Ocean edges have lured humans for as long as we’ve existed as a species. From the first people who settled along African shores, to colonizers during the age of discovery and empire, to folks packing the beach resorts and oceanside mega-cities of today, humans have been, and continue to be, drawn to coasts. But what is it that makes coastlines so captivating?
In The Human Shore, John Gillis writes that the shore is the original home of humankind and has been host to many of our species most spectacular accomplishments. He weaves an intricate story examining humankind’s changing relationship to the sea, from the creation of ports and the draining of wetlands to the invention of “the beach”. But historical facts don’t explain the universal appeal of coastlines.
In 2014, Wallace J. Nichols wrote Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. In this excerpt from his book Wallace quotes science educator and explorer Marcus Eriksen who suggests practical advantages to living along the shore, “In the same way the savannah allowed us to see danger a long way off, he theorized, coastal dwellers could see predators or enemies as they came across the water. Better, land-based predators rarely came from the water, and most marine-based predators couldn’t emerge from the water or survive on land. Even better than that: the number of food and material resources provided in or near the water often trumped what could be found on land. The supply of plant-based and animal food sources may vanish in the winter, Eriksen observed, but our ancestors could fish or harvest shellfish year-round.”
Wallace suggests, however, that our relationship to water goes far deeper than economics, food, or proximity. He believes that beyond our evolutionary linkage to water, humans have deep emotional ties to being in its presence: “We are inspired by water — hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, photographing it, and creating lasting memories along its edge.” Wallace draws examples from a broad swath of writers and thinkers including (appropriate given where I am) Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda who wrote: “I need the sea because it teaches me”. He also quotes Vincent van Gogh: “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore”, and The Beach Boys: “Catch a wave, and you’re sitting on top of the world”.
I can’t explain why I’m a wave watcher: I only know that the
ocean brings me joy, and this trip was a way for me to explore the water’s edge
in one of the last few truly wild places left on Earth. I hope you enjoy this taste
of my far-too-many, brain-on-ocean photos of the southern coastline of Chile:
Patagonia in all its (often wind-blown and rain-soaked) glory.
P.S. I would be remiss not to at least mention One Ocean Expeditions and the RCGS Resolute. This is not a paid ad, but I have to give them a shout out for their fantastic inaugural Chilean Fjord Expedition. Experienced, engaged, and knowledgeable staff and presenters; a FAR more comfortable ship than I expected; seamless logistics… check out their website [https://www.oneoceanexpeditions.com/].
Maggie Romuld was a founding member of the CaNOE board and co-chair of the CaNOE Communications Committee. A professional biologist by trade, she works as a freelance writer and editor and is an unfailing supporter of Canadian environmental non-profits. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and if she ever gets her blog (The World Outside Your Window) back up and running, you can read about more of her adventures.