The Top 12 Ocean Stories That Made Waves in 2014

The seas served up some compelling headlines this year, from celebrity fashion to solving the mystery of the melting starfish

Pharrell Williams
Singer and plastic-clothing designer Pharrell Williams at the "Raw For The Oceans" event at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. LAN/Corbis

The ocean covers around 70 percent of the planet's surface—so it should be featured in 70 percent of news stories, right? Not quite, but the ocean did give us some compelling headlines this year, from celebrity fashion to marine debris to solving the mystery of the melting starfish. 

In no particular order, here are the Smithsonian Ocean Portal's picks for the biggest ocean news of 2014: 

  Learn more about the seas with the Smithsonian Ocean Portal.

Celebrities Come to the Ocean’s Aid

Celebrities of all sorts jumped in to lend a hand with ocean conservation this year.

Sylvia Earle, already a celebrity in the ocean world, received some much deserved love from a variety of outlets. Between being named "Woman of the Year" by Glamour, the release of a documentary highlighting her life on Netflix, and headlining as a keynote speaker at South by Southwest, "Her Deepness" really stepped into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, pop artist Pharrell Williams started a clothing line that is taking plastics from the ocean and putting them on your shoulders. Leonardo DiCaprio announced plans to provide $7 million to efforts supporting ocean conservation at the Our Ocean Conference, convened by the U.S. State Department in June. And Harrison Ford is giving voice to the oceans for Conservation International. Warning—the ocean is angry.

Mystery at Sea

The tragic loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 remains a mystery. Finding wreckage would have helped to pinpoint the location of the crash, but time and again searchers were mislead by large pieces of debris floating on the surface. Indeed, a study out this year estimates that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean (as well as more on the deep sea floor itself). Another huge obstacle to finding the plane was the likely depths to which it sank, nearly three miles below the sea surface. The failure to find the plane highlighted how poorly the ocean floor has been mapped. In the fall of this year, however, scientists found a new way to use gravity-field data from satellites to create the best map of the ocean floor yet.

Fifteen Minutes for the Anglerfish

We’ve seen animated anglerfish before, but the real thing has never been filmed in its deep-sea habitat—until now. The Monterey Bay Research Institute brought this fascinating creature from 2,000 feet (600 meters) below the sea surface to our computer screens in its big-screen debut—and it didn’t disappoint. Just over three inches long, this female angler with her bright dangling lure looks like a force to be reckoned with, broken tooth and all. 

Drones' Eye View

Drones have been all over the news in 2014, from getting in the way of commercial airspace to delivering your next Amazon package. Drones are also helping marine scientists get the data they need. Whether that is mucus samples from whales or observing orcas in the wild, drones allow us to get a relatively inexpensive and quiet aerial look at the ocean. The legality of using drones in close proximity to marine mammals may have some kinks to work out, but once it does, the possibilities abound

Fish Find Their Way Home

With coral reef cover declining around the world due to numerous threats—including warming, pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing practices—what’s a fish that calls the reef home to do? It turns out that fish use their senses to scope out the health of a coral community. The seaweed found on degraded coral sends out a chemical signal that tells juvenile fish to stay away. While these chemical “smells” lead young fish in the right direction, they can get sidetracked by reef noise—or lack thereof. Young fish and invertebrate larvae use the noisy sounds of a healthy reef to navigate. But when a reef becomes degraded, its noise fades with it, removing some of the signposts pointing towards “home.”   

A Vital Clue for Wasting Starfish

In August 2013, scientists along the US West Coast noticed something strange: many different species of starfish appeared to be melting as their tissues disintegrated until there was nothing left. Named starfish wasting syndrome, the mysterious disease has been around for years but was increasingly seen through 2014 as scientists worked hard to determine the culprit. In November, they finally identified the virus that causes the disease—the first step towards understanding how it spreads and finding a cure. 

The Extent and Effects of Warming Waters

This year, scientists gathered crucial data about how the ocean absorbs heat and its environmental effects. One study published this August found that in the 1990s, Atlantic currents delivering heat to the deep sea sped up, storing more heat than in previous decades. However, that doesn't mean the heat is stored safely away. The ocean surface is also warming quickly, which can cause its own problems. Warm currents underneath Antarctic ice shelves are melting the ice from the bottom up, for instance. And warming water allows fish and other organisms to survive beyond their normal ranges, which is already shifting marine communities in the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Alaska.

Signs of Adaptable Organisms

The effects of climate change on the ocean are happening fast: It is acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years and is warming more quickly than anyone expected. However, it looks like some ocean organisms will be able to adapt to these quick changes, according to research published this year. A common species of phytoplankton (Emiliania huxleyi) reproduces so quickly—more than one generation every day—that in lab tests it easily adapted to the higher temperatures and acidity projected for the year 2100. Additionally, lab experiments have shown that some coral species can adapt to higher temperatures, while others are recovering in the wild off the coast of French Polynesia.

Caribbean Coral Reefs Have a Chance

A major report about the health of Caribbean coral reefs analyzed more than 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean reefs since 1970. It found that coral populations have declined by more than 50 percent since the 1970s. But perhaps surprisingly, the main driver of this decline was not climate change, but rather the removal of grazing fish such as parrotfish and sea urchins. This insight provides some hope for restoring the reefs, as reef managers are more able to protect their reefs from overfishing than carbon emissions. Efforts around the world show that ending fishing has allowed reefs the time and space to recover, despite the looming threat of climate change.

Tracking Baby Sea Turtles

After baby sea turtles hatch from eggs buried on the beach, they dash into the surf—but where do they go after that? Perhaps surprisingly, scientists didn't know where turtles spent their youth until this year. Tiny satellite tags attached to the backs of baby loggerhead turtles tracked them riding currents to the Sargasso Sea, a calm region in the North Atlantic where Sargassum seaweed floats at the surface. There, they can hide from predators and feed on the critters living in seaweed, which doubles as a hot tub to keep the reptiles warm.

Salmon Hitch a Ride

Every year, millions of hatchery-raised salmon migrate along California's waterways to the Pacific Ocean, where they spend three or four years before returning inland to breed. But this year, they hit the road instead. After severe drought dried up the riverbeds, federal officials worried that few salmon would survive the 270-mile trip to the sea. So they loaded young Chinook salmon into tanker trucks for a bumpy ride to San Francisco Bay. In all, they trucked nearly 27 million smolts, carrying around 750,000 per trip in four climate-controlled trucks.

Moving Forward With Optimism

It seems that around every corner is a soon-to-be extinct species or a story about how the acidifying ocean is dissolving important sea creatures. But we need hope to see a way forward, and this year that hope came in the form of #OceanOptimism. By celebrating this year’s ocean conservation success stories, like California banning the plastic bag and fishermen working together towards a sustainable future in Barbuda, we can see a healthier and more resilient ocean on the horizon.