The sea is invisible to us – so it’s become our trash heap

The sea defines and delineates us, sustains and supports us. It provides 50% of the air we breathe, and carries 95% of our global trade by volume. Yet most of us only interact with it for these few weeks, when it becomes our resort and playground; a place of careless abandon, left littered and abused once we’re done with its aestival charms.

Defied by its greater vastness, we chose to ignore the ocean and fly over its expanses, as though it were a veil drawn over our sins. Of which there are many.

It wasn’t until 1773 that Constantine John Phipps, second Baron Mulgrave, officer in the Royal Navy and the first European to properly describe the polar bear, began to sound the ocean bed. Phipps employed a lead weighted line to measure the distance between himself, an 18th-century surveyor, and the bottom of the ancient sea between Iceland and Norway. That strand of hemp linked the Enlightenment with the prehistory of the earth. It drew 683 fathoms, 4,098 feet, and for a century, remained the deepest known measurement of the ocean.

It took 200 years for humans to explore the ultimate profound, with the descent of the bathyscaphe Trieste nearly seven miles into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific in 1960, creaking as it took five and a half hours to reach the bottom, only to discover its arrival had stirred up so much silt it proved impossible for its two-man crew of aquanauts to see what lay beyond its portholes. The blindness was emblematic. Until then, it was thought that the world above had changed, but the ocean below had not. Or so we assumed.

Until the 1980s, Britain was routinely dumping nuclear waste on its watery doorstep in the north-east Atlantic. Heavy metals, organochlorines and PCBs, byproducts of our civilised state, enter the marine food chain and end up in its alpha predators, such as orca and sperm whales, turning them into the most polluted animals on the planet.

Even in its deepest ravines, the oceanic trenches about which we know less than the surface of the moon and where life itself may have begun, plastic bottles have been found 13,000 feet down and 300 miles from land, each containing terrible messages from our two-dimensional, terrestrial holdfast.

Before the coming of the Europeans, the native Americans of the north-west Pacific realised that there was another culture beyond their shores from the evidence of “superior” technology that washed up on their beaches: bits of shipwrecked wood and iron which indicated the presence of aliens. I can only presume that sperm whales, which can dive deeper than any other living animal, and spend most of their time in the sunless depths searching for squid with their sonar clicks, greet those plastic bottles with the same sense of trepidation.

Source: Philip Hoare |