Rachel Kippen, Our Ocean Backyard

I hear her before I see her. That kind of observation, where I’m the last one to find out I’m not alone, reminds me that the ocean is theirs. She announces herself with a loud exhale, forcing snot out with her breath and clearing her nostrils. She porpoises onto her side, her right pectoral flipper held lazily while she cocks her head and points her snout towards me. She reminds me of a dancer in a Tik Tok video, staring into the camera with a quizzical gaze before leaning into the beat.

Then she’s under. I can see her just beneath the ocean’s surface, front pectorals harmonizing into a few effortless egg-beaters while her whole body becomes its own wave of energy, originating in her torso and rolling out through her hind flippers which she pushes against the wall of water to propel herself back to the surface.

Another slimy exhale and this time I see beaded droplets and goop on her whiskers. This female California sea lion does not have a protruding sagittal crest, the bump on the head of the male lions that make them look like they’ve accidentally bonked it on a wharf piling.

The bay is glassy this morning and the water is that dark winter blue, and it’s the kind of cold you can feel from looking at it. If the ocean were a picture it would be in focus, clean lines and crisp air, as though the low temperature is shepherding everything into place. I’m standing on the Santa Cruz Wharf, one of the best wildlife vantage points in Monterey Bay.

The weathered wood I’m perched upon was assembled in 1914, though there were a few wharves that came before it and many that will come after. This municipal wharf, the longest pier on the West coast, has morphed through time. Originally intended for shipping potatoes to San Francisco, it then became a hub for fishing prior to the collapse of the sardine industry after World War II. I’ve seen whales breaching, halibut pulled up the size of small coffee tables, improbabilities of sooty shearwaters, and a gymnasium of acrobatic California sea lions in the wharf’s underbelly.

I wonder if the builders back then thought about the future bodies this structure would lift up, that it would never be just about potato transport, or that one year there’d be masked individuals pensively walking its length, seeking a moment of reprieve among its nonhuman residents.

I google “ripple effect.” The Oxford Dictionary tells me that it’s “the continuing and spreading results of an event or action.” Back to my girlfriend, the sea lion, her ripples are enchanting. She’s come up thrice and with each puff of air and graceful dive, she draws a perfect circle of wake.

As the wakes age in a mere matter of seconds, miniature waves expand and converge with one another and lines of concentric circles merge, forming a new pattern. I imagine the ocean as a giant Etch-A-Sketch where marine mammals create geometric designs with their breath, and seabirds drop to the surface to accent their artwork.

What are the unintended consequences of the events of 2020? Fires burned statewide and the smoke and poor air quality, some scientists contend, could be a contributing factor to the decline in migratory monarch butterfly overwintering populations in California.

Ash raining from the sky and into Monterey Bay accumulated towards an uptick in nitrate levels, which has a similar nutrient loading effect as fertilizer washed into the ocean. I’d never thought about smoke and butterflies or ash and water quality before this year.

The Global Carbon Project announced this December that the “COVID lockdown caused a record decrease in carbon emissions in 2020.” The report claims a drop of approximately 7% or 2.4 billion tons. It also details that cuts of from 1 billion to 2 billion tons are essential every year for the next decade to meet the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. I start thinking about climate mitigation in terms of mini-pandemics required for 10 years and my blood pressure rises.

I’ve been critiqued that this column isn’t enough about the ocean. In return, I wonder what, if anything on this blue spinning globe, is not about the ocean? This body of water blankets approximately 71% of the earth’s surface. To say that it’s not central to all that we do is to erase the fact that it is responsible for our evolution and existence. It’s society’s disconnect from the ocean’s relevance in all subject matters that gives me worry at night.

Yes, race equity is relevant when entire populations are prevented ocean access, which is access to the umbilical of their genesis story. No, there’s no such thing as science without bias. If scientists are committed to learning about natural history, then why would human history and social ecology be removed from that study? It’s a scientist’s constant duty to question and address prejudices. This cannot happen without understanding interrelatedness, and if you do not, you’re not a scientist, you’re a hobbyist.

Ecology teaches us that we are all connected. Not connected in the cutesy-graphic-on-a-holiday-card connected, rather that our physical, blood-pumping meat sacks are hopelessly dependent upon the sanctity of our ecosystems, and, in turn, the survival of one another.

The forest fire that decimated my friend’s residence shot smoke into the sky that disrupted a butterfly’s 3,000-mile journey, that was inhaled into the lungs of an agricultural worker cultivating the food I consumed during this pandemic, who’s daughter sat in my virtual marine science class, and particulates from that smoke landed in the sea, altering the water’s chemical makeup where microorganisms produced the oxygen necessary to fuel the flames in the burning forest that once encompassed my friend’s home. Ripples, everywhere.

Ecologists cannot separate subject from context. Every component is part of a larger network and, in nature’s hierarchy, reports to the greater whole. Yes, we are each other’s keepers. The ocean knows this. The sea lion knows this. If there’s one thing we take from 2020 I hope that you, like me, are reminded of this, too.

Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at singleuseplanet@gmail.com.