It's a "golden age"
GO DIVING - WHILE STOCKS LAST. The shocking message from a medley of damning reports on the state of the world's oceans is that we are plunging towards a crisis of such oceanic proportions that it won't be long before there is virtually no wildlife left to see.
First, the annual meeting of the International Council for Exploration of the Sea announced that the total fish stock in the North Sea may have dropped from 26 million to 10 million tonnes in just over a century.
Then, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society entered the fray with a review of underwater noise pollution, caused by everything from the search for oil and gas to the use of low-frequency military sonar.
Next came the British Antarctic Survey warning that the number of shrimp-like krill around the Antarctic Peninsula has fallen by an astonishing 80% since the 1970s. And these messages were just the tip of the iceberg.
As if the alarm bells weren't ringing loud and clear enough already, now we have a sickening report from WWF (Britain's Seas Are "In Crisis', News, February), telling us that even the seas around our home shores are in serious trouble.
Can you believe, for example, that the common skate is now so rare that recent surveys didn't find a single one?
I remember being forced to eat this remarkable fish (it can live for up to 100 years) for school dinner. Nowadays, calling it "common" is a sick joke.
But it's no wonder that even familiar species are disappearing, when you read the list of threats our marine habitats and wildlife have to face, from coastal development and pollution to aquaculture and bottom trawling and dredging. For most people, the ensuing deterioration is out of sight and out of mind, well hidden beneath the ocean waves. But it is staring us divers right in the face.
I can't think of a time I've been back to dive an old haunt and surfaced enthusing that it was just as I remembered it. And older diving friends are always bemoaning the fact that such-and-such a place "isn't like it used to be".
I know that there are still many wonderful dive sites out there, but there is no denying the fact that a great many have already been damaged - perhaps beyond repair. Besides, divers are the monitors of the underwater world. If we don't ring the alarm bells, who will?
Never was this rapid degradation of the world's oceans hammered home to me more than when I wrote a book called The Shark Watcher's Handbook.
Over a period of three years, I was communicating with some 2000 dive operators in about 50 different countries. I compiled nearly 400 entries for the world's best shark dive sites, but more than half had to be revised or dropped altogether before the book was published, after operators called to say that many, or all, of the sharks had gone.
They had been wiped out by fishermen in a matter of days - or even hours.
The bottom line is this: I believe that we are coming to the end of a miniscule period in the history of the world when diving is both possible and great.
Think about it. If we were to go back in time - just 100 years or so - we'd be joining perilous expeditions lasting several months or even years in an effort just to reach far-flung corners of the world. And it would have been many more years still before we could have made use of scuba.
But now we have high-tech diving equipment and wide-bodied jets to take us across the world quickly, safely, comfortably and fairly cheaply (although, of course, this means more divers and less magic at even the remotest dive sites).
We must keep reminding ourselves that we are incredibly lucky to be diving in that brief period between the earlier lack of opportunity and the impending lack of wildlife. From that perspective, this is something of a "golden age".
I just feel sorry for divers of the future, who will have so much less to see - and for those non-divers who will never know what was there in the first place.
Zoologist, conservationist, writer and broadcaster Mark Carwardine writes each month in DIVER. Visit his website, www.markcarwardine.com