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November 27,2000
The Complexity of the Sea
Real Audio

As I mentioned last time, most people seem to look at the ocean as empty, gaunt, lifeless-a uniform, vacant void of cold, gray-green salt water. But the sea is reticent about divulging its secrets. You must live on it for months or years before you can learn how to discover its extraordinary complexity-learn how to fathom it effectively. This voyage is giving us a major privilege every day, and one of the great benefits each of us now receives is the realization of what a complex world the ocean really is.

We are sailing at this moment about as far from land as it is possible to get-across the breast of this planet's greatest ocean-its greatest aloneness. But there is abundant life all around us-nonhuman life, bird life, fish life, life of the most exquisite and unfamiliar complexity (revelations every hour). When the wind is up we see petrels of several species. Petrels are members of a large order of birds called the Procellariiaformes or Tube-nosed swimmers. It would take a great scholar to think of a duller name for such a fascinating group of birds-a group that includes the grandest fliers of them all, the albatrosses, fulmars, petrels, and shearwaters. They, along with other sea birds, tenant the oceans of this world. They reach their highest numbers in the southern ocean, and their lowest in tropical waters-their numbers increasing as one goes to higher latitudes North or South. (But even here they are abundant enough to cheer us daily.)

Consider this airy, feathered net, composed of a moving woof and warp of albatrosses, petrels, and their kin, lightly cast across the entire southern ocean, hunting with a hundred million sparkling eyes over a restless sea. Consider that sea, turbid with twinkling galaxies of fish all swept and turned by little fears that scud through each school like a gust of wind across a grassy meadow, or the flame-like blushes of color that flicker across an octopus.

Amidst these numberless shoals of fish, this twirl and twisting multitude all shining in their sleek and silvery scales (each perfect scale in perfect line); amidst this dash and prance of life... move the whales-slow, dark clouds not clearly seen-shadows inexorably gliding forward, propelled by unseen forces, mouths motionlessly agape, engulfing everything before them, banqueting on the most intricate, glittering droplets of complexity ever offered up to feast, the most delicate consumé ever blended-a vivid, living soup.

We take all this to be the top event of that rayed, and webbed, and three dimensional, interconnecting tracery of complexity that is the sea-something presumably exceeding in complexity the million billion interconnections in a living brain. But what of such complexity? Why mark it?

If we would understand the ocean, we must realize that what we are looking at is not dull, uniform gray-green, but the ultimate in complexity-a vibrant sparkling web, a tangled felt of complex lives, a quintillion tiny destinies as infinitely various as my love's eyes (in fact, it is my love's eyes).

If this analogy has anything to offer, if we let the sea become a brain, then might not whales become the grandest thoughts that move within that brain?

© 2000 - Roger Payne

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