Saturday, October 11, 2008


Creed O'Hanlon sent me a two year old essay saying he thought it might interest me. It does. So much that I'd like to share it with you. Note the title. I also recommend you take a look at his four part series Northing. Here's the earlier piece, originally published in the Griffith Review:


Random Notes From The Deep

An essay by Creed O’Hanlon

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’ “

- Rachel Carson, author and ecologist



The first time I ever crossed an ocean under sail, I had to fly across it first.

It was 1979. I was one of a small crew of three bound for Fort Lauderdale, on the south-east coast of Florida, from where we were to deliver a forty-five-foot timber ketch to Malaga in Spain. The owner, an Englishman who had made his money dealing in second-hand aircraft, had secured our services just six weeks before the beginning of the Caribbean hurricane season. He had booked us on the cheapest flights he could find: an Air India service to New York from London’s Gatwick Airport, connecting with some bankrupt, no-name shuttle service to Miami. The initial flight followed a great circle route looping over the Arctic rim of the North Atlantic. The early Spring skies were clear. I had six hours to contemplate what a voyage across all that empty water would be like.

From 10,000 metres, only faint specks of white, the crests of the largest, wind-blown waves, glinted on the pale grey-blue expanse. When a large ship was sighted, every few hundred miles, it was like a tiny, russet insect. Nothing smaller – neither an iceberg nor a yacht similar in size to the one we would be sailing – was visible. It was hard to imagine what living just a few feet above the ocean’s surface, far from land, for nearly a month would be like, let alone the precarious imbalance of weather, seamanship, navigation, endurance, and a watertight hull on which survival depended. All I could think about was the deep, the miles of cold dark water that clawed at a vessel’s keel from the ocean’s bottom: to me, the thought of this was more disturbing than the intractable vastness of its surface, whatever the state of its swell, the speed of its shifting tidal streams and currents, and the unfettered strength of the wind.

A few days later, I sailed beyond the edge of the North American continental shelf, where the line of soundings plunged from less than a couple of hundred metres to a couple of thousand. As the last smudge of low-lying land slid beneath the horizon, I stifled a sudden, atavistic fear of the sea by reducing its daunting reality to statistics. The few tons of salt water my vessel displaced – right there, on a western eddy of the Gulf Stream, where a tentative ‘x’ in soft pencil ‘fixed’ the position of my departure east-bound across the Atlantic – were a minute fraction of the 1.37 billion cubic kilometres that covered roughly 71 per cent of the planet, an area of around 361 million square kilometres. On average, the world’s oceans were around 3,720 metres deep, although the Marianas Trench in the North-West Pacific was more than three times deeper, at 11,033 metres. The numbers were as abstract and as barely imaginable as the British Admiralty metric charts on which land was always a flat, bilious yellow, inshore waters an insipid blue, and seas beyond the 200 metres line of soundings white.


Except maybe in those moments when we are immersed in it, or floating on it, the sea’s expanse is almost incomprehensible. We are so awed by its power that we ascribe aspects of human mood and even sentience to the limitless mutability of its surface state, especially during those episodes when it rises to inflict its force – note here the ready use of an emotive verb inferring mindfulness, even cruel intention – on us well above the high water mark that is the nominal DMZ between a marine environment and ‘dry’ land. No matter how much we love the sea, very few of us feel for its alien and uncompliant ecology the same intense intimacy, that visceral sense of connectedness, of elemental dependence, that we do for the landscapes of our natural environment. It has something to do with uncertainty, a fear not so much of the unknown as the unknowable. So much of the sea is invisible to us. Its most spectacular topography is unreachable, lying at depths well beyond the capacity of humans to reach without expensive and cumbersome mechanical support. Still, the several tens of millions of acres of dense submarine flora close to well-populated shores on every continent are as unknown and undocumented as the tens of thousands of miles of vertiginous oceanic trenches and mountain ranges that surpass the Himalayas in scale. We often glimpse the mammals, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, corals, and anenomes that populate inshore waters – we even like to claim a near-mystical empathy with those chimeric species of large, pelagic mammals such as whale and dolphin – but overall, our relationship with them is defined less by curiosity or concern than by a ruthless, industrialised harvesting that has turned humans into its most voracious predators.

Again, whatever uneasiness we harbour about this is assuaged by the oceans’ unrestrainable spill. From the air, where most landlubbers get their first view of open ocean unbounded by land, it appears too big and indomitable to be despoiled by mere human activity. Looking seaward from a heavily urbanised stretch of coast like Long Beach, California, or Yokohama, Japan, or closer to home, Sydney, the sea’s shimmering surface appears clean and unpolluted even beneath orange-tinted skies laden with dust, smoke, and chemical emissions. And yet from the traces of mercury that taint the flesh of nearly every species of edible fish found in the world’s major ocean fisheries to the dioxyn that has poisoned the marine food chain of Sydney Harbour (the insidious residue of a careless American-owned chemical plant that once operated on its shores), the health of the marine environment is failing. The effects of atmospheric warming might simply finish it off, starting with its most fragile creatures and habitats.

In the tropics, a mean rise of just a couple of degrees in water temperature causes coral to stress and to expel nourishing algae. It becomes bleached and, over time, will wither and die. Less than six years ago, at the International Coral Reef Symposium held in Bali, Indonesia, local researchers noted that about 27 per cent of the world's coral reefs – environments that support 10 per cent of the world’s fisheries – had been destroyed not just by rising ocean temperatures but by careless fishing, harbour dredging, coral mining, coastal deforestation and development, agricultural runoff, and so-called eco-tourism. Across the Indian Ocean, from the west coast of Africa to southern India, as much as 70 per cent of the coral population had bleached and died. If ocean warming increases, coral will be extinct in most parts of the world within 20 years.

Meanwhile, increased ocean temperatures are killing plankton, the marine food chain’s most elemental organisms, in such numbers that areas of decaying plankton are suffocating the ocean surface, leaching it of oxygen and killing other, much larger forms of marine life. Plankton that are not dying are retreating to cooler waters: according to a report two years ago in Z, a magazine published in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, “scientists at the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, England, which has been monitoring plankton growth in the North Sea for more than 70 years, have said that an unprecedented warming of the North Sea has driven plankton hundreds of miles to the north. They have been replaced by smaller, warm-water species that are less nutritious.

Around the frozen continent of Antarctica, a warmer Southern Ocean has caused large areas of ‘permanent’ sea ice to recede. As it melts, algae that grow on its underside are becoming scarce. They are a food source for krill, which are in turn, the main food source for contracting populations of Blue whales, the largest mammals on earth, and smaller Minke whales and Adelie penguins. Exacerbating the crisis, another food source for krill, phytoplankton, is being consumed at a critical rate by tiny jellyfish-like animals, known as salp, which have begun to thrive in the now ice-free waters. According to a study conducted by the British Antarctic Survey, published in 2004, krill numbers have declined 80 per cent in less than 30 years.


A quarter of a century before reports and statistics arguing the likelihood of a catastrophic deterioration of the marine environment within a generation began to pile up like past due bills on the desks of politicians, journalists, and academics, there was already plenty of anecdotal evidence that the oceans were not as pristine as they once were. During the half a dozen years during late Seventies and early Eighties that I worked as a professional seaman on vessels on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean, on the Baltic, North, Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, and along the Pacific coasts of the United States and Mexico, dockside mutterings about the lack of sightings of pelagic predators such as tiger sharks or of large pods of migrating whales or dolphins, or the curious disappearance of flying fish were common. Some noted that the North Atlantic’s nocturnal bioluminescence, the phosporescent shimmer of microscopic organisms such as plankton floating just below the surface, appeared to be fading, even under clear, moonlit skies. Yachtsmen and the crews of small coasters and fishing vessels worried about being sunk by half-submerged steel containers; thousands were lost overboard every year by merchant ships during bad weather.

Occasionally, one of us would bear witness to a small catastrophe. In 1977, I was on watch aboard a sea-going tug as it approached the Bay of Naples at the end of a two-day passage from Malaga in Spain when a dense pod of beak-nosed common dolphin surfaced about half a kilometre off the starboard bow. In a frenetic sequence of arcing leaps and splash-downs that churned the glassy swell into white water, they began to lead us between the islands of Ischia and Capri towards the Italian mainland. A few miles from Naples itself, the blue water turned brown. A pair of the dolphins leapt high out of the water and with a high-pitched squeal, fell backwards into it again. They didn’t swim but instead, bobbed lifelessly in the low swell. Several more dolphins thrashed on the surface around them, then rolled onto their backs and lay still. The rest of the pod swerved away to swim quickly seaward, no longer leaping. A few minutes later, the tug sailed past their dead, wallowing around a greasy slick of foul-smelling chemical less than a couple of hundred metres in diameter.

There are very few common dolphins left in the Mediterranean now. Once the most significant population of marine mammals in that part of the world, they have been all but wiped out through the toxic contamination of their habitat by industrial chemicals, or the reduction of their food sources through over-fishing. Hundreds have also been destroyed as by-catch in mass tuna kills (known as mattanze) around the coasts of Sicily or in commercial gill-nets.


The sea’s natural inhabitants are not the only ones under threat. With the increasing instability of seasonal weather systems caused by the phenomena known as El Niño and La Niña, and localised fluctuations in ocean temperatures and atmospheric pressure, the intensity of which might change as a result of global warming, those who make their living on the sea and the increasing numbers of amateurs who set out on trans-oceanic passages in small yachts (aided by satellite global positioning systems that obviate the need for old-fashioned tools such as a sextant and a chronometer) are at greater risk than ever before from violent, unpredictable weather. During the West Atlantic hurricane season in 2005, 27 tropical storms were named by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among them 15 hurricanes. Three of the hurricanes were devastating Category Five storms, and at least three of the tropical storms misbehaved in ways that were unsettling to sailors used to the general predictability of weather systems in the North Atlantic’s sub-tropical latitudes. Tropical storms Epsilon and Zeta sprung up outside the traditional hurricane season, the latter on December 30th, exactly a month after the season’s official end. Another late season tropical storm, Delta, wandered eastward across the Atlantic to batter the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco – a two-thousand-mile detour from the usual track of such depressions north along the eastern seaboard of the United States or across the Florida panhandle.

Even in northern latitudes, anecdotal evidence suggests that winds are blowing harder. The nature of the sea itself might also be changing. There are concerns, amplified by senior European scientists, that the fast-moving Gulf Stream that carries warm water in an arc across the North Atlantic – causing winter temperatures in Reykjavik, Iceland, to be a little higher than in New York, and tempering the worst effects of the high latitude depressions that track across Ireland and the British Isles throughout the year – is beginning to slow. The mooted long-term effect of this – Northern Europe beset by a ‘big freeze’ that could persist for several centuries – is the opposite of what is predicted if the Arctic’s sea ice continues to recede and the slow melt of Greenland’s giant glaciers persists or worse (but likely), accelerates.

Fifty-five years ago, the late Rachel Carson, one of America’s first environmental activists, assembled a series of her writings on the nature of the sea in a best-selling book, The Sea Around Us. Its tone is somewhat over-ripe by today’s standard, and its scientific facts have become, inevitably, amusing anachronisms, but the author’s confidence that the sheer size and volume of the sea could protect it from the worst that future humans would inflict on it was, for an American post-war generation steeped in the political and social idealism of Truman’s Fair Deal, and a desire for renewal, compelling. “For the sea as a whole, the alternation of day and night, the passage of the seasons, the procession of the years, are lost in its vastness, obliterated in its own changeless eternity,” she wrote. The trouble is, Ms. Carson’s confidence was inspired by a more innocent time. Today, we are numb to the stark symptoms of stress and deterioration that are apparent in nearly every ecosystem. We pay lip service to doing what it takes to alleviate them, let alone fix them, even as they threaten to upend the comfortable, affluent tedium of our surburban everyday (in Australia, just as elsewhere in the developed world, we have become less and less concerned with the effects they are already having in poorer, less well equipped parts of the world).

Then again, there is, in the closing lines of Ms. Carson’s book, unintended clues to another, grimmer scenario: “... [the sea] encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea – to Oceanus, the ocean river, the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.”

Sydney, 2006

Top and bottom photos courtesy Creed O'Hanlon,
Dolphins from Oceanus Magazine
Melting iceberg from Canadian photographer David Burdeny
Ocean trash from Treehugger

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