Cultural perceptions of the ocean as a void or an empty space give a grave misrepresentation of the ocean's true nature. Contrary to the idea of emptiness, the ocean is an intricate, dynamic engine of the Earth teeming with diverse life and physicochemical processes, writes Helen Czerski.
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"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!"
Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark”
The Hunting of the Snark was published in 1876, in perhaps the last year the western world could claim to be ignorant of the reality of the global ocean. It was written during the four years when HMS Challenger was criss-crossing the globe (1872-1876), engaged in the first dedicated global oceanographic research expedition. When Challenger returned, it would shock the London scientific establishment with mountains of data showing how deep the ocean is, how alive it is and how intricately structured it is. And yet the sentiment that Carroll expressed – that the ocean is most conveniently seen as a perfect and absolute blank – still dominates our cultural ideas about the blue of our blue planet. We still see the ocean as an absence rather than a presence, or perhaps on a good day as an obstacle or a trash can. When we think we’re talking about the it, we are almost always actually talking about fish, whales or plastic, as though the ocean is only valuable as a canvas on which other stories are written. But this is a gigantic misrepresentation. The ocean itself is the biggest story on Earth, and all the other tales are merely small whorls inside a far greater drama.
It's handy to have a void around. We can park in it all the thoughts and feelings that are too big for us to deal with. We can stare out from the coast and feel small against its immensity, feeling comfort in knowing that there’s something big and mysterious out there, because then it’s somehow ok if we haven’t got everything under control in our own lives. A void looks like freedom from the constraints of land, freedom from rules, the reassurance that it doesn’t have to be like this. The real void, one that we can all see, is outer space, which goes on for millions and billions of light years and really is almost completely empty. But we can’t touch it and we can’t take even one step into it, so it’s not the same. The ocean is a nice relatable void. The problem is that we can’t afford to keep hiding from an important truth: the ocean isn’t remote and disconnected – it’s part of here, part of us, in a very literal way.
So if it’s not a void, what is it? The simplest description is perhaps that it’s a watery engine that surrounds our planet, with its own internal anatomy and physiology. It’s easy to appreciate a steam engine, because this hot gas pushes that piston which moves those wheels, and you can see how the chain of causality is linked together. In the ocean it’s all just water moving around other water, and yet there are intricate patterns both large and small, fast and slow, all superimposed on each other. Ocean water isn’t the same everywhere – the temperature, salinity, chemical passengers and the web of life it contains give each water parcel its own signature. The wind, changes in water density and the spin of the Earth drive the churn, creating layers, currents and carousels, giving the ocean its versions of forests, deserts, rivers and meadows. The biggest difference is that these ocean features are often mobile and seemingly capricious, popping up and fading away, journeying around the engine, growing and shrinking as the months, seasons and years pass.
When Challenger returned, it would shock the London scientific establishment with mountains of data showing how deep the ocean is, how alive it is and how intricately structured it is. And yet the sentiment that Carroll expressed – that the ocean is most conveniently seen as a perfect and absolute blank – still dominates our cultural ideas about the blue of our blue planet.
As just one example, the Gulf Stream – the great torrent of warm water that turns away from the coast of America and flows eastward across the Atlantic - buds off what are called “mesoscale eddies” as it goes. These are slowly rotating carousels of water, 50-100 km across and lasting for several months. They are distinct from the water around them, each keeping its temperature and molecular passengers relatively constant as they move, and they are home to particular ecosystems. Some of the great predators of the ocean seek out these eddies as hunting grounds, and we are starting to pick apart their preferences. Bluefin tuna choose to hunt in the eddies that rotate clockwise, yellowfin and bigeye tuna prefer the ones that rotate anticlockwise, and swordfish choose to stay just outside. The ocean is full of features like this: walls of life separating different ocean regions, fertile areas around submerged mountains known as seamounts, vast deserts, all given their character by how the ocean engine is turning at that point. We humans are influenced by those features just as much as the ocean animals are, and we see the evidence for that in the outcomes of battles, our choice of trade routes, where we fish and where on land we can live.
We see the ocean as fickle because we don’t look beneath the surface. Down there, a small number of basic physical principles produce a rich and varied oceanscape in 3D, while all we experience is one side of the engine where it happens to touch the atmosphere. It’s like thinking the only important feature of a human is the hair on their head – sure, it changes and it can be quite interesting, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. To think that what you can see from the top is all that matters is to miss the point almost entirely.
It's also not true that the ocean is still a great mystery. It’s certainly not true that we know more about the Moon than about the deep sea, because there is far more about the ocean to know; the ocean just isn’t comparable to a dead rock that hasn't changed in any significant way for two billion years. Decades of work by ocean scientists have shown us a beautiful blue machine, and the more we understand, the better and more interesting it gets. The lesson here is that discovery must be about more than maps. It’s not enough to turn up, draw a map, plant a flag and then tick the box and go home, discovery complete. To observe the ocean requires humility and patience, and an acceptance that the most important things might not happen on the timescales and size scales that are most obvious to us. We need to sit inside the engine and watch, wide-eyed and with the knowledge that this is not something we can ever control directly.
That’s not to say we’re not trying to shove our oar in. There has been more discussion of the ocean in recent years, particularly at the UN COP climate events, and in deliberations about the catastrophic damage currently being done to Earth’s biodiversity. Alongside that visibility has come a new wave of ideas for using the ocean, for extracting seafloor resources, for employing it as a place to dump carbon, for shortening cargo ship routes by crossing formerly ice-filled seas. But what if this time, we don’t exploit a “new” geographical place before we understand it? Perhaps we could finally accept that living on a planet comes with some fundamental rules, and sometimes we just have to fit in with what nature is already doing because the system is already rich in unseen benefits that we are barely aware of relying on.
To observe the ocean requires humility and patience, and an acceptance that the most important things might not happen on the timescales and size scales that are most obvious to us.
Facing up to what the ocean really is comes with the responsibility to be better custodians of it. The Apollo missions took us to the Moon, but their real value was in showing us the Earth and we named it accurately: our Blue Planet. And then for 50 years, we forgot to really look at that blue. Rebuilding our view of the ocean as the dynamic engine that is the beating heart of our planet gives us something to have a relationship with. That matters, because no-one can have a meaningful relationship with a void. And we need that relationship because fundamentally this is about identity. Seeing the ocean for what it really is also lets us see ourselves for who we really are: citizens of an ocean planet.