Report from Underwater Worlds: Oceanic Thought

Killian Quigley checks in with us on The Underwater Project as he performs the underwater equivalent of jumping for joy.

This is the third instalment in a four part blog series on The Underwater Worlds Project, a research venture undertaken by The University of Sydney, RMIT, Stanford University and Vanderbilt University. The project explores how aquatic environments and the marine creatures who inhabit them were imagined, represented, explored, exploited and endangered. Read Killian Quigley’s first blog on Bringing the Reef into View

It’s from the air that one begins to successfully track the wonky geography of a fringing reef. We wore heavy ear muffs to tranquillize the motor’s music as we climbed eastward toward the Coral Sea. Looking down on the Heron Island Reef flat, I stretched and spun my stock of word and image, plumbing my memory for the means to name and know. As our seaplane passed the fringe, sudden changes in depth and ecology presented as chromatic motion, aquamarine to azure. Then a view of Sykes Reef to northward, and that young humpback whale, spouting and breaching in the Capricorn Channel. We lit on the impossible neon of the lagoon at One Tree Island, population – as of our visit – two humans, and one family of white-breasted sea eagles.

One Tree Island lies at the far southeastern, windward corner of its namesake reef. Where Heron Island is sandy, its tiny neighbor – the two are only twelve miles apart – is a vegetated shingle cay, comprised mostly of little bits of coral rubble cast up in layers by the sea. It is a remote spot, and stunningly vital. Snorkeling Shark Alley, I wondered at rays – pink whiptail, maybe, or bluespotted mask – boxfish, triggerfish, giant clams, and coral more multitudinous and splendid than anything I’d seen before. (And what I’d seen before had been eye-popping.) Margaret, who took some great photos of our swim, was kind enough to alert me to a green turtle, half-hidden behind a rock twenty feet behind me. I performed the underwater equivalent of jumping for joy. This was behavior unsanctioned, I discovered, by the physics of snorkel-breathing.

In her recent and justly celebrated The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that trying to describe everything she saw in the water at One Tree is “like trying to catalog a dream.” That’s a rich and apt way of putting it: I couldn’t avoid the craving to register color, shape, and species, but my taxonomic aspirations were mostly short-circuited by an inundation of unfamiliar sights and sensations. But Kolbert’s observation is challenging, too, because if the undersea is a bit like a dream, then maybe it’s also a bit unreal. This possibility contributes, I think, to one of the central problems we face as we attempt to contribute positively to the lives of the ocean: as Paul J. Auster and others have suggested, the sea’s strangeness sometimes leads us to imagine it as infinite, and infinitely self-repairing. (Kolbert, it should be stressed, is keenly aware of all this, and her book brings the realities of the undersea carefully and forcefully home.)

For better and worse, the ocean has long been a key habitat for fantasy, and for storytelling. In Rambles Farther, by the Romantic-era novelist and poet Charlotte Smith, the stern and reasonable Mrs. Woodfield leads a series of philosophical discussions with the young persons in her care. Her daughter Elizabeth proposes a scheme for fiction-writing:

I think, mamma, that were I to write a fairy tale, in which all manner of improbable fancies might be put, I would make the scene of it at the bottom of the sea, and describe a palace built of coral and agate, and wainscotted with beryl, mother pearl, and tortoise-shell. 

For Elizabeth, submarine color and material produce fabulous narrative the way the Great Barrier Reef supports sea snakes and starfish. Similarly, the undersea’s brilliance seems to offer a singular frame of comparison for beauty so far beyond description as to be almost supernatural. The early seventeenth-century Scottish poet William Drummond, to cite just one example, drew on the tradition of the admirer’s blazon to analogize his beloved’s attributes: “Pearl, ivory, coral, diamond, suns, gold, / Teeth, neck, lips, heart, eyes, hair are to behold.”

Tropes like these ones form cultural inheritances that are both inspiring and troublesome. On the one hand, the ocean and its occupants are strange, fantastic, and scary. In and with them, we (perhaps some of us more than others) are literally out of our element, and that’s partly why our imaginations are so vibrant when they’re submerged. I don’t know what it would mean for us to arrive at full aqueous intimacy, nor am I sure that such familiarity would be desirable. At the same time, we sometimes ignore, or reject, that which we find difficult to understand, and most of us would do well to wash our bodies, minds, and hearts in more seawater. Furthermore, when we reduce ecosystems – and individual organisms, humans included – to their shiniest, consumable bits and pieces, we simply and objectify the earth and one another, often with condemnable results.

It’s partly because of problems like these that the disciplines we cordon off as the “Humanities” have come under intense scrutiny of late. Many of us have been conditioned to accept the “two cultures” model of the relationship – implicitly antagonistic, according to this view – between the natural sciences and everything else, and to think of accuracy as the sole domain of the former. What would be more productive – and more truthful – would be to acknowledge the real distinctions between our variegated systems of inquiry, but also to admit and celebrate the fact that monocular knowledge inevitably struggles at depth. Different sorts of questions require different sorts of answers, and rigorous, diverse approaches, like diverse biomes, are our best defenses against intellectual, artistic, ethical, and environmental malaise.

The undersea brings this point crashing home, because its natures – ecological, sonic, visual, and so on – are so little understood. Marine biologists, scientific divers, pearl fishermen, nature writers, and countless others have given us invaluable information about what the ocean is, what lives in it, why it’s so important for terrestrial life, and how it’s changing. But Kolbert’s experience – and Smith’s rococo sea-bottom – also represent real knowledge, knowledge we overlook at the expense of the submarine, and of each other. Aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual responses to the habitats and organisms we encounter are not simply narcissistic or facile alternatives to (or window-dressing for) serious investigation. They are, instead, members of a complex ecosystem of awarenesses, oceanic in its multiplicity, and coralline in its splendor.

Image: Richard Ling