“What is wilderness?” I was presented this question on the deck of a research sailing vessel earlier this spring, and I have continued to think about it since.
I spent five weeks sailing in the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii down to the Line Islands just north of the equator, through a joint program run by Sea Education Association (SEA) and Stanford University. This Stanford@SEA program was split up into two components — shore and ocean — each lasting five weeks, wherein we learned about oceanographic principles, nautical science, and seafaring history before going out and applying what we learned on a 134-foot ship. Although the boat’s irregular schedule made it difficult, we had class every afternoon to continue discussing concepts, and to think critically about what we were doing and seeing on the boat.
Our professors asked for our thoughts on wilderness after we had sailed for ten days and visited the Line Islands. In theory, the wilderness is a region that is essentially undisturbed by human activity with a naturally developed life community.
On some nights while we were out at sea, the open ocean held so much allure and fit that definition nicely. We had some of the clearest nights imaginable; there were more stars than I ever thought possible. We saw bioluminescent organisms light up the ocean at night, like a reflection of the stars above. We went days without seeing another person, and the only another living things we saw were a few seabirds, flying fish, and the thousands of small invertebrates we would catch in our net tows. On nights like those, it felt like we were in another world where people did not exist.
But, on other nights, the ocean seemed like just another resource we are over-extracting. We would pass fishing boats as large as three story buildings; factories designed to process and freeze tons of fish immediately after they were caught. One night, while I was on lookout, I saw a small light up ahead; when I asked one of the ship’s mates about it, I learned it was a beacon attached to a longline fishing rig that probably held hundreds of baited hooks. We saw four of those that night. What is incredible about these lines is their size and lack of discretion: A baited hook does not only attract the species or group of species being targeted. How could it? For example, on a tuna line, sharks, turtles, and even seabirds can be found, not to mention other fish species that are in the same area.
It was a real wake-up call for me to find such human impact in the middle of the Pacific. Although I had read about the fishing industry and its impacts on the ocean, it was difficult to fully understand the scale of it until I saw that fishing boat looming over our ship. It was like seeing a semi-truck pass by a smart car on the freeway. Just how big each boat is, how much line each one puts out, how many fish each takes in, and how many boats there are to provide a constant supply of seafood to grocery stores around the world.
It is amazing to think that there will not be any places untouched by our actions in the future, no true “wilderness.” I have been haunted by this question, trying to find small actions and planning out bigger goals: What am I going to do about it?
Photo Credit: Sarah Lummis