Toward an Encrusting Ocean

Ahead of his presentation, An Encrusting Ocean: Fouling and Other Forms of Life for the inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship Lecture, Killian Quigley explains his interest in examining the processes that take place “where invertebrate organisms and sunken surfaces meet”.

Photo from Shutterstock. ID 155349653

What forms does life take under the surface of the sea? How have we attempted to reckon those forms in language and image? How might we reckon them better? On the first of December, it’ll be my privilege to make a very limited approach to these and related questions in “An Encrusting Ocean: Fouling and Other Forms of Life,” a presentation and conversation organized by my colleagues and friends at SEI. In the brief essay you’re reading now, I want to set up a few of my talk’s central concerns and say a little bit about how those concerns have emerged in the course of my work. Before going any further, though, I should acknowledge that “forms” can mean many things, but that while I’m absolutely interested in the diversity of that word’s connotations, in this case I’m thinking specifically of form in material terms of shape, contour, and configuration. And as my title indicates, I’m keen to describe and explore one loose set of formal arrangements—encrustation—in particular.

In the conclusion to his Essay Towards a Natural History of the Corallines (1755), the Irish-born zoologist John Ellis wrote that the ocean “abounds so much with Animal Life, that no inanimate body can long remain unoccupied by some Species.” From “Ships Bottoms” to “Rocks, Stones, and every Thing lifeless,” no sooner is a body submerged than it is “covered with the Habitations of Thousands of Animals.”1 Ellis, whose research helped establish that marine sponges are in fact animals, represents the undersea as the domain of overwhelming and opportunistic invertebrate life, a place that no “Thing” can enter without being overlaid—and perhaps animated—by creatures and homes. An “encrusted natural history” is the historian of science James Delbourgo’s evocative phrase for this kind of relationship, which characterizes the ocean as the site of strange interminglings of life, inanimate substrates, and indeed “man-made objects.”2 Since the first heyday of modern natural history in the West, seas have appeared to compel unruly mixtures of natural things and human things, ecofacts and artefacts, lives and the lifeless.

With “An Encrusting Ocean,” I’m interested in unpacking some of the dynamics that take place, so to speak, where invertebrate organisms and sunken surfaces meet. For a clearer sense of what I mean, think of the decommissioned oil and gas wells, platforms, and pipelines that are being actively reimagined as “artificial reefs.” Think of all the “concretions,” formed from corroding metals and encrusting invertebrate communities, retrieved from the sites of famous imperial shipwrecks and installed in museums and archives. Think, in yet another vein, of the “antifouling” methods being developed by aquaculture scientists and engineers to combat the “settlement and development of unwanted aquatic species on natural and artificial surfaces.”3 These examples are, of course, disparate, and I’m not interested in trying to comprehend each and every habit of encrustation through a single interpretive frame. What I’m out to do, instead, is to encourage us to recognize encrustation as a shifting, ongoing, multispecies process that has the potential to inflect, and even transform, the ways submarine situations mediate materiality, memory, and story. What happens to our understandings of—for instance—imperial wreckage at the sea floor if we acknowledge its encrusted afterlives as constitutively animal, and substantially invertebrate?

“What I’m out to do, instead, is to encourage us to recognize encrustation as a shifting, ongoing, multispecies process that has the potential to inflect, and even transform, the ways submarine situations mediate materiality, memory, and story.”

The fouling in “biofouling” derives from a wider sense of to foul as to clog up, encumber, or overgrow—and so to make something unsafe, dysfunctional, or slow. As Ellis’s reference to “Ships Bottoms” implies, encrustations have had a long history of interfering with the literal progress of maritime movement. Cruising the South China Sea in 1685, the English buccaneer Ambrose Cowley recorded his frustration at failing to capture “a Tartar Ship”—“laden one half with Silver”—because the hoped-for prize “out-sailed us, she being clean and we as foul as we could be.”4 One of the things I hope we can do in our conversations together is take seriously the involvement of more-than-human marine forms in challenging the practical and geopolitical protocols of nautical speed. We’d also do well, I think, to consider the imaginative horizons of what we might call a subversive ethics of fouling. I’m inspired, toward this end, by the poetics of Adrienne Rich, whose “Diving into the Wreck” (1973) inhabits an atmosphere consisting of “half-destroyed instruments,” a “fouled compass,” and other intermediate objects—and suggests how these encrustations may preserve the remains of wrecked worlds while reconfiguring their shapes.

Speaking of atmospheres, it seems to me that this work could never have taken form were I not immersed in SEI’s spirit and ethos of poetic experimentation and interdisciplinary play. With The Aesthetics of the Undersea (2019)—now in paperback!—my co-editor Margaret Cohen, our many contributors, and I charted a history of submarine imaginaries in Western literature and art of the past five hundred years. My work on submerged pastoral, picturesque seascape, and other forms has continued the project of tracing oceanic metamorphoses in genre and convention. But it’s thanks, above all, to the generosity and rigor of my SEI colleagues among the natural sciences and environmental humanities that I’ve felt driven—rather, obliged—to orient this research more definitely toward the strange, estranging, and invaluable lives that fashion marine matter. My thought and writing have been, if you’ll forgive so obvious a metaphor, fouled by encrusting organisms, their eccentric relations, and—not least—the human companions who have helped bring them to mind.


1. John Ellis, An Essay Towards a Natural History of the Corallines, and other Marine Productions of the like Kind (London: John Ellis, 1755), 102.
2. James Delbourgo, “Divers Things: Collecting the World Under Water,” History of Science 49, no. 163 (2011): 158.
3. Jana Bannister et al., “Biofouling in marine aquaculture: a review of recent research and developments,” Biofoulig 35, no. 6: 631.
4. William Ambrose Cowley, Cowley’s Voyage Round the Globe, in A Collection of Original Voyages, edited by William Hack (London: James Knapton, 1699), 23.

Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. He is the author of a book manuscript, Ocean Objects, and co-editor of The Aesthetics of the Undersea (2019). His writings are available or forthcoming from Environmental Humanities, Green Letters, Eighteenth-Century Studies, A Cultural History of the Sea in the Age of Enlightenment, and elsewhere. He is an associate with Oceanic Humanities for the Global South.

Killian Quigley will give the inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship Lecture on Tuesday, 1 December. Click here to register for the virtual event.