“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” I hear the voice of the renowned American biologist Rachel Carson in my mind each time I encounter something spectacular scuba diving out at sea.
Minutes before our backward roll off the boat, my colleague Katya and I went over the hand signals needed to communicate underwater. We had been diving together long enough for our signals to become a language, including but not restricted to animal names, directions, tasks, emergencies, adjectives, and feelings.
Despite this routine, a little later, I found myself staring blankly as Katya swam towards me with the edge of her palm pinned to her forehead, frustrated that I wasn’t matching her excitement. Her signal looked oddly familiar but one that we had never used in our careers before. A few seconds of underwater charades later, I animatedly attempted to shout through my scuba regulator — “Shark!”
I followed Katya to a large cave. A nurse shark was resting with its tail towards the entrance. No opening offered a clear view of the entire shark. We moved from crack to crevice, looking at different parts of its heaving body. When we got to the hole that revealed its face, my already racing heart felt like it would burst. I have since had similarly breathtaking experiences with other sensational underwater animals such as hunting corals, iridescent slugs, and spawning sea cucumbers.
My relationship with the ocean started in quite the same way as many of my close friendships. We started getting to know one another, which only fuelled the curiosity more. Love, respect, and empathy quickly followed, fostering a bond that will likely last a lifetime. There are still moments of fear when the waters get rough and periods of pain after a tragedy or the loss of a loved one.
As a marine ecologist, I’ve learnt that the ocean shapes our climate, stores tonnes of atmospheric carbon, and provides us with over 50 per cent of our oxygen supply. Marine life is an important source of food and financial security for millions of people worldwide. A more exhaustive list of services the ocean provides us is one click away on the Internet! Alongside it is always a sufficiently morbid inventory of threats to our seas: ocean warming, acidification, plastic pollution, overfishing and more. The continuing decline in the ocean’s health can only mean that a textbook understanding of the ocean is not going very far in stirring our hearts and minds into recognising the urgent need for action.
For us urban folk, our first learning about the marine world often comes from the doomsday perspective that populates news and social media. This paints a grim picture of a paradise we’ve nearly lost. We’re aware of the numerous ways in which humans have caused rapid and potentially irreversible damage. While this narrative might inspire some people to change, much of society is likely to feel frustration and hopelessness that a quick meme or cat video can assuage. And then we move on.
How do we get to the root of the numerous environmental issues we face today? How do we correct the disconnect we have with nature? Instead of focusing on the doom, shouldn’t we be trying to revitalise people’s diminishing curiosity and sense of wonder? Isn’t that more likely to enhance accountability?
Rachel Carson’s words became my personal motto during my years as a marine educator at a scuba school in the Andaman Islands. My work essentially involved helping people befriend the ocean. People of all ages, walks of life, from every corner of India, came to the Andamans. A few landmark movies may have sparked their interest in the underwater world, but at last, it got people out of their homes to see the sea.
Some were diving for the first time. It was beautiful for me to observe people go from having a circulation-halting grip on my arm to being relaxed and never wanting to leave the water. It was equally exhilarating exploring deeper reefs with seasoned divers. I particularly enjoyed exploring two inch-deep tidepools with children too young to dive, or adults who needed to process the feeling of wet feet before going under.
Such interactions repeatedly restored my hope for the future and reinforced my belief that personal, lived experiences in nature can help people understand concepts like climate change. For someone to go out of their way to change their way of life, whether breaking dependence on plastic and composting waste or eating only seasonal seafood and planning responsible travel, the motivation must come from a deeper place; it cannot just be a reaction to the clinical diagnosis that our oceans are collapsing. We need something that connects with us, experiences that bring us to our knees with joy, awe, or chills. And a strong feeling of wanting the ocean to be alive and healthy because it is a loved one.
I firmly believe that if all of us were to wade in and enjoy the salty magic of the sea, we would come out transformed, more convinced and strong-willed to do what it takes to protect our ocean.