Topics Covered in this Section:
- What is Oceanography?
- What is the Ocean?
- What is Man's Relationship with the Ocean?
Oceanography, in its simplest definition, is the study of the oceans. Yet the study of the oceans spans a great number of scientific disciplines, and, in fact, may include social and economic studies as well. Within this broad context, how can we define oceanography, or for that matter, the oceans? In this section, we will confront the complex and chimerical nature of oceanography. We will stare down its maw and ask ourselves, how do I see the sea? Like the poets and artists before you, we will undoubtedly leave this topic with more questions than answers.
What is Oceanography?
Webster's 20th Century Dictionary of the English Language (1979) defines oceanography as "the branch of geography dealing with the oceans." Not a very satisfactory definition. Is this course an extension of a geography class? I should hope not! This dictionary does note that an oceanographer is a "student or specialist in oceanography." Since you're signed up for this course, that makes you an oceanographer from this day forward. Congratulations!
The modern on-line World Wide Web version of Webster's describes oceanography as "a science that deals with the ocean and its phenomena." Your textbook characterizes oceanography as "the science of the ocean." Both definitions are a bit vague, but more relevant to our course than the first definition.
Some textbooks characterizes oceanography as "a broad field in which many sciences are focused on the common goal of understanding the oceans." These sciences include geology, geography, geophysics, physics, chemistry, geochemistry, mathematics, meteorology, botany, and zoology. To these, I would also add molecular biology, optics, and ecology.
Consider this early attempt to define oceanography, as reported by the International Council for the Study of the Sea in 1902:
"...it was seen from the beginning that the study of the physical conditions, of the chemical nature of the ocean waters, of the currents, etc., was of the greatest importance for the investigation of the problems connected with life, that on the other hand, the study of the floating organisms had particular worth for the solution of the hydrographic problems, and consequently that a sharp line should never be drawn between these two main divisions..."
And this report in 1908, upon publication of the first edition of the Internationale Revue der gesamten Hydrobiologie und Hydrographie
"Above all, the editors recognize the necessity of a synthesis of our biological and hydrographic-geological knowledge of the waters. These two spheres of investigation are inseparable..."
Thus, oceanography integrates, synthesizes, and blends many types of knowledge. It is a "problem" that has been recognized for quite some time, and one with which we continue to grapple to this very day. In truth, there is probably not one single field of science that doesn't touch oceanography in some fashion.
Perhaps a better definition for oceanography would be "the science of all sciences as they relate to the ocean and its influences." Figuring that people in a galaxy far, far away could make out the blue color of the Earth, I would even venture to say that "alienology", the study of aliens, has some connection with oceanography!
As with many sciences, oceanography has its roots as a practical discipline. Early man needed oceanographic information to navigate, fish, trade, live, and survive on the sea. Sea travel was one of the principal means by which man traversed great distances and founded new civilizations. Thus, oceanography has great importance to the social and economic development of man, a role it continues to play to this day.
All of this is just another way of saying that oceanography is a hard field to define. It is a science that encompasses a whole bunch of subdisciplines. In this sense, oceanography is often referred to as an interdisciplinary science (i.e. composed of many disciplines). Thus, to study oceanography, one must be familiar with many different fields of science. For that reason, oceanographers tend to be "jacks of all trades."
Question: How do you perceive the science of oceanography? What subdisciplines can you think of that might have relevance to oceanography?
What is the Ocean?
No less perplexing is the task of defining the ocean itself! Is the ocean defined by the seawater? Is it the basins that hold the seawater? Is the ocean an ecosystem, consisting of all the physical and biological forces that exist within it? Does this topic make your head swim?
Again, Webster's defines the ocean as "the great body of salt water that covers more than two thirds of the surface of the earth." It's the water! But if I take a bottle of seawater home with me, is it still the ocean?
Hmmm, Webster's also allows that geographic provinces across the globe are called oceans, such as the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. Yet there really aren't any boundaries separating the water in these oceans. Your book (and other ocean textbooks) commonly refer to the three great ocean basins (the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian). Thus, it would appear that an "ocean" could be defined as the seawater contained within a major ocean basin.
Using this definition (if we can call it that), we can divide the world ocean (uh-oh) into three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian. However, the influence of mythology on oceanography has led to a popular tendency to name seven oceans (not to be confused with the seven seas), which include the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Pacific, the Indian, and the Antarctic. In actuality, there is no such thing as separate oceans. All of the waters of the planet constitute one vast global (or world) ocean.
That settled, let's complicate things even further. What is the difference between an ocean and a sea? Nothing, most of the time, except...from a geographic point of view (does anyone detect a geographical conspiracy here?), a sea is considerably smaller than an ocean or (here's the part I like) a sea can be part of an ocean. Consider the seven seas dating back to ancient times and known to the Mohammedans before the 15th century: the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the East African Sea, the West African Sea, the China Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean (hey, that's not a sea!). Hardly an around-the-world cruise!
Confused? Consider the list of seas (54 in all) compiled by the International Hydrographic Bureau. They include seven seas within the Mediterranean Sea alone: the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Balearic, the Ligurian, the Tyrrhenian, the Ionian, and the Mediterranean proper. Thus, one could sail seven seas and never venture into an ocean!
My point in telling you all this is to help you realize that definitions, by their very nature, can only provide a general sense of a subject. There is always an exception and there is always more than one way to use a word. Stretch your mind. Go beyond the mere words. Think about the concepts presented here and the ones I will present over the next 17 weeks. Science is not a study in memorization. It is an approach to understanding the world about us; it is a process. The sooner you get comfortable with this idea, the easier this course will become. Pay close attention to what you're book has to say on this topic.
With that in mind, I would like to introduce the idea that the ocean is a living, organic, self-sustaining being. It is a self-sufficient biological system interacting with the physical environment as a whole to maintain a steady-state, self-regulating, system that balances the flow of energy from the atmosphere and the movement of materials from the lithosphere.
In other words, the ocean, the world ocean, is a global biosphere. It receives energy from the actions of the sun, winds, and tides, and distributes that energy around the globe. In addition, the ocean transforms chemical matter from the ocean basins and continents, and cycles that matter through living organisms and sediments. You might think of the ocean as a giant switchboard operator, orchestrating the movement of energy and matter across, within, and beyond the globe.
We will return to this concept of a living, breathing ocean in our next lecture when we talk about James Lovelock's controversial Gaia hypothesis. In the meantime, you should begin thinking about the relationships between the organisms of the sea and their environment. The interaction of biological and physical factors within the sea is a theme we will consider over and over again. Tune your mind to it!
Questions: How is the ocean like your body? What is the heartbeat of the ocean? What is the blood of the ocean? Where does the ocean get its food and energy?
What is Man's Relationship to the Ocean? So far, we have taken a rather scientific and philosophical view of the ocean. But the part of the ocean that touches most of us -- and the reason most of us have an interest in oceanography -- is the artistic and spiritual aspect of the sea. Since the first man gazed across its watery plain, the sea has been held in special regard. It has evoked visions of splendor and horror. It has provided life-sustaining riches and taken the lives of many in return. The sea is and continues to be an enigma, a symbolic representation of the forces of good and evil; of things that are beautiful and those that are beastly; of that which is human and that which is God.
As we attempt to grasp some meaning of the ocean and the field of oceanography, it is worthwhile to take a moment and recall some of the great artistic and spiritual creations that man has brought forth in the name of the sea. As we read or listen to these words, or view these pieces of art, we gaze further and deeper into our own individual relationship to the ocean. We gain a sense our own emotional and spiritual involvement with the ocean. And for that, we are the better.
Here is the sea as defined by poets and writers. Listen. Feel. Experience.
Selections from the Dhammapada, in What the Buddha Taught, 6th Century BC
Few among men are they who cross to the further shore. The others merely run up and down the bank on this side.
The Bible, Genesis, King James Version
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas;...
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, and God saw that it was good.
William Shakespeare, Richard III
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some layt in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
To yield the ghost: but still the envious flood
Kept in my soul, and would not let forth
To seek the empty, vast and wandering air;
But smother'd it within my panting bulk,
Which almost burst to belch it in the sea.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851
Why is almost every robust boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855
You sea! I resign myself to you also...I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together...I undress...hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft...rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet...I can repay you.
Sea of stretched ground-swells!
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths!
Sea of the brine of life! Sea of unshovelled and always-ready graves!
Howler and scooper of storms! Capricious and dainty sea!
I am integral with you...I too am of one phase and of all phases.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955
The beach is not the place to work; to read, write, or think. I should have remembered that from other years. Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit. One never learns. Hopefully, one carries down the faded straw bag, lumpy with books, clean paper, long over-due unanswered letters, freshly sharpened pencils, lists, and good intentions. The books remain unread, the pencils break their points, and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky. No reading, no writing, no thoughts even -- at least, not at first.
At first, the tired body takes over completely. As on shipboard, one descends into a deck-chair apathy. One is forced against one's mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the sea-shore. Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today's tides of all yesterday's scribblings.
And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense -- no -- but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth wet sand of the conscious mind, what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channeled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.
But it must not be sought for or -- heaven forbid! -- dug for. No, no dredging of the sea bottom here. That would defeat one's purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach -- waiting for a gift from the sea.
Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell, 1974
Certain animals in the sea live by becoming part-animal, part-plant. They engulf algae, which then establish themselves as complex plant tissues, essential for the life of the whole company. I suppose the giant clam, if he had any more of a mind, would have moments of dismay on seeing what he has done to the plant world, incorporating so much of it, enslaving green cells, living off the photosynthesis. But the plants cells would take a different view of it, having captured the clam on the most satisfactory of terms, including the small lenses in his tissues that focus sunlight for their benefit; perhaps algae have bad moments about what they may collectively be doing to the world of clams.
Modern adaptation of a speech by Chief Seattle in 1855
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every single pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which course through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
Tom Brown, Grandfather (The True Story of an Apache Scout), 1993
During the late afternoon, Grandfather began to question why this waterfall had hit him so powerfully and seemed so alive. Certainly he had stood before many waterfalls before but none had communicated to him in such a living way. There was always a communication on a spiritual level, but this falls seemed so alive and definitely had a mind of its own. He wondered if in fact all waterfalls were like this one...
He began to think about how all the drops of water and spray combined to make this living waterfall, and how surely they fused to make the streams before and after the falls. It was the collective consciousness of countless parts that made the whole, the grand consciousness, the mind of the waterfall. But where does that collective consciousness begin and where does it end? Is the mind only in this waterfall, or is it in all waterfalls, all waters, and all oceans? Could it be, he wondered, that the consciousness of all the waterfalls, the streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans combine to make the grander consciousness, the greater flesh and mind of all waters? After all, all water is connected; even the water of his flesh is connected to all waters of earth and sky...
This waterfall was a doorway to all other waters...Through this waterfall, through any water, Grandfather could communicate with all the waters of the world, even the waters that pulse through the veins of man, animal, plant, and even the rains in the sky. Water then was not just a spiritual entity, but a living, breathing, and thinking being.
We will return to this treasure-trove of sea-inspired words throughout the semester. Please feel free to bring in your own favorites. We will start a collection and put them on our web page.
Art of the Sea
Man has also caught inspiration from the sea in great works of art. From the early Greeks to the present-day postmodernists, the sea has inspired images of mythology, beauty, grief, and illusion. One rather macabre painting of shipwrecked sailors comes to us from Gericault.
Winslow Homer drew great inspiration from the sea. Here's one of my favorites.
This painting of Nick Wilder by David Hockney has always caught my attention as being expressive of life in southern California.
Even Van Gogh, who is better known for his portraits and landscapes, drew some inspiration from the sea. Here's Beach with People Walking and Boats.
Van Gogh will be featured at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late January through early April. Here's a great link.
The Internet provides an incredible wealth of artistic material online. Check the links in OtherWorlds for more locations.
Perhaps you have a favorite link you would like to share. Drop me a line.
Question: How has the sea inspired man's art, literature and music? Can you think of any modern music that express some feeling about the sea?
Have questions? Need help? Want to comment?
Send e-mail to email@example.com
or write to
Sean Chamberlin, PhD, Natural Sciences Division, Fullerton College, 321 East Chapman Ave, Fullerton, CA 92832.
This page was last modified on 01/06/00.
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