Looking glass world

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

Looking glass world


tells how he refound the sea, and calls for a new relationship with the oceans

diverWhen you look at the map of India, you will see the island of Sri Lanka hanging from its southern tip like a teardrop or a pendant, pear-shaped jewel. It is the last outpost of the northern hemisphere; beyond it, across the equator and all the way to the icy walls of Antarctica, lies the greatest unexplored region of this world - the Indian Ocean.

Though men have sailed it for at least 3,000 years, the early mariners seldom ventured far from land. Even today, the only ships you are likely to find in the southern half of this great blank on the map are research vessels (now that whalers have, mercifully, been retired). The depths of the Indian Ocean may still hold their mysteries long after we have walked on the outermost of the planets.

Sea and space - these are two sides of the same coin. Looking back upon the last five decades, it was my interest in astronautics that led me to the ocean. The process seems so inevitable that I grow impatient with those people who ask: 'What are you doing underwater when you've written so many books about exploring space?'

Well, both involve exploration - but that is not the only reason. When the first skin-diving equipment started to appear in the late 1940s, I suddenly realized that here was a cheap and simple way of imitating one of the most magical aspects of spaceflight - 'weightlessness'. In those days, many physiologists were firmly convinced that the apparent absence of gravity would be fatal to the human organism. We 'space cadets' on the other hand, were equally certain that weightlessness would be a delightful experience - as, on the whole, it has turned out to be. (Even now, at 80 years of age, I am still 90 per cent mobile underwater, though only 10 per cent mobile on land.)


Which way is up?

I can remember, when I had learned to use the basic flipper-and-face-mask gear, how I used to dive to the bottom of the local swimming pool, close my eyes and spin around in the water until I had deliberately disoriented myself. Then I used to imagine that I was a spaceman and ask myself the question, 'Which way is up?' I never dreamed that 20 years later I would be taking real spacemen underwater.

I quickly discovered that water could provide more than pseudo-weightlessness. In sufficiently large quantities, readily available over three-quarters of the Earth's surface, it could also supply adventure, beauty, strangeness and wonder - as well as an almost infinite menagerie of strange creatures, which even the most exotic planets might find difficult to surpass. So I left the swimming pool and rediscovered the sea.

It was a rediscovery because I had been born within a few hundred metres of the sea (at Minehead, Somerset, in the United Kingdom) and had spent much of my youth in or beside the Bristol Channel. But I lost the sea when I was about ten years old, and thereafter saw it only on holidays and brief visits. School, the civil service, the war, college and a new career separated me further and further from the games of childhood.

In the final analysis, I went undersea because I liked it there, because it opened up a new, strange world as fantastic and magical as the one that Alice discovered behind the looking glass. And it was my interest in exploring the wonders of the sea that eventually led me to discover, in the mid-1950s, the third 's' that has dominated my life: the island of Serendip, better known as Sri Lanka.

Sea, space and Serendip

For the last 40 years my life has been inexorably linked with sea, space and Serendip and I have found, and occasionally made, interesting links between the three. My early interest in diving as a simulation of weightlessness has long been incorporated as a part of routine astronaut training. I had the privilege of introducing Wernher von Braun - the rocket engineer who did more to take us to the moon than anyone else - to the delights of diving and undersea exploration. In his introduction to my 1960 book The Challenge of the Sea, von Braun wrote: 'There is a close relationship between the sea and space. From a poetical, but not too far-fetched, viewpoint, we on Earth can consider the bottom of our sea as man's point of departure on his extremely long trip to outer space. Life began in the depths of the sea, and through eons moved upward to the land. Today, after a brief pause, he has the means for continuing his journey from the land upward through the atmospheric sea to the reaches beyond the sun and its satellites, both natural and artificial.'

Indeed, venturing into space has enabled us to study and map the oceans of the world as never before. Much information about and understanding of the oceans' many phenomena have been derived from satellite-based observations. And the proliferation of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the network of communications satellites - a development to which I have made a modest contribution - ensure that people who travel, explore and work at sea are much safer, and much better linked to land, than at any time in the past.


Formidable challenge

Yet, for all our modern technology and resolve, the oceans still represent a formidable challenge to learn, to understand, and - someday, we hope - to harness more systematically than we have so far done. True, in this century, we have begun to mine the sea for petroleum and other mineral resources. Our ships now venture into depths and expanses hitherto unexploited, sometimes clean-sweeping the enormously rich biological resources of the sea. In countries where pressure on land is acute, reclaiming the sea has been going on for decades. Still, all these current initiatives represent the tip of the iceberg of what could be done.

But the sea is not an inexhaustible reservoir and dumping ground, though we have regarded it as such during much of history. Scientists express serious concerns about overfishing and marine pollution, indicating that the indiscriminate use of the sea must soon end. In the 21st century, we shall need to develop a new and more harmonious relationship with the sea, going beyond our traditional attitude of regarding it as a limitless wilderness. In The Deep Range (1956), I described scenarios early in the next century when mankind has taken to plankton farming and whale ranching. Considerable research has been done on innovative ways of cultivating and harvesting resources from the sea. But for these ideas to have a chance of succeeding, the seas must first be saved from man's ravages.

Beyond its massive potential for economic, recreational and research activities, the sea has something else to offer. I would like to end with these words with which I concluded The Challenge of the Sea.

The challenge of the sea

'For centuries, the sea has inspired the greatest deeds of heroism and the greatest works of art. From Homer's Odyssey, the Norse sagas, the tales of Melville, Stevenson, Conrad, and later writers such as Herman Wouk or C S Forrester - how much of the world's literature we owe to the sea! Yet the poets and novelists of the past saw only one of its faces. What lay beneath the waves was as unknown to them as the far side of the Moon.

'Perhaps as our knowledge grows, the sea will lose some of its mystery and magic - but I do not think so. As far ahead as imagination can roam, there will be unexplored depths, lonely islands, endless leagues of ocean upon which a lost ship could wander for weeks without sighting land. When the continents have been tamed from pole to pole, when all the deserts have been irrigated, the forests cleared, the polar icecap melted - much of the sea will still remain an untouched wilderness.

'Let us hope that it will always be so. In the sea, as nowhere else, a man can find solitude and detachment. There are times when each one of us needs this, just as there are times when we need action and adventure - which the sea can also give in abundance.

'The sea calms the most restless spirit, perhaps because of its own perpetual but never-repeating movement. Men who will relax nowhere else will sit for hours on a beach, or upon the deck of a ship, watching the waves weave their endless patterns. The cares and turmoils of everyday life seem unimportant when we contemplate the sea.

'Like all other things, the sea will not endure forever. But by our standards, it is eternal. As we look across its moving surface, remembering that it has scarcely changed since the first man saw the light of day, our minds are washed clean of the petty ambitions and jealousies and meanness that form so large a part of everyday existence. From the waters which first gave us life, we may draw not only food for our bodies and raw material for our factories, but also refreshment for our spirit. The sea is our greatest heritage. We are only now beginning to realize its value. Let us use it more wisely than we have used the land'.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has been diving for nearly half a century, and is the author of several books on the oceans.

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