Monday, July 26, 2010

Across the pond

When I was ten or twelve, I saw a PBS special on a train that ran all the way across Australia. I don't remember any shots of the ocean on the Eastern side, probably because the journey began in Sidney or some other metropolis. But I distinctly remember the end of the journey in Perth: the camera trained on the Indian Ocean for what seemed like hours, in silence, as the credits rolled. There was something very different about it, I felt, from the Jersey Shore, the only ocean I knew. I wondered then if every ocean was different somehow; if you were plopped down disoriented on an unknown shore, would you be able to tell that it was the Atlantic vs. the Indian vs. the Pacific? I'm not talking about obvious difference in shoreline, but the water itself. Australia seemed like the extreme and obvious case, since it was all the way on the other side of the world from "my" ocean, the North Atlantic. But could there be discernible differences even between less extreme contrasts, like two sides of the same ocean, or the North and South of the same ocean?

I hate beaches. Most people seem to think that's akin to saying "I hate sex," so I have to justify it by explaining that I'm not a strong swimmer, I burn at the drop of a hat (literally), I can't stand heat, and I don't enjoy lying around like a vegetable. Nonetheless, my travel habit has brought me to quite a number of beaches all over the world, so that I've had the chance, sometimes despite myself, to test my childhood question.

A week ago tomorrow I dipped my feet in the ocean here in The Gambia, and I joked to my co-worker, "Well, I guess I can go home now, I've been to both sides of the Atlantic." It felt like a big, symbolic moment. But later I began to count all the places I've met the oceans of the world, and I realized this was not quite such a first as I'd thought. (I'd already been to the "eastern" Atlantic in Ireland, Scotland, France, Portugal, Gibraltar, and Morocco, and to the "western" South Atlantic in Rio, Puerto Madryn, and Ushuaia.) But my conclusion remains the same as it was some twenty years ago when I gazed in wonder on the TV: every ocean is different, and further, every major part of every ocean is different.

So what's special about the Gambian ocean? Well it's quite a bit warmer than the Jersey Shore, or even Florida, not surprisingly, and it's a bit brackish with plant matter, but it maintains that greyness, that choppiness, those short abrupt waves, as any other part of the Atlantic. Yes, as different as it may be in weather and shoreline, it claims clear kinship with the coast of Maine, or Normandy, or Scotland--which is as far north as I've gotten. I'm not clear exactly where it changes over into the Arctic Ocean. Spinning a globe makes those boundaries seem pretty artificial, but looking at the water from various shorelines suddenly legitimizes them.

No one would dispute, I don't think, that the Indian Ocean is unique: it could impersonate the Caribbean in color and almost in calmness. I've only been to its western edge, in Zanzibar, but it looked very different from my memory of the TV footage on Australia. Someday I hope to make it to western India to complete the comparison. Nor would anyone dispute that the Arctic Ocean, half-frozen as it is, is special. (I wrote a whole essay on the uniqueness of the "Antarctic Ocean" despite official claims that there's no such thing. So perhaps we'll need a special category for extreme South Pacific and extreme South Atlantic.)

It's the Pacific, for me, that cements my theory. Though I've never been to its western shores, every part of its eastern edge I've seen, from Punta Arenas (southern Chile) to Seattle, and even Easter Island, with many stops in between, has been exciting in just the same way: the deep blue color, the rich foam, the huge waves rolling in seemingly all the way from Asia, and the gallons of fresh, brisk, invigorating air it churns up. (And then there's that vast cornucopia of seafood they haul up in Chile, compared to the relatively paltry catches in Argentina.)

So yes, I've become so jaded that I'm "ranking" oceans. I won't dispute it, but my point remains not that the Pacific is "best," but that every ocean is indeed a world of its own.


  1. If you were more into swimming and sunbathing it might also have struck you that the Pacific has a stronger undertow, is colder (at the same latitude), and has a steeper continental shelf than the Atlantic. I learned the reason for the latter in Oceanography in college: the mid-oceanic ridge in the Atlantic is the source of new sea floor production/sea floor spreading, causing the Atlantic to expand at a very slow rate, while the Pacific correspondingly contracts, hence all the earthquakes generated by tectonic plates getting crushed together along the cliffs of the Pacific rim--as opposed to the wide, flat beaches of the Atlantic. Don't know about the South Atlantic, but there's all kinds of fish and seafood in the North Atlantic--vs. that "dead zone" around Easter Island.

  2. Hooray for hating the beach! No offense to Sex.

  3. "I hate beaches. Most people seem to think that's akin to saying "I hate sex," so I have to justify it by explaining that I'm not a strong swimmer, I burn at the drop of a hat (literally), I can't stand heat, and I don't enjoy lying around like a vegetable."

    If you ever get some clarity about how you feel . . .

    Me too on sitting forever just to be in the sun. But water, critters, and other humans have become interesting to me lately.