It’s a reminder of the way the world once was. Even before we’d left Provincetown Harbor, with its odiferous nesting cormorants, punk-crested mergansers, and pistachio-green-necked eiders, a pod of common dolphins hove into view, sewing up and down the calm surface of the sea, an advance guard for what was to come. Cape Cod in early May was alive. The reason, if you peered down into the green, was clear: millions of bait fish, gathered into tight balls by the dolphins, an intense concentration of food. Gannets plunged into the same resource, creating plumes of erupting sea. Farther out, a raft of loons worked the water, too.
Nothing was leaving this opportunity untapped. Harbor porpoise rolled through the water; grey seals bottled at the surface. Then, something much larger — in the deep water that runs almost up to the sandy banks of Race Point, the unmistakable scythe of the dorsal of a fin whale, the second largest animal on earth. For all its outrageous size — its sleek ebony back almost too big to belong to an animate object — it too was feeding on sand eels barely bigger than my finger, albeit in mouthfuls that would fill a dumpster. A pair of minke whales, more modest members of the rorqual cetacean family, joined in.
The dolphins swooped alongside the boat as the whales circled the bait fish with nets of precisely blown bubbles, rising triumphantly — even smugly — their vast mouths open wide, gulping down their dinner. Gulls dove in from above, perching on the whales’ snouts to pick out their tidbits. More fin whales — a dozen leviathans — lunged on their sides, showing off their asymmetrical gray markings and the bristles of baleen in their upper jaws, straining their food like pasta in a sieve.
Once the world’s seas were like this. Once you could look out from the coasts of New England or California, the British south coast or into the Tasman Sea, and witness oceans alive with animals. When the Pilgrims first pulled into Provincetown Harbor in 1620, they wrote of right whales so numerous that one might almost walk to the other side of Cape Cod Bay on their backs. The first western colonizers of Tasmania in the early 19th century complained that there were so many whales in the Derwent Sound that they kept the settlers awake at night with their bellowings.
We know all this from historical record, and from scientific evidence. But we also know it within our own consciousness, and guilt. We live in a new age, not of Aquarius, but of the Anthropocene — the era, which may have begun with the Industrial Revolution, or, as some scientists believe, with the atomic half-life of the last century, around 1950. I was born in 1958; I am a child of the Anthropocene, living under two elemental, apocalyptic storms: nuclear and carbon. My existence bears witness to what those same scientists, and environmentalists, call the Great Acceleration; even my bones are irradiated with the byproducts of nuclear tests undertaken in remote oceans. Within that half-century of half-life, the world has changed exponentially.
In her forthcoming book, “Adventures in the Anthropocene,” the aptly named Gaia Vince records the bare statistics that show how we have turned the planet into a “super organism” tailored and geo-engineered to sustain our expanding, exploiting, unsustainable species. Forty percent of its land mass is now intensively farmed to produce food. One billion people go hungry every day; 1.8 billion are overweight or obese. Only 12 percent of rivers now run freely to the seas; 92 percent of all fresh water is used in agriculture. Each year 300,000 sea birds die on fishing lines, and 100 million sharks are killed. Every square kilometer of sea contains 18,500 pieces of floating plastic. The facts overwhelm us.
Yet we regard the sea as inviolate, almost virgin, as if salted and preserved. A watery museum, an aquatic cabinet of curiosities. Herman Melville referred to “the ocean’s skin,” under which we cannot peer. It is both a reflecting mirror of our narcissism, and a cistern for our sins. The pollution we pump into it —
For centuries the sea belonged to no one. Then the Romans declared the Mediterranean to be mare nostrum, our sea, and, during periods of dangerous navigation, mare clausum, closed sea. To the early modern world, it was mare liberum, as the Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, declared in 1609. A century later, in 1702, a new sovereignty was established by Cornelius Bynkershoek, allowing the nations of the Enlightenment to lay claim to the waters from as far as a cannonball could be shot from shore — 3 miles — that part which could be defended from land.
The idea of territorial waters was born, itself a paradox — water as an extension of the land. New empires such as that of Britain succeeded in implementing this appropriation. In 1945, with the beginning of the nuclear age, America extended its exclusive economic zone to 200 miles. Now Russia plants its flag on the bed of the Arctic, in a new race for subaquatic territory. Slowly the oceans are being encompassed; charted, contained, farmed, polluted. And yet they remain, under their collective skin.
Jacques Cousteau wrote, “The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase as a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”
While the seas persist, we seem to have hope. If this were a planet without water, where would we invest our sense of mystery, even of our souls? For all we have done to them, the oceans can yet burst into life and offer us a notional renewal, even a recovery of the connections we have lost. They are our last available wilderness, for all we have done to bring it under our dominion.
Those leaping dolphins and diving birds of Cape Cod, which even now, in this Atlantic dawn, go about their business without human witness. They are freighted symbols, not of loss but of potential gain and unquantifiable wonder. They represent life for its own sake, not for any use to which we might put it, and they are an abiding source of optimism. For the time being, at least.Philip Hoare’s latest book is “The Sea Inside.” Follow him on Twitter at @philipwhale.