It’s All Our Ocean
No matter how much we might think otherwise, the majority of our lives take place in a fairly small zone. This zone geographically extends to the towns we live in, the places we work and wherever we visit and explore. Conceptually, this zone extends to the things we read, the topics we focus on and the opinions and information we surround ourselves with. When it comes to the sea, the same thing applies to many of us. The sea we know is just the sea – right?
I grew up a short walk from the cliffs in southern England, on the edge of the English Channel. Fed by the North Atlantic, the Channel is opaque, chilly and often fairly grey. With large tides and plenty of sand and mud to churn up, it’s not always the most inspiring stretch of water for me.
I always thought I knew the sea though; after all, it was that which washed around my ankles. It was the waves that crashed on the shingle in winter and the reason we never got snow. Of course, I knew that the oceans are vast and wrap the earth in a watery blanket, but that was too obscure for me. The sea was the water here, where I was. It contained some precocious crabs, the occasional jellyfish and schools of mackerel washing through Hurst Narrows between the mainland and the Isle of Wight.
Although I read plenty of sailing stories in preparation for the trans-Atlantic adventure I began in 2014, I could never really believe that the sea would be warm and blue in the Mid-Atlantic. I’d seen pictures of reefs in the Caribbean and swum in the waters around Bali, but each of these seemed so separate, as though they were different places and affected by different things.
The ocean is living
As I worked my way from the UK to northern Spain at the very beginning of my voyage, my understanding of the sea was already changing. For a start, it wasn’t just an enormous body of water. It was a living, breathing thing. As I explored the Spanish Rias and then the Maderia group and Canary Islands, the reality of the ocean was becoming inescapable. I saw puffins bobbing about, dolphins throwing shapes, scallops snoozing on seabeds and seabirds diving for food.
Across the Atlantic, as the bow crashed down, flying fish would scatter along the surface. Whales would drop by, investigating the hull; mahi mahi would flash in the sun as they followed in our wake. In the Caribbean, sea turtles would huff exhalations as they moseyed past; seagrasses hid shy species; parrotfish munched on reefs; lobster cast out tentative antennae from rocky crevices; nurse sharks would side-eye me while I swam. As I finned along the bright white seabed in the Bahamas, I was swimming in the same ocean as the one that had washed around my ankles on England’s south coast.
It took a while to sink in, but it did eventually: the ocean is both one thing that encases over half the globe and a vast, complex community, an unimaginably large eco-system.
Our behaviour here affects the entire ocean
Water does not stay where it’s put. It’s a notorious roamer. It flows away, making a bid for freedom anywhere it can and, if you try to fence it in, it’ll take to the skies instead, transporting itself hundreds of miles to be rained down somewhere new. Because it’s the world’s most successful adventurer, whatever we put it in gets hauled along as baggage.
What we do to our ocean here affects the ocean on the other side of the world. When we wash our clothes, those micro-plastics don’t just wash away and disappear, they travel into the sea. When we pour household chemicals down the sink, they don’t magically cease to exist. When we drop that scrap of litter, it will eventually find the ocean. When we allow our water companies to flush sewage into the sea, we are poisoning it all over the world.
Perhaps our biggest obstacle is understanding where we are in relation to the sea. It’s often viewed as Other, as somewhere unrelated to us, unfamiliar, a place we don’t belong. This was certainly my view as I set out to sail across the Atlantic despite having spent my life with the sea just down the road. Before long though, I could see that it isn’t Other at all. It’s as much a part of our world as the land beneath our feet, and as vital as the forests we make such enormous efforts to save.
Everywhere I went, I was reminded that whilst many of us don’t think about the ocean daily, it’s certainly bearing the brunt of our wilful carelessness continuously. Just off the coast of Panama, I sailed through a huge patch of floating rubbish; in Bali, crisp packets would flutter past my fingertips as I swam; on beaches everywhere, plastic bottles and toothpaste tubes would lie semi-buried on the foreshore. We can ignore the ocean, but the ocean cannot ignore us.
World Oceans Day is a perfect time to remember that the sea isn’t just there for sunny holidays, it’s a part of the health of our entire world on a daily basis, whether we can see it or not. So I urge you to take a moment to seek out information on how to reduce your impact on the ocean and to consider how you can implement that reduction not just for one day, but forever. Polluting the oceans has become a global habit; conserving them can become one too.
Find out more about Kitiara Pascoe's book In Bed With The Atlantic here