If they but knew, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feeling toward the ocean with me," says Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville's great novel Moby Dick. Melville was alluding to a universal bond between people and their ocean, though he readily admitted many of his contemporaries were unaware of it.
What are the reasons for this bond? Some scientists believe that our reactions may have something to do with the sound waves emitted by water. Others feel there is a connection with the visual appeal of water. Water is playful and refreshing. For most of us it is an essential ingredient of natural beauty.
Our feelings for the sea seem to reflect intuitively the importance of water to life. Water made life possible on Earth. Without it there would have been no atmosphere, and conditions on the planet would have been too extreme to make life possible. Life probably originated in water, and we still carry traces of these origins. The blood that runs through our veins is similar in the composition of its salts to sea water. So is the amniotic fluid in which the human embryo floats for the duration of its gestation period. No wonder then that babies appear to thoroughly enjoy a warm bath, as though it were a return to the maternal womb.
Some scientists believe that there may even have been an aquatic phase in our evolution. In their view, our ancestors may have spent a good deal of their time in the balmy waters of tropical seas rather than in trees or on grass flats. The theory s by no means universally accepted, but it would help explain our attraction to the sea and our kinship with dolphins and whales, mammals that joined the migration to the sea but stayed there and readapted to fish-like forms and habits.
If any of the above is true, our feelings toward the ocean should be universal. And that is what this issue of the UNESCO Courier seeks to explore. By examining the role of the ocean in the human imagination, it looks for similarities in the ways in which people in different parts of the world have sought to express their feelings about the sea. Are there themes common to sea stories of the distant past and their modern equivalents? What about cultural divisions? Are there, for instance, similarities between the attitudes towards the sea of the Polynesians, who have always been surrounded by water, and the Chinese?
In the last few decades there have been dramatic changes in our uses of the sea. Driven by a need for more space and resources, we built machinery to explore and exploit the sea, even to its deepest reaches. We apportioned and reapportioned it, and sought to live or relax along its shores in ever growing numbers. And finally we acquired the ability to affect and even change it.
Much Of this was, at least initially, accompanied by a sense of optimism. During the 1960s, the annual food yield from the sea increased rapidly. New and valuable mineral and energy resources were discovered, and later recovered, from the sea floor. Marine transportation methods were revolutionized. New uses of the ocean were proposed and studied: obtaining clean energy from the difference in temperature between warm surface layers and cold deep waters, for instance, or from tides and waves; recovering new and promising drugs from a variety of marine organisms; or disposing of certain wastes, safely and effectively, in the ocean environment.
But soon this sense of optimism was marred by a number of incidents. Just over thirty years ago the Minamata incident shocked the world. People living in or near the Japanese town of that name were poisoned, killed or crippled for life by industrial pollutants discharged into the sea and returned to them trial pollutants discharged into the sea and returned to them through the marine food chain. Shortly thereafter, other incidents occurred, seemingly with increasing frequency. There was concern over radioactive contamination caused by the fallout from nuclear tests. Pesticides such as DDT began to affect the coastal environment. Valuable fish stocks disappeared, fished to near-ruin by increasingly effective fishing methods. Massive oil spills, from platforms as well as vessel accidents, smothered beaches and birds, causing a public outcry and providing visible evidence for the first time that there were limits to human domination of the sea. No matter how much we may think we control the sea, it has many ways of reminding us that it will always have the last word.
The development of mass communications, especially of television, has greatly affected our perception of the sea to the extent that we no longer need to be at sea, or even see it in person, to experience its mysteries. As a result of television today's generation knows more about the sea than any before, although the information is not necessarily based on first-hand experience; nor is it always of high quality.
Today the ocean is perceived less as a place of danger and menace than as a beautiful, romantic place where it is possible to live and relax. In it live creatures not like Moby Dick, the threatening monster that sank Captain Ahab's ship, but gentle, singing whales. In an age when sea travel has become far safer than it once was, we relive the fear of shipwreck in the comfort of our living rooms. We feel more comfortable and familiar with the sea, and yet at the same time we want it to remain mysterious. What lurks beneath the surface, in the eternal darkness of the abyss?