COVER

The challenge of the oceans

Robert Miller June 18 1984
COVER

The challenge of the oceans

Robert Miller June 18 1984

The challenge of the oceans

COVER

ESSAY

Robert Miller

Since the dawn of history man has ventured out on the sea in search of food, expanded knowledge or a better life on a distant shore. Modern history’s greatest explorers have been the great navigators: Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Cook and Cartier (page 33). Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, they were determined “to seek a newer world” and “to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars”—ambitions almost as old as the human species. They were hardy and intrepid individuals and they now serve as role models for the estimated 200,000 Canadian men and women who follow in their wake, working and living on the oceans, hauling nets off the Grand Banks, studying marine biology in Passamaquoddy Bay, drilling for gas wells in the Beaufort Sea and operating warships off British Columbia.

Earth is the water planet, the only known place in the universe where the felicitous combination of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen occurs naturally in abundance. Without water life itself is impossible to sustain; but with it, life can flourish and nations prosper. Among all the 161 countries on the water planet, Canada is the most generously endowed. Its countless lakes, streams and rivers contain no less than one-seventh of the world’s fresh water—a resource of incalculable value and one which may yet surpass forest products, minerals and even food in economic importance. But Canada is also enriched, protected and challenged by its saltwater heritage, the three great oceans that wash its 240,000-km coastline and probably dictate that Canada will have to become in the 21st century what it was in the 19th—a major maritime power (page 34).

The seas around us are as different in character and tradition as the people they embrace. The Atlantic, predominantly grey and often dangerous, is a long-travelled direct link between the Old World and the New. The usually blue Pacific is so vast that there is a point in space from which satellite pictures of the Earth show half a planet of water ringed by the merest hint of continents. It is, above all, an endlessly promising highway to the booming markets and teeming nations of Asia. The pale green and silver tones of the ice-choked Arctic shade the secrets of a little-understood ocean at the threshold of exploitation. But all three offer rich opportunities to Canadians—as a place to work, as a potential source of enormous nutritional and energy wealth, as a sovereign area to be protected and developed and as one more frontier to be studied and ultimately mastered.

The oceans are nature’s playground, changeless and everchanging, and they have inspired innumerable poets, musicians and painters with their beauty, romance, mystery and unimaginable power. The sea is the birthplace of the world’s weather systems, which continue to defy man’s dream of controlling them. But the sea, despite the title of Nicholas Monsarrat’s brilliant war novel, is not cruel: the sea is mindless, and capable of awesome and instantaneous acts of destruction. The Feb. 15, 1982, sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger, off Newfoundland, with the deaths of 84 men, was a gruelling reminder of that power. Last week’s loss, off Bermuda, of the British barque Marques with 19 hands (page 32), during a race to Halifax by the tall ships, was another. But the sea can also be placid, even benign and generous with its riches. Indeed, it may be the world’s largest playground. This

summer millions of Canadians will seek recreation along the nation’s saltwater perimeters—swimming, sailing, windsurfing, sunbathing or simply staring at the waves washing in and the ships passing by.

This year’s various parades of sail by the tall ships (page 26), emotion-stirring pageants which evoke an era of creativity and adventure during which Canadian shipwrights and seamen knew no peer, should do more than merely entertain the masses. They might also stimulate debate among government and corporate leaders about the future of shipping in a country that hopes to retain its standing as one of the world’s great trading nations. Flags of convenience, nonunion foreign crews, prohibitive construction costs and a periodic surplus of world tonnage are usually cited as the reasons for the virtual disappearance of Canadian merchant ships from the oceans. Less often mentioned is loss of will, a curious latter-day transposition of the celebrated pre-steam era of “wooden ships and iron men.” The Norwegians, Japanese, Greeks, Soviets and the Americans, again, are building ships.

Canada has been in decline as a maritime power for a century, although it experienced a brief resurgence during the Second World War (one of the most compelling of wartime photographs is an aerial shot of Bedford Basin, the inner arm of Halifax Harbor, choked with ships waiting to cross the Atlantic in convoy with food and arms for an embattled Britain). During the mid1850s, Halifax and Saint John, N.B., were world-class maritime ports, receiving and sending out vessels to and from the four corners of the globe, dispatching Canadian fish and long lumber and off-loading the produce of Europe, the Caribbean, the United States and the Orient.

But by the turn of the century the Maritime ports were backwaters.

The poet Bliss Carman, a native of Fredericton, put the question and recalled the scene:

Where are the ships I used to know, That came to port on the Fundy tide Haifa century ago, In beauty and stately pride? Schooner and brig and barkentine, I watched them slow as the sails were furled, And wondered what cities they must have seen On the other side of the world.

It is a theme worthy of re-examination more than half a century after Carman wrote The Ships of Saint John.

Until the end of the 19th century Canada was primarily an Atlantic nation. But after the opening up of the West and the completion of the transcontinental railway system, 20thcentury Canadians began to think of themselves as a Pacific nation, too. In the century that begins in fewer than 16 years, it may well be the Arctic Ocean’s turn—particularly if the world continues its voracious consumption of more readily accessible nonrenewable resources. Like the oceans themselves, the riches they contain are patient, awaiting man’s pleasure and his constantly shifting needs and tastes. The offshore oil and gas reserves, which now promise to become such an astonishing source of wealth, lay unsought and undiscovered under the sea for millenia. Less dramatic but no less important is the sea’s promise to become a food locker for mankind. Its development only requires a shift in needs—and

tastes. Quite apart from the food potential of marine plant life, there is the fishery itself. It, too, undergoes change to match human demand. In Cape Breton during the First World War, schoolchildren from poorer families were ashamed of the lobster salad sandwiches that their mothers made (the more prosperous kids proudly ate bologna). Now, lobster is a luxury for all but the most affluent.

The challenge of Canada’s oceans will not be easily met, but at least the way has been charted, not only by the great navigators and our Victorian ancestors but also, again, by the poets. John Masefield, the former poet laureate who died in 1967, pointed the way in one of his most famous verses, Sea Fever, and the way leads down to the sea:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.