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The ocean's skin: tales of dominion and defeat

Milton avery sea sand sky 1960 2

Seen but unseen, the sea comprises much more than the surface upon which we gaze, and threatens to claim us despite our attempts to claim it

In our 21st-century sea, things become most concentrated, most extreme, as the land ends. Everything runs out here, even as it begins. Just over a third of this planet’s population occupies the coast, clinging to it for safety, from owners of the most egregious real estate in New England to Sri Lankan fishermen perched on poles. But it is here, where we seek resort, that our world is most insecure.

In Moby Dick, his near-mythic account of 1851, Herman Melville wrote of ‘the ocean’s skin’, through which we cannot peer, for all that we are ineluctably drawn to it. The sense of its otherness abides and disguises. It is the largest single thing on this planet. We call it a body of water, as if it were an extension of our own physical dominion – in the same way that we claim the entire planet. But the truth is it has never been under our control, and our future is threatened by the fact that it is rising against us.

‘The uncontrollability of the sea – the fact that we cannot manipulate or build on it – is an offence and a challenge, and so we bespoil it’

The sea. It’s where we came from, evolutionarily. We all looked like sea creatures in our mother’s bellies, with our residual gills and fins for hands, swimming in an amniotic sea; we first heard the world from the sea inside her. Through the marine plants ensconced within, the oceans provide 60 per cent of the oxygen we breathe – Coleridge’s image of the ‘great sea-savannah’ evokes the fertility of this gigantic photosynthetic machine on which we rely – and most of the planet’s biomass resides in their waters. The sea is home to the only animal, excluding ourselves, that owes its evolution to culture – the killer whale. By far a more successful mammal than humans in evolutionary terms, the killer whale has been present in every ocean in its current evolved state for six million years, living in matriarchal societies bound by shared tastes, dialects and behaviour. The sea is also home to the oldest mammal, the bowhead whale, whose slow metabolism in Arctic waters ensures it lives for up to 300 years. These animals bear witness. Meanwhile, deep ocean vents volcanically generate chemosynthetic life far from the sun. They are where life may have begun; they suggest the possibility of life on other planets. 

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Hercules Lifting the Skin of the Sea Asks Venus for One Moment Longer Before She Awakens Love Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí’s 1963 painting Hercules Lifting the Skin of the Sea Asks Venus for One Moment Longer Before She Awakens Love envisions the sea’s surface as a tensile film that can be pulled away to reveal a full and divergent world © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2019. Image courtesy Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum

Salt water covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface like a blanket, shrouding our planet’s venal sins and protean past. But consider its volume too, descending 11 kilometres at its most profound to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a place less visited than the Moon. Only three human beings have been down there; it seems symptomatic that one of them was film director, James Cameron, who descended in a bathyscaphe he might have recreated in CGI. Now our human technosphere, as Ross Andersen called it in a recent article in The Atlantic, ‘reaches into nearly every body of water on Earth … a grocery bag was recently seen drifting along the bottom of the Mariana Trench’.

The uncontrollability of the sea – the fact that we cannot manipulate or build on it – is an offence and a challenge, and so we bespoil it, dumping plastic, nuclear waste, organochlorines and sulphur emissions from cruise liners and container ships beneath its skin. The ocean has become a carbon sink, absorbing the energy of our overheated planet in an almost-sacrificial manner. Worst of all, as far as its cetaceans and other animals are concerned, it is blasted with a constant barrage of anthropogenic sound, from ships’ engines to seismic surveys for oil and military sonar. This is not Jacques Cousteau’s ‘silent world’ (not that it ever was); we humans abhor a vacuum and our relentless search for new trade, new energy, new leisure, new conflict, is reflected in and extended to the sea. 

‘The inadequacy of our response to the sea lies in our inability to encompass it’

We call it ‘the sea’ as if it were one discrete, animate thing, not an element made of other elements, a liquid gas, something with no colour of its own, only the colour it takes from the sky or the ocean bottom. It is always evasive and illusory, even as it is always changing and staying the same. It mocks our sense of time and space. Without the sea, would we have a soul, a poetry? ‘We cannot think of a time that is oceanless’, TS Eliot wrote. ‘In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up’, Michel Foucault said. ‘The sea, everywhere the sea, and no one looking at it’, Haitian-Canadian novelist and journalist Dany Laferrière observed. And Melville: ‘Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.’

Over the decades, up until the mid-20th century, the coast was amended for ease of human access in a manner that would never be allowed nowadays. No municipal authority would be permitted to build concrete steps leading down into the water, conducting frail bodies into the terrible sea. The salubrious, minerally charged salt water has acquired the opposite meaning: we are advised not to go near the sea, for fear that its tentacular grasp might pull us in like some giant octopus. The mortal sea of the 19th century has become yet more deadly. It is no longer the romantic sea, the sea that drowned Percy Shelley or in which Lord Byron performed his feats of bravado (his club foot made him inelegant on land; he was more at home in the water, even though it often made him vomit like a pig) or even Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fated sea, full of slimy things and overflown by an all-seeing, angelic albatross. 

301 caribbean sea, jamaica, 1980

301 caribbean sea, jamaica, 1980 hiroshi sugimoto / Marian goodman gallery

The blank and level seas of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes series evoke an unbroken infinity, but the dulled plane of their surface is only a canopy to the rippling land that rolls underneath. Image courtesy of Hiroshi Sugimoto / Marian Goodman gallery

The inadequacy of our response to the sea lies in our inability to encompass it. We cannot measure something that is tugged around the Earth by a combination of our satellite and our sun. Time, on our planet, is slowed by the moon: 400 million years ago, a day lasted 21 hours but, as the heavenly bodies separate, the spinning of the Earth is slowed, resulting in our slovenly 24 hours. And the sea too has a role to play, with days being infinitesimally longer at sea level than on a moutaintop. Meanwhile astrobiologists – engaged in a miraculous discipline primarily focused on something that has yet to be discovered – speculate that the most likely exoplanets to support life may have atmospheres that are entirely oceanic, in which aerial whales swim like barrage balloons.

Ht indian ocean

Marie Tharp indian ocean

The outline of the Indian peninsula can be discerned among this intricate and obscure topography, inscribed by American geologist Marie Tharp and her partner Bruce Heezen in the first scientific maps of the ocean floor in the 1950s

The real aliens, of course, are the whales whose songs were recorded in the 1960s by Roger Payne and released as an LP, giving a pop cultural voice to the ocean just as we were speculating on the possibility of life on other planets, with whom we attempted to communicate. We sent out the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, each loaded with a golden disc containing images, spoken greetings and the songs of the humpback whale. Their voice is a sound as big as the sea, as Payne said, as if only an animal so big could fill the volume of its environment. Off the west coast of Mexico, I heard that sound echoing through the surface of the bay, reverberating like a loudspeaker; when I dove in the water and hung there upside down like Payne’s hydrophone, my dangling bones reverberated too.

The sea is also a queer place, where animals change sex and even human gender is challenged. Men owned the sea – but they called it ‘she’ and it seemed, in turn, to feminise them, as they lived there without women. Ships became female too, as surrogate mothers to these potential orphans. During long whaling voyages men were recorded as dancing with each other; women turned to drag to disguise themselves, undertaking their own voyages as sailors, whalers and even pirates. Perhaps the most subtle accounts of the sea come from women writers – they do not seek to dominate or control the water, but to move with it. In To the Lighthouse and The Waves, for instance, Virginia Woolf adopts a literal stream-of-consciousness technique to echo the ebb and flow of the tides in the tug of human emotions and her own internal voice. She called her lover, Vita Sackville-West, ‘my porpoise’, and admitted to her diary in 1926 that no future biographer would believe that her works were inspired by ‘my vision of a fin rising on a wide blank sea’. 

‘He swam the seas before the continents broke water … if ever the world is to again be flooded, then the eternal whale will still survive’

Woolf’s is a modernist sea, but the scientists of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK, tell me that parts of the ocean can be remarkably unchanging: the water may be 400 years old in certain parts, 4,000 years old in others. To Joseph Conrad, for whom the sea was ‘not a navigable element, but an intimate companion’, that age was implicit. ‘Some of us … have seen it looking old, as if the immemorial ages had been stirred up from the undisturbed bottom of ooze …’, he wrote in The Mirror of the Sea, the water having ‘an appearance of hoary age, lustreless, dull, without gleams, as though it had been created before light itself’.

The sea seems eternal. At the end of Moby Dick, in which the sinking of Ahab’s whaleship Pequod echoes the destructiveness of human ambition, the unreliable narrator Ishmael witnesses the disaster, clinging to a floating coffin as the ship breaks up, ‘then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. Melville even addressed the notion of whether man’s remorseless hunt would result in the whale’s extinction.



As we peer below, the aged eye of a whale looks coolly up at us from ocean depths, both humanistic and prehistoric in its torpor. Image courtesy of Helmut Corneli / Alamy

No, he said: ‘He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies’.

The New England philosopher Henry David Thoreau – himself a professional surveyor who had plumbed the apparently bottomless Walden Pond as a microcosm of the ocean – attempted to address the metaphysical sense of this volume on his long walks in Cape Cod in the late 1840s. Thoreau came to no conclusion: ‘So many unconcluded tales to be continued another time. So, if we had diving-bells adapted to the spiritual deeps, we should see anchors with their cables attached, as thick as eels in vinegar, all wriggling vainly toward their holding-ground.’ 

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Hubble courtesy of Nasa the ocean’s skin

Turning our gaze upwards, we send Hubble to scope the skies; one of the first images that returns appears to stare back, as if belonging to a greater cosmic deity. Image courtesy of NASA

I once worked as a teenager in Pirelli’s cable factory in Southampton, set on land reclaimed from the sea. Inside its great brick confines, sprawled on the new shore like a beached whale, vast wooden drums fed marine cable directly across to the docks and the waiting ships to be unrolled along the ocean bed, as if tethering one country to another. The metrics of this metaphysical connection are set against imperial ambition. In 1872, HMS Challenger, commanded by George Nares, set off from Sheerness on a three-and-a half-year voyage to chart the seas and examine whatever she might trawl up from their depths. The expedition, initiated by Professor Charles Wyville Thompson, was inspired by two, perhaps conflicting, aims: pure science and commercial communications. Challenger’s mission was to discover if life existed at great depth (Darwin’s theories even encouraged some scientists to believe that specimens of ancient life might be found at the bottom of the ocean) and to fulfil the urgent need to survey the same ocean beds for their suitability for communication cables (the first telegraphic cables having been laid successfully some 20 years before). 

In the same year that Challenger set off on its voyage, John Ruskin, the artist-critic who thought nothing of spending five hours a day just staring at the sea, wrote his Fors Clavigera – his monthly newsletter to the working man, like a 19th-century blog – in which he detailed that year’s laying of a submarine telegraph line to India, when, as he said, you knotted a copper wire all the way to Bombay, and flashed a message along it. 

Like a 19th-century version of the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, HMS Challenger carried on its expeditionary force into the unknown, crewed by 220 men – many of whom deserted and some of whom were driven mad by the demands of the seemingly endless voyage. Also on board were six scientists with their own dedicated shipboard laboratory, an expedition artist named Jean Jacques Wild, and a menagerie of pets acquired along the way, including a cassowary, ostriches, tortoises, spiders, a fur seal and Robert the Parrot, who would call out at intervals, ‘What? Two thousand fathoms and no bottom?’ Little wonder men lost their minds. 

Seamen catching a shark during the voyage of the challengertc2

Seamen catching a shark during the voyage of the challengertc2

Seamen have captured a shark during the voyage of the Challenger Expedition (1872-76), in an expression of humanity’s expanding dominion.

Dredging the sea bed at stations every hundred miles, criss-crossing every ocean, Challenger found thousands of new species of all kinds of animate and inanimate life, from deepwater angler fish to stalked barnacles. As the ship gathered the type specimens that would define marine science for decades to come, its onboard photographer, Jesse Lay, employed a camera for the first time to record these observations of the natural world. Lay was the first to photograph floating icebergs, which appeared as miniature continents themselves. Many of these images remain, preserved in the chilly basement of the National Oceanography Centre – row upon row of little cardboard boxes of large glass slides, like slices of the sea, created for public lectures to disseminate the wonders of the expedition’s findings.

The Challenger expedition was a scientific endeavour, but it also spoke to the way the West saw the planet, as something to be brought under our civilising dominion. Yet it took until the mid-20th century for the succeeding empire of the United States to proclaim a unilateral fiefdom, 200 miles around its coasts. In the 1970s, the UN agreed on this exclusive economic zone, granting coastal states the right to exploit marine resources within that boundary. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 1987 that the UK officially extended its territorial waters from three to 12 miles. 


New York Aquarium the ocean’s skin

Bringing a corner of the sea back to land, to enclose for our viewing pleasure, New York Aquarium houses a Beluga whale, appearing here to fly looming overhead; a dreamlike and benevolent apparition. Image courtesy of Rebecca Norris Webb / Magnum Photos

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, a new political-cultural liminality was proposed. Its result, and the decision to cast off from the continent (the contained land), presumed the sea that surrounds the UK sets it apart – the country is defined, unlike the neighbouring amorphous continental mass. Here in the UK, we set up a new bulwark, surrounded by an aquatic cordon sanitaire, to keep the rest of the world at bay. 

Every voyage of discovery begins and ends with this sense of dominion and defeat. And we have succeeded in building on the sea – or at least, occupying it. Plastic now permeates its volume, with 13 million tonnes of the stuff added to it each year. Modern albatross chicks, fed by nurturing parents with tampon applicators and cigarette lighters carefully fished from the Pacific, now die of starvation, trying to vomit up the trash in their stomachs, weighed down by its mass and unable to fly. Meanwhile, zooplankton pass microplastic up through the oceanic food chain and back to us. It is estimated that the majority of humans now consume these particles. And if our bodies are 90 per cent water, then we are turning the sea into a simulacrum of our own consuming culture.

The 21st century will be played out in the melting Arctic, the refugee-inundated Mediterranean and the Pacific Rim’s flaring geopolitical realignment. An insecure sea. We cannot escape the ocean, yet we barely give it a second glance on long-haul flights as mile after mile of endless grey-green passes beneath us. The future sea will be impossible to ignore. But by then, it may be too late.

Lead image: Milton Avery’s 1960 abstract Sand, Sea and Sky imagines the opaque ocean as composed of pure line and block colour. Image © Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2019

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today