Philip Hoare: The Ocean’s Skin

  • Published on: 7th October 2016
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Faclan, The Hebridean Book Festival returns to An Lanntair this year and will explore the theme of Cuan Siar: North Atlantic. Here, author Philip Hoare discusses the culture of the sea and its influence.

Philip Hoare is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southampton and Leverhulme Artist in Residence at The Marine Institute, Plymouth University. He will be appearing at Faclan 2016 on the 4th of November –

The Ocean’s Skin

Once you could look out from the coasts of western Scotland or New England or into the English Channel and see waters alive with animals that spoke of the volume of life in the oceans. From Sri Lanka’s blue whales to the Haida people’s mythic orca on the north-west coast of America, from the Arctic’s eerie narwhals to the Mediterranean’s striped dolphins leaping through Phoenican friezes, the sea was a place that erupted with life. Little wonder that the Roman poet Pliny declared the dolphin a sacrosanct creature whose slaughter should be punishable by death.

Sadly, we have come far from that world. I was born in 1958. I am a child of the Anthropocene, the age of carbon. My existence bears witness to what those same scientists call the Great Acceleration of extinction which began after the Second World War. The current rate of ocean acidification, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is faster now than at any time in the past three hundred million years. Only twelve per cent of rivers now run freely to the seas; 92% of all fresh water is used in agriculture. Each year, 300,000 sea birds die on fishing lines, and one hundred million sharks are killed. Every square kilometre of sea contains 18,500 pieces of floating plastic. Within this century, one third of reef corals, one third of freshwater molluscs, one third of sharks and rays, a fifth of all reptiles, a quarter of all mammals and a sixth of all birds will go the way of the great auk and the passenger pigeon. Our experience of the natural world may soon be relegated to compounds and preserves: one big zoo, or aquarium.

In his prophetic book of 1851, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville wrote of ‘the ocean’s skin’, through which we cannot peer; a barrier ready to be breached, or appropriated, by human beings. The question is an acute one: who owns the sea? The ancient Romans declared the Mediterranean mare nostrum. To the Renaissance world, it was mare liberum. In the 20th century, the oceans were encompassed in our dominion – even as hydrophones lowered into the water recorded the songs of humpback whales. That was the moment which changed us. We realised that the ocean itself had a culture. Animals which had been regarded as dumb, unable to protest their abuse, suddenly had a voice, a haunting lament.

In 1981, Jacques Cousteau remarked that, ‘However fragmented the world, however intense the national rivalries, it is an inexorable fact that we become more interdependent every day. I believe that national sovereignties will shrink in the face of universal interdependence. The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat’. As I write, refugees on the shores of the Mediterranean are being promised that the boat on which they embark will sail directly into London, as if they might alight onto pavements of gold. We know what the reality is.

Without the sea, would we have a soul? If this were a planet without water, where would we find our sense of its mystery? For all we have done to it, and for all that we continue to do, the ocean offers us a notional recovery of the connections we have lost. I refuse to leave its poetry to the past. I swim every day in the sea. I have swum with its whales and dolphins. For me, they embody the spirit of the sea. They bear witness to their beauty, and that of their home. They cross its borders, breaking its skin to demonstrate their mammalian kinship with us. It is salutary to consider that we hold their fate in our hands. In the ocean’s transcendent depths, we decline to yield to despair. It inspires, and it abides. As Melville wrote, it is as if we could reach down and see ourselves in it, ‘the image of the ungraspable phantom of life’. Now more than ever, we place our hope in the sea.