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May 2, 2010

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Digging deep to promote fragile ocean ecosystems

FOR many years during her work as a wildlife journalist and freelance film maker, French writer Claire Nouvian knew little about the deep sea. Though it covers two thirds of the planet, its depths that reach over 10,000 meters are difficult to access even for the latest technology.

For scientists, 98 percent of this world remains uncharted, and this vast part of the planet takes up little room in public awareness.

But while researching a film at the Monterry Bay Aquarium in 2001, Nouvian was captivated by a wondrous world of translucent creatures, twinkling with bioluminescent colors, or living languidly over 100 years in the darkness.

Since then she has worked tirelessly to promote the awareness and protection of these fragile ecosystems. Her efforts resulted in a book, "The Deep" in 2007, and an unprecedented exhibition of the same name that is to tour China for the next three years.

The exhibition arrived at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum last month.

In 2005, Nouvian had the chance to go down 1,000 meters in the Gulf of Maine with scientists of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. It was a "mindblowing" experience, she said.

"In our everyday life there's so much going on, so much noise. But down there I realized that the vast majority of living things have existed for all time in darkness, silence and coldness. It teaches us humility, a powerful reminder that we give ourselves too much importance."

The most spectacular sight for Nouvian were the Siphonophors - the longest animals on earth. Reaching 60 to 100 meters they wound and coiled around the submersible, quietly bringing food to their mouths. Other rare specimens take months or years to track down, so still and slow is life in those depths.

A few pages into her book a picture shows a submersible hovering like a fly before a giant, 60 meter hydrothermal vent. With tiny searchlights, it tentatively lights a part of this alien landscape.

The rest of this fascinating world however is shrouded in darkness, defying human exploration.

But despite lack of knowledge and awareness, the deep oceans are already being harvested by industry.

Nouvian's dedication to the cause started when she realized that businesses had operated there for over 30 years, over-fishing and dragging ballasts across coral reefs that take tens of thousands of years to form.

Worse, there was little information for the public about the world that's being destroyed, so Nouvian set out to fill the gap. The Bloom Association was set up as the cornerstone for her marine education and lobbying. With "The Deep" book and exhibition she hopes to show the world all she has learned about the deep seas.

"It changed my attitude to time. I no longer wanted to waste a single minute on something that's useless," she said of her life's work.

Starting in Paris, the exhibition travelled Europe and the world before landing in Shanghai, the first stop in its extended China tour. It is touted as the largest and most comprehensive collection of deep-sea samples.

Scientists around the world donated their samples from years of research and countless dives.

One American scientist for example donated her entire collection from 25 years of diving for six months each year, "the equivalent of 12 years spent continuously underwater."

Nouvian has a particular message in China and Asia, where sharks are a delicacy and there's little public awareness of the need to protect the sea.

She estimates that in another generation sharks will be extinct. She wants to inspire children to take on scientific careers, and open their minds and hearts to knowledge.

"We humans arrived so late on the evolutionary scene," said Nouvian.

"Life is not just about consumption, we have curiosity and we need to understand - that's the greatest adventure," she said.


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