“Then Corr turns, stepping out of the ocean. His head jerks up when his injured leg touches the ground, but he takes another labored step before keening to me again. Corr takes another step away from the November sea. And another.”
One of my absolute favorite parts of my trip were the Bempton Cliffs. A good stretch of the east coast of the UK ends drastically in chalk cliffs that go straight down into the North Sea. Hundreds of puffins and thousands of sea fowl make these unbelievable cliffs their home. The thing that I love the most, though, was how the land is perfectly flat farmland for miles and miles, covered in cows and sheep and fields of grain, but then it all just ends in a matter of feet. It’s one of the most incredible things I have even seen.
Why is the bay so blue? (Hint: the White Cliffs of Dover)
Plankton blooms are nothing unusual in Monterey Bay. In fact, the abundance of plankton fuels the abundant food web that supports everything from anchovies and sardines to the humpback and blue whales that visit each year to feast on the bounty.
But the current bloom, which has turned the bay almost turquoise in recent days, is uncommon.
It’s caused by microscopic plant plankton called coccolithophores. Their relatives have been around since the Triassic Period, dating back 200 million to 250 million years.
Coccolithophores feature calcium carbonate plates in their structure
– material that we commonly call chalk. Ancient coccolithophore deposits can be seen today in the British Isles as….the White Cliffs of Dover!
Coccolithophores thrive where other plankton are scarce. That’s a factor this year in Monterey Bay, where the water’s been warmer than usual and we didn’t have our normal spring upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that typically comes with spring winds.
Scientists studying the effects of climate change on ocean life are particularly interested in coccolithophores. As the water warms, they may displace other plankton. They may also displace plankton that are even more sensitive to increases in ocean acidity that occur as the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide from our fossil fuel emissions. (Coccolithophores, with their calcium carbonate skeletons, are vulnerable, too.)
For now, it’s brought a bright blue color to the bay for a few days. Wildlife observers still report abundant humpback whales, ocean sunfish, dolphins and other sea creatures just offshore from the Aquarium.
I’ve always heard about the white chalk cliffs of England’s southern coast, so I decided to take a look at them when I was in Brighton. I hiked from my hostel in Hove to Newhaven, which was about twelve miles (probably closer to fifteen after factoring in all of the villages I stopped to explore along the way). The cliffs are so tall when you are walking along the bottom of them, and then it is incredible to get a different perspective by climbing to the top and seeing everything from so high in the air. It was so pretty to walk with the cliffs on one side of me and the ocean on my other side.
There were several moments when I could look all around me and be surrounded by nothing but nature–no villages in sight, no telephone wires or lampposts, and no other people. It felt strange to have that in such a wide, open space. Short of trekking to the middle of a forest, it’s hard to think of a way in which we aren’t somehow always affected by something man-made.