Oceanic Feeling

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

-Karen Blixen

In 1927, Austrian neurologist and psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud engaged in an exchange of letters with French writer and social critic Romain Rolland about the nature of religion and mysticism. Rolland, a staunch advocate of humanitarianism, argued that in Freud’s recently published book The Future of an IllusionFreud had missed what is at the heart of all true forms of spirituality: a sense of intimate oneness with the world. In his letter, Rolland referred to this mystical sensation as the oceanic feeling.

I’m not sure I could conjure a more apt word for the sensation that swelled in me on the final morning of our Atmos gathering two weeks ago. Our last panel, Oceans Between Us, began with activist Bodhi Patil asking the audience to take a few deep breaths—a reminder that our every inhale is owed to the ocean. Evidence suggests that life began underseaand the diversification and spread of oxygen producers transformed our atmosphere and allowed life to leap to land. Today, phytoplankton blooms are still responsible for more than half of the oxygen we breathe.

Moments later, ocean photographer and SeaLegacy cofounder Andy Mann recounted being on assignment in the Arctic when ferocious leopard seals began bringing him penguins. Day after day, they would offer him injured birds and, finally, dead ones. Eventually, Mann realized that these fearsome apex predators—supposedly separate from our human family, sequestered by the trappings of taxonomy—were trying to teach him how to hunt.

International ocean policy expert Maximiliano Bello shared a similar story about an octopus that once wrapped him in an embrace. As the conversation flowed, he highlighted the need for more Marine Protected Areas for the benefit of such beings. In 2022, over 190 countries adopted a plan to reverse habitat and species loss, including the 30×30 framework to protect 30% of Earth’s terrestrial, inland, and coastal and marine areas by 2030. But as Bello pointed out, we are a long way off; only 3% of the global ocean is currently safeguarded in MPAs.

New research published this week outlines how the ocean currently faces a “triple threat” of extreme heat, oxygen loss, and acidification due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Soaring temperatures in the Atlantic ocean are raising alarms for this year’s hurricane season—a threat that one of our panelists, Alannah Vellacott, knows too well. A marine ecologist in the Bahamas, she shared about the destruction left in the wake of recent storms. All life depends on the health of the ocean, including humans. And communities that have contributed the least to the climate crisis are on the frontlines.

Toward the end of the talk, marine biologist and oceanographer Daniel M. Palacios recalled a time when he saw a group of children prodding a landlocked crab. He decided to go up to the kids and, rather than scold them, taught them about the crustacean’s biology—what makes it crawl and claw and how to hold it. Before long, they were mesmerized by the crab, and carried it back to the ocean together. I was struck by the symbolic depths of his story: if only humanity would stop and learn about the wonders of the ocean, we too might return home to it.

From the moment this conversation started to the moment it ended, a steady tide of tears streamed from my eyes, the saltwater staining my cheeks. For all I have just tried to convey the feeling that washed over me that morning, I’m afraid words are too small a vessel. Our species has relegated ourselves to a lonely shore of separation, but it need not be that way. The sea is not some far off body of water; it is the wellspring from which all life came and it lives in us. The tributaries that tie us to it are unfathomable in scale, mystic by nature—and altogether oceanic.

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