From a young age, I’ve always been enthralled by the ocean and what it contains. While I was raised on the edge of Lake Ontario, and the family cottage was on a small lake in Eastern Ontario, lakes didn’t provide a home for whales, sharks, orcas, octopi and other fearsome creatures, not to mention beautiful coral reefs and other mysteries of the deep. Lakes were just full of weeds and freshwater fish, the largest being a Muskie. Not very exciting. I wanted to be a marine biologist at one point, being a SCUBA diver, wanting to be as comfortable in the water as I was on land. Land won out. I feared swimming lessons. Opening my eyes under the water. I was to be content with snorkelling; face mask and a breathing tube. How the ocean has changed in those fifty years when I first saw pictures of submarines, diving bells and giant whale sharks! Ocean Journalist Laura Trethewey updates us on its condition in her first book, The Imperilled Ocean, published by New Brunswick’s Goose Lane Editions.
Back in 2010, I read with great enthusiasm Simon Winchester’s then newest book Atlantic. In chapter six, “Change and Decay all Around the Sea” he talks about pioneer ocean environmentalist Rachel Carson (1907-1964):
“It was all so much simpler then. No doubt, like many who visited the seashore in the 1950s and ’60s, she [Rachel Carson] would have cursed the gobbets of tar from ships that washed their tanks offshore, and she would have been vexed at the broken floats and rotten netting that washed up among the piles of Atlantic kelp. She knew her beloved ocean was far from being perfectly clean, but its contamination had a sort of understandable ordinariness about it, tainted by a forgivable kind of pollution, of the kind you might come across in a farmyard, a wine cellar, or an auto mechanic’s garage.
She had little inkling of the sinister periodic table of foul chemistry that was then to come…”
She definitely wouldn’t be thinking plastic in the ocean, as Ms. Trethewey discusses in chapter five of The Imperilled Ocean, “Cleaning the Coast”.
Instead of a floating island of waste, as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so often portrayed, she [Chloé Dubois of Ocean Legacy] encountered more of a drifting slurry. The pollution came in all shapes and stages of degradation, from microscopic particles and fibres, to toothbrushes, bottles and great tangles of fishing nets and lines. She witnessed, too, how nature worked with the plastic intruders. In the ocean, bacteria and algae quickly glom onto any floating feature they can find, drawn to the nutrients that collect there. More and larger animals, like barnacles and tubeworms, follow suit, fastening themselves to the marine debris. How productive of the ocean to use the plastic to build tiny ecosystems out on a vast desert of saltwater, where so little life thrives in comparison to coastal waters. The Garbage Patch was not a dead zone at all, she realized, but a world teeming with life.
Life finds a way, right? It finds an awful amount of garbage too, as Ms. Trethewey discovered as she accompanied a team of volunteers to clean up a portion of BC coastline where garbage (and even a Harley Davidson!) from Japan washed up, primarily as a result of the recent tsunami.But there is plenty more to The Imperilled Ocean: filming movies underwater (it’s a lot more complicated than you think), refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean, huge cruise ships and life aboard them (appalling for the workers way below decks, I never want to cruise), saving the White Sturgeon (more interesting than it sounds) and a floating shantytown of houseboats. However, as the subtitle suggests, these are human stories, and Ms. Trethewey introduces us to the people who live on, work under, flee oppression on, and clean the ocean, often one garbage bag full at a time.
An astonishing book, and one that is not as dismal as one might think. No, there is some room for optimism amid all the numbers thrown at us by scientists. The optimism comes at the human level, that’s you and me. What we can do to make the waters we use (even if we don’t live near the ocean) that much better. As the author remarks, “The ocean is a multitude, linking us to one another and to every other living organism on the planet in unimaginable ways.” The Imperilled Ocean lacks only in one area: no photographs. No photos of the garbage on BC’s coast, none of the cruise ship workers or the houseboats that make up the “Dogpatch” a floating community on Vancouver Island’s coast. Photographs of these people and places would have made The Imperilled Ocean that much more human. Nonetheless, I am putting it on “The Very Best!” Book Awards 2020 longlist for Best First Book (Non-Fiction). Five stars!
The Imperilled Ocean: Human Stories From A Changing Sea by Laura Trethewey
Goose Lane Editions
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