A love of the sea

Myth, heritage, economic dependence, sea anemones and sailing experience

Albion’s cliffs: Seven Sisters, East Sussex

Marine biologist Ella du Breuil on the roots of her affection and respect for the sea

Photo: Louis Mackay

While it is not only Britons who are enamoured of the oceans, being an island nation has, for centuries, moulded our thoughts and dreams of the sea. For centuries before and since King Canute commanded the tide to turn back there have been myths and legends formed around the sea and its environs. From Celtic mermaids calling unfortunates to their deaths to King Arthur buried on a hidden island after returning Excalibur to its home in the depths, the sea has held our imagination and respect through the centuries.

Many of the great heroes of British history were mariners: Drake saving Britain from the dastardly Spanish, Raleigh seeking new lands and returning with previously unknown knowledge of the strange civilisations across the waters, Nelson saving Britain from the threat of French invasion. Many of our country’s most daring exploits have taken place on the sea, and this has flavoured the nation’s feeling for that element.

Defence and trade

When Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt speaks of ‘this sceptred isle … this fortress built by nature for herself … this precious stone set in the silver sea which serves it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house’ he tells of yet another reason for our appreciation of the sea: defence. How many countries in the world can say, in 2012, that the last time they were invaded was as long ago as 1066? Without our most formidable defence this small country could and would so easily have been overrun throughout history, as the example of countries on the continent shows. The defence provided by the sea allowed us as a nation to grow and develop unobstructed – and once the nation had increased in power it was the sea once more that came to our aid in developing an empire.

In modern times there has been an increase in ‘sea blindness’ – where people who don’t live by the sea have no understanding or wish for an understanding of the importance of the sea to our lives as citizens of the United Kingdom. This is the case even though 95% (by volume) of all the UK’s trade arrives and leaves by sea. However, people cannot be blamed for this ‘sea blindness’, since the role of the sea is so distant from most of our everyday lives.

A genetic predisposition?

It has been said that Britons have the love of the sea engraved into their genes, and in 2011 a study in America found that this could indeed be the case. The researchers found a variant of a gene which those living in and traditionally coming from seaside areas are more than twenty times as likely to have as those from landlocked areas. Perhaps the love of the sea is still there, dormant in our genes, being passed on from parent to child, no matter how small a part people think that the sea plays in their world. Perhaps the place of the sea in people’s lives, whether they live beside it or not, is to be found in the fact that the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) is able to run completely on charitable donations, an amazing feat considering the cost of its operations.

Part of my life forever

To introduce a more personal note: the day I realised that the sea would be part of my life forever I was a five-year-old being taken for a walk along a beach. In a rock pool waved the fronds of what I thought was a flower. Reaching out to touch it, my finger was gently pulled in by the arms of that sea anemone – and I was hooked from there on by the beautiful and fascinating marine world.

Twenty years on, I now have a Masters in marine biology and my fascination is not diminished. My sailing experiences have taught me the joy of the oceans, and my work as a volunteer helm with the RNLI has shown me another aspect: by the nature of their work lifeboat crews see, more than most, the angrier side of the sea – and it was at night, being tossed by waves that hid the land from view, that I learned the respect due to the elements.

Wild, untamed, untameable

No matter how much technology we try and shield ourselves with, how many hours of studying satellite weather charts, how many electronics we use to make our life at sea easier, we actually have as much control over the sea as our ancestors in Nelson’s navy had: very little. But this too garners another type of love, that of a wild, untamed and untameable element – and I think it is this that leads us to love the sea more than we could ever love a tame, safe lake.