Underwater and Environmental Highlights of the Last Decade
The last decade has seen some immense changes to our understanding of the underwater world, not least of which is increased public awareness of some of the damage caused by human activity. But there have also been some positive developments as a result. Here's a look back at some of the most important events of the last decade
2010 - 2019 Sharm's Decennium Horribilis
There are few popular dive resorts that have undergone as much in the last decade as Sharm El Sheikh. In December 2010, a series of shark attacks created a panic that saw diving suspended and moved to Dahab, with some countries cancelling flights to the resort over safety fears. Just as it seemed normal business was resuming, the January 2011 revolution, in which President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a military coup, saw almost all flights to the country suspended, with massive losses to tourism suffered throughout Egypt. In 2015, the bombing of a Russian airliner shortly after it left Sharm airport saw flights suspended once again, with many smaller dive operations and some big name dive centres forced to either close or remain 'mothballed'. Although flights resumed from most European countries within the year, the two largest contingents of holidaymakers - the Russians and tthe British - remained absent, as the UK government stubbornly refused to lift its 'ban' on direct flights to Sharm airport, which it finally did towards the end of 2019. While business continued and there were no restrictions on flights to Hurghada, the face of Red Sea diving tourism has dramatically changed over the last deade. If there is a silver lining to the lingering cloud, it is that Sharm's reefs have bounced back to a level of life not seen since the 1990s.
2012 - Deep Water
The Mariana Trench is the deepest known body of water on the planet. In March 2012, film director James Cameron piloted the Deepsea Challenger seven miles into its depths, making him the first person to complete a manned-submersible mission to the bottom of the trench since the Trieste touched down in 1960.
2013 - Mystery Coral Disease
In 2013 a mysterious disease swept through sea star populations on the US Pacific Coast, devastating the animals which essentially disintegrated before scientists’ eyes. Dubbed sea star wasting syndrome, the disease did not discriminate by species, and the most heavily affected species, the sunflower star, was almost completely wiped out from the west coast of the US. Although a virus was identified as the cause for some of the mortality, the broader scope of the scourge seems likely to have been caused by a confluence of events and conditions that made the disease particularly deadly. Another mysterious disease began to impact coral reefs off the coast of Florida in 2014. Today, over 20 coral species are known to be susceptible to the infection, and the disease has spread south and across the Caribbean. Some corals are able to resist the illness, leading scientists to search for a way to help fend off the disease. Antibiotics and probiotics are key players, but using them in the open ocean is tricky business.
2013 - Blackfish
In 2013, one of the most important conservation documentaries of the last decade brought the world’s attention to the plight of captive cetaceans. Blackfish centred around SeaWorld – the world’s largest aquatic theme park based in Orlando, Florida – and Tilikum, one of its captive orcas, which had killed one of his trainers and was thought to have had some responsibility in the deaths of two others. While the film was criticised in some corners for being one-sided, there could be no doubt that the conditions in which these animals were being kept, the way they were being treated, and the way that they suffered were undeniably appalling. The ensuing backlash against SeaWorld forced it to immediately end its captive breeding programme, and attempt to rebrand as a conservation, rather than entertainment, organisation. Since then, a significant number of tour operators have ceased the sale of tickets not just to SeaWorld, but to all establishments that market captive cetacean shows. Tilikum died in January 2017, but the Blackfish legacy remains very much alive.
2014 - Reefs in Hot Water
The prolonged ‘El Niño’ Southern Oscillation event of 2014-2016 brought the world’s attention to how warming oceans can have an immensely deleterious effect of the world’s coral reefs. The second-strongest on record after the 1997 event, it lasted for 2.5 years and the prolonged exposure of the world’s coral reefs to elevated water temperatures saw 75 per cent of the world’s reefs affected by bleaching and 30 per cent suffering from permanent coral mortality. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was particularly badly hit, with more than 90 per cent of the reefs affected by bleaching and the northern reefs suffering massive degradation. If there is a sliver lining to this terribly dark cloud, it is the intensification and expansion of coral conservation projects around the world including coral farming, reef seeding and renewed efforts to preserve the reefs by protecting them from human activity.
2015 - DIVE Magazine Relaunch
Times they keep-a-changing and, after a brief hiatus from the world of print, DIVE Magazine came roaring back in 2015 with its all-new, coffee-table, art-quality format. Filled with great writing and brilliant photography, together with our 'DIVELive' app to complement the quarterly print magazine, DIVE quickly became the world's fastest growing scuba diving publication. In the five years since the relaunch, DIVE has gone from stength strength-to-strength, with a global network of leading contributors producing content for a worldwide audience.
2016 - Old Fish of the Sea
In 2016 we learned that the Greenland shark is the oldest vertebrate (an animal with a backbone) on the planet, reaching an unimaginable age of about 400 years old. The old shark far surpasses the next oldest vertebrate, the bowhead whale, which 'only' lives to 211 years. Scientists aged the shark using radioactive molecules embedded within the animal’s eyes, taking advantage of the fact that unlike most bodily structures, the crystal structure of the eye lens remains intact from the moment of its creation in the womb. The largest shark studied, a 16-foot behemoth, was estimated at 392 years old but with a margin of error of +/-120 years old meaning it could have been as old as 512, which would make it a contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci.
2017 - Turning the Plastic Tide
Most divers will have been aware of oceanic plastic pollution for far longer than it’s been a widely recognised subject, but the last decade has seen a sea-change in the public’s awareness of plastic pollution, as the mainstream media finally turned its attention to the scale of the problem. 2017, in particular, saw the launch of Sky’s ‘Ocean Rescue’ campaign, and other media organisations swiftly joined in the clamour. In December of the same year, the BBC’s Blue Planet II saw Sir David Attenborough tackle the problem head-on – for the first time – as heart-breaking footage of a sperm whale trying to eat a discarded bucket, and bird corpses found with their stomachs full of plastic was broadcast to the world. As we reach the end of the decade, ‘plastic pollution’ and ‘microplastic’ are fixed in the public consciousness, with bans on the use of plastic bags, single-use plastics and cosmetics containing microbeads being introduced around the world.
2017 - PADI Sold. Again.
The world's largest and best-known scuba diving training agency, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) - was sold to a mysterious consortium named Mandarinfish Holdings for $700million, after previously being sold in 2015 to Investment group Providence Equity Partners LLC, who acquired is from Seidler Equity Partners in 2012. Rumours that PADI had been sold to Richard Branson's Virgin Group were, apparently, unfounded.
2018 Thai Cave Rescue
In June 2018, the world held its breath during the rescue of 12 Thai youth footballers and their coach. The Wild Boars football team had survived for nine days in the Tham Luang Cave system near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand after flash flooding had trapped them inside. Two British expert cave divers, John Volanthen and Richard Stanton located the boys and the world's largest and most dangerous scuba diving rescue operation began. Cave diving experts from across the globe joined in the effort, along with the Thai Navy Seals and members of the local community. In the end, all 12 of the boys and their coach were rescued, but the operation tragically claimed the life of one of the Thai Seals.
2010-2019 - MPA Expansion
One of the more positive developments of the past decade is the recognition of the oceans as vital towards the planet's survival and the worldwide expansion of Marine Protected Areas. Today, more ocean is protected than at any other time in history. Somewhere between 5 and 7.5 percent of the ocean is protected with a wide variety of management levels. While this may not sound like much, it equates to more thn 27 million square kilometres, 14 million of which were added since 2010. In the last decade substantial, new or expanded protected areas were established in Hawaii, the Cook Islands and the Pitcairn Islands, the Seychelles, UK, Antarctica , the Bahamas 'triple MPA' and Spain - to name just a few. Palau, already home to the world's largest 'not-take' fishing zone, went as far as to have tourists sign an environmental pledge when they arrive in the country. In Belize, the management of the marine environment resulted in the Belize Barrier Reef being removed from UNESCO's list of endangered world heritgage sites. The UN's goal was to have at least 10 per cent of the oceans protected by 2020, with 30 per cent - preferably 50 per cent protected by 2030. Let's hope the positive momentum of the last decade continues long into the next.