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I Must Go Down to the Sea Again

by Deborah Streeter

“I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied.” That’s the call, from John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever,” that I try to follow as a longtime ocean volunteer and an ordained minister on behalf of ocean conservation.

I already write a short weekly devotional piece, “Blue Theology Tide-ings,” linking ocean and spirituality. In this new column I will try longer ocean essays, with more detailed science as well as personal reflections.

Having achieved ocean literacy (hah!) my next series in this marine column could be called “They Had to Go Down to the Sea Again…”  I’ll look at various people through history who have loved the sea, studied it, aided it, spent lots of time in and on it – ocean people.  I’ll start with a portrait I did a few years ago, on Veterans Day, of Jacques Cousteau, ocean explorer and, surprisingly to me, war hero.



Otter Spotters

We wouldn't know much about the ocean without ocean scientists.  These men and women observe, record, collect, experiment, analyze and just notice the ocean and all that lives in it.  In our continuing series on Ocean People, this week I record some observations about sea otter scientists, from a decidedly lay perspective.

- Sea otter have to eat 1/4 of their weight every day.  That's 15-20 lbs of clams, crabs, snails, abalone, and urchins.

- We think only people know how to use tools, but sea otters use a rock or a piece of sea glass to break open a clam or a snail.  Since they are mammals, sea otters have to come to the surface to breathe, where scientists can observe them. There scientists can observe them breaking the snails against a rock they lay on their chest. 

- Otters like a wide variety of foods, but they tend to specialize on one or two kinds, perhaps taught by their mothers.  "Urchin specialists" don't use tools much, since urchins are soft and otters can grab them and eat them with their paws. 

- "Snail specialists" on the other hand, always use a rock to break open the very hard shell and are very fast and efficient tool users. Scientists have seen sea otters bring as many as 30 snails to the surface at a time, using the handy pouch they have in their armpit.  To get their full daily caloric intake, sea otters have to eat 1000 snails a day. 

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These are some of the factoids about sea otters that I have shared with guests at the Monterey Bay Aquarium every Thursday morning for the past 20 years.   That is, the first 3 factoids, every week I say those.  But the last one, about 1000 snails a day, I just learned that one last week.

It was Sea Otter Awareness Week last week so I went to a lecture at the Aquarium about sea otter tool use by Jessica Fujii, Senior Research Biologist for the Aquarium's sea otter program.  Since otters were hunted to near extinction 100 years ago and only recently has their population been recovering and expanding its range, sea otter research is relatively new and constantly expanding, and I figured I might learn something new. 

The science community can be a bit insular, using its own complicated language and maintaining a sort of superior attitude that they are above politics and policy - we just deal with facts.  At these events we volunteers beg for answers, cause and effect, but most scientists are unwilling to speculate about the possible policy implications of the data.  (If sea otters keep getting caught in gill nets, might it make sense for the scientists to encourage the state fishery councils to outlaw this form of fishing?  No, we just collect the data….) 

But in the 20 years that I've been going to programs like this I've noticed the scientists trying a little harder to present their data and findings in a way that is understandable to the layperson.  And occasionally they are willing to "connect the dots" on the social and political implications of their research - why is the sea otter population not growing at a faster rate, what is in the water that is causing more neurological diseases among young adult otters?   Given that they have to eat so much every day, does the food they eat have neurotoxins in it because they live near us and all we dump in the water? Aquarium scientists have begun to testify at state boards about water treatment plants and Aquarium guests are encouraged not only to change what they put down the drain, but to advocate with state officials.

Jessica presented data on tool use based on many hours of her own observations of Monterey Bay and Central California otters.  She also had done a literature review of 25 other studies that have been done over the past decade on tool use by sea otters in other areas, for comparison.  Scientists are good at comparing one group with another, one factor against another, to find the relevant criteria, what is different.  In this case she compared our Central Coast southern sea otters with Canada and Alaska’s northern sea otters.

With fine graphs and charts, she showed us that overall, otters up and down the coast use tools in 18% of observed feeding.  But the otters in our area, Central Coast, use tools much much more, because they are mostly snail specialists, while in the Aleutian Islands urchins are the main menu item, no tools needed.  She also observed that when other choices are available, like crabs, the northern non tool users will just tear off a meaty claw and bang it against the crab’s own shell, turning the crab into its own destructive tool.  But in the south, as Jessica said, if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and otters use rocks as tools on everything, hard or soft.

She presented her power point well, had some funny graphics about hammers and nails, and answered questions readily. 

She described how researchers study otters, from close up and from afar.  They trap otters at sea and as quickly as they can get a blood sample, weigh them, and attach an ID tag to their flipper with info on where they were found, whether they are male or female, and sometimes a radio tag so they can be found again.  Then they return them to the water.  From then on they can identify individuals from the tags, as they observe otter behavior from shore and keep track of it. Cold patient work with binoculars and GPS and computers and good trained eyes. They count and record how long otters stay underwater, what they eat, what tools they use, how much time they spend grooming themselves and their babies, where they like to hang out, the limits of their range, how many otters there are after being nearly extinct from fur hunters 100 years ago, when they mate, how many babies they have, how individuals vary (based on the tags) and on and on. 

Our Aquarium education staff teaches us guides a college level marine biology class when we begin as volunteers, and then every week gives us updates about new research, information (to 750 of us volunteers.) They get their data from the scientists.  Maybe they told me this before, but I think 1000 snails a day is new data.  I can’t wait to use that number with guests next week. 

I’ve always liked the bumper sticker that reads, “If you can read this…..” and you think it’s going to say, “you’re too close.”  But instead it reads, “thank a teacher.”  Today I want to thank the education staff and the otter researchers for teaching me how better to read, and share with others, how sea otters use tools to get dinner.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


They Took Me Out on the Water

I continue my “Ocean People” series with some reflections on my trip last week to New England and time on the water with dear old friends.

“Let’s take my boat out onto the water.” 

Last week, within an hour of arriving at the homes of Sally and Susan, two dear old friends in East Boothbay, Maine and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, they each invited me to go out sailing and kayaking.  They both live where water laps right outside their window.

Ocean and lake lover that I am, I was happy to oblige, but I didn’t tell them I was nervous about my skill and my stomach.  I have bad memories of a stern sailing uncle who barked orders to us scared shivering young crew.  Not to mention all the times I’ve barfed over the side on whale watching trips.   I hoped not to put us in danger or embarrass myself.

Not to worry.  Sailing with these kind older women was no “man against nature” ordeal.  We did not crash against waves or try to go fast and rough, although I’m sure they were capable of that and could have handled a storm.   Both women were the only children of sailing fathers, who taught their daughters well.  Indeed, Sally sails her father’s 1965 boat, Priscilla, and Susan reminded me that when she and I were adolescents together at this lake, her father taught us to canoe. 

In this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, which features pictures of how and where people in China, Iran, Estonia, Italy, Guinea and Japan take summer vacation, it’s all about water, and the interviewer notes how many families go back to the river or beach or lake their parents took them to.  Both Sally and Susan spent their childhoods on these same Maine and New Hampshire waters, and after years away have returned there in retirement.

PriscillaThree days in a row I was on the water with these women.  (Sally and I also took a ride on a quiet electric boat around the brackish Maine inlets with Sean, a hip naturalist, seeing eagles, eating seaweed, meeting a lobsterman, nearly running aground in the mud in the dramatic tides.)

These graceful excursion have been gliding and glistening in my memory ever since I got home, filling me with a sense of peace and depth I associate with prayer.   Some spiritual insights from sailing with Sally and Susan and Sean:

- Different Kinds of Sailors:  Sally told me that soon after she moved to Boothbay and joined the traditional, yet informal, yacht club she was asked (by the male leadership) to improve the “Women Sailors” program because they weren’t organized enough.  Sally figured out they didn’t want to be organized, to plan sails far in advance.  And that they liked to talk and eat before going on a sail.  (She and I also talked and ate –lobster roll!- as we prepared to sail.)  She also said her group decided to start taking out older former members who no longer can sail on their own – last week she took out a woman with Alzheimer’s for probably her last sail.  Sailors don’t always bark commands and terrify the crew. 

-Deep Knowing: These folks really knew their boats and the water where we sailed.  “Watch out for the shallow rocks here,” Susan said as we kayaked around Stamp Act Island in the middle of Lake Wentworth.  “Pull in the jib and we’ll come about,” warned Sally, and I instinctively ducked, surprised that I remembered from 55 years ago the danger of the swinging boom as we tacked – even some of the terms came back – but this big beautiful boat had a higher boom that would not crack an unsuspecting head.  Sean knew the exact timing of the dramatic Maine tides and saved us from a potentially dangerous current.  These New Englanders knew their water and their craft, and even I remembered a little bit.

-Quiet Dancing.  I think of women as gabbers, I certainly can be.  But there were long stretches of silence as we glided on the lake and as we sped along the ocean.  I was trying to be a good guest and I remembered that crew should not distract the captain.  But mostly it was the quiet of the water that inspired me to keep quiet.  Even the ocean seemed quiet.  It made a big difference that all three boats were quiet – sailboat, kayak, electric boat.   Huge power motor boats announce their dominance, and both motor and captain like to show off.  Our boats glided with the water; if we were dancers, the water was leading, we were following.

-Good Stewardship.  My two friends are happily retired after long, hard working careers, but they are not sitting around eating bonbons.  Sally took me to a lecture at her church by a local marine scientist about climate change, which is devastating the Gulf of Maine.  Susan told me that the next day she would be down at the public docks encouraging boaters to take advantage of the local Lake Association’s free boat wash for invasive species, and that later she would go to a meeting of the State Lake Association Board in Concord, NH, which is drafting legislation to reduce coastal erosion. 

My boat vacation was not just fun, but spiritual.  I felt like I had been on retreat, with all that quiet and gliding.  Maybe my time on the water will remind me of some styles of prayer and meditation: don’t get hung up on organization, remember to take others along, learn from elders, remember that you do know some things already, keep quiet, follow the dance, and be a good steward of whatever environment you’re in.  Happy sailing.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Doris’ 50 Wet Daughters

This week’s “Ocean People” are actually ocean divinities, the Nereids. In Greek mythology the 50 Nereid sisters were beautiful benevolent sea nymphs, all daughters of Doris, a sea goddess, and Nereus, oldest son of Earth and Sea, whom Hesiod calls “the Ancient One of the Sea.” “Nereus” means “wet.”

Since the Greeks were a sea-faring people, multiple and varied ocean deities ruled in their vast pantheon.  Before setting sail the Greeks would invoke these gods to appease their mighty power, and after a bountiful catch the ocean spirits would be thanked immediately. The best known ocean deity is Poseidon, the forceful and fearsome brother to the two other mighty Olympian males, Zeus, ruler of the sky and Hades, ruler of the underworld.  Poseidon is also god of earthquakes and horses; in many stories he is strong and angry and destructive.  So is the ocean.

NereidesBut I am more partial to the Nereids, variously called sea nymphs or minor nature dieties or spirits of the sea.  Rarely the stars of a myth, they are more the chorus, appropriately, since they are said to have lovely voices.  Even more appealing is their consistent benevolence; they help sailors in storms and point the lost toward shore.  On vases and sarcophagoi nereids are often frolicking in the waves, riding astride dolphins and holding a bountiful catch.  They embody the sea at its least angry and destructive. 

If you are already hummng “Under the Sea” then you have experienced the modern Disney version of the Nereids, Ariel and her sisters in the movie The Little Mermaid.  They all have long hair, great figures and seem content simply to swim and sing.  Except for Ariel of course, who wants to be part of handsome Prince Eric’s dry world.  While the ancient Nereids seem pretty content in their world, they do encounters mortals, mostly to save them.  In a lovely ancient account, they gently guide the Argonauts between the treacherous rocks Scylla and Charybdis.

Then, though Hephaistos had ceased from his toils, the sea was still sending up a warm vapor. Hereupon on this side and on that the daughters of Nereus met them [the Argonauts]; and behind, lady Thetis set her hand to the rudder-blade, to guide them amid the Wandering rocks.

And as when in fair weather herds of dolphins come up from the depths and sport in circles round a ship as it speeds along, now seen in front, now behind, now again at the side and delight comes to the sailors; so the Nereids darted upward and circled in their ranks round the ship Argo, while Thetis guided its course.

Why in so many cultures is the sea referred to as “she” and embodied as a goddess?  Perhaps it is just that these prescientific ancients knew full well that the sea really is mother of us all, evolved as we are from those waters.  Experiencing the sea as a divine marine mother may also reflect the experience we all have in our mother’s womb, where the amniotic fluid sloshes like the sea (listen to an ultrasound) and is the same salinity as our original birthplace.  You don’t need to read Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell to know that myth comes from our deep collective unconscious, and the ocean is the deepest of it all.

As patriarchy took over the earliest goddess stories, the few remaining female spirits and heroines were often left nameless, as in the Bible.  But the Nereids are all individually named, by Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus and Plato.  Some translators simply leave their Greek names, such as Neso, Protomedeia, Euagore, Galene, Leagore, Melite, Speia, Thetis.   Others translate those Greek names into English equivalents, rendering the Greek as “Headland’s Hope, Calm, Bounty, Power, Glitter, Healer, Glory, Swell’s Embrace, Race with the Waves, Sparkler, Fair isle, First Light, Eyes of the World and Blossoming Spray.”  Ocean spirits indeed.

It may be patriarchal wishful thinking that this vast choir or college of female ocean spirits, the Nereids, are called Poseidon’s consorts, and said to reside in his ocean palace.  I prefer to think of them as the women who swim with dolphins, the free spirits of beauty and bounty who sing and splash and laugh.  Ready to help a lost ship of male sailors or serenade an old man and his trident.  But freest when on their own, down where it’s better, down where it’s wetter, under the sea.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

This week’s column about “Ocean People” celebrates all the nameless people who stand watch at sea.

From the New York Times story about the recent Navy collisions at sea:

“Admiral John Richardson, the US Navy Commander, has ordered all ship around the world to stop and retrain, relearn and focus on proper procedures and safety precautions to prevent more collisions or mishaps.

“’All of us should ask ourselves’ he said,  ‘Are we ready if it happens to us?  All personnel should answer these questions: Are sailors standing watch with vigilance?  Are they communicating with commanders when problems arise?  Are commanders responsive or asleep at the wheel?’” (August 23, 2017)

To “watch with vigilance,” means to watch (observe carefully) with a watch (keeping an eye on the clock) for the whole watch (a time of vigil when a person looks for danger or trouble.)  Sailors at sea watch, with a watch, for a watch. 

At any moment, day or night, there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of cargo and military vessels at sea, and each one has at least one person, hopefully more, whose job is watching.  This screen shot from shows how many cargo boats are out there.

In the US Navy these watchers are often “able seamen,” also called “lookouts” and “watchstanders.”

There is something romantic and reassuring about the term “able seaman.”  My impression is that the sailor watching the horizon is always completely alert, vigilant, and ready to report danger.  The problem is that most of my knowledge of sailing comes from Gilbert and Sullivan operetta’s like Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore.  In reality, I imagine a watchstander’s life is boring, terrifying, regimented, lonely and totally without witty refrains or hornpipes.

But watch they do, hundreds of thousands of men and women right now, staring at the sea.

I wondered if in these techy days they only watch computer screens from deep in the hull, like pilots flying only on instrument.   But I was reassured to read “8 Important Points for Efficiently Taking over a Bridge-Navigational Watch.”  As you take over your turn to watch, there are detailed orders to walk all around the bridge, check the horizon before you, let your eyes adjust to the dark, and only then to “glance at the radar screen.”  

And these are not the only sea watchers out there.  Think of all the folks on shore watching the seas.  Lighthouse keepers (many now automated), marine researchers, harbormasters, migrating whale counters (hundreds of volunteers from Alaska to Mexico count the grey whale migration night and day, standing on cliffs, from November to April, watching them swim south to mate and give birth, then north with the babies – talk about keeping watch over their flocks by night!)

And add on to the list of watchers all those in the tourist industry of whale watching, and their millions of customers.  Whale tourism now far out-earns the former income of the commercial whaling industry.  “Whales are worth more alive than dead” brags the International Whale Watching Commission, reporting that 13 million people paid to go whale watching last year, up 20% from five years ago.

The sea demands watching, the seas are worth watching.  Ever since people first fished or traveled the seas, since we went to sea for trade or battle, as long as we have found in the sea wonder and inspiration, we have watched the waves, watched the wind, watched the horizon, watched for other ships, watched the sea. 

Stay awake!  Keep watching!

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Scientists of Mystery: Rachel Carson and William Beebe

Encountering the depths of ocean or space can convert the most intellectual of scientists into the most mystical of poets. The wide appeal and influence of Carl Sagan and Neal DeGrasse Tyson is due in part to their ability to turn science into poetry about the universe. We continue our series on Ocean People with two 20th century marine scientists who used their influential popular writing to inspire and move a wide lay audience. They both turned the public tide toward ocean conservation, and they both wrote some fine poetry.

Rachel Carson When marine biologist Rachel Carson published The Sea Around Us in 1951, a book that would go on to win the National Book Award, spend 86 weeks on the NY Times Best Seller list, be translated into 28 languages, reach even more readers in its Readers Digest version, and be serialized in the New Yorker Magazine, she dedicated the book to another marine scientist, her friend and champion, William Beebe. "My absorption in the mystery and meaning of the sea have been stimulated and the writing of this book aided by the friendship and encouragement of William Beebe.”

We are probably more familiar with Carson than Beebe. She followed her influential trilogy of books about the sea in the 1950’s with the even more groundbreaking Silent Spring, 1962, which challenged the myth that postwar science was an unquestioned blessing, calling pesticides “biocides” and describing their wide ranging destruction of whole ecosystems. Attacked ferociously by the chemical industry, Carson and other scientists defended her research and conclusion equally ferociously, and ultimately prevailed, with the outlawing of DDT and the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency finally independent of the Dept. of Agriculture. Sadly Carson was already battling breast cancer when the book was published and she died two years later, at age 57.

As a woman scientist, who had to leave graduate school to support her widowed mother by taking a job at the US Department of Fisheries, Carson was always on the edge of the scientific establishment, scraping for research money and recognition. But thankfully the Dept. of Fisheries recognized what a good writer she was, and recommended she submit her copy for their marine industry brochures to the Atlantic Monthly as a more fitting and influential medium.

But she might not have gone on to have such wide influence without the support of some likeminded science advocates, like Loren Eisely, E.O. Wilson, and William Beebe. While Eisely and Wilson had academic credibility, Beebe, like Carson, had earned his scientific credentials in the field, and had devoted much of his energy not to academia, but to writing popular articles and advocating for conservation of the remote regions he studied.

Beebe also left school early, quitting Columbia in 1897, in his junior year, to take a job at the brand new New York Zoological Society, better known as the Bronx Zoo. Having done field research already on birds and marine animals, he was intrigued with the new zoological institution, but he also felt, like Carson, a need to support his family financially.

William Beebe and Otis BartonLike Carson, Beebe went on to to have a long and varied career, doing field research on behalf of the Zoo in many different places, especially on birds. He is called a “father of ecology” for his focus on the relationship of organisms to their environment. But he seized the public attention, and that of Rachel Carson, in 1932, when he was the first person to observe deep sea animals in their native habitat by diving over 3000 feet deep in the ocean off Bermuda in a steel capsule called a bathysphere built by his engineering partner Otis Barton.

After these dives New York Times went so far as to compare him with Columbus, Magellan, and Cook. Beebe published a popular account of his bathysphere work in a book titled Half a Mile Down, which earned mixed reviews, particularly among the scientific community, which questioned the value of the dives. But Carson read it, and used its vivid descriptions to write her own books about the sea, before she had ever seen the depth first hand, with the then very new practice of deep sea diving.

Like Carson, Beebe wrote extensively for the popular press. He described what he saw out the window of the bathysphere, deep sea animals, bioluminescence and other mysteries of the deep, first by live radio broadcast on NBC and then in National Geographic.

Beebe was a generation older than Carson, but they became friends and correspondents, and he advocated on her behalf on several occasions to receive publishing contracts and foundation grants. Both favored field research to the increased popularity of laboratory and molecular studies. Neither hesitated to advocate publically for the conservation of the wonders they had studied, eliciting criticism from both the political and scientific establishments.

And both were unabashed about sharing the emotional connection they had with the sea, in Carson’s words about Beebe in her dedication, their shared love for “the mystery and meaning of the sea.”

In a study of the marine science in the 20th century, America’s Ocean Wilderness, A Cultural History of 20th Century Exploration, author Gary Kroll distinguishes between the more utilitarian scientists who saw the ocean as a wide open frontier to exploit for resources and wealth, and the more conservation and mystically minded scientists like Beebe and Carson who experienced there “a seascape of inspiration” and worked to preserve it.

You can read much more about the fascinating lives of Beebe and Carson in their extensive Wikipedia articles and many more articles and books. Let me leave you with just a few of many fine quotations from both scientists that reveal this poetic side of their deep scientific minds.

I would dive deep with either of them any day.


“The marsh, to him who enters it in a receptive mood, holds, besides mosquitoes and stagnation, melody, the mystery of unknown waters, and the sweetness of Nature undisturbed by man.”

“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer, but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”


“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”

“The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities... If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter