Contradictions of our modern romance of the ocean

There was an emotional gathering at Newcomb Hollow beach in Welllfleet in October to celebrate the life of the young man killed by a shark. Part of it was a “paddle-out” of dozens of surfers to form a circle.

It took some guts to go out there, I thought, well beyond warnings on the posted shark-safety signs. And there they sat astride their boards, legs dangling enticingly. A mantra repeated at the ceremony was a version of what the victim of the shark attack was reported to have said on the day he died, “This is the life I want to live.”

Capewide, but especially closer to ground zero, we’re still figuring out how to think and feel about our relationship to the ocean. The current shark crisis reveals deepseated philosophical and moral differences amongst us. The attitude of reverence for all life, which found expression in the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), is now being challenged by a more human-centric attitude. There is now an Atlantic Human Conservancy to challenge the existing Atlantic Shark Conservancy. As a woman was quoted in an article in ths paper: “I like going to the beach and I feel infringed on my right to do so by a lesser animal.”

Both persectives lay claim to the moral authority conveyed in our time by the idea of “natural.”.But it’s not clear how useful that term is.

Ron Beaty, Barnstable County commissioner, in a recent letter to this paper, writes of the “unnatural over-population of seals” caused by the intervention of the MMPA. But is it overpopulation? or just a correction back to the situation before what some would see as the unnatural massacre of seals by fishermen?

Curious about the natural state of things at the ocean beach before the Cape became unnaturally over-populated (as some see it) by Europeans, I re-read parts of Thoreau’s 1850 classic “Cape Cod” to see what he had to say about the subject. According to that account of his hikes up the Outer Cape beach, a major feature of the beach was its emptiness of people.

Since Thoreau himself takes the occasional swim in water protected behind sandbars, he asks why no one else is out there recreating and is told by locals that there was “no bathing on the Atlantic side on account of the undertow and the rumor of sharks.” “They would not bathe there ‘for any sum,’ for they sometimes saw the sharks…”

1850 is not 1620, but perhaps we can take his report as evidence that the natural state of things was sharks, and humans who quite naturally avoided them.

Moreover, though Thoreau himself as a visitor was obviously drawn to the ocean beach, he reports a very different attitude on the part of locals. “The stranger and the inhabitant view the shore with very different eyes. …the latter looks on it as the scene where his nearest relatives were wrecked. “ “No, I do not like to hear the sound of the surf,” he quotes one old inhabitant.

It would seem that our very attraction to the ocean, let alone swimming or surfing, is a comparatively recent phenomenon, enabled perhaps, until recently, by decimation of shark-inducing seal population by the natural desire of fishermen to eliminate the competition.

Thoreau’s admittedly impractical romance of the harshly beautiful and dangerous ocean beach is a pre-cursor of our modern romance as we flock to the beach. Our own romanticism is much more ambitious and demanding, going way beyond his simple appreciation, involving us in the contradictions of our present situation. On the one hand protect the seals and sharks as part of the natural scene we cherish, and on the other kill the seals and sharks (or resort to drones and other electronic devices) to enable swimming and surfing, “life we want to live” at the ocean.

( Lest the authority of Thoreau be seen to weigh in entirely on the side of cherishing marine mammals, he seems unmoved in reporting mega-slaughters of the small whale called blackfish, a common, lucrative practice of earlier days.)


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