“Go to the place…

…that sets a spark in your soul.” That seems like fairly sound advice. But I wonder how many people listen to their soul. I venture it’s not many. It’s not often that I visit places commonly referred to as “civilisation”, but when I do there are very few people I come across who I believe listen to their soul. The rest, who don’t, appear rather frustrated or unhappy or some other unhealthy emotion. Uncoincidentally, they also tend to be the ones who condescendingly and sympathetically ask me what it’s like to be back in “civilisation” (when they can tear themselves away from their smartphones). My interested response is to enquire how they define “civilisation”, and usually it involves ubiquitous internet access, mobile phone signal, reliable electricity and satellite television and a number of other insignificant commodities, to which I suggest that “civilisation” might indeed also mean that people are civilised to each other. They wholeheartedly agree, after which I tell them tales of far flung Pacific islands where people do not have locks on their doors, nobody is hungry or sleeping rough, and where walking into a village usually prompts multiple invitations for tea and food, and more smiles and waves than a week in a “civilised city”. I ask again how they define “civilisation” and they suddenly, albeit briefly, appear a little less sure of the world that society has conditioned them to surround themselves with as a measure of their success. But, unsurprisingly, I digress.

Solomon smiles
Solomon smiles

Your soul. Your moral and emotional nature, your sense of identity, what makes you, whatever you want to call it. When did you last listen to it? I mean truly listen to it. How was it?

Observing other members of my species is often quite discouraging for my soul’s moral sense, although such observations usually take place when I am in “civilisation”. I observe carefree pollution of our only planet, the single use then discard of plastic with abandon, the barbaric treatment of other species for our own pleasure, the selfishness of a species that has done more to negatively impact the planet than any other species since life began some 4 billion years ago. And we’ve only been here for about 200,000 of those years, at a push!

The straw you just used will join the rest of the 100 million tonnes of plastic that enter the ocean annually. It will add to one of the plastic gyres choking the oceans that the media doesn’t want you to know about. It might kill a turtle. Or it might break down into a microplastic (it will never disappear) which will then be consumed by a small fish that confuses it for planktonic prey, the small fish will be consumed by a bigger fish, which will be consumed by a person, who will then become very sick. It will then re-enter the system. It will never disappear.

The tuna you just ate will probably have come from a longline fishery that will most likely have had a significant amount of bycatch to discard at sea, of which a reasonable percentage will probably have been sharks. Those sharks are some of the 100 million (that high number again) that will be killed by humans this year. And if that’s not enough to persuade you to think beyond tuna, what about the fact that you are insidiously poisoning yourself with mercury?!

I’m not even going to talk about SeaWorld or Taiji, I’m only going to suggest you watch Blackfish and The Cove (but only if you’re brave enough to face some facts about your species).

So does going to “civilisation” and observing humans set a spark in my soul? Not particularly! But there is good news! You can do something about it! Everybody can! The media don’t want you to realise you have a mind of your own, but you do! Funnily enough, it often works quite closely with your soul.

There are now *gulp* over 7 billion people on the planet (I’ll talk about plagues another day), and every single one of us has a mind of our own, and if every single one of us were to commit to make a small difference everyday that would be a pretty big difference globally! Turn off lights you’re not using. Only fill your kettle with the water you need. Deliberately ask not to have a straw with your next drink. Take a reusable bag when you go shopping. Check if your fish is a healthy choice and where it came from. Be nice to each other. The list is endless, and all of it makes your soul happy.

If it’s gone out, reset the spark in your soul. Do whatever it takes, because a world of happy souls will be a better world, and you owe it to yourself. Go to the place that sets a spark in your soul? Easy. I go to the ocean.

It sets a spark in my soul
It sets a spark in my soul

With every drop of water…

Should you travel to the most landlocked community on the planet and enquire with the local population as to their level of connectivity with the ocean, I imagine the majority of facial expressions in response would be quizzical to say the least. To them the ocean, if they are even aware it exists, is probably a kind of mythical beast of distant lands, perhaps visited by a forefather many years ago who retold his story of the beast many times over, a story retold with pride through the generations (with a steady decline in accuracy and veracity I would expect).

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Perhaps in the modern era of information technology and connectivity the chances of such a community existing in blissful ignorance (of the aforementioned information technology and the connectivity, not of the ocean) are slim, but I like to imagine that it does. But this is the point: even that hypothetical community that is far removed from the ocean, either through distance, culture, or physical geography, is connected to it. It is connected to it by its weather, by its food, and by its water. The W word. Without water there is no life.

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For millennia human beings have recognised the intrinsic importance of the ocean to our existence. We have built our communities around it, near it, on it, and we have traded and travelled over it. Perhaps the greatest voyages of all time were undertaken by the Lapita people, who populated Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia from Asia around 4000 years ago.

The Kon-Tiki Expedition was a famous journey intended to prove that population of the islands of the Pacific from South America would have been possible with the rudimentary materials and equipment available at the time. The expedition departed from Peru and concluded in Tuamoto when the raft hit a reef in the Raroia Atoll, nearly 3 ½ months later. The voyagers told stories of catching tuna and dolphinfish (not dolphins, but a very beautiful fish also known as a mahi mahi and a masi masi, amongst other local names) for food, of sharks investigating their vessel and of listening to whales at night.

Since the Kon-Tiki Expedition humans have been responsible for the deaths of approximately 100 million sharks annually (did somebody say ecocide?), a connection to the ocean I’d rather not be associated with. A great number of these sharks have been killed, and continue to be killed, in gruesome and macabre fashion as part of the shark finning industry.

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On not quite the same scale as shark finning but appalling nevertheless has been our commercial whaling programmes, continued for 28 years by Japan purportedly for research despite an international moratorium in 1986. Our greed has driven the awesome and majestic tunas to critical levels, despite the fact that we are insidiously giving ourselves mercury poisoning through consumption.

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When did our connection with the ocean morph from a harmonious and balanced relationship into a short-sighted, relentless and bloody exploitation of planet Ocean’s greatest resource?

The voyage Te Mana O Te Moana began in 2010, setting out to reconnect with tradition, with Pacific communities, and with the ocean. Visiting many countries throughout the Pacific, the crews and their achievements were celebrated in awesome fashion for what they represent – a statement and message of importance and hope. This voyage was just the start of the long-term Blue Canoe Project.

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I am fortunate enough to have a good friend who was a crew member of the Fijian vessel Uto Ni Yalo. Over a shell of kava I asked him what I thought would be a difficult question for a proud Fijian – where, in the whole of the Pacific, a single ocean whose surface area is greater than the total land surface area of planet “Earth”, would he say was the best? Without hesitation he answered “Cocos”. Fish everywhere. And sharks. Lots of sharks. Big tiger sharks. A place full of life. Surely this is a place we would protect (it is) and respect (questionable) if our connection to the ocean was healthy? Yet the marine park rangers are constantly fighting to enforce regulations that are designed to protect unique ecosystems against our relentless greed and hostility.

Sylvia Earle taught us that without the ocean we have no planet, that the latter is defined by the former – “No water, no life. No blue, no green”. It really is as simple as that. Our dependence on the ocean is ultimate, yet we pollute it, take its resources with abandon, discard so much plastic in it that gyres the size of America are ignored by the media, and we contribute a minimal amount to the relationship. As sentient, thinking beings we desperately need to rediscover, recognise and respect our connection to our ocean, and understand that even in our hypothetical community from earlier our connection to the ocean is critical.

“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live” – Sylvia Earle

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What is the ocean?

 What is the ocean? What does it mean to you? What should it mean to you?

The ocean is the single biggest thing in our lives. It contains 99% of the inhabitable space on the planet. The surface area of the Pacific Ocean alone is greater than the total land surface area of the world. Arthur C. Clarke observed “how inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is quite clearly Ocean”. It is no coincidence that nearly half of the global population lives within 100km of the ocean.

South Pacific Solomon Islands
South Pacific islands

A very long time ago life originated in the ocean. From that beginning, all life that has ever existed evolved. Today the ocean is home to the largest creature that has ever lived: the blue whale. The blue whale that is significantly larger than the largest dinosaur. The same blue whale whose global population has fallen from 275,000 to 5000 since humans began whaling. Does hunting a species to less than 2% of its original population size constitute ecocide? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. It should be straightforward enough to track down the largest creature ever, but the ocean does not give up her secrets readily and provides the blue whale with ample opportunity to maintain its elusiveness. And therein lies the clue.

We may know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean of our own planet. In the age of deep sea submersibles we are able to send people and cameras into the deepest trenches of the ocean, but to explore and document the whole ocean is close to impossible. Every time those cameras dive we discover new species, but who knows how many species have been lost before even being discovered? The sad news is that for every camera that shows us a species never before observed, many more fishing nets and bottom trawls have destroyed vast swathes of the seabed and its reefs, rendering them barren plains. The optimistic historical view that there are “plenty more fish in the sea” does not apply so much these days, and the old image of the ocean being an endlessly bountiful resource is now recognised for what it is – a falsehood.

But what does the ocean actually do? It is our life support system. It regulates the planet. It gives us weather and it shapes our coastlines. It gives, and takes, life. It makes the planet inhabitable. Without the ocean there would be no world as we know it, there would simply be another featureless ball of rock floating through the cosmos.

“The most valuable thing we extract from the ocean is our existence” – Sylvia Earle

Yet, despite the fact our existence is intrinsically linked to the ocean and our survival to its survival, as a species we do very little to nurture that relationship. Rather, we take fish from the ocean with abandon, we discard millions of tonnes of dead unwanted fish without a second thought, and we pump pollution into the ocean to float beneath the millions of tonnes of plastic that is out of our mind if out of our sight.

Entire cultures are based around the ocean. We said that approximately 40% of the global population live within 100km of the coast, but in the small island developing states of the South Pacific that figure is much higher. These countries are also among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, due to their population also being the most dependent on the ocean and its resources for food, transport and security. One must question the contribution those countries have made to the phenomenon of climate change, yet they have no choice but to bear the brunt of the impacts.

Fiji South Pacific coral reef
Fiji coral reef

So what is the answer? In a word, change. If you have lost your connection to the ocean, I implore you to rediscover it. It may lie deep within you, but it’s there. If your connection to the ocean is healthy, share it with others. Help them find theirs. Visit the ocean, explore it, worship it. Treat it with respect. Restoring a harmonious relationship with the ocean will only benefit us, and we need to understand that we depend on its existence for our own, rather than the other way round. One way traffic is not give and take, and the balance needs redressing. So start today. The ocean holds wonder unimagined, and it’s there for you to enjoy. Discover it, and only then will you understand what the world is about.

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever” – Jacques Cousteau