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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.



Monet Painting by the Sea

Continuing our series on ocean people, an homage to ocean artists. Simply looking at paintings and photos of the sea can be calming and inspiring, each brushstroke, each wave.  Here are some memories of a seaside trip inspired by Claude Monet.

Claude Monet grew up by the sea, in the Normandy port of Le Havre, where his father was a ship handler, selling boat supplies to fisherman.  Monet is best known for his paintings of gardens, water lilies and cathedrals.  But his career was born on a beach, and like a migrating bird, he returned to the sea every year to paint wave and rock and light.

Monet’s mother, a singer, supported his desire to become an artist, despite his father’s pressure that he carry on in the handlery business.  When he was only 16, on a contemplative beach walk, Monet first met by chance the older painter Eugene Boudin, who taught him how to use oils, and encouraged him in his now famous style of painting outdoors, plein air.   At the time most painters worked indoors, and copied old masters; Boudin on the beach suggested to the teen that he paint the same scene over and over, as the light and his impression of that light changed. 

Monet’s career in art came with many challenges -  poverty, exile during the Franco-Prussian War and rejection by the art establishment.  Only in later years was Monet able to settle in a river town, Giverney, when he planted and then painted his famous water lilies and other river scenes.  But every year he would travel back to his native Normandy and paint for a few weeks by the sea.

Monet painted often near the Normandy town of Pourville.  I first saw some of these paintings in person in 2013 at an exhibit at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco called “Impressionism on the Water” about ocean and river paintings by all kinds of French Impressionists. My daughter Norah, home from college, went with me.  We had been talking about how I might go visit her in Scotland where she was studying, the following spring break, March, when it would still be cold and dreary up north.  How about France, I said.  How about there, said Norah, pointing to the Monet cliffs. 

I’d been to the big wide Normandy beaches years before.  They remind me of the beaches on the New Jersey shore where I spent summers as a child, vast flat expanses of soft sand, dramatic shifts of shoreline from high to low tide.  At low tide you can walk far out without having to swim, and there are sand bars.  The beaches of Normandy are so wide they invite invasion, so wide there was lots of time and space for the German snipers to pick off those brave young invading men, turning water and beach deep red.  Today the beaches are white and clean again, but you need only turn your eyes inland to see extending back from the low cliffs vast miles of cemeteries with rows and rows of crosses.

But I had not visited Normandy’s cliffside beaches, neither wide nor flat, but rocky, and haunted by towering colorful chalk cliffs.  Like the cliffs of Dover just 20 miles north, Normandy’s towering dramatic cliffs and rocky beaches frame and shelter the coast.  The danger there is not from invading forces but from tumbling rocks; signs warn “Attention! Risque de chutes de pierre!” with graphic images of boulders falling on beachcombers.  That didn’t stop my daughter and me from hiking down these beaches, picking carefully along the rough coast, poking for shells and rock souvenirs.

We approached the beach at Saint Valery-en-Caux along a steep winding canyon with cliffs so high that we could not see the ocean, but trusted the signs and gradually smelled the waves.  Monet took a similar route. On this offseason morning we were the only ones of the narrow road, and at the beach the only visitors.  A group of loutish French young men with many beer glasses already on their snack bar tables hooted at my nubile daughter and encouraged us to join them pour dejeuner, but they were too lazy to follow us down the beach.

The feeling in many of these seaside paintings is of casual freedom, a day without plans or problems.  This fit with my daughter’s teenage mood – no planning.  “Oh Mom let’s just drive around and see what we find.”  We had been lucky to find the last room in a seaside hotel the night before.  The holiday town, normally quiet in March, was filled up with the once every ten-year inspection by hundreds of engineers of the local nuclear plant and the dining room had been packed with French techies with pocket protectors.  But that morning they were off inspecting turbines and we were walking down the beach with no plans.  We gave each other lots of time and room and just wandered, like those Monet ladies on the cliff.   

Monet painted this rough house overlooking the sea many times, from different angles, different light. Climbing over a fence (another adventure suggested by the teen) we crept near rough cabins like this one and peered down from the rim to the beach as close as we dared.

For all its beauty, there’s a hint of danger on that cliffside coast; rough seas, invading armies and tumbling boulders.  In Monet’s paintings I sometimes sense wistful echoes of his early days, of poverty, war.  We can easily romanticize his happy plein air parties and billowing waves.  But we know he endured much to live into a time of freedom and safety. 

On our last day we found a church perched at the top of those cliffs, Notre Mere de la Salut, Our Mother of Safety, with a memorial for all those lost at sea. Our days had been gentle and calm.  Except for the lazy French louts there had been no threats to our safety, two women traveling alone. But we were lucky privileged American tourists.  In the church we (well, at least I) said a prayerful word of thanks for artists and fighters who had endured much to make this a safer place today.

Outside that church sat an artist, easel perched on the cliff.  A future Monet?  Like him, and like us, inspired by the sea.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Paddle-Out With St. Jack

 Last week I began a new series on “Ocean People” with a tribute to Jacques Cousteau.  Here’s another “Jacques” – Jack O’Neill, wetsuit innovator, surfing pioneer and ocean advocate.  I wrote this piece recently on the occasion of his death at age 94.  Catch a wave…..

When a beloved surfer dies, their community honors them with a “memorial paddle-out,” a wet and playful gathering of the clan. Never somber, the large human circle splashes, throws flowers, and whoops and hollers, celebrating together their dear one’s passion for dancing daringly on the sea.

O'Neill Paddle-OutOne of the largest ever paddle-outs took place this past Sunday off Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz to honor Jack O’Neill, the Central Coast’s grandfather and godfather of surfing, who died last month at 94.  3000 surfers, in a circle a half a mile wide, along with thousands on the shore, remembered how O’Neill created one of the first wetsuits in the 50’s and went on to innovate and promote the best line of surf products and a passion for the surfing life.

But for all his commercial success O’Neill always said he was proudest of how he used that success to start O’Neill Sea Odyssey, an amazing education program that takes 4-6th graders on a 65-foot catamaran/sea lab out of Santa Cruz Harbor for free field trips to learn marine biology, navigation and coastal ecology.  Since 1996 over 100,000 kids, mostly low income, have learned not just science, but to love and care for the sea, thanks to Jack O’Neill.

Jack O'NeillI look at this picture and see Blue Theology in action, ocean stewardship and ocean spirituality bouncing and blessing a beloved ocean soul surfer.  Although I have body surfed, I can’t call myself a member of this amazing surfing community.  From shore I admire the courage and finesse of surfers.  I deeply appreciate their support of ocean conservation, especially through the fabulous Surfrider Foundation.

Surfers don’t stay at the surf-ace.  It’s not really a sport, but a way of being, an identity.  Some call it a religion or at least a spiritual discipline, soul surfers.  St. Jack and so many others take us on surfin’ safaris to new highs and depths.  Catch a wave…..

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Captain Cousteau, War Hero

A Veteran’s Day salute to French Naval Officer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Thanks, Captain Cousteau, for your military service to your nation Jacques-Yves Cousteauand the Allied cause in WWII. 

I loved your 60’s TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” It gave teenage me and millions of others our first glimpse of ocean depths and mysteries and wonders.

I read once that your childhood passion for swimming helped you as a young man get your strength back from a near fatal car accident, but that you were never expected to have the stamina for diving.

How amazing that you invented the aqualung in 1943, the first SCUBA gear, and perfected an underwater camera so you could film what you saw. Your very first film, 1956, “The Silent World,” won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.

Thanks for your hundreds of other films, for the Cousteau Society, for your successful protest of France’s plans to dump nuclear waste in the Mediterranean, for your continuing legacy.

But long before your TV success and international fame you had a 20-year naval career, 1930-50.  I learned about that in the film I saw recently, “My Father, The Captain,” that your son made, and released on what would have been your 100th birthday (2010). I now know that several years before you invented the aqualung you used your technological prowess to develop key underwater minesweeping technology, locating and destroying Italian and German mines in the Mediterranean.  Thanks for your bravery.

Thanks also, for the naval intelligence work you did in Japan and China in the late 30’s.  (I think you had returned to France by the time two American intelligence officers came to China in 1943 – Julia Childs, and my father!  Now that’s a trio!)

Every week, Captain Cousteau, I read your words printed on the walls of the fish roundabout at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Today I hope we all remember these other wise words of yours: “The sea, the great unifier, is man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.”

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


The Two Challenger Expeditions: Sea and Sky

Congratulations – you are now ocean literate! That is, if you’ve been reading along with me these past 7 weeks about the 7 Principles of Ocean Literacy, you (and I) know a tiny bit more about the ocean than we did before. This last Principle, # 7, simply reminds us how illiterate we still are, and encourages us to keep working on our ocean literacy: “The Ocean is Largely Unexplored.” One last dive…..

I was driving my young son to kindergarten on Jan. 28, 1986 when we heard on the radio that the Challenger Space Shuttle had exploded after lift-off and all on board had died, including Christie McAuliffe, the public school teacher chosen from a national competition to embody the idea that space is a place to learn and teach. My son’s class had been following the build-up to this day, learned about McAuliffe and planned to hear her reports from space. The news devastated kids and teachers and citizens across the nation. I remember even preaching about it in order to name our common grief. Many people remember where they were when they heard the news.

HMS Challenger
I assumed NASA called the ship Challenger (which had taken nine successful voyages before that fateful day) as a way to embody the great “challenge” it accomplished on those flights – to boldly go into space. It wasn’t until 1997 that I first learned, in a marine biology class I had to take to become a volunteer guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, that the Challenger space shuttle was named after another famous research vessel, the English ship, HMS Challenger, first launched in 1858.

First built for military action off Mexico and Australia, this 200 ft. steam-assisted full sail corvette made history when over 200 scientists and crew spent 4 years (1872-6) studying the ocean from this ship, sailing over 70,000 nautical miles throughout the world’s ocean. The goals of this groundbreaking (wave breaking?) scientific expedition, sponsored by the Royal Society and University of Edinburgh were, in their words:


  • To investigate the physical conditions of the deep sea in the great ocean basins (as far as the neighborhood of the Great Southern Ice Barrier) in regard to depth, temperature, circulation, specific gravity and penetration of light.
  • To determine the chemical composition of seawater at various depths from the surface to the bottom, the organic matter in solution and the particles in suspension.
  • To ascertain the physical and chemical character of deep-sea deposits and the sources of these deposits.
  • To investigate the distribution of organic life at different depths and on the deep seafloor.

Up until then the ocean had only been studied a few fathoms deep. The Challenger’s crew, using long ropes, nets and other instruments, stopped at 360 stations throughout the world and measured the bottom depth, temperature at different depths, observed weather and surface ocean conditions, and collected seafloor, water, and biota samples, amassing vast numbers of ocean specimens and data. You can read their 50 volume report on line or at the British Natural History Museum.

Like their namesakes a century later, some of the scientists and crew died during the dangerous and long ocean voyage. But the ships and crew of both Challengers rose to the “challenge” of seeking knowledge, by going high and deep into uncharted depths. And like much science, they learned as much what they didn’t know, as what they did. Even though we now, 150 years after that Challenger ocean expedition, explore the ocean with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles and collect data by satellite, Principle #7 is still true: The Ocean is largely unexplored. We know more about the moon’s surface than the ocean’s, and scientists estimate that we have explored only 5% of the ocean’s huge volume and biomass.


Remotely Operated Vehicles Nations study ocean or space for all kinds of reasons – international power, commerce, pride. I sometimes think NASA has a small identity crisis - is space exploration for science or conquest? But for our purposes let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that one function of a nation is to further knowledge and science. Where did this idea come from, that governments should encourage and fund the teaching and doing of science?

Our nation’s founders were Enlightenment men, endorsing the idea that all people should have access to knowledge and self-improvement. Thomas Jefferson famously said that democracy only works if citizens are educated. But it took almost a century for the states to require and fund public education, and the US seems to have long been ambivalent about the value and content of what our kids should learn. Long before Betsy Devos, current Secretary for (the dismantling of) Education, legislators and leaders appear to prefer an uneducated citizenry, so much easier to manipulate or ignore.

So in 1996 (Bill Clinton was President, fairly pro-science) the Department of Education issued new Science Standards for what should be taught in public schools K-12. To the surprise and chagrin of of ocean scientists and educators, there was barely a mention of ocean, coastal or wetland issues. Maybe they shouldn’t have been surprised. The federal ocean agency NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) had only been formed from a variety of smaller agencies in the 1970’s and then was curiously located in the Commerce Department; the ocean is simply a place of trade and source of wealth, not a source of knowledge or deserving of study. Indeed you can see how our government prioritizes space exploration and ignores ocean issues simply by comparing budgets: even with no more shuttle flights, NASA last year received 18 billion dollars. NOAA - 4 billion dollars.

But as sometimes happens, from bad comes good, an oversight or error motivates people to get to work. When they realized the oceans had been ignored, a coalition of ocean scientists, science educators, and policy makers came together and within a year agreed on the 7 Principles of Ocean Literacy. Next they set about developing what marine science students should learn at each grade level. Since then there has been an explosion of interest in marine science majors and jobs, which might be credited to this happy response to ignorance or unfortunate oversight.

After 6 Principles describing what we do know, inn this last principle these educators and scientists stressed how much we don’t know, and how much more we need to study and learn about the ocean. As with the previous six principles, this last one has multiple sub points, which point in the direction of future study. Ocean Literacy Principle # 7: The Ocean is Largely Unexplored

1. The ocean is the largest unexplored place on Earth—less than 5% of it has been explored. The next generation of explorers and researchers will find great opportunities for discovery, innovation and investigation.

2. Understanding the ocean is more than a matter of curiosity. Exploration, experimentation, and discovery are required to better understand ocean systems and processes.

3. Over the last 50 years, use of ocean resources has increased significantly, the future sustainability of ocean resources depends on our understanding of those resources and their potential.

4. New technologies, sensors and tools are expanding our ability to explore the ocean system. Scientists are relying more and more on satellites, drifters, buoys, subsea observatories and unmanned submersibles.

5. Use of mathematical models is an essential part of the ocean systems. Models help us understand the complexity of the ocean and of its interaction with Earth’s interior, atmosphere, climate and land masses.

6. Ocean exploration is truly interdisciplinary. It requires close collaboration among biologists, chemists, climatologists, computer programmers, engineers, geologists, meteorologists, meteorologists, physicists, animators and illustrators. And these interactions foster new ideas and new perspectives for inquiries.

Nature is often compared to a book that teaches us all we need to know. Augustine said, “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the appearance of created things, nature. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it!” If nature is a book, 75% of the pages are about the ocean. Lots of good reading.

This and the previous 6 columns have given you a lot of information about the ocean and information about what more we need to know. Note it! Read it! Become ocean literate. That’s the “Challenge.” Let’s get on board this ship.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter


Inextricably Interconnected

We’re almost finished with our series on the 7 Principles of Ocean Literacy, which help us understand the importance of the ocean to humans, and how much we affect the ocean. 

Principle # 6 reads: “The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.” Its sub-points go on to use verbs like affects, supplies, influences, provides, supports, serves and sustains. 

A “marine mammal” is defined not as an animal that lives only in the ocean but rather any animal that depends entirely on the ocean for its livelihood.  For example, polar bears are marine mammals.  After considering this Principle # 6, I think we humans are marine mammals.

“The Ocean takes care of us.  Let’s return the favor.” 

That’s the tag line of a very effective 60- second Public Service Announcement (PSA) from “Thank You”   You can watch by cliching here.  

It shows seven different people connecting with the ocean and simply saying “Thanks.”  Thanks for the air, water, job, adventure, medicine, ride, dinner.  Then we are encouraged to return the favor.

I had a very small influence on the creation of this PSA.  But if they had followed my advice, it would have been a very different message, and a disaster.

As Chair of the Citizens Advisory Council of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary I was invited to be part of a series of focus groups early in the PSA’s development.  We are asked to come up with a few key ideas or values that would educate people about ocean threats and encourage them to change their behavior.  It had to be short – one minute, just a sentence or two.  At my table we listed climate change, sea rise, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, overfishing etc and wrote on the newsprint something like, “The ocean is in horrible shape thanks to our irresponsible and selfish and greedy behavior.  Stop doing all these bad things right now and save the ocean!”

The wise facilitators patiently wrote down all our suggestions and turned them over to a wiser ad agency.  Some months later they unveiled the Thank You Ocean PSA at a big meeting of California’s Ocean Protection Council, which had helped to fund the effort.  (I also met Arnold Schwarzenegger at that meeting; as California’s Governor he was a strong ocean advocate, notwithstanding all his other foibles.)

The message couldn’t have been simpler – thank you, let’s return the favor.  The beautiful photography added to the mood of gratitude and possibility.  The final product also couldn’t have been more different than my complaint and curse.  As I watched it I realized they had taken information and admonition and turned it into inspiration and motivation. 

And by saying Thank YOU, I realized the secular agencies, both government and advertising, had written a prayer.  They addressed the ocean in the second person, thank YOU, thus creating for us an “I-Thou” relationship with the ocean, in Martin Buber’s terminology.  They were reminding us that the ocean is not an object, a thing for us to use (I-It), but a subject, with intrinsic value of its own, with which we are engaged mutually. 

Also, by saying Thank You, the PSA was not telling us or others what to do, but inspiring gratitude, the simplest form of prayer.  The PSA developers were somewhat startled when I told them my experience of prayer. 

The PSA has gone on to win awards and widespread distribution.  It describes well this 6th principle, the inextricable interconnection of humans and ocean.

The sub-points of this sixth principle, below, make clear this mutual relationship.

1. The ocean affects every human life. It supplies freshwater (most rain comes from the ocean) and nearly all Earth’s oxygen. The ocean moderates the Earth’s climate, influences our weather, and affects human health.
2. The ocean provides foods, medicines, and mineral and energy resources. It supports jobs and national economies, serves as a highway for transportation of goods and people, and plays a role in national security.
3. The ocean is a source of inspiration, recreation, rejuvenation and discovery. It is also an important element in the heritage of many cultures.
4. Humans affect the ocean in a variety of ways. Laws, regulations and resource management affect what is taken out and put into the ocean. Human development and activity leads to pollution (point source, non-point source, and noise pollution), changes to ocean chemistry (ocean acidification) and physical modifications (changes to beaches, shores and rivers). In addition, humans have removed most of the large vertebrates from the ocean.
5. Changes in ocean temperature and pH due to human activities can affect the survival of some organisms and impact biological diversity (coral bleaching due to increased temperature and inhibition of shell formation due to ocean acidification).
6. Much of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. Coastal regions are susceptible to natural hazards (tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, sea level change, and storm surges).
7. Everyone is responsible for caring for the ocean. The ocean sustains life on Earth and humans must live in ways that sustain the ocean. Individual and collective actions are needed to effectively manage ocean resources for all.

Some of these points are a little utilitarian for my purposes, like # 2.  The ocean is not here to serve us, nor does it only have value in its usefulness.  But then I have been deeply influenced by another set of principles, the Earth Bible’s Eco- Justice Principles, the first of which reads:

The Principle of Intrisic Worth:

The universe, Earth, and all its components have intrinsic worth/value.

It might be that we can’t get to the ocean’s intrinsic value until we understand what it does FOR us extrinsically.  Once its medicine has saved our lives and fishing solved our food crisis and water quenched our thirst and air given us 3 out of 4 breathes, maybe then we can just let it be.  For now, let’s recognize the care we’ve received, understand all the inextricable interconnections, and return the favor.

Copyright © 2017 Deborah Streeter