The relationship we have with nature is critically important, but an extinction of experience is making it dysfunctional. Like many dysfunctional relationships it is shaped by the stories we hear and the stories we tell, to others and ourselves. Stories where the narrative does not always match the truth.
Humans have always told stories to make sense of the world, and stories have both power and magic. The way we see the world is moulded by these stories, how they are presented – how they are framed – and who the story says is the villain and the hero. It all affects our ideas of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Some of the darkest parts of history are characterised by stories that paint some group as an other, as an enemy, stories that then reach horrific expression. The narratives we tell, the stories we choose to live by, will shape how nature will fare when faced with an expected nine billion people on Earth by 2050, and by extension, how we will fare.
As Sylvia Earle has said – “no blue, no green”, meaning that without a healthy ocean there cannot be a healthy, well-functioning planet. And there are many stories we can tell of how the ocean supports us. It gives us breath courtesy of photosynthetic algae expelling oxygen, it feeds us by providing the main source of protein for three billion people. Humans and the ocean are, as the ocean literacy principles state, “inextricably interconnected”. It quenches our thirst and irrigates our crops – much of our freshwater comes from the ocean, evaporated from the surface to fall later on land and start its journey back, carrying the dissolved substances that make the ocean salty. Seagrass meadows provide nursery grounds for fish, and habitats for other creatures, boosting biodiversity. They capture carbon out of all proportion to their abundance, helping us by removing carbon from the atmosphere and lessening the severity of the climate change to come.
The things that the ocean provides us are sometimes called ‘ecosystem services’, which means the ‘goods’ (like fish) and ‘services’ (like carbon capture) that are provided from the ocean to us. I understand why the concept is used, but it’s one I dislike. An ecosystem providing services to humans. From nature, to us. It’s a bad story, the wrong story. It does a disservice because of what it implies – the term to me suggests a hierarchy, a ranking of who is the dominant party in that particular exchange. It does not suggest a parity between the two. That’s not to suggest humanity should be subservient to nature instead. A diver is not ‘subservient’ to their equipment, but sensibly recognises that care and maintenance is better than dealing with gear failure while still thirty metres under water.
To see ourselves as somehow superior to nature, above it, having ‘dominion’ over it, just shows the arrogance that we, as a species, have in its own exceptionalism. For all our advances and achievements from antibiotics to space travel we are simply one more species of primate, albeit with less fur, bigger brains and better tool-making abilities; this exceptionalism insulates us from our connection and dependence on the natural world.
Here in the UK the issue of poor water quality in rivers and coastal waters is, at the time of writing, receiving a lot of attention. Water quality can be degraded by run-off from agricultural land, such as excess fertiliser, or discharges of raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters. Water companies are permitted to discharge raw sewage under certain conditions, for example during heavy rainfall when the volume of water needing treatment exceeds the capacity of the treatment works to process. Enforcing the regulations by prosecuting those that breach them is necessary, but not enough by itself. In 2021 one company received a record fine of 90 million pounds for discharges that were not authorised by environmental permits, with the discharges into waters where the majority were covered by domestic and international environmental protections. But this is prosecution and protection after the fact, when the damage has already been done. The fine was given out in 2021, while the discharges happened between 2010 and 2015.
But poor water quality also affects our ability to enjoy the coast and ocean. When my daughters were small we were in the surf off a Welsh shore, jumping over and diving under the breaking waves. There had been heavy rainfall a few days earlier, so a permitted discharge may well have happened. There is little that will get me out of the water, but coming face-to-face – literally – with one particular “floating hazard” was enough to send me and my family back to the beach. Is this a story we want to tell, a narrative we want to embrace, that our ocean is simply a receptacle for our waste?
Some go to the ocean to lose themselves in nature, some as a group to share the experience with others, bonding in the light from the flames of a driftwood fire on the beach as daylight retreats. Still others go for a challenge, like kite surfing among the breakers or fighting through the sleep deprivation of single-handed sailing in a long-distance race. We can tell the stories for each of these, but should not forget the one that matters most: that the fate of the ocean and our fate are intertwined, and cannot be separated. This is the story that we most need to tell, and the story that most needs to be heard.
It’s the relationships we have that give meaning to our lives. We may achieve what passes for status – career success, possessions – via the consumption and competitiveness that marks and mars our society, but it is the relationships we have and nurture that define who we are. The relationships with our friends, our family, our ‘significant others’. But there is one significant other where the relationship is being undermined, neglected, where it’s faltering, right at the point where it’s at its most important for us. Our relationship with nature. As the world warms, our future is intimately linked to the natural world that sustains us. It’s always been that way of course, but the severity and speed of the change is about to refresh the memory of that in those that have forgotten it. This loss of connection, this ‘extinction of experience’ as Miller has called it, disadvantages us. It removes a source of knowledge that gives context to the challenges we face, and a source of comfort as we face them.
The public health measures around Covid placed restrictions on where and how we could connect with our fellow human beings, and in response many found connection to nature instead, experiencing benefits physically, but also mentally, in a world that had lurched away from what we recognised as ‘normal’. I live about as far from the coast as you can get in the UK, so travel restrictions meant that I could not journey to the ocean for significant periods of time. I responded by revisiting some of my local sites containing my second favourite habitat: woodland. I found familiar friends, like yellow lesser celandine flowers that reminded me of early morning walks to lectures at university. I saw both parents at a great spotted woodpecker nest as they changed shifts to look after their young inside, the male with a red flash on the back of his head. I saw nesting swans hatch four chicks, only for two of them to be lost, presumably to predators or illness. I found badger tracks, latrines, and spoil heaps from freshly dug setts in an area I have known since childhood, yet never knew they were there. The truth was I’d never looked, always discounting the area as too enclosed, too urbanised, too small to support a badger population. Walking through a woodland reminds me of the ocean in some ways. Where sunlight is fractured by the canopy and shards of light dance over the woodland floor I feel much of the same immersion, the same enclosure, that I do snorkelling through shallow water.
The connection between nature and us is one where each depends on the other. That may seem strange – it’s easy to see our dependence on nature, but how is nature dependent on us? Perhaps dependent is the wrong word, perhaps reliant instead. Nature is relying on us to stop inflicting the damage we are.
There’s a concept in ecology called ‘shifting baselines’, that the losses we register, the comparisons we make, are only to the earlier times we have experienced. We only compare change and loss to what we have previously known. We can see the change, like the maximum size of an particular fish landed for example, but assume that past point in time represents an undamaged state, a starting point of decline. But old photographs show fish of a size we would consider giants, fish that would dwarf what a fisherman now would call exceptional. Change is overlain by change and damage and loss accumulates, but we see only the latest phase of that damage, the rest hidden, like looking only at the outermost shell of a set of Russian dolls.
We learn the attitudes we hold as adults from our family, carrying them into independence. They colour the value we place on things. Our attitudes to nature we also bring from childhood, and childhoods devoid of messy play, sat in front of screens immersed in counterfeit experiences, divorce us from our ecological identities. We are as dependent on nature for our survival as an otter twisting through water chasing a fish. Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children and Nature Network talks of the ‘last child in the woods’, and how modern society, at least in developed nations, is increasingly isolating our children from experiencing nature in the way that earlier generations did. The consequences could be profound. What policies are made more difficult to introduce or implement when a community, without the knowledge that comes from that connection to nature, doesn’t see the importance and relevance of them? The changes we will need to make to deal with the climate emergency come to mind.
In the end, people protect what they love, they love what they know, and they come to know what they experience. That what we strive to protect is what we are ultimately dependent on makes immersion in those experiences all the more vital.
High water on a September spring tide reduces Gwithian beach to a sliver. Dark wet sand curves upwards on the ramparts of the most seaward dunes where we dodge to keep feet dry from the more persistent waves. In the surf, aground, something sizeable appears to writhe. Something grey and smooth. Something that glistens where the sunlight catches it as the sun slumps lower to the horizon. We approach closer and see that it is a dead seal, the waves rolling and animating the corpse. My trousers wick seawater to the knee as I wade in and bend over it to get a closer look. It is a young grey seal, this year’s brood. How it died I don’t know. There are no wounds, there have been no recent storms, and it appears to be well fed. Yet here it is, carrion in a Cornish sea.
Death is part of every species’ life-history. Not all pups will become adults; it’s one of the central principles of evolution that more must be born than can survive to reproduce. We know this as an abstract fact, but not as a physical reality where a young corpse floating at your feet is not so easy to reason away.
But what if this pup had not died? What would her life have held? Where would she and us have come together, and what would that have meant for both of our species? What would our shared story look like if we could return to her birth, and follow her down a different path?
A head appears between her mother’s hind flippers, a membrane stretched over it, and then one final surge and tear and there are two seals on the sand, one breathing air for the first time. Blood from the placenta leaves a jagged trail across the sand as the mother shuffles around to check her pup. Soft white fur is slicked down to the pup’s body, while around her are more females with their own pups. The mother bares her teeth and snorts if the others come too close, warning them away, maintaining ownership of her own patch of beach as effectively as a towel placed amongst regiments of sun loungers.
The males arrived first in these coves, a few days before the females, and displayed to each other with mouths agape, marking territory and asserting dominance. When dominance fails, they fight, trying to pin down their challengers and bite them. Blood marks the necks on both, overlaying the deep scars from previous years where the failure to deter meant an obligation to fight. The bigger males, at least a decade old, are the more frequent winners of these conflicts. These contests for dominance continue after the females have given birth as the males protect their right to mate, a right they will soon exercise. The males can be up to two metres long and 230 kilograms in weight. The females are shorter and much lighter – up to 180 centimetres and 160 kilograms – and they scatter from these brawls for safety, their pups shuffling after them.
Fourteen kilograms at birth, our pup increases in size as if inflated. Seal milk is rich in fat, at around 60 per cent, and with this calorie-packed nutrition her birth weight doubles in nine days. She lays down blubber under her skin for her seaborne future to come. Her mother feeds her from her own body’s reserves. For around three weeks she will feed our pup, and only in the later stages will she leave the pup to briefly feed herself. Then comes separation.
Our pup is alone. How likely she is to survive her first year depends partly on how well her mother has fed her. She already has an advantage in that she is female; males, the bigger risk-takers, are less likely to reach their first birthday.
She fasts. She must replace the white fur of her birth with her adult coat before she can go to sea, in much the same way that a baby bird must grow its adult feathers before it can leave the nest and fly. She fasts for anywhere from a week and a half to almost six weeks while she moults, losing perhaps up to a quarter of her body weight. As an adult, she will return to this site every year to moult again but for now, she must go to sea and learn to fend for herself. There is no parental instruction – her mother has gone – and her prey is scattered in the coastal waters like the first spots of rain on pavement. She is still substantially smaller than an adult, and her size means she cannot dive for as long. Time is limited. She must learn to search for, find, and catch her prey before her protein and blubber reserves fall too low for her to survive. She undertakes an extended hunting trip of many days at sea, like an apprenticeship but without a master, gradually extending the depth and duration of the dives. She will learn.
At the surface she prepares herself to dive and then she does something strange and unexpected: she breathes out. Her nostrils close naturally as she relaxes the muscles holding them open. Her ribcage and lungs will collapse as the water pressure increases. Any air that remains in them is pushed up into the bronchi and trachea, the tubes that carry air from the mouth to the lungs, and away from the parts of the lung where gases could be exchanged with the blood. We might think that evolution took a wrong turn, lost an opportunity to take more oxygen on board, but it is we who are wrong. In seals, oxygen is stored primarily not as a dissolved gas, but within the muscles, where it is bound to a molecule called myoglobin. Her muscles are rich in this molecule, containing between ten and thirty times more than a mammal living on land. More oxygen still is stored in the bloodstream, where it is bound to a molecule called haemoglobin. Both avoid the need for gas under pressure to enter the bloodstream directly from the lungs. We would fill our lungs before venturing underwater; our seal breathes out. Her physiology is exquisitely evolved to diving underwater; ours is not. Our seal, once adult, could easily descend to over 250 metres in a dive lasting up to half an hour.
She dives. Her heart rate slows. Some blood vessels constrict, concentrating the flow of oxygen-rich blood to those organs that need it the most. She will feed at the bottom, although in around a third of her dives a chance encounter on the descent will mean she will feed in mid-water. She is not a fussy eater. She will eat what she can catch, and what she catches will depend mostly on what prey is available and in what numbers. Sand eels are a favourite; small, long and thin like knife blades. Silver slivers that disappear as one into the sand at the approach of a predator. She will learn to find these. Another popular choice is cod and its close relatives: whiting, haddock, saithe, pollack and ling. Flatfish such as plaice and lemon sole are another favourite. But she has a competitor for many of these species: humans. And competitors can be dangerous.
A seal may compete with us for fish in two ways. They may damage the fishing gear or they may take fish before we can catch them. Fishing gear can be active or passive. A trawl net is active gear. A boat tows a net through the water either close to the seabed or in mid-water. Mid-water, or pelagic, trawls are the ones that pose the risk to seals as they swim around the net picking off fish as the trawl is towed. Nets that are left to hang in the water are passive gear. Gill nets catch fish in a single ‘hole’ of the net as they swim into it and become snagged by their gills, but there is another, more deadly type. Tangle nets are more loosely hung than gill nets, like net curtains in a window, with perhaps 300 metres of netting making a 100 metre wall of fishing net. As the name suggests, fish do not need to be held by the gills to be caught by this net. Fish caught here offer an easy meal, but our seal must be wary; a careless seal may find that their prey are not the only animals entangled. If a seal cannot break free, they drown. Dead seals hauled onto the deck of fishing boats with the nets are often juveniles, often male. Whether this is from the curiosity of the young not yet tempered by experience, or a lack of strength to break free remains unknown. Those that do break free tear the nets. Some seals may eat the fish and escape without being tangled. The end result is a spoiled catch and damaged gear. The fishers are not happy.
One species of fish links fishers and seals more than any other: cod. Cod live close to the seabed and are caught by trawls that fly just above the bottom. Cod is a totemic fish in the U.K. with a special place in British culture. It is the fish of fish and chips on a bleak rain-lashed seafront promenade, the fish of fish fingers from childhood meals, of brave British trawlers facing down Icelandic gunboats in stormy sub-arctic seas in the 1970s. But the amount, the stock, of cod in the sea is low, and staying low, especially in the Irish Sea and the West of Scotland, although the stocks are recovering in the North Sea. Who to blame for this situation? The seals of course.
The truth is more subtle, as it so often is. Seals eat some cod, but the fall in fish stocks has come not from the seals but from our greed of catching too many fish, of politicians setting catch limits year after year above those that scientists recommend. And year by year the stocks have fallen. Seals have played their part, not in the decline, but by slowing the recovery. Seals eat young cod, small cod, too small to be caught and landed by the fishers. Seals take the cod before they grow large enough for the fishers to legally catch, and before the fish reach an age and size to spawn.
Fisheries scientists have an acronym to describe the part of the fish population that can breed and contribute to the next generation: the SSB or spawning stock biomass. The number of fish reaching a size to be legally landed is called the recruitment. Recruitment is kept lower by the seals eating the young fish, and with recruitment lower any increase in the SSB is much slower. Imagine you’re trying to save money for something special, a holiday perhaps. Your salary is like the fish born each year. You pay your bills and expenses and the amount left over is your disposable income. The bills and expenses are like the natural mortality of the fish, those that die or are eaten by something other than seals, and the disposable income – the amount left over – corresponds to the recruitment. But this month there has been an extra expense. Perhaps something went wrong with the car, or an extra household expense became due. This extra expense that reduces the disposable income is like the extra mortality from the seals. This extra mortality slows down the growth of the population in the same way that the car breakdown slows how fast you can build your savings.
Some fishers say that there are too many seals, but perspective matters. The UK has over a third of the world’s population of grey seals, but over 95% of the European population. We have a responsibility for their conservation, both morally and legally. The legal responsibility is one given to us through the habitats directive of the European Union. If a plant or animal is unique to one country it’s easy to recognise the obligation to protect it. If a plant or animal is common and found in many countries that obligation is much weaker. Grey seals fall into an uneasy middle ground; nationally common but globally relatively rare.
The oceans, especially our coastal waters, are polluted places. Much originates from the land. Sewage pipes discharge directly into the water, and although treated, the discharges can remain high in nutrients and bacteria. Rivers carry litter seawards. More nutrients are washed from fertiliser applied to agricultural fields, and feed blooms of algae off the mouth of estuaries. And some problems come from the sea such as lost fishing nets – ‘ghost’ gear – that continues to fish. The large pieces kill immediately through entanglement and drowning. The smaller pieces, and the thin nylon line from anglers, kills more slowly and painfully. The pieces wrap themselves around flippers or encircle the neck, gradually tightening, constricting, cutting in. The wounds deepen. In 2004 around one in every twenty seals in a single Cornish seal colony had some form of entanglement with debris, the majority of it originating from the fishing industry. For a seal entangled around the neck the options are not good: starvation, strangulation, or death through blood loss or infection. In rare cases, there is another option – capture, rehabilitation and release by conservationists.
Conservation can be a benefit to more than the seals themselves. They are good business, one of the charismatic megafauna – the big beasts that engage our imagination – that live or visit Cornish seas. Others are whales and dolphins, basking sharks, sunfish, and perhaps a leatherback turtle on passage northwards to feast on the jellyfish in Cardigan bay. One of the largest leatherbacks ever recorded washed ashore dead on Harlech beach in Wales in 1988. Three metres long, one hundred years old, and almost a tonne in weight, it died from entanglement in fishing lines.
There are wonders in our waters, but seals have the advantage of being predictable. They haul out on rocks and sandbars as the tide falls to rest and sleep. They use the same sites again and again, making it easy for a boat to bring tourists to see them. Predictability is good for business. After all, no one wants a wildlife watching trip that fails to find any wildlife.
Sometimes the seals come to you. Around St. Ives harbour tourists sit on benches trying to guard chips from seagulls that can swoop and snatch them between lap and mouth. High tide approaches. As the fishing boats return the tourists rise and make their way around the harbour to gather on the quay. The seals arrive and wait for the boats to discard some of their catch. There is one large male and two smaller females. One of them could be our seal; Gwithian beach is only a short swim across the bay. The tourists crowd the edge of the quay, trying to capture them on smartphones and cameras looking for the sea-grey shadows below the water, judging where they will surface. Signs on the harbour office warn against swimming with the seals, warning that they are wild animals. The seals feed as dusk falls and the crowd thins, photographs taken.
Wildlife tourism brings people and money to an area, but fishers see the seals, look at their catches, and place the blame. Calls for culls or other controls may follow. The income from the wildlife boats may offset some of the losses, real or otherwise to the local economy, but this is of little use. Those that benefit are not the same as those that lose, and even if they were, viewing the seals in terms of their contribution to the community coffers is pure arrogance. It’s an arrogance that humans are frequently guilty of, one that views an animal as enigmatically beautiful as our seal primarily in terms of their contribution to our economic well-being. We are part of, not apart from, the ecosystems in which we reside. We should not think that we are above them simply because we are a more sophisticated tool builder than most animals.
Our seal is four years old, and an adult now. She has learned the intricacies of catching prey. She has avoided the hazards of fishing net and line. It is spring and she is hauled out to moult, when the previous year’s fur is replaced by new growth. The juveniles have already moulted, and now it is the turn of the adult females. Last autumn our seal returned to the beach where she was born and mated, but her pup is not yet growing. Birth is an annual affair, with mating on the same beach shortly afterwards. The problem is that seal pregnancies only last for thirty-five weeks. Grey seals solve this problem by pausing the development for fifteen weeks before the pup actively starts growing inside her. In this way, births can be tied to an annual cycle, and with all the pups being born around the same time there is protection from predators through numbers. Moulting is complete, the creamy brown old hairs have been replaced by pristine black and grey fur, the pattern or pelage unique to her, a fingerprint to identify her with. She returns to the sea building up her blubber that will be used to feed her pup.
It is autumn again, the fifth since our seal first drew breath on this beach. She stakes her claim to a patch of beach and gives birth to a single pup. He has soft white fur and weighs fourteen kilograms. Many hazards await him, but first, he suckles.