Moving Oceans: Beginnings

The sea is all around us.  

Not only do seas and oceans cover our world but they’re increasingly important in humanities and social science scholarship. Studying seas and oceans can help us to better understand human and multispecies health, culture, society, literature, geographies, mobilities, ethics, environmentalism, architecture, adaptation, and survival.  

Blue humanities, blue spaces and blue health are all growing areas of research focus, with the consistent finding that our fate is tied to the fate of oceans. As Rachel Carson wrote in The Sea Around Us,  

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. 

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As our oceans rise and release their carbon stores, as kelp forests die, as species disappear, as discarded plastics form gyres, and as our waters are fished into deserts, Carson’s words continue to resonate 70 years later. In the face of these threats it is difficult not to feel despair and sadness, but in order to adapt and survive, it is important for us to face these problems as they are and to proceed with hope.  

The project we are launching with this website, Moving Oceans, follows this approach of honesty, hope and action.  

Moving Oceans faces the precarity of ocean and coastal futures, explores how we are living with oceans and coastlines, and imagines how we can learn to see ourselves as part of the vastness of these ecologies in new ways – wet, polluted, multispecies, colonised, and salty.  

The aim is to take our research offshore and into the saltwater. To do this, we’re focused on the role of ocean lifestyle sports and physical activities as they relate to oceans and coasts, with a focus on swimming and surfing. Although a little clunky, the term ‘lifestyle sports’ captures the sense of recreation, leisure and lifestyle that is core to activities like swimming, surfing, mountain-biking, snowboarding, rock-climbing and more. For the majority of the population, they’re activities we do more for pleasure and connection to nature – oceans, mountains, forests, rivers – than for competitive achievements.  

Some critics argue that surfers, snowboarders, mountain-bikers and other lifestyle sports people see nature simply as a background against which their activity is practiced. This project explores how these activities are key to changing how participants see themselves as part of nature ecologies. In this case, we are interested in how surfers and swimmers come to know and care for ocean and coastal ecologies.  

The focus on sport comes from existing work in sport and physical activities and cultures. In these fields there is increasing analysis of the role that nature plays in our physical, mental, emotional and social health and wellbeing. This project wonders what sport and physical activity do for nature-places in return, and how our experiences of nature can change how we think about our relationships with it. 

More and more people are surfing and swimming, so it is important that governments and community organisations better understand how these, and other lifestyle sports shape our relationships to, and impacts on, oceans and coasts.

To help do this, our research will explore the ‘everyday’ individual environmental ethics that we develop through surfing and ocean swimming, often outside of organised initiatives. It will also focus on how sport is key to current activism about ocean pollution. Everyday ethics and politics are linked to individual relationships and emotional connections to ecologies, which come to shape our day-to-day decisions about waste, consumption and activism. Since personal experience is a key factor in whether we develop such ecological sensibilities, the role of lifestyle sports in ocean and coastal care is a vital but understudied field of research.  

Moving Oceans is funded through an Australian Research Council Fellowship, awarded to Dr Rebecca Olive. The project will develop through collaboration with researchers from multiple disciplines and groups including cultural studies, gender studies, literature studies, geography, coastal management, marine social science, media studies, environmental sciences and more. It will also include contributions from people in media, the arts and community organisations.

We’d love to hear from anyone interested in the ideas and issues that Moving Oceans is exploring. 

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