs on the ocean floor. They are mostly found in very deep waters on ocean ridges where tectonic plates (segments of the Earth’s crust) are moving apart from each other. Seawater moves deep into Earth’s crust and becomes super-heated, anoxic (without Oxygen) and acidic as it meets with the magma and very hot rock. Chemicals such as sulphur and methane leak into the water and when they come in contact with cold seawater the sulphides form large, solid chimneys.

Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1977 near the Galapagos Islands on the mid ocean ridge, initially sensed by a temperature spike and then from film photographs that were later processed (find out more). Scientists were shocked to see such high temperature readings in the darkest depths of the ocean! The vents were explored biologically for the first time in 1979 using specialist equipment and two ships. Since then approximately 300 have been discovered all across the world.

Due to the high temperatures, lack of sunlight, low or no oxygen and toxicity (sulphides and metals in the water), life on vents has adapted in many ways. The species differ according to the specific part of the vent they live on (on the chimney vs the sediment etc.) and whether a vent is active (discharging) or inactive (no current discharge). Notably, some of the life forms on vents have been shown to create their own energy independently of the sun. Instead, they convert the toxic vent materials into energy in a process called chemosynthesis. This process was not known about in 1977 when the vents were first discovered!

In the video below, researchers from the Natural History in London explain what hydrothermal vent systems can tell us in terms of how different species have evolved over time:

Dr Woodall explains that: ‘The biological adaptation observed at vents has proved useful for humans. For example, enzymes like Pfu DNA polymerase, found in the microbes living at vent systems, have been the template to design enzymes that are now used in laboratories across the globe. They are used in a biochemical method known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), to generate millions of copies of particular sections of DNA. This has applications in many scientific fields from conservation to medicine. More recently, PCR has been used in the test of COVID-19 to detect the Coronavirus from patients’ swab samples’.

Our ocean at risk

In addition to the unique wildlife they support, the vents are also rich in metals such as gold, copper, silver and zinc. This has attracted interest from deep-sea mining companies looking to use these materials for electronic items such as mobile phones and laptops and for galvanising products (adding a protective coating to prevent rusting).

Dr Woodall warns of the risks of this: ‘Deep-sea mining presents a major threat to vent systems as the removal of the sulphide deposits can destroy the habitat for many organisms making it difficult for them to continue living there. Other negative impacts include the disturbance caused by the introduction of artificial light (to shine the way through dark waters), noise pollution and sediment clouds in the sea water. This disturbance also affects areas much larger than the vents themselves’. To learn more about deep-sea mining

Because vents form in very deep ocean waters, most are found in the high seas and the activities around them are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) rather than by specific nations. ISA has approved exploration to seven mining contractors, all of which have to conduct environmental impact assessments of possible mining activities. Due to the multiple risks and unknowns, several groups including the European Union have called for a moratorium (freeze) on deep-sea mining until further research has been undertaken and we have a better understanding of the impact of such human activity (source). 

To read more about how people are treating the ocean read this article in our ‘Are humans ruining the Earth?’ Big Question. 

So, should we put our ocean first?

Dr Woodall says, ‘yes…by putting the ocean first we are helping our survival and that of the entire planet. We already know the ocean is vital to so many processes that regulate the planet and support life, however, just like with the discovery of vents, we continue to make new and important discoveries. Even if you never see the ocean, it is there in your daily life’. 

What do you think?

Researching the UK's sea birds: what can we learn?

Oxford Zoologists Natasha Gillies and Dr Annette Fayet both study seabirds living on Skomer Island in Wales. In this video, they discuss their research in further detail and explain how it helps them answer our Big Question on the ocean.

Can we protect both our costal economies AND ocean ecosystems?

One way is to create 'Marine protected areas (MPAs)'. MPAs are parts of the ocean that have restrictions placed upon them to protect the local biodiversity. For example, there may be a ban on certain types of fishing. In the video below, Professor Callum Roberts (University of York) explains the value of MPAs and how they can help conserve UK waters. You can also view an interactive map of the UK's MPAs.

The success of MPAs relies heavily on the support of local communities. Find out more in the case study below of MPAs in the Philippines:

Should we put our ocean first?

With so many environmental problems to deal with, from wildfires to cutting down forests, it can be difficult to know what to do. Is there one crisis that is more important than the others? Professor Yadvinder Malhi gives his expert view.


There are lots of things we can do to protect our environment. From recycling our newspapers and magazines to cutting down on plastic use. It’s small changes like these which can collectively help to make a big difference.

And when scientists point out these kinds of problems, it’s worth listening. That’s because once we know what the problems are, we can do things to stop them from getting bigger.

Professor Yadvinder MalhiProfessor Yadvinder Malhi, professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford, gives the example of something that happened in the late 1980s…Researchers warned the world of a ‘hole’ in the ozone layer. This was a particularly concerning discovery as the ozone layer is a thin part of the atmosphere which protects life on Earth from the sun’s harmful rays.

“It was to do with chemicals disrupting the ozone layer,” he explains, talking about CFCs (chloroflurocarbons) that were used in spray cans such as hairsprays, deodorants and more. “It was actually a success story. Everyone got together and made an agreement about [not using] those chemicals. The ozone layer is largely healing. It’s become a bit of a model.” To read more.

Problems in the ocean

Some of the issues we face today, though, are much more challenging. The ocean faces a lot of problems; many of these are linked, and all of them are created by humans.

Some of the ocean’s problems are created by climate change. This is a shift in the world’s average conditions (e.g. rainfall and temperature) largely put down to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, and land-use change (read more). Researchers have observed that the Earth’s surface is warming and weather patterns across the world are becoming much less predictable. Rising temperatures have resulted in Polar ice caps melting, sea levels rising and many places around the world being at greater risk of flooding in the future.

“This affects humanity”, says Prof Malhi, “as there are so many people living on the coast or coastal cities.”

“Another significant problem is the acidification of the ocean [sea water becoming more acidic] because of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This has made it harder for coral to grow hard skeletons and other creatures such as oysters and sea snails to build and maintain their shells. It has a direct threat to aspects of life in the ocean.”

Prof Malhi thinks that although these are big problems, it wouldn’t be helpful just to think about saving the ocean. Instead, people need to think about how to change their impact on the environment more generally, which will help the ocean as well.

Below, academics from Oxford share their thoughts on the biggest environmental issues we face:

Where to start

Prof Malhi suggests that we need to think about two major things.

Firstly, we should think about how we generate power. The world’s primary source of energy is through the extraction of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), which creates lots of pollution and will eventually run out. Increasingly, we are trying to move towards ‘renewable’ energy, which relies on cleaner resources that don’t have an expiry date. These include wind, solar and water (hydro) power.

We also need to cut down on using cars and planes for our travel, and use public transport where we can. This reduces the use of fossil fuels in vehicles.

Secondly, we need to think about the food we eat.

“The dietary shift is an obvious one… to move away from heavy meat-based diets,” he says - although he doesn’t think that everyone needs to be vegetarian. Cutting down on eating meat means that fewer fields will be used for grazing animals. Keeping animals for food means lots of grain and water are needed to feed them, and eating meat also means a lot of energy is used to transport the food to shops.

Changing how we eat, travel and create energy might seem like massive tasks. And expensive too, if you’ve got to build more train lines, install more wind turbines and so on.

But Prof Malhi thinks it’s worth the investment.

“A lot of studies show now in some ways the transition pays for itself, partly because you avoid all the damage that climate change will do,” he says. “Plus, you create new technologies and new forms of employment.”

In fact, he thinks that the global coronavirus pandemic is an ideal time to start talking about making these changes as we all think about how we go about our daily lives.

“This might be an opportunity to do some ‘rewiring’,” he says. “This is an opportunity to create jobs and potentially regenerate the economy after the pandemic.”

Are there any lifestyle changes you could make to help protect the environment? 

What do you think governments should be doing to solve some of the problems that Prof Malhi points out?

Tales of an underwater world…

Ever read a book that made you want to drop everything and run out into the sea? Maybe when you’re on a boat you feel scared and excited at the same time? Here are some pieces of literature and film that explore the solitude, discovery, excitement and power of the ocean:

  1. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
    1. ‘There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.’

      This mysterious dynamic sea that Melville describes in this quotation is both an intriguing and dangerous thing in Moby-Dick. In this novel the main character and narrator, Ishmael is an outcast and turns to the sea to find meaning. But Ishmael finds that the sea is a source of violence and almost uncontrollable madness. Ishmael joins the character of Ahab on a mad quest to find and kill the legendary whale, Moby-Dick. When the character Pip falls in the ocean it seems to make him go mad. Some people interpret Pip’s speech after this point as mimicking the flexibility and instability of the depths of the ocean that he has been exposed to (read an extract of the text). Moby-Dick is famous for being a novel that can be interpreted in many different ways. Do you like trying to find new ways to understand a text or do you prefer meaning to be a bit more certain than this?

  2. Exodus by Julie Bertagna
    1. This book is set in the year 2099 but many events in it could be the reality much sooner. Bertagna explores the idea of fleeing from a pacific island that is drowning under rising sea levels. In this book, climate change has turned the seas into a threat. The rise in sea-levels due to melting ice caps has destroyed peoples’ homes and forced them to search for somewhere else safe to live. Bertagna particularly highlights how loss of land to the sea is permanent – once sea levels rise they can’t go back down until we have another ice age. This threat is felt today in the real world by people living in Pacific Island nations. These communities are very vocal about tackling climate change. Some people think that it’s not the responsibility of Pacific Island communities to save the seas as these people often live very environmentally-friendly lifestyles. Do you think that specific groups should be held accountable for the loss of islands or is tackling climate change everyone’s responsibility? 
  3. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
    1. When you think of a submarine you probably picture a plain, metal, military-looking object. Now imagine one disguised inside the shape of a giant Narwhal (a type of whale)! This is what Jules Verne conjured up back in 1870 in his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Similarly to Moby-Dick, this novel presents the seas as a place for outcasts. Captain Nemo, who is in charge of the secret submarine that travels the oceans, has rejected people who live the land due to the cruelty he experienced earlier in his life. A key tension in this novel is between discovery and fear. The ocean is full of surprises for the characters who stumble across this secret submarine vessel and go on adventures with the mysterious captain. They see beautiful mythical sites like the lost city of Atlantis – a paradise lost beneath the waves. But there is a constant threat of danger. The danger of drowning, the danger of conflict with other boats and the danger of Captain Nemo’s madness. 
  4. All is lost
    1. This is an unusual film that depicts the vastness of the sea and sky from the boat of a character who is almost silent the whole time. This quietness is an interesting link to the openness and solitude of the ocean. The only sound is the waves, and humanity cannot be heard for miles. This solitude and emptiness contrasts to the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Think about how different it is going shopping on your High Street compared to being alone at sea. Early on in the film the ocean becomes an opponent that the man has to battle against. The title ‘all is lost’ makes it seem like the ocean has the power to break someone’s spirit. You could interpret this breaking of spirit to be a metaphor for aging. The man you see on screen is almost 80 years old. The battering of the waves against his damaged boat could represent the battering of increasing illnesses and loss of physical abilities that can come with aging. What do you think? 
  5. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
    1. The ocean is an essential part of this play as it produces the terrible storm that shipwrecks several characters on a mysterious island in the very first scene. Shakespeare conjures up a wild and harsh sea that seems like a wild beast that can’t be tamed. The character, Miranda describes the storm in the opening scene as having ‘wild water’ and like the sky was ‘pour[ing] down stinking pitch’. This terrible sea-storm could be a symbol for an internal storm – the unresolved problems and bitterness between various characters on the island. The character, Prospero has been betrayed and hurt by his brother a long time ago. The sea seems to have the power to harm and betray people in a similar way. Read more.
  6. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
    1. In 1853, a woman was discovered on San Nicolas island, near Southern California USA, who had lived there alone for 18 years. She was found inside a hut made of whalebones and wearing a dress made of bird feathers. She was a member of the Nicoleño tribe that had lived on the surrounding islands for 10,000 years. Her fellow tribespeople had been forcefully driven off San Nicolas by Russian and Spanish attacks trying to take the island’s supply of otters and seals to use and sell. This ‘Lone Woman of the San Nicolas Island’ is the inspiration for Scott O’Dell’s novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins (read more). This novel follows the struggle for survival of Karana, a 12-year-old girl abandoned on an island. O’Dell depicts the ocean as trapping Karana. She attempts to leave in a canoe that then cracks open and she is forced to return to the island. But the ocean is also a source of beauty and companionship. After her unsuccessful escape attempt, Karana is guided back to the island by a group of friendly blue dolphins. Would you like to live alone on an island?
  7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
    1. Lord of the Flies is a 1954 novel by William Golding, widely taught within UK schools. It explores how a group of school-age boys govern themselves upon being stranded on a desert island. It raises provocative questions about politics, civilisation and humanity. In particular, it delves into the competing impulses that, arguably, exists in all human beings: the instinct to follow rules, maintain peace and value the good of the group versus the instinct to satisfy personal desires and exert force to gain power over a situation. In 1965, a real-life group of Tongan boys were caught in a storm during a fishing trip and were shipwrecked in the South Pacific. In total, the six boys spent fifteen months on an islet in Tonga. Interestingly, the reality was far kinder and more cooperative than the story told by Golding. The boys created a food garden, a 'gym' and a roster for sharing duties. They started and ended their days with song and prayer, and never let their fire burn out! This casestudy has recently reignited philosophical debates about human nature, and our innermost drives and motivations (read more).

Should we put our ocean first? Here's what our interns thought...

Oxford undergraduates, Aura and Jack share their response to our Big Question. In particular, Jack refers to some of the environmental issues local to Barry Island in Wales.