This story about a village by the sea, a complicated past behind it, a challenging future ahead, is like so many stories I’ve heard about the ocean… the theme of unavoidable change is omnipresent, change so deep and wide-reaching that it is beyond the ken of any single person and raises a larger question for me: what is going on out at sea?
Laura Trethewey is an ocean journalist, an awesome-sounding job that involves reporting on the things different types of people do on or in the sea. The Imperiled Ocean is a series of essays showing the breadth of this work and urgently emphasizing how much the ocean impacts everyone, whether you realize it or not.
The topics covered include a scientist tracking a fish species whose survival is threatened, migrants setting off across the ocean in flimsy rubber boats unsure whether they’ll reach safe shores, an unusual community of boat dwellers fighting for their home, the business of underwater filming and photography (with a fascinating segue into fear of water and mammalian diving reflex), the questionable laws around working on cruise ships and deaths on them, and plastic cleanup crews. And of course, the inevitable effects of climate change.
The common thread in these stories is the humanity in each. Although plenty of science, law, and statistics are woven in, these essays take a human perspective on our myriad connections to the ocean in the current moment, and underscore why taking care of it is vital and becoming even more so. Trethewey makes the valid, if unfortunate, point that it’s difficult for some people to feel a connection to the ocean when they never see it or perceive any direct connection to their lives. It can feel vast and distant and irrelevant.
In 2015, I set out on an extended listening tour to find out what people were doing in this vast space that we know so little about. I started with a simple question: what do people want from the ocean?
Her method of using humanity to examine the ocean’s far-reaching impacts is powerfully, touchingly effective, even if you feel you already understand this. She uses a narrative style that makes for engaging storytelling, and has an exquisite eye for enriching detail, returning often to the idea that these stories are meant to highlight important issues and concepts that she knows are easily and often ignored. Or worse.
In the age of climate change denial, many scientists and activists often confront a willful disbelief about the threatened state of the ocean today. Environmental damage is often too slow, too scattered, too distant to instill any sense of urgency in the skeptical or disengaged.
Not to say this is always smooth sailing (I couldn’t resist). These stories are often alarming and unsettling. One of the most quietly menacing, about the ubiquitous plastic damaging the ocean and collecting on beaches, was disturbing, not to mention the gnarly geopolitical implications it highlights.
Globally, our plastic is interconnected. Until recently, developed countries shipped most of their waste to China for recycling. To criticize one country for its plastic pollution while we send our waste to them to manage shows how slanted the story around waste has become.
One of the book’s strongest pieces about the disappearing white sturgeon and the scientist tracking it, trying to ensure its critical survival, was not only alarming in this specific case of a species facing trouble, but in how often this could be happening and we don’t even realize until it’s too late.
When the future of an ancient, long-lived animal is on the line, we simply don’t know all the connections we might be losing when it disappears. Like every scientist, Erin was up against time and technology… Research done today could help shape the forces that were reshaping the water they would live in one day.
Sometimes I was frustrated by details that weren’t given though, like about Mohammed, a Ghanaian refugee persecuted for his homosexuality who flees Africa for Europe. He describes a crowd breaking into his home and a vicious fight. He got stabbed but escaped. Realizing he was no longer safe, he made the decision to emigrate. Whatever happened to his live-in boyfriend, either that night or after, is never mentioned.
The topic that drew me to this book was the essay on cruise ships, namely the never-ending mystery of people disappearing from them (Jon Ronson’s excellent Lost at Sea is a great companion read). This was a tragic story, of a young Chilean chef, Favio Onate Ordenes, working for Carnival cruises who fell or jumped off deck one night.
Trethewey uses this tragedy to examine the working conditions and exploitation of desperate workers from economically troubled countries on cruise ships that take advantage of international legal loopholes to pay them poorly despite long working hours, no benefits, and a plethora of other ugly details. Not least of which is their behavior when a death occurs.
In 2015, twenty-six other people fell off cruise ships. Another fifty-two died during excursions, drowned in swimming pools, or suffered medical emergencies far from land, according to sociologist Ross Klein’s ongoing tally on his website CruiseJunkie.com. But the official year-end tally that Carnival submits to the US Department of Transportation showed only two people died on Carnival cruise ships that year. That number only includes the American citizens. As a Chilean, Favio’s death didn’t count.
So a lot of this is disheartening, but it needed the careful, personal treatment it gets here. Every story echoes the point that we’re more interconnected than we realize — or like to think — and the sooner we understand the implications of this, the better. There’s a lot of optimism to be drawn from the information here too, if we can start to make the right changes:
I came across an optimistic projection in a United Nations report about harnessing the ocean’s power for collective good. If marine ecosystems are well managed, the report stated, the sea can make a massive impact on reducing poverty, fostering communities and economies, and feeding the 9 billion–some people who will live on the planet in 2050. If just one industry, like fisheries, is better managed, it can become $80 billion more productive in annual revenue each year. Taking care of the ocean means taking care of ourselves, too.
I feel like I can’t avoid mentioning — and this is absolutely not the author’s fault — that parts of this book were badly edited. In “Cruising the North Atlantic,” for example, the repetition of facts and details, like naming a website every time its owner (also always with full name) is mentioned, became irritating and detracted from what’s a very important message.
And it can feel a bit scattered at times, with pieces that are more compelling or affecting than others. But Trethewey succeeds completely in her goal of putting human faces to the varied and interconnected ways the ocean affects us, and underscoring that all of our actions affect the ocean. It’s impossible not to feel the urgency here, or see how much is allowed to be very wrong or unjust in too many industries.
Long after we’ve disappeared, the water will hold the traces of the garbage we threw away, the borders we defended, the rules we broke, and the stories we told: vast and voiceless water carrying what we wanted and what we lost along the way.
The Imperiled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea
by Laura Trethewey
published November 12, 2019 by Pegasus Books