Friday, 7 December 2012

Whitty: Deep Blue Home

Julia Whitty (2010) Deep Blue Home, An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York; 256 pp.; ISBN 978-0-618-11981-7

Deep Blue Home is an elegy for the ocean, a vital part of our planet that we still only partially understand, yet upon which we have inflicted an enormous amount of wanton damage. Though Julia Whitty is not a technical specialist on oceans or marine life, she has long had a passion for the sea and a detailed interest in its ecosystems.

The first part of the book is based on her experiences in 1980 with two scientists working on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California, the stretch of sometimes treacherous waters between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexico mainland. Isla Rasa is one of a series of small islands in the gulf and is an important nesting and breeding ground for gulls that have migrated from Canada and for terns arrived from Chile. The island was once an important site for guano mining to produce fertiliser but is now barren and rarely visited. Whitty describes the birds and their predators, the sea life around the island and the petrels and fish-eating bats that also nest in this region. The wildlife appears abundant but is under increasing threat from fishing, hunting and the impact of agriculture and hydro dams.

In the longer second part of the book, the action moves on a few years to the waters off Newfoundland and New England. Whitty is now filming icebergs and whales. She describes the life cycles of various marine mammals and the fish and other sea creatures on which they subsist. It’s a cold and harsh environment, and the people who live here are hardy and calculating. Ecological reserves have been set up and there is sound legislation in both the United States and Canada aimed at preserving the marine environment, but it is always a case of catching up, and often catching up too late.

As well as over-fishing, pollution of the sea by oil and chemicals is affecting wildlife and its ability to breed. Large drift nets, lost or abandoned by fishing boats, continue to destroy marine life well after the boats have moved on. Whaling has considerably reduced the populations of all cetacean species, and pesticide pollution is a new and rising danger. The waters here are important because they carry the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream. The collision of these two produces the notorious fogs off Newfoundland, but these massive submarine streams are essential to the generation of life and also have an influence on global weather systems.

The frigid waters are home to some deep sea volcanic vents where boiling water shoots up from the sea floor. Around these vents are clustered many recently discovered species that are re-writing our understanding of life, and which offer clues to the origins of the ecosystems we observe in the ocean.

As Whitty mentions each animal in this book, she notes its status in terms of risk of extinction. The number at risk is perhaps not surprising, but what made an impression on me was the number of species about which we know almost nothing. Our continued pollution of the ocean and destructive fishing habits are having impacts on systems that we haven’t even bothered to study yet.

In the final, short, section of the book Whitty reunites with a woman she worked with on Isla Rasa to explore caves in the Sierra de San Francisco in Mexico. These mountain caves contain prehistoric art from 1,300 to 5,000 years old and some of the work is still in vivid colour, preserved by the dry desert air. The paintings depict many types of animals as well as humans, and Whitty is struck by the presence of many fish and other marine animals in the paintings, showing that the people who once inhabited this place saw a clear chain of existence between the land and the sea, and between all animals in their territory.

Whitty tries to link her requiem for the ocean to various mythologies. In the first part, she uses the name of Isla Rasa to link to the various Sanskrit meanings of ‘rasa’, meanings still found in the Indian sub-continent and south-east Asia today. In the second part she includes some history of the Norse settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland, and the spread of the Inuit people into the Arctic region, displacing the earlier Dorset culture. There are references to Norse gods, quotes from a Thai Buddhist monk and mention of some classical Roman deities. These attempts to weave in ancient mythologies often do not mesh clearly with the compelling story of the sea and its parlous state, and I was left puzzled as to why she feels they are relevant.

The scientific evidence on climate change suggests that we are now well past the stage where we can prevent dramatic changes in the Earth’s ecology. If the Gaia hypothesis is correct, nature will right itself, but there is no guarantee that humans will be around to witness that. Whitty’s book is a sad but measured reflection on the state of our seas, and her account shows that there is still too much that we don’t comprehend. It’s those unknown unknowns which should chill us to the marrow.

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