Seeing the sea

Omair Ahmad | Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

In the deep: What would the noise of boats with churning propellers and a load of eager whale-spotters sound like to the mammal that navigates using sonar   -  REUTERS

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE

We need to consider the sea for what it truly is, take stock of how it is altering, and change along with it if we are to survive

There is something about the sea. Maybe it is the salty, tidal quality that reminds us of birth. The sea is where we all come from anyway, from which life emerged, gasping, on to land. It is still where most life resides, covering three quarters of the planet, in a wild variety that is hard to imagine. In the Navajo myth of origin, the Dine Bahane, life emerged out of a dark world, an island surrounded by four seas, and slowly a set of heroes made their way up and into the fourth world, where we live.

Maybe that is what we see in the sea, a long journey out of darkness, through trials and tribulations, to perch in the small safety of what we call our world. Maybe that is partially what the Dine Bahane is about. We look at the sea, its ever-changing moods, hear its call, and think of the danger and darkness that lurks within, but also the wonder and the monsters that lay beneath.

It is worth noting that the etymology of the word “monster” comes from “divine omen”, a sign or warning from beyond, to help us think or understand. What do we see in the sea, what warnings do we take, what advice do we hear?

I recently spent a week in Sri Lanka during which we went blue whale spotting off the coast of Mirissa. It was chaotic as boats of all sizes bobbed across the sea, each rushing towards the spot where a plume was sighted as a whale breached the surface to breathe. And then the boats bobbed in place or chugged this way and that, in the hope of spotting it again. My wife wondered what it would sound like to the whales, the mad noise of churning propellers, to a mammal that navigates the deeps using sonar.

For all our misgivings, though, it was impossible to rein in our excitement when a long sinuous body emerged partially out of the water and, later, the tail rose out just as the whale went into a deep dive. We were lucky, they said, and, at the end of hours of trolling the seas, a pod of three whales appeared near us, their bodies emerging and diving, playing in the sea, before disappearing into the deep.

A year or so ago, in late January, I was attending a conference in Tromso, Norway, in the Arctic circle. A journalist colleague suggested we go killer whale watching, and booked tickets at the last minute. Late at night I received a call that the ship I had booked on was not travelling and, instead, I was being transferred to another. I was lucky, this other ship was a gorgeously-made sailing vessel with an electric motor. And we were lucky that day to spot a few orcas, then many more, dozens, playing and feeding in the sub-zero temperatures as we moved silently among them. It was one of the loveliest experiences of my life.

It is not just what we see in the sea, but what we do not see, what we ignore, what we take for granted.

While it was bitterly cold, the Arctic was experiencing a heat wave. Over the decades, as temperatures have risen globally, the ice has receded across the north. It has set off frenzied speculation about oil and minerals that can now be exploited, and shipping routes that can be opened. It has also caused deep concern. At the conference, Sam Tan, the first minister of Singapore, remarked that he was there to explore more than just monetary possibilities. If Singapore saw possible investments, they were nothing when compared to potential losses. What use would it be to get richer, if the seas rose, plunging half of the country underwater?

In India we rarely talk of such possibilities, but we will be among the worst-affected with this phenomenon. In 2009, the Maldivian government held a Cabinet meeting underwater to underscrore the threat faced by the tiny island nation, with just over 420,000 people, due to rising sea levels. Over 1.5 million people will have to be relocated out of the Sundarbans as sea levels rise. When was the last time you heard an Indian politician raise the issue, much less take a swim?

Maybe we need to see the sea, see it for what it truly is, how it is changing, how we must change along with it, if we are to survive.

Omair Ahmad

    Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas  @OmairTAhmad

Published on February 23, 2018
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