This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2023

Sea of Love

We need to rekindle our relationship with blue spaces

Kiley Best

Blue spaces like arctic and antarctic ice, saltwater ocean, rivers, and lakes make up the global ocean. They cover 71 percent of the planet and are critical to the survival of all living things. River pollution, ocean acidification and melting ice caps are on the radar of most Canadians. But dire warnings from scientists rarely inspire action.

As a marine biologist I see how the average person’s eyes glaze over when they are confronted with sobering facts and figures. I get it. It can seem so abstract, particularly when you live in an urban centre. I believe people are most inspired to take action when they love blue spaces. As climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe writes in her book Saving Us: “We need to bring our hearts to the table, not just our heads.”

Before industrial times, First Peoples and settlers had deep connections to the global ocean. Ordinary people kept track of the tides, weather, and seasons, because those dictated when you could travel downriver by canoe or cross a bay on sea ice. Water also provided food. The availability of fish, shellfish, marine mammals and seabirds was determined by migration patterns, mating seasons, and the health of marine life, so you can be sure people were paying attention.

But as fishing technology advanced, intense commercial fisheries developed, leading to the depletion of marine life.And our deep and expansive blue spaces were exploited as places to hide things that are unsightly and unwanted on the land. Once garbage and waste have been dumped into the ocean, chemicals dissipate, debris sinks, and entire ecosystems lose the ability to thrive. It all happens out of sight and out of mind.

Water is present in some form, wherever you are in the world. Fresh water is connected through surface rivers and tributaries, underground in the permafrost and in the water table flowing towards the ocean. Its journey doesn’t end there; it circulates through powerful currents, all over the planet, evaporating at the surface once it reaches the equator. Leaving the heavy salt behind, water then dances in the atmosphere with the clouds and wind, coming back to earth eventually as snow, sleet, rain, or fog. It seeps through the soil nourishing our plants, flowing over rocks and picking up minerals before beginning the cycle once more.Water is a beautiful thing, so how do we reconnect with it?

Start small, by getting familiar with a single blue space. Take the time to sit near water, say at an urban stream, then watch it move, and notice the life within and around it. Let this become part of your routine, just like doing groceries or watching your favourite TV show.

My retired father spends lots of time by the sea. He notices when there are whales around, when the capelin are rolling, and if a shell becomes more abundant. He asks me to explain what’s happening biologically, because the more he observes, the more he cares.

Pay attention and you will notice when things start falling out of balance. Then you might find yourself picking up that bit of garbage on the riverbank. If you notice that the source of the garbage is a municipal garbage bin that needs more frequent emptying, you may call the town council. Small individual actions to prevent waste from entering the ecosystem of that blue space, are tangible and come quite naturally as you build a relationship with water bodies.

Keep focusing on how you can make changes in keeping with your growing care for our water systems. That might look like consuming less and responsibly: choosing shampoo bars over liquid shampoo in a bottle or using a refillable water bottle or silicone food saver bag, to reduce plastic waste.

As former U.S. First Lady and environmentalist Lady Bird Johnson noted in 1967, “The environment is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”

The next step is take your newfound love of water public. Our actions can inspire others to consume with the global ocean in mind. Sharing responsible companies’ posts on social media works, as does old-fashioned conversation. I use a natural clay deodorant that comes in a glass pot that the company invites consumers to return so they can reuse them. It smells great, so when people ask me about it I tell them about the brand and their environmental programs.

Working with fishers and undergraduate students on conservation projects, I drop it into conversation that I never go in the field without picking up marine debris. Small acts of love for the ocean can be contagious. Once on a field trip with a fisher we did an impromptu inventory of the debris along the shoreline: tangled nets, plastic gasoline jugs, beer cans … and so the list goes on. We found plastic lobster tags discarded 20 years ago and still intact, as if they’d been tossed overboard just yesterday. The fisher couldn’t believe this tangible example of how plastic doesn’t biodegrade and how litter just accumulates, slowly leaching its chemicals and eventually micro and nano plastics. He vowed not to contribute to this garbage problem.

Another way to show your love: participate in a community science program that recruits and trains the public to help collect data that feeds scientific research programs. If there isn’t one in your area there are lots of online apps and platforms that individuals or groups can contribute to; organizations such as eOceans, and the Marine Debris Tracker app can point you towards community-based science projects. The data you collect will be used to help advise governments who have the power to make decisions around blue spaces and their resources.

To continually renew your sense of wonder, you could join a snorkelling or cold-plunge group, or learn to surf. You’ll soon find you’ve signed up for more than just a hobby. For example, it should come as no surprise that surfers are among the most passionate and active ocean activists out there: Coral Gardeners was started by a 16-year-old French-Polynesian surfer to restore reef communities all over the world; Surf Riders lobbied for a plastic-bag ban and blocked offshore drilling in California; and Surfers Against Sewage has cleaned up coastlines all around the UK. You’re in a serious relationship with the global ocean now, so join forces with like-minded water lovers!

Last thing: as you physically get into the water, let it hold you up, let it move you with its waves. Feel its temperature. Feel its wildness. Then thank it for making our planet habitable and being so easy to love. In the words of American marine biologist Sylvia Earle:

“Stick your face in the blue heart of the planet.”

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