SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 17, October 2016 - Page 83

microscopic critters that call the water home,” Van Bonn explains. “And how can we do a better job of taking care of them?”

The project uses a wide range of data—from parameters like PH, temperature, salinity, ammonia, ionized calcium to DNA sequencing—to analyze the potential impact of changes in each of these on the system's health. “If you can understand processes at the level of the built-environment, like an aquarium,” Vann Bonn tells me, “you can back up and extrapolate outward from one of our small systems, to larger systems, to lakes, to the oceans, to the planet.”

Before I left that day I paused by the circular aquarium where Van Bonn and I had waited for the cownose ray that had been Van Bonn’s patient. This time I recognized her when she swished by.

I blinked and imagined I could see the microscopic life that made this water habitable, as if I could don a pair of microscopic goggles which could see through bodies like x-rays, revealing the minute creatures in the water and inside that cownose ray and my own body for that matter: all of the microscopic life that makes our lives possible.

To have a sustainable relationship with our planet we need to understand the microscopic organisms that support the armature of life. The seas and our waterways are not as vast as we used to think: they are not limitless. But our capacity to understand life and to act in a way that fosters life, rather than destroys it, that potential is just beginning to be explored.

Photos: Page 79 Dr. William Van Bonn and Dr. Trevor Zachariah performing surgery on a cownose ray Page 81, Dr. William Van Bonn with a penguin check. Left, Cownose rays in quarantine at the She’d Aquarium. © Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Below left, A huge community of organisms normally lives on the surface of fishes—unseen to the human eye unless one peers through the microscope. Then one can appreciate the entire microbiome that is the surface of the fish. The yellow line indicates scale, the length of 100 μms (microns). To get a sense of how tiny that is, there are 1000 microns in a millimeter. One micron is 0.1% of a millimeter. © Shedd Aquarium/Dr. William Van Bonn

LIZ CUNNINGHAM is the author of highly-acclaimed Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas (North Atlantic Books) and Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age (Praeger). This article is an excerpt from her upcoming book about breath in marine animals and aquatic microbiomes. Visit her at:

Twenty-one percent of Ocean Country royalties are being donated to the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund. That percentage was chosen because it’s the percentage of oxygen in each breath we take. Over half of that oxygen comes from plants and algae in the ocean. The New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) aims to to protect and promote ocean biodiversity through funding of small-scale, time-sensitive, community-based programs.