Love and Death in the Sea – World Ocean Day 2011

The sea almost killed me a couple of times. It wasn’t her fault; it was mine, for not respecting her. I still remember the last time, a stormy day off the Costa Brava of Spain, in early 2008. Every time I think about it my heart races, and my guts jump to my throat.

The cove where I used to swim every day was hit by a storm with strong eastern winds. The turquoise, transparent waters of summer quickly transformed into a dirty soup of stirred sand and cold grey water. Unfriendly waves were breaking in dirty, chaotic patterns. But beyond the surf zone the sea seemed swimmable. In a moment of Catalan bravado, I donned my swimming suit, mask and fins, and jumped in the water. I shouldn’t have gone, but I did, swallowing an abrasive mix of sand and salt while trying to break through the surf zone. I swam, unpleasantly fighting – I still don’t know why – for twenty minutes, and decided to call it a day. I swam back towards the beach. Then realized I couldn’t reach it.

Waves were breaking all around me without respite. I tried to bodysurf one to shore, but it collapsed suddenly and took me down as though someone had turned the gravity dial up ten-fold. When I surfaced to take a breath, I turned around and a second wave hit me as hard, taking me down again. I hit the sandy bottom. I pushed myself up but once again, waves were coming and not allowing me to rest and breathe. I was caught in the surf zone, with waves pushing me out and a rip current pulling me in, unable to reach the beach.

The sea is our mother, sister, and home, and as such I love her. She gives us life, oxygen, food, regulates the climate, and makes ours a wonderful life. We should thank the sea, the ocean, every day. Without the ocean and all the life in it, our planet would be much poorer. But on this day I was having a hard time being grateful.

After a few more plunges I decided to let myself go, and give up the fight. I took a deep breath. The next wave took me down, and forward. I hit the bottom with my back, rolled over, hit my head, and after what seemed the longest minute of my life, found myself lying in a foot of water. I scrambled as fast as I could out of the water and onto the beach. Only then did I realize that I had lost my mask, snorkel, and one fin. My whole body was sore, as if a gang of boxers had punched me viciously. I sat on the beach, breathless, watching the sea and feeling lucky to be alive. I walked back home slowly, ears down like a beaten dog.

Some days the sea wants us, and some days she doesn’t. Since that day, I have not been to the sea when she does not want me. I learned the lesson. I now thank the sea every day the surface is calm, the waters are clear, and diving is easy. And I ask for forgiveness every time I dive and see no fish.

Celebrate World Oceans Day 2011 by sharing with us your stories of the oceans in the comments below and by learning ten things you can do to protect the ocean.

Changing Planet

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Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.