It is widely accepted that life originated from the great oceans; that all life, including humankind, evolved from the watery womb of the seas. There is also a spiritual belief that everything in the universe was born from a great causal “ocean” and that one day we’ll return to that undivided state of oneness. Some believe that as individuals we are collectively linked; that there is an “ocean of consciousness” that binds us all to each other, or a deep, unfathomable love that links all things once we learn to tap into it — an “ocean of love”. The creation myths of the great spiritual texts might differ in many ways, however they all carry similar metaphors and nearly all speak of the one, undivided ocean — the apparent wellspring of our earth’s seas.
The ocean is undeniably interconnected with our history, survival, health and view of the world. Water is vital for life — nowhere is there life without it — and the greatest store of water on our planet is the ocean. Approximately 97 per cent of the earth’s water is stored in the oceans and polar-sea ice. We’re also aware of the immense power of the ocean, with the recent devastating tsunami of the northern Indian Ocean (26 December 2004) evoking awe and a humble appreciation of this great force.
Covering 71 per cent of the earth’s surface, the ocean resembles a huge, living soup. Some three-quarters of all plant life and 80 per cent of all animal life on the planet can be found in its depths. Nearly all of the 33 major divisions of animals are present there, along with countless living corals.
Despite this, we know more about the surface of the moon than our own planet’s oceans; only a fraction is known about the ocean floor. Beneath the seas are mountain ranges that are said to be longer and wider than any mountain ranges on land. There are possibly 10 million undiscovered species living in the unchartered depths. We think we know a lot about the ocean, but it is really still a vast mystery, even to our scientists, as so much of it remains unexplored. We might liken our knowledge of the ocean’s depths to our knowledge of ourselves, with so much of our thinking being subconscious — or submerged, so to speak.
The living spirit of Gaia
The Gaia hypothesis proposes that our planet functions as a self-regulating, single organism and that, on one level, the earth is alive and adapts to change. The concept of Gaia, or “Mother Earth”, has been part of human culture in one form or another since prehistoric times, and there are also archetypal references to the ocean as the original “mother” or “womb”. There is a belief among some native South Africans that the sea is not just God’s creation but also a living body with healing spirit.
The Gaia hypothesis promotes a new awareness of the interconnectedness of all things on our planet. It suggests that the ocean maintains a homeostasis similar to human physiology whereby our bodies maintain an internal equilibrium (body temperature, blood pH, electrochemical balance and so on) — a balance necessary for health and survival. Not unlike the human body, the ocean maintains certain biological processes. Its salinity, for example, has been maintained at around 3.4 per cent for billions of years.
An example of how the ocean self-regulates its salinity to sustain life is the way sea water evaporates from shallow lagoons and marshes; the water is recycled as fresh rainwater and the precipitated salt is buried under layers of sediment. The shallow lagoons and salt marshes therefore cleanse the oceans. James E. Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, likens this process to the way our kidneys remove impurities from the blood. Similarly, the oceans and rivers of Gaia, or “Mother Earth”, may be seen as analogous to the earth’s “blood”.
The Gaia hypothesis encourages us to consider the impact humankind has on the earth and its oceans. Instead of thinking of ourselves as separate from the “ocean of life”, we can see that we are inherently interconnected with it. Many human beings live dissonantly and completely separated, not just from the ocean but also from the natural world in general. Likewise, many of the world’s nations do not consider nature in anything but material terms. Dumping of waste products and fishing may seem inconsequential in comparison with the size of our vast oceans, but when such abuse occurs on a global scale the impact can be detrimental.
Millions of tonnes of aquatic creatures have been removed from the oceans over the past 100 years. And how have we balanced this? By adding billions of tonnes of waste products, toxic chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides to our marine waters! It is estimated that billions of tonnes of plastic pollute the ocean environment each year, threatening the wellbeing of marine animals that mistake this rubbish for food. Our seemingly inconsequential actions can wipe out whole species and even complete ecosystems. When we see ourselves as disconnected from the natural world, it is easy to use its resources for our immediate gratification, forgetting the impact we may be having and the consequences for future generations.
In recent years an environmental awakening has seen us promoting greater respect for nature and seeking more simple ways of being. The realisation that we are not just interconnected with the natural world but also intrinsically dependent on it for our health and wellbeing has moulded new attitudes and even political policies. Consequently, thousands of marine sanctuaries and parks have been established worldwide (but it is also sobering to note that the total area protected is still only a fraction of the entire ocean). This trend may reflect our inner need to find harmony. More people are turning to the ocean for healing on all levels of their being.