Who is the Stephen Hawking of the Sea?

Stephen Hawking floats in space. Photo: AFP PHOTO / ZERO G / ZERO GZERO G/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen Hawking passed away this week, marking a huge loss in the study of the cosmos and all that extends beyond what Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot.” But what about life on the blue dot? We know less about that blue than we do about space, and I’m fully aware that I’m not the first one to note it.

Confined to a chair for most of his life, Hawking observed the universe, not allowing his physical condition to be a prison in any way, shape, or form. In fact, he beat the odds and lived a full 51 years beyond his diagnosis, and in those years contributed to a greater understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe than anyone had previously discovered.

But who are the Hawkings of the sea? Many of us in the diving and oceanic community got into “the life” for a chance at thrills and exploration, yet this vast aquatic environment that covers 70 percent of our only Earth has barely been explored. By most estimates, we’ve only seen around five percent of what there is to be seen.

Costeau’s diving saucer, named “Denise,” was essential to his operations. Photo: U.S. Navy

From 1910 until 1997 we were fortunate enough to have Jacques Cousteau, who was not only was adventurous and brilliant, but prolific. In his series of documentaries, he took us all over the world and allowed us to discover new things that, if it weren’t for him and his team, possibly would still be unseen. On top of it all, he was compassionate. While not a religious man himself, he noted that all world religions had something to teach us about caring for the environment. When it came to both humans and nature, his goal was to ensure harmony within our atmospheric boundaries for generations to come.

Vespucci in “America” in a 1638 engraving.

Before that, long before that, there was Amerigo Vespucci in the 15th century, who never explored under the surface but contributed more to the map of the sea than most. Perhaps, he thought, there weren’t sea monsters. Not being completely sure but having a hunch that was brilliant for his time, he went into uncharted waters and eventually discovered that the West Indies weren’t the eastern side of Asia, but a whole “New World,” one that would eventually be named for him. The Americas. In his later years he ran a school in Seville where he taught others how to navigate so that his legacy of exploration would carry on. In 1508, four years before his death, he became pilot major of Spain shortly after gaining Spanish citizenship.

Following up on Vespucci’s success was a man who needs no introduction, Ferdinand Magellan. He launched the first circumnavigation of Earth; however, he didn’t complete it, as he was brought down by a bamboo spear in what’s now the Philippines.

Returning to the twentieth century, no list of great oceanographic thinkers is complete without Sylvia Earle. After completing her studies at Florida State and Duke she dedicated her life to marine conservation and education, and in addition to being the National Geographic explorer-in-residence from 1998 until present day at the age of 82, she was also the first person named “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine. She hasn’t slowed a bit, and for the past ten years has run Mission Blue, an organization with the aim of exploring vulnerable spots in the seas, educating the public about them, and having them become protected areas. Never known to back down from a challenge, one of her most daring accomplishments was traveling to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War to examine the damage caused by Iraq’s destruction of Kuwaiti oil reserves.

Steve Irwin gets friendly with a sea lion. Photo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

In modern times, with access to television and the internet, it seems that just about anyone can be an explorer. Tales of the high sea have been replaced with hard, factual video. Anyone with a camera and an idea can develop an internet channel and share their discoveries and exploration with the world. The blue dot has become a much smaller place in the era of mass media, and in no small part thanks to controversial figures such as Steve Irwin, the popular “Crocodile Hunter.” While everyone has their own opinions on him, there’s no denying that his access to wildlife piqued the interest of an entire generation around the globe, with his programs being broadcast and translated for audiences everywhere. While his methods and motivations are questioned to this day, he introduced species that young people would not have previously thought of and caused many people in the Millennial and Generation X demographics to think about what they can do to help the Earth. After several close-encounters, he ultimately was pierced by the barb of a stingray in 2006 while filming a documentary called “Oceans Deadliest.” Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of Jacques Cousteau, was present for the event. No stranger to tragedy, as his father was killed on an expedition, he went on to finish the project.

With all of the possibilities, and the ever-growing population of the only home we know, we can continue the search for the Hawking of the oceans knowing that this person, or these multiple people, are certainly out there. Our technology has evolved to a point that our minds can be enlightened about the world around us at faster rates than ever before. With the daring of Vespucci, the compassion of Cousteau and Earle, and the tenacity of Irwin, we can hunt and gather information that brings us a greater understanding of what’s here, because as far as the cosmos reach, here is what we have for now. Teach your kids to explore the oceans, tell your friends to get in the water, and pick up that plastic bag you just saw blowing down the street.

  • Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor