November 21, 2018

Israel’s EcoOcean charts deep ‘green’ seas

Scientists once thought that most of our planet’s oxygen is produced in the heart of lush jungles and rainforests. Not so, says Michael Rosenfeld, program coordinator and scientist at EcoOcean — an Israeli nonprofit organization that built and funds a unique seafaring vessel that would make Jacques Cousteau proud.

“Seventy-five percent of the globe is covered by the ocean. Most of our oxygen is coming from plants in the sea and it is the main thing that is balancing our atmosphere,” Rosenfeld said.

EcoOcean provides free use of its ship and facilities to students and professors in environmental marine research. In the last few years since it began operating, EcoOcean has helped handfuls of marine-related projects get off the ground — including their own watchdog project to track and monitor marine pollution known as “hot spots” off the coast of Israel.

But international scientists have also used the organization’s boat, the Mediterranean Explorer, for studying uninhabited islands off the coast of Eritrea in Africa; in Turkey’s Black Sea to trace evidence of the great flood during the time of Noah; and to determine that the Roman city of Caesarea was, in part, destroyed by an ancient tsunami.

While some of the projects veer off course into areas that are not strictly environmental, the main thrust of EcoOcean is to offer its ship, equipped with wet and dry laboratories, to those fighting to improve the marine and coastal environment.

Government-owned vessels do exist for taking scientists out to sea, but they tend to be outdated, are difficult to book, and are extremely costly. But not as costly as the price of the environment and what could happen if we don’t take action.

These details concern Rosenfeld, who recently completed post-doctoral work in marine ecology at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Global warming is changing the face of the planet. It is not only making our summers unbearably hot, it is heating up our oceans, as well.

Even slight changes in the ocean’s water temperature, scientists fear, could render the balance catastrophically unstable. And we are already seeing how global warming is affecting coral, an early-warning indicator species.

“Damaging the sea is the same as a smoker intentionally ruining his lungs,” said Rosenfeld, a coral specialist, who chooses the projects EcoOcean will bring on board.

And when EcoOcean says “on board,” they mean literally. The state-of-the-art boat not only offers scientific lab equipment for collecting and analyzing deep-sea samples, but it also provides below-deck cabins that sleep 11, a modern kitchen, and a crew that loves to tell tall tales of the sea.

Most recently, American scientists from New York’s Columbia University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution near Boston and Canadians from McMaster University have had the same impressions while collaborating with EcoOcean; Istanbul Technical University has also worked in the boat berthed on the Mediterranean Sea not far from Tel Aviv in Herzliya. Anyone studying the marine environment is welcome to apply.

Founded by scientists from Tel Aviv University together with Weil, a Swedish-born environmental philanthropist, the group was brainstorming and recognized a huge hole in marine science research in Israel and the Mediterranean region in general.

Weil, who immigrated to Israel in 2000, was raised to be an avid environmentalist. After moving to Israel, he soaked up environmental education at the Arava Institute in Israel before appealing to his family to see if funding for an environmental dreamboat could be built.

“I think about the environment every day,” Weil said. “And it is tough on me to see how slow the progress for change is in the world.”

Swedes are known for their love and respect for the environment. When challenged to reduce car emissions by 2020, Weil says the Swedes took on the challenge with shining colors: Today about 20 percent of their cars are environmentally friendly. He recognizes that Israelis often have greater threats to negotiate: “The biggest concern here is security, security, security. For some, an anti-missile system for protecting Israel’s borders is more important than drinking water,” he said.

But there are some advantages to being a marine scientist in Israel, Rosenfeld points out.

“All the scientists know each other and are in good contact. If you look per square meter, there is more research being done here in Israel on reefs than in other places in the world. Israel is small and our scientists work together.”

As part of its mandate, EcoOcean runs a land-based marine education center not far from Tel Aviv, and it also conducts its very own marine research that it plans to publish in a top-notch marine journal.

But don’t make the Greenpeace comparison please, Weil notes. “We don’t want to be known as activists. We are environmental educators, conducting real-world marine research that will spell out the situation in the Mediterranean Sea in black and white. Right now the most important project for us is that we finish our survey on the water quality in Israel. People don’t know how bad it is.”

Collaborating with Israel’s Ministry of the Environment, EcoOcean is offering at least two different settings for marine education at the elementary and high school levels. Recently, EcoOcean opened the visitor center Megalim (Discovering) where ecology, biology and marine environment education activities are conducted.

The classroom full of microscopes and aquariums does about 50 percent of its teaching from what the group collects at the beach. Or kids, ages 10 to 18, spend the day at the Alexander River to learn how pollution affects animals and the sea. “When they are studying with us for six to seven hours a day, these kids are amazed,” Weil said. “They do not behave like normal kids do, running around and shouting, but pay attention very carefully to what they are learning.”

The Weil family funded construction of the boat and supports ongoing research, but Weil hopes to secure external funding for EcoOcean in the future. However, jumping ship will never happen on his boat: “My goal is to run EcoOcean all my life, whether or not I am living in Israel,” he said. “It will always run as an information organization, and our long-range plan is for our scientists to become authorities on marine research and write papers under our organization’s name.”

It sounds like Israel’s environmental ship has finally come in.

Karin Kloosterman is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.