Bobbing around in the waves of Monterey Bay, doing my best to avoid getting tangled in the canopy of the kelp forest, I look toward shore to check on the progress of the last couple divers in my group. Despite the fact that just 20 minutes earlier I had been attaching the first stage of my regulator to the tank incorrectly, I had been assigned to lead that weekend’s club dive for the scuba shop I work at. To say that I was a bit nervous about leading a group of six divers at a new site on only the 10th dive of my life (and my fourth within the last decade) would be an understatement.
The rest of the group arrives, and we all don our masks and regulators. I make eye contact with Autumn, our dive safety officer back on the beach, before emphatically reaching up and patting my head: the universal divers signal for “OK." Looking back at the group, I give a thumbs down – the signal to descend – and start to let air out of my BCD. Just as I’m about to go under, one of the group members points behind me and gives a muffled yell through her regulator. Reinflating my BCD and spinning around, I see an otter floating on its back less than 40 feet away from our group. We all watch for a moment as she nibbles on some unfortunate shelled creature picked up from the bottom. As quickly as we notice her, she slips back beneath the surface in search of more snacks. I give the thumbs down, and we follow her.
Now 40 feet below the waves, I check in with the group; my nerves are replaced with the natural calm that I always experience when diving. I feel the power of the ocean as I am pushed and pulled by the same forces that move the kelp forest all around me. Though the power of the water should be disconcerting, I find it quite comforting, as though I’m being held. On the rock reef next to me are countless red and blue anemones. Crabs crawl around them as fish dart from crevice to crevice within the rocks. A lingcod disguises himself into the top of the reef, hidden from prey but visible to me. I can quite literally feel how alive the ocean is. Just as we are about to start the swim deeper into the forest, our otter friend pays us a visit. Slinking through the water just on the edge of our view, she swims a lap around us before darting to a crevice in the rocks, grabbing her next snack, and heading back to the surface. As I sit in admiration, a Snickers bar wrapper floats past my mask.
For the last few years, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find refuge from the signs of human impact. Whether it be a candy wrapper on the bottom of Monterey Bay, a plastic water bottle floating in a remote alpine lake, or a tree cut down by Boy Scouts in a wilderness area, I can’t escape the signs of damage like I could when I was younger. Some of that must be an increase in awareness as I’ve aged, but recently, the wild spaces in which I take refuge have felt increasingly used, neglected, and disrespected. For me, moments of awe and deep respect for the natural world are frequently soured by reminders of what we are doing to our planet. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to become an adult and spend the rest of my life experiencing all the places David Attenborough told me about. Now, in the beginnings of my adult life, it is apparent that many of the places and much of the biota I once hoped to see are already gone. Over the course of my lifetime, we’ve added more than 1.5 billion people to the planet, increased atmospheric CO2 by almost 50 ppm, and destroyed an amount of wilderness larger than all of Alaska (Lindsey 2020; Ritchie and Roser 2021; Roser et al. 2013). I’m only 20.
These realities often leave me feeling depressed, morose, apathetic, and frankly, pissed-off. I’m not alone in this. Even in contingents of my least environmentally conscious friends, these feelings are frequently expressed in our conversations. My whole generation is coming of age under the burden of knowledge that our planet is dying. We’re faced with the constant uncertainty of whether we will be able to save it and many of us have already spent years fighting on its behalf. Personally, I’ve spent the last eight years working to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Of that, it has taken the last six years and more than $10 million for our campaign to build back to where we were when Obama left office. How are we supposed to battle the same broken system on behalf of the whole planet? For some time now, I’ve felt the tendrils of climate despair and burnout taking hold of me. I’ve seen them grab my friends. We’re only 20.
I reach out and grab the Snickers wrapper just before it drifts out of reach. As we go through the rest of our dive, I pick up several more pieces of garbage; an empty Coors can, a cloth napkin, and several more wrappers all make their way into the pockets of my BCD. As I take in all the life around me, I can’t help but wonder how much more I would’ve seen before industry took over the Bay, but also how much less I would’ve seen in the early 20th century before conservation efforts began.
Monterey Bay is a story of incredible ecosystem recovery (Sotka and Palumbi 2011). Since moving here in January, experiencing the culmination of years of conservation work has reminded me of the positive transformation that is possible when we effectively attack our problems. Many of us get so caught up in our fights for the places we love that we forget to remind ourselves why we are fighting. Seeing the Bay and coming to understand its conservation success has put some hope back in me and reignited that spark of wonder I felt as a kid watching "Planet Earth."
Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2021) - "Biodiversity". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/biodiversity' [Online Resource]
Lindsey, R. (2020, August 14). Climate change: Atmospheric carbon dioxide. Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide | NOAA Climate.gov. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-chan....
Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2013) - "World Population Growth". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth' [Online Resource]
Palumbi, S. R., & Sotka, C. (2011). The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival. Island Press.