We know what must be done; at every level, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, we have plans and policies and agreements in place to free us of this disease. We know what must be done, but we are not yet aware enough, mad enough, or desperate enough to do enough about it.
As founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, and having contributed for most of my career to organizations devoted to marine affairs, education, and culture, I am often asked if I am a sailor. I demur, admitting only to owning a boat. I have too much awareness of and respect for real sailors to compare my level of skill. Like many mariners, I get seasick, unless the seas are calm or I am sufficiently infused with mint and ginger. But the susceptibility is always there, the memory of past unpleasant incidents, the anticipation, both physical and psychological, of what is to come, and the thing itself — nauseating, exhausting, humiliating, just plain awful, until it’s over and you’ve found your sea legs again.
Sickness at sea is as old as seafaring itself, sailors subject to wind, sun, heat, cold, dehydration, poor food, and all the rest. We know the tales of scurvy and such, sometimes when we look more closely we can sense another disease — that of loneliness, melancholy, depression, the mental illness that can result from extreme physical and psychological circumstance — until it too is over, in the best case with a successful homecoming and revival.
The world ocean is a sick sea. I have never been so definitive before, always the optimist thinking we are not yet there. But the symptoms are no longer deniable, the evidence mounts daily in nauseating waves of reported spills and leaks, dying reefs, depleted fisheries, vast areas so oxygen-deprived that nothing lives. Like mint and ginger, I keep looking for the good news, the growing number of marine protected areas, small victories over the extraction interests, some policy or regulation that draws a line, some triumph by a local coastal community or small island state standing up to protect itself from the sickness.
The thinking once was that the ocean by its vastness would dilute these things, would heal itself. But we are beyond that now, holding on to that homily only as a desperate belief or a cynical justification for permitting the practices that have created the disease itself. What will it take for us to realize that we are the attacking, consuming microbes and that to counter seasickness we must first heal ourselves?
I read recently the phrase “sea blindness,” referring at some historical moment to public unawareness of the ocean’s relevance and relationship to what takes place on land. Yes, there is shipping and trade and warfare, and yes, there is fishing and food production, but true insight and awareness remains dim, clouded by fog on the horizon, or distance from where one lives, or immediacy of these ocean manifestations directly on our daily life. If we can’t “see” it, or feel it, then we can’t really do anything about it.
We should be frustrated and furious. We should feel the nauseating, exhausting, humiliating reality of what is happening to our ocean. We should be outraged by governance that delays and prolongs any policy, regulation, or action directed toward sustaining this essential natural environment. We should be aware that today in the United States, Europe, the Pacific, the Arctic, indeed everywhere in this ocean world, even the progress we have made is under attack by forces of greed, dilution, revision, and retraction of anything that interferes with the exploitation or corruption of the ocean until we are left with only a toxic sea.
What will it take?
There are thousands of ocean advocates, policy-makers, scientists, communicators, organizers, and individuals out there, all over the world, fighting to keep our ocean safe. Hats off! I hope you can honor, respect, support, and engage with them wherever you may be. Join them and build their number exponentially.
But my sense is that this medicine is not working, is not yet big enough, strong enough, even smart enough to do what must be done. We are advocating for the ocean with best intentions and hope. We want to get beyond sea sickness to that sustainable place, purged, free, secure. We know what must be done; at every level, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, we have plans and policies and agreements in place to free us of this disease. We know what must be done, but we are not yet aware enough, mad enough, or desperate enough to do enough about it.
We are talking about survival here. Every human need for the future — fresh water, food, energy, medicine, security, and psychological renewal — is dependent on a healthy, sustainable world ocean. The ocean is our cure. Why would we destroy it?
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean, providing links and proactive services to individuals, aquariums, science centers, educational institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations to build public awareness and a global constituency for the ocean. “Sea Sickness” was originally published as an audio podcast on WORLD OCEAN RADIO.