Seated in a barber’s chair securely bolted to the stern deck I watch the sunrise over the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. A thin layer of pale blue sky rims the horizon, holding aloft a next layer of billowy cumulus. The air temperature is exactly the same as that of the sea, 77 degrees.
We are equidistant between the coast of Portugal and our goal, Puerto Rico, each 1,800 miles away. As far as I can see, 12 to 15 miles, there is no break on the horizon. In the past five days we’ve seen just three cargo boats in the far distance. The captain told me yesterday the longest stretch of open ocean he has ever covered – across the Atlantic, from Angola to New York City – took him twenty days during which time he saw not a single boat.
Except by satellite, this part of Planet Ocean is little seen, under-known territory.
The S-shaped basin brushed by the shores of Europe, Africa and the Americas, which has been known as the Atlantic since the days of Herodotus (450 BC) today seems almost void of life. The water is clear and dark, with very few fish near the surface; in five days I’ve seen just a handful of petrels feeding in the wake of the boat and the fin of a solitary yellowtail tuna.
As vast as the ocean is, what we don’t know about what lies beneath is even moreso. The ocean floor lies more than three miles beneath us, a place we know far less about than we do about the surface of Mars and the moon.All of which, from this vantage point, my feet dangling now over the railing of a dark, vast sea, makes it somehow difficult to shout out those claims that the world’s ocean is overfished, polluted, acidifying and rising. Out here in the heart of the 41 million square mile Atlantic, all seems very pacific.
It is one reason I like coming to the middle of the ocean because it such a powerful reminder that many of the its real troubles lie closer to shore, closer to where man lives and works. As a species we do have a tendency to muck up the very place we call home.
Ever since the first man, most likely a Phoenician, wandered out of the desert and down to the ocean’s shore we have flocked to the coasts. Today sixteen of the 20 largest cities in the world – from Tokyo (33 million) to Dhaka, Bangladesh (11 million) – are on the coast. Sixty percent of the world’s human population of 6.8 billion lives within 30 miles of a coastline.
Go get a globe or an atlas. Run a finger down the coastlines of the six populated continents. It is easy to see that’s where people have congregated, for obvious reasons of commerce and pleasure (the ambitious and the poor move to the big cities on the coasts for jobs, the wealthy head to the beaches for escape).
While there are some fishing fleets that still scour the far corners of the ocean and we know of a growing number of gyres far from shore swirling with plastic – and acidification, of course, knows no boundaries – the real hurt we cause the ocean is closer to home. The biggest competition for fish takes place within 200 miles of shore, often closer. Pollution of all kinds – oil, plastic, trash – line the beaches nearest where we live.
It’s not just manmade problems impacting coastal livers. Natural calamities impacting the ocean – more frequent and powerful storms thanks in part to rising sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels (expected to be three feet by 2100, perhaps double that) – most affect those living on or near the sea.
Maybe one of the answers to helping to clean up the ocean is for man to stay further away from it. As I’m floating here, atlas now in hand, feet still dangling over the three-mile deep Atlantic, maybe Kansas or Kamchatka, Saskatchewan or Siberia should become our new paradises … at least for the ocean’s sake.
Flickr photo By Nantaskart!