Life under the waves

The first important event in my life that was related to the world underwater took place when I was a child, when my godfather brought me a book, bearing the name of Captain Cousteau, as a present.  I remember where I was sitting. I remember what it felt like to read of the journey of Jacques Piccard to the Mariana Trench and back, using a submersible (a bathyscaphe) called Trieste. It made me afraid of getting caught in the jaws of a giant clam. I wondered if they existed in the Baltic Sea?

The summers of my childhood featured a lot of boating and time spent on the islands. I was told that giant clams did not exist in our home waters, but was still wary of swimming amongst the bladderwrack. I remember a beautiful summer’s day on a rocky island, perhaps it was in front of Porkkala. Many boat crews had arrived on the island, and one of them consisted of a rather peculiar group of people. They had allegedly found an anchor, and a large one. In the imagination of a little boy, the divers had of course found a giant anchor of a sailing ship, the like we have seen in Tintin’s adventures on the sea. I never found out the real size of that anchor, or the name of the diving crew.  Nevertheless, I had already decided that when I grow up, I will be a diver.

A few years passed, and we began to spend our summers at the cottage in Nauvo. We had not gotten round to purchasing any diving gear, but we were at sea, and fishing became something of a way of life. There were times, though, when I did not really feel like I had the energy to go and check the nets for the third time that day. My father never failed the task.

One autumn, a guy called Petri persuaded me to come and try scuba diving at the Kauniainen swimming pool.  It is almost unbelievable how well that autumn Saturday morning has remained steeped in my memory. I remember it all! In addition to numerous minor details, I remember in particular the feeling that floating and breathing underwater created. On the very next day, both of us signed up together for a diving course. In the spring, we studied theory, and practiced at the pool.

Reaching some goals requires a journey that is a bit longer, and can also take detours. The scuba diving course ended as the organising company went bankrupt in the middle of our open water diving. Humph.  The years passed by, and I graduated from high school and completed my military service. When I began studying biology, I moved to Joensuu. In one of the very first student parties, held on the yard of someone who today is a member of the Parliament, I remember telling a guy called Jani that I intended to become a marine biologist.  Jani, who was from Kotka, was also keen to work with the sea. I became a marine biologist; Jani became a toxin researcher with a Ph.D. in Helsinki. Nowadays, Jani brews beer in Joensuu with the husband of the aforementioned party venue’s hostess, and I live in Jyväskylä.

What actually happened between the parties and the present? To summarize, we could say that my relationship with the Baltic Sea, which had been established in the summers of my childhood and youth, became deeper and more professional.  I took a liking to algae, and conducted research by diving. On the side, I trained a few new divers.  In top years, the number of my dives was close to five hundred – whoa!

Marine biologists are always asked about the status of the Baltic Sea. How is the Baltic Sea doing? In Finland, the status of the sea is monitored thoroughly. Luckily, we have monitoring programmes for managing marine resources, and the states around the Baltic Sea have agreed on what issues need to be followed up. In his/her answer, therefore, your everyday marine biologist can rely on or recommend the publication of the Finnish Environment Institute Suomen meriympäristön tila 2018 (status of the Finnish marine environment 2018), available online. To put it frankly, based on a number of indicators, things are rather bad.  But there are also reasons to be happy. We are doing concrete things to save the Baltic Sea, good examples of this being the improved efficiency of wastewater treatment both in Finland and our neighbours, and new, promising innovations such as spreading gypsum on cultivated fields to prevent nutrient leakages. In my opinion, people are also increasingly interested in their own backyard. You can, by the way, take a peek at this backyard from your living room sofa, for example via the MONICOAST coastal observatory of the Tvärminne Zoological Station.

We need research too, even though someone did protest early on in the summer, stating that the Baltic Sea must be the most thoroughly researched puddle in the world. Off the cuff, I too can think of a few other interesting issues that I would like to learn more of. It is nevertheless easy to agree with the protester’s next argument: ‘Isn’t it high time we focus on concrete protection measures instead of research?’ To be sure, we need both. Finland and the Finns still have a lot of work to do in developing their relationship with the Baltic Sea, and, for example, in reducing discharges from agriculture. I remember hearing already in primary school about the protective zones located between cultivated fields and the waterways – this was a full 30 years ago! We should also remember that in the case of Finland, the catchment area of the Baltic Sea covers virtually all of the country. All of us impact the status of the Baltic Sea, and we all have the opportunity to make a difference for a positive future of the Baltic Sea!

Niko Nappu

The writer is a coordinator at the University of Helsinki’s HiLIFE research stations at Lammi Biological Station, and an administrator of the Course on aquatic nature.