Seals, Stories, and the Sea to Come

Outside, it’s a Sunday afternoon in Monterey; the ocean is the skimmed surface of a pearl. Somewhere out of sight the harbour seals are caressing their young on the beach.

We’ve watched the mother seals from the dining room window for the last week now and marvelled—twice now, what a privilege!—at how the small gleaming tongue of umbilical cord lingers at the navel of a fresh pup. Over a break we tracked the progress of a large gull hopping around the postnatal mother puddled on the sand. With seeming nonchalance, the gull darted its head forward in a minute and snatched a red piece of the cord. Then again, then again. The mother seal lumbered her body into a roll away but stalled under her own weight. The gull eventually flew away, or we got called away to class and left the saga unfinished; I can’t remember.

I thought about the pups when I read the Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i of Davida Malo in the last week. I thought about the pups and I thought about the ocean they emerge from, the ocean they return to, the ocean that’s brought us all here, to the bay-wide windows of the library in Hopkins Marine Station, Monterey.

I’m here to learn, but not in a way I’ve ever done before. We are preparing for five weeks for a voyage through the Pacific—a trip I’ve dreamt of for years—where we’ll sail as crew with the SEA Education program from Hawai‘i to Palmyra Atoll and back. We will be aboard the Robert C. Seamans, a 40-meter long sailing vessel, for five and a half weeks of water and reefs. Over that month-and-a-bit we’ll be conducting, too, our own research projects, to learn the ocean in new ways.

But to go there we have to learn a lot first. So I am accumulating, in the back of my notebook, a list of the words our professors are giving us to describe the water and our passage through it: primary productivity, anti-cyclonic gyre, intertropical convergence zone, equator, deep scattering layer, oxygen minimum zone, sheets, halyards, sails.

Our professors emphasize how few words they offer us. You need entire college courses to capture the extent of these vocabularies. We can spend a morning learning the names of latitude and longitude and how to tweezer a divider apart to point our way across a chart from one lighthouse to another. It will only keep us from drowning on first contact with the open ocean. In my chest there’s been a kernel of anxiety balling up bit by bit as it becomes clearer to me there is so much of the ocean I can never know. The yawning mass of it feels more and more like it threatens to swallow me.

As we gather around the table in the library, Sunday sun warm on our limbs, my classmate Charlie reads us a quote from an Indigenous scholar, Manu Meyer. She was asked one day how she would teach oceanography. She responded with delight, happy to share her reflections on how to improve an education she felt had missed essential facts. First, Meyer says, she would teach the ocean through science: how the currents move around the Earth, how the phytoplankton grows and dies, the ways the wind moves through the water. And then she would teach the ocean through culture. Namely, the names of the moon, the names of the currents, the names of what it means to move from one part of the sea to the other.

I’ve spent my life living on islands—Singapore, Hong Kong, England—but I’ve never actually lived anywhere where the ocean stays at the centre of your heart or where the ocean is a matter of culture. I never needed to name the ocean—or, for that matter, the land. They existed as a tangent to the steel-and-metal material of my life: a background image framing the balcony’s wall, a green postcard outlined by the car’s window, a flash of waves before I fell asleep on the airplane.

When I chose to learn the name of something it was a choice that marked me apart. Over monsoons in the South Indian hills I traced the path of ferns through a withered manual with the heft of a boulder until I arrived at their scientific identification. I repeated the names I found to myself—Adiantum, Christella, Tectaria—as I walked the roads breaking the rainforests. I pronounced each syllable carefully, as if they were spells that would grant me entrance to some larger world beyond. I thought once I pushed the word hard enough through each turn-of-tongue, they might evolve beyond foreign music into meanings in and of themselves. In those meanings I would finally get to see the world as scientists did. Like the researchers I admired, I would be able to look at a roadside wall and pull each fern out with my eyes. I would be able to give it a name and its branch of the evolutionary tree, I would know, at last, how each things stood by itself, spotlighted into brilliant loneliness. Each plant could be more than a sodden frond I cradled in the dark skin of my hands; it would key me into access to scientific truth.


When I left the hills for the city, I forgot the ferns’ name one by one. At home, I did not need the names of roadside ferns in South India. Fern names taught me nothing beyond the fact of the fern. I would never teach those names to anyone, either. The names are landmarks alone: a scientist once named this plant and wrote it down. Now the plant exists, and most often that existence ends its story.

After Charlie shares her quote, I read aloud a section from a chapter of the Mo‘olelo. The Mo‘olelo is where Davida Malo, a Native Hawai‘ian historian, put down as much of Hawai‘ian oral tradition as he had recorded. As such, it serves as one of the first record and most complete records of Hawai‘ian science, culture, and life before colonization. In the chapter I chose, Malo describes “life above and beneath the sea”. When we came to the book, I was curious about the ways Hawai‘ian knowledge, as Malo decided to write it down, captured the animals I dream about seeing. The way Malo shares the names of Hawai‘ian nature, though, goes beyond asserting simple existence. He introduces each animal, plant, and region according to where it belongs, and he follows each with a brief reflection on how it can be used. Most often these reflections centre on how it can be eaten and whether or not the object satiates hunger.

I read where Malo names the flying fish. The flying fish is an animal I have imagined on our voyage for so long. The sleek streak of it in the air, weaving all the sun to it. He places the flying fish with the other sea creatures with wings.’

Here are the i‘a with wings: the loloa‘u, the mālolo, pukiki‘i, the lupe, hīhīmanu, hāhālua, hailepo. These fish are eaten, but they are not very good-tasting.

Chapter 15, Verse 20, The Mo’olelo Hawai’i of Davida Malo

I try my best to pronounce the names; I know I’m not doing it right. The same poetry rings here as the scientific names of ferns. Unlike the ferns, though, these names are meant to be said aloud and passed from voice to voice. Erika, whose family comes from Hawai‘I, told us in class on how metaphorical these names were. If you know Hawai‘ian you can pick apart the names and build a picture. I wonder what I miss in what I can’t read, what I miss in where I stumble. The only part I can say clearly is the description of the animals for eating.

In the library, I try to explain to my classmates the way the paragraph made me feel. Reducing the animal to how well its body makes a meal unnerved me. For months in my lab back in university, we debated how best to frame a grant application researching wildlife extinction. We each gave impassioned speeches over our tinny Zoom calls about biodiversity’s intrinsic value. Malo’s description, however, seemed to imply the animal’s value lies in its consumption. It countered how I had learned to value biodiversity and wildlife by blade length, evolutionary history, genetic marker, and ecosystem service.

But Malo, too, described an ecosystem service the porpoise performed. We had different definitions. When I said ecosystem service I had meant the ecosystem as it came about framed by my bus window, I meant the ecosystem I glimpsed and then left. I meant services as they emerged in the words at the back of my notebook. Deoxygenation, carbon sequestration, community composition: each process beyond what I could touch and feel and hear. And as the professors repeated daily, we would never quite understand them beyond what we needed to write on an exam.

The image of the flying fish, plattered, the pieces of its flaky flesh evaluated for taste by Malo’s faceless ancestor, is visceral. Malo moved the fish from part of a process I watch as an outside observer into part of a process that includes my mouth, my tongue, my teeth. The fish was visceral, the fish could be mine. Instead of distance, Malo offered closeness. His descriptions gifted me what my field guides could never: what it would be like to press my lips to the creature. Its body and mine together. This ecosystem is mine, too.

I try to explain: at first it feels like a reduction of what we can know and value, each expansive fish shrunk to its worth as a mouthful. But maybe proximity expands what and how we can know. Though our lessons do not teach us science in this way, maybe our best understandings of the world have come from closeness. In closeness, we can remove “the god-trick” criticized by the feminist scholar Donna Haraway, that masochist and masculine idea that by looking at the world through a telescope—metaphorical or otherwise—you somehow remove the distortion of your own eye and see truth.

Over the last few days I began reading Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, another book praised for its summation of ocean knowledge. In the introduction an acolyte of Carson’s tries to explain why Carson’s words carry such power. The acolyte “takes aim at the other kind of nature writer”, who are “lesser lights than Carson—not in possession of science or objective facts but who head into the surf and the tide pools with an inward focus, making ‘careful notes of their own feelings, not the reality that brought them there’.” Carson’s book, according to this acolyte—whose words, in my readings about Carson, do represent the wide belief of Western science and culture—works because Carson is not there.

But as I read Under the Sea-Wind, I saw Carson’s feelings shadowing each word. I saw Carson’s late nights poring over books, writing and rewriting sentence after sentence in search of succinct perfection; I saw Carson in the precise observations of rocks born from long days over a tide pool; and I saw Carson in the names she gave each of the book’s animals, which often drew from their Latin names. Far from an objective paragon, this book was deeply personal. It invites the reader to centre their orbit for a moment on the movement of currents and how they affect Scomber, the mackerel, or Rynchops, the skimmer.

And they come from vastly different worlds, and Malo speaks to a breadth of knowledge Carson cannot ever hope to touch, but a shared truth lies here. Rather than facts, the names they use invites you into a different kind of relationship with the world and what the name calls within it. I forgot about the ferns when I left because my home-world did not have space for relationships with plants an ocean away.

Malo offers names and meanings that bridge that distance. He brings our bodies to the animal, bird, whale, plant. He does not let us stand apart. Indigenous knowledge does not let us stand apart. In bringing the fish to our lips, he shows me the only truth that lies here: I already belong to the ocean. To abstract myself away from it makes for, at best, falsehood, and at worst, cruelty. I cannot fear the water swallowing me. I am already swallowed by it—as the air it makes passes through my lungs, as the food it gives sits on my table, as the molecules wind their through and out and through it again. What the fish means to us—physically, not just as an abstract, elevated idea—forms part of its intrinsic value.

Charlie read Meyer to us: “We are not naming this because we have no relationship to it. We name it because we do.”

When we come to the end of our discussion around the library table, we all sit in silence for several minutes. With these last few weeks, we have all had our own reckonings as we try to figure out our relationships, our futures, and our hopes. This is another reckoning: where do we stand within it all? Where should we see ourselves?

After a while I stand up and I walk to the bench by the bay window and look out. In a few weeks, we will be within those waves. For all of us, it will be a new kind of proximity to the ocean. And even as we try within our science to remove our biases and draw out universal truths about currents, winds, and chemistry, the water will immerse our bodies.

Almost masked by a large grey rock, I can see the rounded belly of a seal. I think about how we’ve seen the animals tossed about the shoreline, like they are pebbles and not smooth sleek animals who will, one day, be able to dip through the water with extraordinary grace, periscoping above the surface with a large eye and then diving once more. The other day we had gone snorkelling on an afternoon of extraordinary stillness and a harbour seal had swum with us for several minutes. Our bodies nearly seized up on entering the water and I felt hyperconscious of my wetsuit’s lumbering mass and how misplaced I was here. The heat drained quickly from our bodies.

Someone called and pointed and I dipped my head down. I saw the tapered shape of the seal in the water, a soft blur nearby. I saw how our bodies rocked to the same rhythm. How the same material bound us all.


1 thought on “Seals, Stories, and the Sea to Come”

  1. Good to see you back at your prolific best. My friend who studied Oceanography after doing MS Physics in IIT (D) would be thrilled with your choice of specialisation. Good luck,


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