I first met the ocean in 1940, when I was two years old. We were in Florida along the shore of the Atlantic. I remember being at the water’s edge, as it lapped gently at my feet, when, all of a sudden, I saw a sand crab. I pick it up and took it to my mother who, in turn, put some sand and seawater into an empty milk bottle, which were glass in those days, and dropped the crab into it. I still, at age 72, have a vivid image of the crab burrowing swiftly out of sight into the sand in the bottom third of the bottle.
We move to Corvallis, Oregon, in 1941, when I was three years old. Corvallis is roughly 50 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, which made it easy for day trips with picnic lunches on the beach. Consequently, the small, secluded beach of the “Devil’s Punchbowl,” south of Yachats, saw us frequently during the years of my childhood.
Getting to the beach in those days was always an adventure because the trail from where our car was parked to the beach was steep and narrow, winding its way through thickets of salal and overhanging lodgepole pines. Moreover, there was an interminable trickle of water along part of the trail, which made it slippery in a place or two.
Once at the bottom of the trail, we were confronted with a veritable mountain range of driftwood that was often 15 to 20 feet high, depending on the storms of winter, which left a different configuration every year. There was so much wood, ranging from small branches, to boards, to whole trees, that we could build shelters from the wind, which easily accommodated my mother, father, sister, and me. Enormous piles of driftwood were simply part of the beach, a part I took as much for granted in my growing up as I did clean air, pure water, and safe sunshine.
In addition to the driftwood, there was a mammoth rock riddled with large holes that filled with seawater during high tide. Each tide pool was held crabs, sea anemones, small sculpins, snails, chitins, limpets, starfish, and different kinds of seaweeds. To mount the rock, however, meant timing the speed and height of the waves that roared around the monolith—always an exciting challenge.
Then, one day in my mid teens, the driftwood was gone. Not only that, but the beach was filled in with sand and the monolith was completely buried. It was as though neither driftwood nor rock had ever existed. At first, I merely felt an acute sense of loss, a sense of something, which had seemed a constant in my world, as I grew up, was suddenly changing, unbeknownst to me. That was disquieting in itself. But, then I began to wonder were the driftwood went and what a story it could tell about its journey, if only it could speak. And it a way it could.
The Pacific Ocean along the northern Oregon Coast—a body of water connected to all the oceans of the world to form the Mother of All Waters.
The ocean created sand over the millennia, and the waves of today paint ever-changing designs, using that sand as their medium.
As the years passed and I grow in awareness, I began to see the tooth marks of beaver on some of the smaller pieces of driftwood on various beaches in Oregon, a sign that the wood had come from somewhere along a coastal stream. Now and then one of the trees bore the squarish holes peck into in it a distant forest by a pileated woodpecker searching for carpenter ants. Then again, a drifted tree would have its branch stubs splintered from smashing into the rocky headlands during one of winter’s violent storms, or would be partially covered with barnacles from drifting as sea over the days, weeks, and months before once again coming ashore. And sometimes a tree bore the marks of an axe or a saw, chronicling its encounter with a person.
In the summer of 1950, my family sailed on the Canard White Star Line from New York to Le Havre, France. As we crossed the Atlantic, which too about eight days, I saw swordfish alongside of the ship, as well as flying fish leaping from of the water and gliding out of the ship’s wake. But most of all, I was impress by the immense expanse of water and the horizon, which seem to curve downward in the distance, as though we were going to sail of the edge of the world.
I was placed in a boarding school (the Odenwaldschule) near the town of Heppenheim, western Germany, in the autumn of 1950, and another one (La Chataigneraie) in the autumn of 1951 near the village of Coppêt, which is between Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland. During the summer, my mother took my sister and me to the Mediterranean Coast of Italy, where I remember the azure water, the waves echoing in the caves as they smashed into the walls of the towering islands of rock, and the beautiful spines of sea urchins, which were ground smooth by the surf and mixed in with the sands of the beach. Then, in 1952, we sailed back over the Atlantic to New York on the Queen Mary.
That crossing I will always remember because we encountered a violent storm, which sent the spray of waves flying over of the tops of the ship’s smoke stacks. Virtually everyone was seasick. The man sharing the cabin in which I slept, but whom I did not know, not only filled the small cubical with the reek of vomit but also added a chores of seemingly endless dry heaves. Meanwhile, the crew had place buckets in strategic locations on the stairs and along the corridors to catch the vomit—should someone even aim for them, which no one appeared inclined to do. I attended one final breakfast at a table with small side rails erected to keep the dishware from crashing to the floor, but quit eating when someone’s vomit rolled passed me as the ship lurched up and down and from side to side.
Consequently, I abandoned my bed and meals and made my way the upper deck, which was a challenge at best. When the ship rose on a wave, I could barely lift my foot off the stairs, and when it plunged into a trough between waves, I felt weightless as I bounded down the stairs to beat the next uplifting wave that would root me to the spot. For the next three days and nights, I “camped out” on the upper deck, where I at least had fresh air and water to drink. When the storm finally abated, I was left with an sense of and respect for the power of the ocean when transformed from a quiet body of water on a still day into the unspeakable furry that one can experience only when plying its vast surface at the mercy of its roiling waters, howling wind, and driving rain.
I had the opposite experience in 1956, as I fished for salmon off the coast of La Push on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The surface of the Pacific was so calm, smooth, and glassy that I felt an incredible urge to try walking on it. I had to periodically put my hand in it to check reality. Never before or since have I seen an ocean surface so mirror like, so solid appearing. As it turned out, however, this stillness was the calm before the storm, which made itself known about a mile from shore, as I was putting in for the night.
October 1963 found me camped along the Red Sea in Egypt as part of the Yale Peabody Museum’s Agrological Expedition, in which I served as the vertebrate zoologist. Here, the water was warm and inviting, and the tidal fluctuation was about three feet. Its constant, quiet lapping at the shore was soothing. The sun appeared to rise as gently over the Sinai Peninsula in front of our camp and to set just as gently over the Red Sea Hills behind us.
Sunrise over the Gulf of Suez, an arm of the Red Sea, in mid October, 1963, with the Sinai Peninsula in the distance.
The Red-Sea Hills in mid October, 1963.
It was here, in the Red Sea at Mersa Alem, that I met the only school of great barracuda that I have ever seen, an experience that intuitively caused me to remain absolutely motionless as the 20 or so long, slender, silvery fish passed by within a few yards me. Later that day, a dark shadow crossed overhead while I was examining a giant clam anchored to the bottom near shore and the small, soft-shelled crabs living inside the clam’s shells. I looked up to see four or five manta rays moving majestically through the water as though they were weightless, totally unbound by gravity. Although these giant plankton feeders were harmless to me, I wondered momentarily if my balding head might appear like a tasty morsel.
The days passed slowly, peacefully here, while I did my best to make a giant clam edible, but to no avail. It remained tough as the sole of a leather shoe, no matter how I beat the flesh, or cooked it, or both. One day, whilst so engaged, my guide and companion, Ibrahim Helmy, called me to a higher vantage and pointed to a huge procession of squid passing by.
It was not long thereafter that the ocean offered up another kind of experience—a painful one. Swimming lazily on my back, I decided to turn over. In the process, I suddenly felt like a million, angry hornets were stinging me. As it turned out, I had straddled a large jellyfish with an impressive array of dangling tentacles loaded with stinging cells. To put it mildly, my crotch was swollen and exceedingly painful for a goodly number of days.
I did not again see the Mediterranean until November 1963, when Ibrahim and I spent a couple of days at Alexandria, where I walked along the strand before heading deep into the Western Desert.
In 1965, I took the inland passage along the coast of southeastern Alaska on my way to Fairbanks, where I spent the autumn and most of the winter before leaving once again for Egypt.
While helping the Japanese with forest problems in 1992, I was honored to visit the Sea of Japan at Tagata, Hirihito, and some years later the Pacific Ocean south of Puerto Montt, near the southern end of Chile. In addition, I have flown over various parts of the world’s ocean between North Africa and Europe, Egypt and Lebanon, between the Unite States and Europe via the polar route over the sea ice, between the United States and Japan, the United States and India, the United States and Malaysia. In doing so, I have come to view of the ocean as the mother all waters, albeit with myriad diverse boundaries and climates.
The vastness of these waters makes it difficult for people living in various regions of the world to comprehend that the world’s oceans are in fact a single entity, which recognizes no human boundaries. Nevertheless, humanity has divided this great body of water into segments, each with a different name and a myriad of proclaimed ownerships. Consequently, industrial humanity dismisses the fact that the combined oceans of the world constitute a major part of the global commons and, as such, their bounty is everyone’s birthright, and their care is everyone’s responsibility. Moreover, every person for generations to come will pay for the abuse and avarice with which “economic man” (Homo economis) has treated the oceans since the beginning of the industrial age—a behavioral pattern of deep unconsciousness that continues unabated, thereby spawning the growing oceanic extinctions to the increasing detriment of each succeeding generation.
Is this the inevitable outcome? It doesn’t have to be. But, that depends on the conscious choices we, the adults of the world, make from this day forward. To find the alternatives requires a greater understanding of the ocean. And, guess what?
Oceans in Crisis:
The graphic “Let’s Explore the Ocean” is used with the kind permission of its creators, at masterdegree.net. If you want to see a larger image, click here.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.