Thursday, October 31, 2013

Going To The Depths… Of Joy and Sadness

David Gallo, one of the world's leading oceanographers, gives a lecture, at the INK Talks in Kochi, on the beauty of the oceans, as well as the damage wrought by man

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the bottom of the ocean there are lakes,” says David Gallo, one of the world’s leading oceanographers. “Some biologists said that it is so salty it would not be possible for any animal to live there. We said that it is true except that there are many animals which live there who do not know about this rule.”
The crowd laughs, as they listen raptly to Gallo, a featured speaker at the annual INK (Innovation and Knowledge) Talks being held at Kochi for the first time.

Under the Atlantic Ocean, there is a mountain range which stretches all the way to the Indian Ocean and heads into the Red Sea as well as the Pacific Ocean,” says Gallo. “There are thousands of peaks which are higher than those in the Himalayas or the Alps, and the mountain range is 70,000 miles long.”
These mountains are cut by thousands of valleys, which are many times deeper and wider than some of the greatest valleys on earth. “All this is at a depth of 4000m,” says Gallo. “In fact, even though 70 per cent of the planet is covered by oceans, we have explored only 5 per cent of it. But now we have the technology to go to the depths for long periods.”
A pioneer underwater exploration took place, on March 25, 2012, when ‘Avatar’ film director, James Cameron, in a specially-built submarine, became the first man to go into the deepest part of the ocean: the Marina Trench, at 11 kms. “James trained very hard physically and mentally to accomplish this record-making dive,says Gallo. “A person with great curiosity and passion, James is one of the hardest working people I know.”  
Like Cameron, Gallo has also plumbed the depths of the ocean in a submarine. “We just float down into this amazing world,” says Gallo. “Initially, the colour is a deep blue. Then after half an hour it becomes pitch black. But when we switch on the lights, we see an incredible amount and variety of marine life. In every expedition you see something you have never seen before and perhaps no one will ever again.”
Not surprisingly, Gallo describes it as a spiritual experience. “There is a power in the universe,” he says. “I believe that this is God. I cannot help but believe that. You have to think outside the boundaries of science. You come away realising what a privilege it is to be alive.”
True, but man as a species does not realise that he is dependent on the oceans for his survival. “The pure air that we breathe, we can thank the ocean, which makes 50 per cent of the oxygen,” says Gallo. “More than 1.5 billion people depend on the ocean for food. About 90 per cent of the rainfall is controlled by the ocean. There is an intimate relationship between man and the oceans, but in the past 100 years, we have been damaging the ocean.”

The chemistry of the water, as well as the sediments on the ocean floor have been changing, because of human impact. “This is because of the things that we use every day, like plastics, fertilisers, and pesticides,” says Gallo. “It goes into the ground. From there it moves to the streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean.”

Gallo pauses and says, “The oceans are suffering from chemical pollution at all levels. But the good news is that we have become aware of this and preventive measures can be taken.”

Like most people Gallo got interested in oceanography by accident. In his mid-twenties, while being a shoe salesman, he read an article on ocean exploration by Robert Ballard, who would later discover ‘The Titanic’ wreck in 1985. “The article triggered my curiosity,” says Gallo. “I decided to study the oceans.”

So, in 1976, he joined the State University of New York in Albany and studied geology and physics. Following a master’s in geology, Gallo received a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. “Within two and a half years, I was in the same ‘Alvin’ submarine that I saw in the National Geographic magazine,” says Gallo. “That was how quickly my dream materialised.”

In 1987, Ballard invited Gallo to join the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is one of the largest private non-profit research organisations in the world where, today, Gallo is Director of Special Projects.
Apart from the ocean, Gallo has been involved with the investigation of wrecks like ‘The Titanic’, the ‘Bismark’ and the crashed Air France 447 plane. “When you investigate wrecks, they have a much more direct relation to humanity,” he says. “In wrecks, you are aware of the back story. When you are exploring the ocean, there is no back story. Anything can happen.”

Yes, indeed, at the INK Talks, Gallo shows an image of a clump of algae floating in shallow water. And then, suddenly, mind-bogglingly, it becomes a large octopus. And the audience lets out a gasp of surprise. “Animals learn to camouflage themselves effectively,” says Gallo, with a wide smile. “It has been an amazing journey for the past 25 years. Ever single day I have seen one stunning sight after another.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

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