Sea: Sick

I was struck by the overwhelming beauty of the sea, which is why it’s so devastating to learn that it’s in critical condition.

November 4, 2003

It was a late afternoon in early September, and I found myself with the greatest of gifts: an hour or three of free time. There was zero breeze, so sailing wasn’t an option, but I started down to Newport Harbor with the loose idea of heading out to the boat to fuss around with a few chores. But once at the harbor’s edge, something about the flat, gray water was irresistible. So I moved to Plan B, plonked my kayak in the drink, and paddled out into Narragansett Bay. Once there, I had two choices: to continue up the bay among its protected islands, or out toward Rhode Island Sound and into the open ocean. I swung the bow seaward.

The late-summer day was strange, and so was the water–thick and soupy, unruffled, dark as slate, yet with clear visibility a good 10 to 12 feet beneath the surface. It was also thoroughly alive. I cleaved through school after school of tiny, darting fish and through tens of thousands of golf-ball-sized jellyfish. Farther down, at closely spaced intervals, I caught the unmistakable silverish flash of something big and quick, swimming with authority, on a mission. I settled into a steady rhythm, mesmerized by it all.

It was at the mouth of the bay, just off Castle Hill, that the still seaway began to stir. There was a small clap upon the ocean and then another, and suddenly a giant patch of water just beyond reach exploded into a roiled, frenzied state of noise and motion. The striped bass–those silver flashes–were running, and I had a front-row seat at a feeding session that can only be described as voracious. When it was over, I sat there for a long time, rising and falling on a gentle swell while drifting slowly homeward with the incoming tide.


And on my little expedition, on an unexceptional overcast day, I was struck, as I have been so many times, by the overwhelming beauty of the sea. Which is why it’s so devastating to learn that it’s in critical condition.

Such was the finding of a report issued last June by the Pew Oceans Commission, an 18-member independent panel that spent the previous two and a half years–and over $5 million in research and studies–to undertake the first national review of U.S. ocean policies in more than three decades. Its conclusions were deeply unsettling.

Rampant pollution from numerous sources, overfishing, unchecked coastal development, climatic change: All of these individual factors, and more, are contributing to what the Pew commissioners describe as a cumulative “crisis” in America’s oceans. Sailors, especially, owe it to themselves to review the discoveries of the Pew investigation. The summary report and its recommendations, entitled “America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change,” is available online by visiting the commission’s website ( There, one can also order a free printed copy of the report with an attached CD-ROM that also includes the panel’s science reports and white papers.


Be warned: It’s not a cheery message. Perhaps wake-up calls aren’t meant to be.

The Pew report offers no easy solutions to the complicated fix in which the planet’s most glorious resource now finds itself. The first step, clearly, is becoming aware of and educated about the extent of the troubling situation. Allowing the world’s vast seas to further deteriorate simply cannot be an option.
There’s a great old Jimmy Buffett song that begins like this: “Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call. Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. You’ve seen it all. You’ve seen it all.” True enough, yet it’s time for Mother Ocean to see one more thing, and in a hurry: just a little respect.
Herb McCormick


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