Statement of Purpose

Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet/Smithsonian Institution) December 19, 1994

In April, 1995, when the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, Ocean Planet, a traveling exhibition on ocean conservation, will open at the National Museum of Natural History. The culmination of a four-year effort to study the health of the world's oceans, Ocean Planet is a celebration and a warning: it utilizes compelling objects and photographs, exciting audio-visual techniques, walk-through environments, imaginative sculpture, and live theater to advance our understanding of the value of the world's oceans. After eight-months in Washington, D.C., Ocean Planet will travel to 11 American cities through the end of the millennium.

We may call it Earth, but ours is truly an ocean planet. The vast oceans cover most of the earth's surface and reach depths of several miles, encompassing a realm that is, if anything, richer than the land. Hidden beneath the waves are extraordinary natural wonders: magnificent mountain ranges higher than the Himalayas, chasms deeper than the Grand Canyon, plains broader than the Serengeti.

Obscured to explorers by inky darkness, extreme pressure, and icy temperatures, large areas of the ocean floor remain uncharted territory. Just two years ago scientists using satellites to study the sea surface for clues about bottom topography discovered the world's densest concentration of active volcanoes. In the mid-eastern Pacific, they found over 1,100 seamounts and volcanic cones sprawled over an area the size of New York State.

The scale of the oceans is unimaginable from our land-based perspective. Given their sheer volume, 99% of the living space on the planet is found in the oceans. Marine life is abundant and diverse, it flourishes from surface to seafloor, and we know it even less well than we do the topography of the world it inhabits. Biologists estimate that somewhere between 500,000 and 5,000,000 marine species have yet to be discovered and described.

The oceans support beautiful and fascinating life forms that could not exist on land. Some are familiar, like the blue whale, a mammal, which is the largest animal ever seen on the planet. Weighing more than 20 elephants, a mature blue whale has a heart the size of a small car served by blood vessels so wide that a full-grown trout could swim through them. Much of the life found in the oceans is, however, fantastic and strange, from the large single-celled organisms, called xenophyophores, that can be measured in inches, to giant jelly fish with tentacles that trail over 100 feet. Within the past two decades, scientists discovered communities of animals living around geysers on the seafloor miles beneath the surface. Dinner plate-sized clams, tube worms up to ten feet long, and other animals thrive on bacteria that convert energy from chemicals in the water--an extremely rare example of life on earth that does not depend on the sun.

Healthy oceans exert multiple and profound influences over our lives. Our reliance on the seas goes far beyond the 15 pounds of seafood each person in the United States eats, on average, every year. From the alginates in beer that help keep the foam from collapsing, and diatoms for filtering swimming pool water, to crab shells that are used to produce absorbable surgical sutures, the oceans provide many of our lives' necessities and luxuries. Wetlands cleanse water and provide nurseries for fish, and coastal vegetation and coral reefs buffer the margins of land from violent storms. Ocean waters are constantly moving and, as they collect and distribute heat from the sun, they influence climate in every corner of the planet.

The health of different areas of the oceans can be described as threatened, critical, or terminal. We are directly affected by beach and shellfish bed closings due to high levels of disease-causing bacteria, by trash fringing our shores, by the collapse of fisheries, and by the loss of wetlands and coral reefs. Although the open oceans remain relatively healthy, coastal waters, which provide our seafood, recreational areas, and harbors, are seriously threatened by human activities on land. Pollution, habitat disturbance, fishing, population growth, and coastal development endanger marine life and, directly or indirectly, our own lives as well.

Fortunately, some remedies exist, and in many cases it is not too late to halt or reverse negative trends. Conserving our ocean planet requires us to recognize that we are all tied to the seas and that even small actions in our daily lives can affect the health of the other 99% of the Earth.

Ocean Planet Home Page

gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)