How big is the ocean?

For human beings the ocean has always been something more than just a geographical unit that provided food, it was also a philosophical concept. The ocean was something unattainable, inexplicably, almost an abstract idea that we have always associated with the unknown, the end of life and, for many civilizations, even the place where the souls of the ancestors rest. But also, on a more practical level, the ocean provided access new cultures, products and ideas.

There are ocean and sea gods in civilizations as different as the Aztec, Greek, German, Filipino, Japanese or Hawaiian, and each of these deities deals with a specific task, usually in benefit of human beings, of course. Whether defending sailors, fighting tsunamis, providing good fish catches or, as in the case of the Fijian shark-god Dakuwaqa, defending fishermen against marine demons. The ocean, like any other unknown place, was terrifying. No matter the culture we are talking about. We do not know (or knew) how the ocean behaves.

The Aspidochelone is a sea monster, a giant turtle or big fish, described in medieval bestiaries and that looked like an island

Since then and until just 500 years ago there were only few who had seen beyond the 5 Km that we are away from the horizon. Then we got to cross for the first time one of the five masses of water that form the greater body of water known as Ocean; and that trip lasted for more than eight months. Even today that we can fly over oceans, we marvel at its vastness and its size, seeming incalculable. The only possible way to get an idea of its vastness would be by comparing it to closed areas or known geomorphological units with which we are most familiar: mountains, rivers, lakes, canyons… more tangible elements that we can see, to which we have access. So let’s try to find out what is the size of the ocean, that 71% of the planet.

Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on Earth
Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on Earth. Image Wikipedia

The ocean occupies 360 million square kilometers, a figure that may not tell you much. But if we compare it to the size of Asia perhaps it gets clearer. In the Ocean, the great mass of water divided into 5 oceans, 8 «Asias» would fit in, 8 continents where more than 4,000 million people live (60% of the world population) and represent almost 30% of the emerged land surface.

The amount of water that is in the ocean is estimated at 1,3 billion cubic kilometers… enough to plunge Europe more than 130 meters deep. That represents 97% of total water on the planet.

Have you ever done a cruise in some great river like the Nile or the Amazon? These massive rivers reach over 5,000 km long and in some areas the distance between the banks is more than 300 kilometers apart. Have you ever visited any of the big lakes of the planet like Baikal Lake, with more than 1,500 meters maximum depth and 600 km long? Well, all that fresh water on Earth only accounts for 3% of the existing water on our planet, the rest is in the 5 oceans.

Mauna kea mount
Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in the world with 6,000 meters below the sea surface. Image by Steve Grant

Another comparison that can help envision the Ocean’s vastness, especially its depth, are its geological formations, hidden and invisible to us, much bigger than anything we can find on mainland. Two clear examples. The world’s highest peak is not Mount Everest, it is Mauna Kea in Hawaii, more than 10,000 meters high… but we can only see 4,000 meters, the rest is lost in the Pacific Ocean. One more example: the deepest canyon in the ocean is known as Challenger Deep, in the Mariana trenches, being 10.898 meters deep, 6 times deeper than the Grand Canyon!

Now think of the spaces on land where life is possible. From large forests to plains, from savannas to caves… think of any area of land where life can exist. Well, that part is only 1% of the planet’s available living space, the rest of that space is in the ocean, of which, by the way, only 10% is estimated to be known. Imagine what kind of species inhabit that other 90% of space that we may not know about; and we have cataloged to date 50 million species on the planet. Each year we continue to discover new animal species in both the ocean and on land but we have yet to discover the vast majority of our planet!

Hemiscyllium halmahera, bamboo shark discovered in 2013

Fortunately, not long ago we started to replace the terrifying concepts associated to the ocean with the ideas of freedom, peace and quiet, with the exception of the abyssal areas. We still associate abyssal creatures to shocking images of horror just because we do not to know much about them… expressing the same fears that we did 2,000 years ago towards the creatures inhabiting the open sea or even the waters near the coasts.

«The sea washes away the stains and wounds of the world” Euripides said without knowing much about the ocean, thousands of years before we found medical remedies in corals, marine plants or bacteria. In a time when the Mediterranean was the only known world. What would he say now that we begin to know a little more about the Ocean?

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