Blowin’ In: The Sea
By Susan Mangan
“I have been beach combing, through
that flotsam world
between high-tide line and dune,
driftwood, ocean-gnawed, chalk-brittle starfish.
It is good to stand in the acrid scent of kelp, world’s edge.”
– “Old Mariner” by John F. Deane
One summer my family took a road trip to New England. My mother had never seen the ocean. During the Korean War, my father was stationed in New York. On leave, he went to Coney Island and walked along the boardwalk. He always had a love for water: fishing trips to Lake Superior, camping in tents along the pebbly shores of forgotten lakes. My dad wanted to show my mom the rocks in Maine and eat lobster rolls as the sun set by the sea.
On our first stop in Maine, we stayed at a hotel with a supposed ocean view. The sea waters did flow into a small inlet behind our rooms. Drawn by the sound of seabirds and the smell of brine, we left our old tennis shoes on to protect our feet from the sharp stones and stepped into the cold water.
The tides did not rise and fall in the small secluded space; the water lay stagnant, choked by seaweed. Despite the putrid smell that would linger with us for days, I was drawn to the allure of the sea. Its waters flowed to a mysterious chord that did not belong to the land.
When my family finally arrived at Perkin’s Cove, Maine, our daydreams became a reality. We stayed in a beautiful old inn with a white wrap around porch. The nights were cold, forty-five degrees at best.
Despite the chill, I would open the window above my bed as the breeze from the ocean blew directly overhead. I was lulled by the even rhythm of the tide. At the break of day, I rose to the cry of gulls, while the waves continued on their steadfast course.
The sea holds mysteries that have engaged the curiosity of humans throughout the ages. Myths about the lure of the Siren’s song and the dangers these provocative creatures held on sailors still exist today.
Titanic and Fitzgerald Legends
Warnings became etched into tales about unexplainable patches in the sea where ships have entered, never to be seen again. Tragic shipwrecks, like the Titanic in the cold waters of the Atlantic and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, a lake whose power rivals that of the ocean, evoke powerful feelings of sadness and wonder.
These stories have become the fabric of myth and legend. Somehow the facts have blended with fiction and fantastical tales of prophecy have emerged.
The unknown harbors unease and fear, but also intrigue and allure. This philosophy coats the dichotomy of the sea. The sea is at once calming, yet terrifying: an old grandfather who soothes as well as scorns.
Far below surface waters creatures swim and float, slither and dive. Marine mammals like dolphin and porpoise frolic alongside small vessels delighting humans with their seeming smiles and playful behaviors.
During a particularly mild summer, one of our Irish cousins was kayaking in the waters along Keem Bay and a mischievous seal popped its silky head above the water looking at her with knowing eyes. While startled, the cousin did not feel threatened.
On the contrary, she was merely surprised at her good fortune. This was indeed a rare opportunity to connect, albeit briefly, with a creature from the sea.
Tales of supernatural sea creatures abound. The selkie myth, stories of seal maidens who are drawn to men and shed their skin for love, is ubiquitous in Irish and Scottish lore. Bodies of water, from the smallest tide pool or lagoon, to the bottomless oceans are thought to be protected by water fairies: sprites and nymphs.
Mermaids and mermen are long believed to swim below the ocean depths. Their loyalties, however, are crossed, as some protect innocent sailing vessels from peril, while others protect the sanctity of the sea by destroying human life through sudden storms.
Myths and fairytales aside, the facts of the sea are also cloaked in magic. Skate and shark embryos float protectively encased in egg sacs called the Mermaid’s Purse. Deep sea Lantern Fish live 3,000 feet below the ocean surface. Their mouths are grilled with long teeth and their bodies produce light.
Varieties of seaweed, artistic constructs born from nature, wash up upon the ocean shores. Dillisk, Dulse, Carrageen Moss, and Bladderwrack are harvested to nourish the body. Their names belong to fairytales and stories of pirate adventure. Fact and fiction blend seamlessly in matters pertaining to the sea.
During a recent family trip to Ireland, we visited The Achill Experience Aquarium and Visitor’s Centre in Keel, Achill Island. The resident aquarist, Tom Honeyman, regaled us with facts that resounded like fiction.
We met the resident blue lobster, a peacock blue beauty so different from our familiar red lobsters. Tom delighted us with a scallop who when gently provoked displayed a bit of harmless fun, squirting water into our curious faces. Tourists indeed! We left the aquarium with a bit of childlike lightness in our steps.
I could not help but think of the long Saturday afternoons I spent at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium with my parents, and the awe I felt when the sharks were fed in the mammoth circular glass tank that commands the center of the museum. I still remember the beauty of the tropical Asian species who swam with the lightness of ballerinas in the red, Mandarin-inspired tanks.
Despite this sea born idyll, reality remains. Today, we cannot travel far from our homes. If one lives by the sea, the world may seem endlessly beautiful or infinitely lonely.
We can however assuage feelings of isolation and indulge in maritime novels and haunting tales of nautical lore. Budding oceanographers can visit aquariums across the world through virtual tours on-line. Perhaps we choose to simply sit in our favorite chairs and remember that first visit to the sea or our last.
Until our world reopens, revel in the knowledge that life continues beneath our oceans. Perhaps through the course of our hiatus from travel and the controversial progress of civilization, we are assisting in the rebirth of a new aquatic species or purifying our waters.
Humans will always bear witness to fear and doubt. Likewise, if we face trials with open minds and hearts, we will experience moments of joy and hope. We will embrace the paradoxes that challenge our understanding of our interconnectedness to the sea, to the earth, to one another.
As poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” Let us look toward our future and enjoy the present moment with patience and with grace.
*Sources Consulted: Wild Atlantic Way: Family Holidays: Irish Folklore, Stories from the Wild Atlantic Way.
Deane, John F. “Achill: The Island.” Currach Press: Dublin 2018.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at su*******@ya***.com.