Perpetual Planet

‘The biggest story on Earth is Earth itself.’

– David Doubilet Wednesday, 28 February

By National Geographic

National Geographic produced this expanded version of Field Notes as part of a partnership with Rolex.

Those who explore the planet come to cherish it, and those who cherish the planet want to protect it. In that spirit, National Geographic and Rolex have formed a new partnership to promote exploration and conservation. The organizations will join forces in efforts that support veteran explorers, nurture emerging explorers, and protect Earth’s wonders.

20,000 LEAGUES OVER THE SEA

Ghislain Bardout

Ghislain Bardout and his wife, Emmanuelle Périé-Bardout, have explored under the Arctic ice cap, with support from Rolex. Now they’re on a three-year mission to cross every latitude, from the high Arctic to the shores of Antarctica. Along the 50,000-mile journey, they’ll dive in some of the planet’s most remote waters, to depths rarely reached by humans. The couple and their team plan to explore ecosystems in the ocean’s twilight zone, a realm that most light never reaches. They’re also building an underwater “capsule” that would allow divers to stay underwater for a few days. Their last stop this year was in Alaska, where they moored for the winter; in March they’ll head for Polynesia. Along for the ride: their sons, ages five and one.

CRUSADING FOR AT-RISK SHARKS

Jessica Cramp

The Cook Islands are a long way from the San Diego drug discovery lab where Jessica Cramp once worked. Eager to put her training to more tangible use, she traded her day job for a life helping protect sharks—animals she has said sparked her interest in ocean issues.

A childhood fan of Jacques Cousteau, Cramp moved to Rarotonga Island in the South Pacific’s Cook Islands, where she successfully campaigned to ban the commercial shark trade throughout the Cook Islands and helped designate a 772,204-square-mile shark sanctuary.

Since then Cramp has founded a research, outreach, and advocacy organisation called Sharks Pacific. Via her computer, she uses satellites to track the movements of tagged migratory sharks and studies how to best design policies to protect the threatened creatures. “I’m interested in finding the right balance between sharks, fish, and people—because people have to be considered as a part of the ecosystem,” she says. By drawing these connections, she plans to continue to “mainstream the ocean.”

CHARTING MARKS ON SEA GIANTS

Brad Norman

The whale shark is one of the ocean’s most mysterious animals, but Australian marine biologist Brad Norman has been slowly unravelling its secrets for nearly a quarter century.

The constellation-like patterns on each whale shark are as unique as a human fingerprint. With that in mind, Norman helped specialists rejigger an astronomical algorithm into a search tool that scans photos to identify individual sharks—vital knowledge for large-scale tracking and conservation.

He’s also mustered an army of citizen scientists, including kids. Inspiring others “to help save the biggest fish in the sea, and the natural environment it relies on, is a joy and a privilege,” he says.

Norman, a Rolex Awards for Enterprise laureate, worked to get whale sharks listed as endangered and says he’s now trying to solve some of the biggest mysteries in their movements: “We’re embarking on an ambitious programme to hopefully uncover the ‘holy grail’: Where do whale sharks go to breed?” Stay tuned.

THE ANIMAL EMPATHISER

David Gruber

“I try to see the ocean through the eyes of sea creatures,” says marine biologist David Gruber. That inquisitive attitude is what drove the National Geographic emerging explorer to build an underwater camera that simulates the vantage point of a turtle. Gruber and his team began working on the camera in 2015, after his groundbreaking discovery of a biofluorescent hawksbill sea turtle in the Solomon Islands.

Gruber also helped create something he calls a “squishy robot hand.” Made mostly of silicone rubber with “fingers” that can grab and curl, the tool allows him to collect and study samples of delicate sea coral without damaging them. He expects to develop other soft robots to further his research on jellyfish.

Over the next few months, visitors to the National Geographic Ocean Odyssey exhibit in New York City will get to see Gruber’s latest work—on flashlight fish in the South Pacific and how they communicate with each other. It’s all part of his larger vision, he says, of “exploration that raises empathy.”

DEMOCRATISING OCEAN SCIENCE

Shah Selbe

“There has never been a more exciting time for conservation technology,” says Shah Selbe. Last year the former rocket scientist founded Conservify, a lab that focuses on using open-source technologies—satellite data, sensors, drones, and apps—to better equip citizen scientists.

The company is currently creating low-cost GPS trackers that can be hidden among shark fins to track the illegal trade. Another project: developing a long-distance system that uses drones to monitor marine-protected areas.

The lab has recently produced a drone that, as Selbe explains, takes “a real-time acoustic image of the area around it, like a bat, and can fly in tight spaces, such as caves.” It’s not rocket science—but it’s just as impressive.

DEEP-SEA SOUND CHECK

Michel André

The ocean is never as silent as it seems. Natural noises from creatures, storms, and earthquakes, plus sound from thousands of ships as well as underwater drilling and dredging, can make quite a racket. For animals like whales and dolphins that use sound to navigate, the cacophony blunts that ability and can cause long-term physiological effects.

A bioacoustician and a Rolex laureate, Michel André studies the sound of the oceans along shipping lanes, in popular ports, and in remote parts of the planet. “For several decades,” he says, “we’ve known that the effects of artificial noise produced by human activities are affecting the whole food chain.”

André’s goal isn’t to eliminate the noise but to find ways to reduce its damage. His team developed a system called LIDO—Listening to the Deep Ocean Environment—to collect sound data from 22 underwater observatories and then compare it with migration patterns. Knowing where the animals are can allow ships to alter their course just enough to make a difference.

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