Your feet wriggle down into the wet sand, sinking, being enveloped by a heavy warmth. And then the wave breaks, and the water rushes up the shore, surrounding you, and you feel the sharp, crystal-clear cold of the tide as it covers you to the ankle, as pure as an epiphany.
Your daughter giggles and shrieks at the sudden, shocking cold. And of course, she wants to do it again two minutes later. Or five years later.
I like to think I’ve taught her well. Stepping into oceans is what we do as a family.
Whenever my dad visits California, what he really wants to do is step in the ocean. He doesn’t need to go swimming, sailing, or fishing. He just needs to take off his shoes and socks and walk to the shoreline to let the water surround his feet.
Why? It connects him to his youth, to happy memories of local coastlines and coastlines all around the world:
Standing knee-deep at a North Carolina beach when a school of eight-inch fish swam past me and directly around and between my legs, followed closely by a school of eighteen to twenty-four inch bluefish who bumped and banged into my legs while they pursued dinner.
And it’s not just about the water. My mom’s favorite memories of the ocean are more about the beach and the dry sand:
The beach near Rome, called Fregene. The feel of sitting in warm sand. Eating spaghetti with clams at the nearby outdoor restaurant deck. Seeing a purple medusa jellyfish on the sand
I’ve never been able to look away from the ocean. I’m fascinated, and not just because I know the ocean could kill me, since I swim as well as an anchor doesn’t. I mean, imminent risk of death is always fascinating, but that’s not it.
It’s an edge of the world thing. I don’t mean anything like a flat-earth notion. I know that just beyond that horizon is Somewhere Else, a lonely cargo ship gliding away from land. And under the waves, well, you never know what’s under there. It’s deep and dark, and so far away.
It’s a liminal point. Without submersible equipment, you can’t perceive exactly what’s lurking below the waves. It could be anything. Dolphins. Whales. Krakens. Anything!
And it’s the quiet. I could stare at the waves for hours, not thinking about anything in particular, and be perfectly happy.
Some ocean memories, in no particular order:
- I was 5 or 6, standing on the bluffs at Fort Ross, California, the old Russian fur-trading fort on the Sonoma Coast, and my parents pointed out a pod of migrating whales, far out to sea. It might be the malleable light of memories, but I think I remember seeing the whales’ wake, although that seems unlikely in retrospect. Nevertheless, that memory drove me to move to California when I was done with Montana after college.
- Riding in the car when I was 8 or 9, cruising along Highway 1 between Jenner and Fort Ross, watching the massive, jagged rocks splitting the waves which were thundering against the cliff. I wondered what was under that water, and what would happen if we fell in?
- My adventure abroad, a semester at the western edge of Wales, on the shores of Cardigan Bay, just across from Ireland. That semester marked a sea-change in my life in many ways. I was half a world away from home. A friend told me to stand on my own. And it was my first dating relationship, marked with Bambi-like enthusiasm and hot chocolate from a pub during the intermission of a rainy night performance of Macbeth, staged in a ruined castle. When I wasn’t being adorably new to the dating world, learning about Margaret Atwood and Buffy The Vampire Slayer from a girl who was similarly adorable, I would walk the promenade and listen to salty waves crashing on rocks before getting fall-down-while-hiking-back-to-campus tipsy on pints at The Glen, or I would just sit on the sand for an hour to watch a murmuration of starlings as the sunset turned the water a metallic sheen of purple and grey, looking solid enough that you could walk to Ireland.
- Riding in a panga in Baja while grey whales came up to say hi, sliding out of the waters of Laguna San Ignacio without a sound, and me, tentative, half reaching out, until M said, “Touch the fucking whale, Devin!” because I was acting like I might break the whale or the boat or both. So I did. Touch the whale, that is. Whales are big, cold, and rubbery. And they are the definition of majestic, especially when they spy-hop ten yards away from your boat, or the mother whales bring their calves to check you out/show off.
- Snorkeling for the first time in Hawaii, at a beach called Two Step, the first time I swam in the sea, nervous, buffeted by the choppy tide, until I looked down … and the world got quiet and blue and clear, and all I saw was coral and trigger-fish gracefully sliding back and forth, and I was floating on the surface, and I wasn’t scared any more.
You could say all sorts of things about the ocean as to why it’s such a powerful poetic presence in human civilization. The drama of a Sonoma Coast coastline, an azure Mediterranean cove, North Atlantic storms. The music of waves crashing on the shore.
But simply put, it’s dark, cold, silent, and vast; you know the ocean doesn’t care who you are or what you like. Sitting on a beach is probably as close to a religious experience as I’ll ever have. It’s special.
My wife has spent decades fighting for the ocean, fighting for the vaquita, fighting for conservation. It’s a large part of why I love her.
The ocean just makes me happy. It makes Marina happy. It makes my daughter happy. It makes everyone happy, and no one knows why for sure. Maybe it’s the ancestral home, pre-evolution, encoded in our brains. Maybe it’s just fun to see waves booming over rocks, or wondering if a shark is going to take out that annoying speedboater.
And yet we’re poisoning the oceans, turning them to dead zones.
That’s why it’s so crucial to fight pollution; while the ocean will survive the human blight, it will be damaged, and other species will suffer.
We have to protect the oceans.
If you don’t fight for the ocean for your own sake, fight for the sake of my daughter. I want her to come back to the ocean 40 years from now, step into the cold waters again, maybe with a child of her own. This is a promise, a connection to immortality that even atheists can support.
We have to try.
The water will thank you.