What the sea reveals

Sitting here at my desk with all manner of information available to me – from the majority of scientific literature, to the voluminous records of scientific data on marine ecosystems, it is easy to believe that we humans have a pretty broad understanding of the machinations of life on our planet. Add to this the miniaturization of electronic sensing systems and the growing practice of “data-tagging” animals in the wild it may seem only a matter of time before we have a real-time dynamic map of the goings-on of the sea.

The sheer volume of data becoming available leads to a common undercurrent of scientism; the belief that scientific methodology applied to all the data will eventually illuminate all of the mysterious corners of our little world.

White Humpback, photo by David Fisher / Barcroft

White Humpback, photo by David Fisher / Barcroft

Recently a completely white humpback whale was spotted off the coast of Norway. Leucism − the absence of any pigmentation is extremely rare. That an adult animal so large, so bright, and so visible escaped being seen until recently punctuates this point.

The White Whale of course brings up “Moby Dick.” And while the arc of Herman Melville’s epic tale follows the adaptive behavior of a cast of men under the obsession of a mad whaling captain, a recurring theme in the book is that as much as we seem to know, humankind is not all-seeing; we can only observe, and thus only acquire knowledge about that fraction of entities—both individuals and environments—to which we have access.

The sea lends itself well to this truism: as much as we seem to know about whales (for example) it is mostly by observing them at the ocean surface – typically less than 3% of their lifetime. And while it is not too surprising that hundreds of undiscovered micro-organisms can be found in a cup of seawater, it is not too surprising when a new species of marine invertebrate is discovered or a rare species of beaked whale is encountered.

Even as we explore the seas to further extents and the influence of our actions exerts greater impacts, the ocean will remain vast beyond our imagination; with animals and plants we will never know, geographies we will never see, biota in relationships which we will never understand.

This is humbling. But to me it is also comforting: Knowing that it is impossible to know, I can only chip away at the ocean’s mysteries in gratitude for what she reveals.

Happy Thanksgiving!