September 21, 2014

The earth's biggest wilderness

IN THIS ERA of discernible climate change there has been a lot more talk than usual about wilderness, and how best it may be preserved. But one thing that mostly escapes attention is the fact that the earth’s greatest wilderness is the sea.

When we talk about wilderness, of course, we think of it as unspoiled nature.  And what makes it unspoiled is the absence of human beings. Most people think of wilderness as little pockets of the earth’s surface that we want to preserve just as they are. But the problem is that besides preserving them we want to see them and experience them. That means our presence, even our temporary presence, causes the wilderness to be despoiled. We affect it; we change it with our jeeps and all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, rumpling the land and fouling the air with their exhausts.

So far, though (apart from the great dumps of plastic in the ocean gyres) we haven’t managed to change the sea to the same extent. None of mankind’s endeavors has left any permanent monuments in the oceans, such as crumbling pyramids or rusting Eiffel Towers. There is  no Great Wall of China at sea, no Taj Mahal or Mt. Rushmore. The sea erases all signs of man’s presence as soon as we pass over it.

If fact, when you’re on a small boat in the middle of the ocean it’s easy to believe that you are seeing something that no human being has ever seen before, and never will again, for the surface of the sea is constantly changing. It’s never the same from minute to minute.

And beneath the surface, out of sight of passing man and largely unknown to him, the sunlit ocean is very busy, teeming with life of all sizes from microscopic bacteria through tiny animal and vegetable plankton to the giant squid, intelligent beings about which we know so little, and the world’s biggest mammal, the blue whale.

As a matter of fact, scientists in New Zealand are now getting a rare look at a sea creature with tentacles like fire hoses and eyes as big as dinner plates.

A colossal squid known as an Architeuthis, weighing 770 pounds and as long as a minivan, was hauled out of an Antarctic sea several months ago. The rarely observed animal was frozen until recently, when a team of scientists got a chance to thaw and inspect it at a New Zealand museum.

I have often wondered on a calm night at sea whether any of these fearsome and highly intelligent creatures could see my boat silhouetted against a moonlit sky and, if so, if they would be tempted to attack it as the ancient krakens were reputed to do. At times like this I have had to remind myself that I’ve read no reports of giant squid smothering a small boat in their tentacles and dragging it down into the underworld. On the other hand, boats (and ships) do disappear mysteriously at sea from time to time, and who knows why? And who knows how many giant squids there are in any given stretch of ocean and who knows how large the biggest of them is?

I found the best way to resolve my feelings about this was to go below at the end of my watch, take a generous nip from the rum bottle in the medicine cabinet, and curl up in a tight ball in a nice warm bunk.

Today’s Thought
Not only is the sea unspoiled and without artificiality, there is a primeval quality, a purity surrounding its environment. Maybe you appreciate the sea because when you are lost upon its vastness your life is not jammed up with the trivia, the meaningless detail, and the foolish stuff of civilization.
— Hal Roth

Exhaustive intensive researches
By Darwin and Huxley and Hall
Have conclusively proved that the hedgehog
Can scarcely be ravished at all.
And further industrious enquiry
Has incontrovertibly shown
That this state of comparative safety
Is enjoyed by the hedgehog alone.

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David said...

Sadly, it's not true that man hasn't left his mark on the ocean. For one example, more than half of the coral in the British Virgin Islands has died due to human activity. Changes in acidity due to man-made global warming threaten many other aquatic species. Scuba clubs remove many tons of trash from the ocean floor each year, but hardly make a dent in the total.

Edward said...

Many years ago my ship had a swim call mid Pacific. The ocean was like glass. Men jumped in, I watched. The Sun was high and the depth of the ocean looked endless. The ship and sailors were aliens floating in space. I'd never felt so small and insignificant while standing on the deck of the largest warship in the word.

57 degrees North said...

Heh heh heh, you must be a Terry Pratchett fan as well...

I well remember at the tender age
of sixteen, working off shore, out of sight of land for the first time. Those enormous steel grey waves with their knife-edged crests and the long streaks of white foam on their faces... Only the oddly silent petrols and albatrosses for company... It made a profound impact. For some it's a frightening experience, especially when the weather turns snotty. For others it provokes a wild, exhilarated feeling, and you are ruined for life.

It is true though that mankind is also having a profound negative effect upon our oceans. It's just that those effects have been slower to materialize. And unfortunately, for many it's a matter of "out of sight, out of mind."

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