A Planet Called Ocean: In Search Of The Blue World We Often Miss

Oh, what a world.

At the time of writing, NASA’s Artemis spacecraft has just achieved an incredible milestone – it’s travelled 430,000 km out from the Earth, far beyond the other side of the Moon. This is further than any spacecraft designed for humans has ever travelled (this time around, Artemis is unmanned – but future expeditions will take astronauts back to the Moon). 

And to celebrate this monumental landmark, NASA pointed the ship’s Orion capsule back the way it had come, to take this instantly iconic photograph.

That’s all of us, on that distant blue and white marble. Everything we know and love. Isn’t that just incredible?

But it’s also a reminder of what our world looks like. From afar, it’s not the green, brown or yellow of land. It’s not even the rusty red of our planetary cousin, Mars, which is down to the way the rocks on its surface oxidize (rust) over time. Nope – the Earth is blue

The earth from outer space
The earth from outer space

Partly this is down to something called Rayleigh Scattering, where our atmosphere is aglow with the shorter wavelengths of light most prone to being ‘bounced out’ of all the light reaching our eyes (the “lost light of distance”, as writer Rebecca Solnit puts it). But it’s also because of the truly staggering amount of seawater our planet is covered in. 

Have you ever seen a photo of the Earth at night? 

If you’re like me, your eye is caught by the lights of cities defining the edges of the continents, by the ghostly streaks and whorls of the weather, and on the sunlit side, by the colours of the land against that rich, blue backdrop of the ocean.

But of course we’re biased. We see a planet made fascinating and beautiful by everything above sea-level. In one sense, this is a natural consequence of the medium – these visible-light photos never show us what’s under the ocean. But also, it’s about what your brain is doing. It’s selecting. As a terrestrial primate, you were born to filter out most of the blue here, or at least consign it to the role of a less consequential backdrop. The sea is just an also-there thing. The continents are where the real fun is!

But here’s the startling thing: most of the surface of our planet is covered with water. About 71%, to be precise. More than two-thirds of our homeworld is waterbound.

The earth at night
The earth at night

In fact, from the right camera angle, the land we live on, which contains the most visible traces of our own existence, can almost completely vanish from view. We live on an ocean world – and for the most part, we have an imperfect idea of.

Oceanographer Gene Feldman puts it like this:

“Earth is really an ocean planet. Life on land exists in this thin layer that begins a few feet below the surface of the soil and extends up into the tops of the trees. But in the ocean, life is found all the way from the surface to the very bottom of the deepest part. The deepest part of the ocean is nearly seven-and-a-half miles down. Because of this, the oceans contain 99 percent of the living space on the planet.”

Yet still we fixate on the land side of things. I mean, just look at the name we’ve given our planet. Shouldn’t it really be called “the Sea?”

To correct this terrestrial bias takes a major perspective shift. The seas, and the islands they’re dotted with, turn from being something between the most interesting places, a thing to fly over to get to the good stuff, into a place to go to. A destination in themselves, filled with all the excitement and wonder of anywhere inland.  

You’ll notice that a lot of Wheel & Anchor’s trips in 2023 believe this act of re-seeing the world is well worth the effort. We’re taking a tour of the part of Greece that is scattered far south of the mainland and deep into the Mediterranean. We’re heading to the Azores, the tip of a colossal mountain-range that feeds into the Mid-Atlantic Trench, which is part of the longest chain of mountains on our planet. We’ll explore the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean – and we’re yachting along the Turkish coast to experience everything that maritime life has to offer in southern Europe… 

And now we’ve added a new trip – to a country in the South Pacific that’s as wide as Europe, yet looks almost invisible on most of our maps.

Tahiti, French Polynesia
Tahiti, French Polynesia

To the average terrachauvinist (a word I’ve just made up, so please don’t look for it in any dictionary), French Polynesia is little more than a scattered cluster of the type of tropical islands you’d associate with shipwrecks, or perhaps the TV show Lost. But there are 300,000 people living here, most of them on its central island Tahiti, a place of towering mountains mist-shrouded at dawn, of palm trees and impossibly golden beaches and crystal-clear seas – and of course, flowers.

Gardenia Taitensis, or the tiaré flower, is one of the things Tahiti is best-known for – which is a little misleading, as the plant itself seems to have originated in the islands far to the west. But it is an island species, part of that too-often-overlooked 71% of the world – and you’ll have seen it in many a Hollywood film, a star-shaped flower of white oval petals, worn behind the ear. 

Depending on which island you’re on, the choice of ear can have enormous social significance: on Tahiti, if it’s the left ear, the wearer is signaling they’re taken, but if it’s behind the right ear, they’re formally available. Since Hawaii, 4,200km to the north, has a similar tradition with hibiscus flowers, it’s even more proof of the historical relationship between the island chains, facilitated by some of the most dramatic and skilled sea-voyages in human history…

There’s just so much to discover in that vast blue part of the Earth (two-thirds of a home, in fact), if we just took the time to look properly. 

How about making a proper go of it this coming year?    

Join Wheel & Anchor In November next year for a yachting adventure through the remote islands of the South Pacific. More details here.

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