Canada is the water country. We have been blessed with the world’s longest coastline and one of its largest continental shelves. Canada’s shelfsubmerged shoulders of the continent—includes the Grand Banks, the bottom of Hudson Bay and the seafloor connecting our enormous archipelago of Arctic islands. It is almost as big an area as the three Prairie provinces combined. In addition, a gleaming web of more than two million lakes and rivers, holding nine per cent of the world’s available supply of fresh water, sprawls across our gigantic interior. For thousands of years, First Nations people harvested these waters and thanked them for their bounties. With their arrival less than four centuries ago, the Europeans brought with them a technical expertise that increasingly expressed itself in the marine traditions of fishing, whaling, shipbuilding and sailing.
The early plundering of our oceans did not register in our imaginations; our numbers were small and our oceans and freshwater seas seemed inexhaustible. But at some point—as our population, consumption and technology grew—we lost our reciprocal bonds with the sea.
In the summer of 1953, using a recently designed version of the Aqua-Lung, I made my first dive beneath the surface of Canada’s great waters. It was a breathtaking descent into a mysterious blue-green world suffused with beauty and home to millions of creatures. It was also the beginning of a long journey of exploration and discovery that has taken me to hundreds of submerged sites deep inside the heart of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. With the help of some remarkably talented people, I have swum face-to-face with northern seals and whales, seen under the crystal layers of ice that float over the North Pole, and glimpsed the slowly rusting ruins of the RMS Titanic.
One of my early objectives during this long ocean odyssey was to improve the skills and teamwork that would allow Canadian scientists and other professional divers to work safely on our continental shelves. Recently, I have been studying the dynamic—and, too often, harmful—relationships we Canadians have with our home oceans and freshwater seas.
Since I made that 50-minute dive in 1953, Canada’s growth and development have changed how we think and act towards the oceans. The population has doubled, increasing the demand for ocean re-
sources, including fish and shellfish products, as well as offshore oil and gas. As more of us consume more raw and refined ocean resources, we generate more liquid and solid waste and cover more miles of coastlines with buildings, roads and the millions of other structures that support our electronic-industrial society. Our marine technologies are everywhere. With the punch of hand-held keyboards, Earth-orbiting satellites deliver exact longitudes and latitudes to thousands of ships simultaneously. All-steel fishing boats stalk their prey with deep-scanning sonar. Off every coast, the undersea world hums with remotely operated robots and bottom-hugging mini-subs.
During one dive into the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, I came
across a small but unsettling example of mankind’s intrusion into every corner of the natural world. Forty feet under the ice, far from any human settlement, I saw a flash of silver on the seafloor next to a kelp plant. It was a pop can, probably thrown overboard by a sailor on a passing ship. In such temperatures, it might outlast the pyramids.
Perhaps our distancing from the natural world began long ago as we shipped millions of beaver pelts off to Europe. Or perhaps our bond slipped away with the coming of the railways and the industrial logging of our eastern and central watersheds. In this century’s version of resource management, we put “For sale” signs up on almost every bay and beachfront and we auctioned off vast areas of the seabed itself to oil and gas companies. We have given new and haunt-
ing meanings to “pollution” and “oil spill.” No place, even the abyss, is immune. Now, expeditions to the Titanic, lying 4,000 m down in the foothills of the Grand Banks, are turning the world’s most famous shipwreck into a brand name. The ocean, once known as the world’s last great sanctuary, has become just another commodity.
Recent federal and provincial governments have managed our oceans with intelligence—and with astounding stupidity. We took years to create some of the world’s finest ocean science institutions— such as the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S. —and then strangled them through lack of funding. We took the hard work of some of our acclaimed marine scientists and twisted its truth to achieve political ends. In keeping with our national motto, “From sea even unto sea,” we clear-cut the cod stocks off our east coast and then did the same to the salmon off the west coast. Acid rain. Runaway chemicals. Global warming. Unwittingly, as we have done to the land, we have turned our oceans and lakes into battlegrounds where even the slightest desire to protect their future clashes with institutional and personal greed.
It is time, during this UN International Year of the Ocean, to remember that our great waters are a defining symbol of our country. Each day for thousands of years, they have given us nourishment. They are the fountainhead of our weather and climate. They are long, liquid highways and irresistible playgrounds. Their flowing beauty provides consolation for our hearts and inspiration for our minds. We
We need a new ocean ethic that recognizes this. Federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson’s demonstrated willingness to make decisions on behalf of the fish, and his establishment in September of two marine protected areas in British Columbia, are steps in the right direction. We need more decisions like the positive moves to diminish the poisoning of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River that are helping bring the beluga whales back from the brink of extinction.
Sooner or later, we are going to have to address the hard reality that there are too many of us making too many demands on the natural world. Until we find the courage to do that, we should remember that our marine technologies keep us from really experiencing the sea. Ask any professional sailor or fisherman: prolonged physical contact with severe winds and waves inspires a bone-deep respect for their chaotic forces. We should celebrate our scientists and citizens who understand the problems and are working on them against such heavy odds. They are the heroes of the new frontier. They know that our great waters are not an abstraction, but a living foundation of the biosphere that sustains us.
In 1980, a team that I was leading discovered HMS Breadalbane, the world’s northernmost known shipwreck. A British three-masted barque, she was crushed by the ice 14 years before Canada became a Dominion and now lies on the bottom of Canada’s Northwest Passage. Our three-year search taught me that our great waters, even when covered with ice, have an animated, touchable and dramatic face. Our discovery taught me something else. The oceans have something in common with that ship—once destroyed, they do not come back.
Dr Joseph Maclnnis, a Toronto physician and noted deep-sea explorer, has written Jive books on the ocean.
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