Famed Oceanographer Sylvia Earle Takes a Deep Dive to Save a ‘Vast Garden of Life’

The Cashes Ledge off the New England coast faces threats from trawlers that could destroy a unique underwater mountain range and kelp forest.
(Photo: Brian Skerry)
Aug 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

If you want to save the oceans, sometimes it helps if you just dive in.

Last week, world-renowned oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle went on a diving expedition at Cashes Ledge to draw attention to the 25-mile-long underwater mountain range 80 miles off the coast of New England, a threatened swath of the Atlantic Ocean that most people have never heard of and few will ever see.

Cashes Ledge is unusual because its mountains—some rising to just 30 feet below the surface at low tide—block the currents of the Gulf of Maine and create a phenomenon known as internal waves, which carry surface water rich in nutrients and oxygen down to the seafloor.

Sylvie Earle on a dive to explore the Cashes Ledge. (Photo: Kip Evans)

There, the ocean explodes with life. Cashes Ledge is home to the deepest cold-water kelp forest in the Gulf of Maine and possibly the North Atlantic, as well as bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, monkfish, blue sharks, and humpback and Northern right whales. It is also teeming with invertebrates, such as sea anemones; orange, red, yellow and blue sponges; horse mussels; sea stars; worms; and northern shrimp.

“I was blown away by what I saw,” said Earle, 79, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and the first Time magazine “Hero for the Planet” in 1998. “Although I had seen pictures, which are breathtaking, it was so unexpected to see this vast garden of life out in the middle of the ocean, which otherwise lacks sunlight at the bottom.”

She described a “massive golden forest of kelp, the most beautiful ribbons, which capture carbon, generate oxygen, and provide food and shelter for this astonishing cornucopia of life.”

Earle called the area a “hope spot” that is key to restoring and protecting the health of the oceans.

Earle’s dive was sponsored by the Conservation Law Foundation, which, along with Mission Blue, National Geographic, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Pew Charitable Trusts, is spearheading an effort to permanently protect Cashes Ledge, as well as the New England Canyons and Seamounts, 150 miles off Cape Cod.

Sylvie Earle being filmed in the Cashes Ledge. (Photo: Kip Evans)

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The dive, which was filmed for new documentary, Blue Centennial, by director Robert Nixon (Gorillas in the Mist, Mission Blue), was organized in partnership with National Geographic and supported by Google.

“We wanted to get Sylvia out there because she’s a very famous oceanographer and conservationist and she has a powerful voice,” said Priscilla Brooks, CLF’s director of ocean conservation. “We wanted her to tell her own stories about Cashes Ledge and give a firsthand account of just how magnificent this place is.”

So why does Cashes Ledge need protecting? Up until the late 20th century, the jagged bottom around the mountain range prevented fishermen from trawling the ocean floor. But now modern fishing boats deploy “rock-hoppers” which are more effective, and more destructive, according to CLF.

“Bottom trawling could easily wipe out certain populations of sea anemones, and scientists estimate that it would take over 200 years for the population to recover and return to the area,” the group’s website says. Kelp forests, meanwhile, are subject to shredding from fishing gear such as lines, hooks, and lobster traps.

Thirteen years ago, the New England Fishery Management Council closed much of the area to fishing for cod, haddock, and other bottom-dwelling species. But these protections are temporary and “very limited,” according to CLF.

“Cashes Ledge remains open to fishing with certain kinds of gear such as ‘mid-water’ trawlers, large offshore lobster pots, and seine nets that can seriously impact this sensitive ecosystem,” the group said. Herring and tuna are among the most-sought-after species.

In April, the fishery council voted to block a move to open the area to more commercial fishing, but the ban remains temporary.

That’s why CLF and others are seeking permanent protection for the ridge. The group has launched a petition asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to “preserve the unique ecosystems and diverse species that find refuge there.”

Earle believes that areas such as Cashes Ledge should be designated as underwater national parks, or “blue parks,” as she put it. If one includes the United States’ 200-mile offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, 55 percent of the nation is under water.

“It’s another country out there,” Earle said. “We need to celebrate it and protect it for future generations.”