IIt’s an encouraging start to 2022. In an informal census – or perhaps some sort of aquatic awards ceremony – Wildlife Trusts’ 2021 marine review reported humpback whales off the coast of the ocean. north-east coast of Scotland and England, increasing the number of hatchling seal pups, and seahorses in protected beds of eelgrass off the coast of Dorset.
It seems that the work of trusts and other marine conservation organizations is having a good effect. The blue whales appearing in the Irish Sea could be the physical beneficiaries of the general agreement of the International Whaling Commission in 1982, made three years later, to stop the culling of the species. It’s as if the whales themselves remember, encouraged to return without fear of someone thrusting a harpoon into them.
But in many ways, these optimistic signs are also the markers of what we have lost. In the 19th century, the Solent’s streams were so full of salmon that local apprentices, according to an author writing in 1850, “stipulated in their contracts that it was not to be served more than three times a week.” The same author reported schools of porpoises at Southampton Water “rolling and springing to the surface in their renewed frolics”. In the 18th century, Oliver Goldsmith reported on a Channel filled with whales, dolphins, cod, tuna and even great white sharks chasing columns of herring. “All water seems alive,” Goldsmith wrote in one of the first popular science books, Animated Nature, in 1776, “and is so dark of it that the number seems endless.
Humans, too, were once again watery. In northern England and Scotland, fisherwomen were known as herring quines, so covered with silvery scales that they seemed to become fish themselves. Charles Richard Weld of the Royal Society said in 1859, attacking Darwin: “If a man can become an ape, or has been a whale, why shouldn’t a Miss Caithness become a herring?”
For these writers, the idea that one day there might not be many fish in the sea would have been unthinkable. The depredations of the natural world that began to accelerate in the 19th century would eliminate much of this marine biomass around our coasts, with disastrous effects.
The physical absence of large whales such as blue, fin, humpback and sperm whales may in fact have accelerated the climate crisis – because it has deprived the oceanic food chain of their fertilizing excrement, and of their decaying carcasses which, on the seabed, have helped to sequester carbon in the ecosphere and support species, polar bears and seals to bone-eating osedax worms. The life cycles of the smaller organisms depended entirely on the carcasses.
We look to science to point out what needs to be done, but often art inspires as much as academic reports. In 2012, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey performed a sort of reincarnation of the skeleton of a stranded minke whale in Skegness while cultivating diamond-like chemical crystals on their bones. A year later, artists Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne used the bone-eating worm to evoke a similar alchemical transformation in their film, Osedax: a dead whale swings slowly downward to become, in the words of Shakespeare’s Ariel in The Tempest, “something rich and strange”.
With its shifting sense of gender (slipper snails stack on top of each other, changing gender from male below to female above) and weather (“shadow” parts of the ocean may be 1000 years old), the sea defies all our assumptions. It is a decidedly strange place; correct ask any dolphin. It also does not recognize national borders, of course.
The sea is where our laws and jurisdictions run out. This inevitably raises conflicting questions of responsibility and freedom. Indeed, it is difficult to separate the threats to our native marine life from “alien species” without considering the human refugees arriving on these same shores. Or to note that the climate crisis is a driving force for both.
It’s easy to ignore the sea, or to think of it as a sort of highway with an adjoining fish market. Some may find it bizarre that commentators such as George Monbiot are calling for a rewilding of our seas as well as the land. Others may worry that there is no chance that this will be the case as English and French politicians argue over who has the “right” to take fish from the sea. But whales do. bump off Whitby? Dancing sea slugs off Cumbria? White-nosed dolphins off Essex? They may be abnormalities or signs of disturbance, but the mere act of witnessing such wonders has the power to restore our faith.
As I swim in the cold winter sea, the sleek black head of a gray seal appears beside me, and in the gray sky a skein of brent geese, anthracite visitors from Siberia, appear. It’s not quite Goldsmith’s vision of Eden, but I still hope for miracles in 2022. Happy New Year to the sea, to all its species, and to all of you.