Generally, when people say that they love the ocean, they don’t really mean that they love the ocean, or even that they love the beach. With a few exceptions, like those crazed people who sail around the world by themselves or only with a pet gopher or ferret, what they really mean is that they love the littoral.
The littoral is where land and sea come together, be it at the beach, or beneath a cliff, or upon a grassy promontory, or wherever. This is the place where the sea laps, crashes, washes, thunders, boils, and does a hundred other littoral-related verb-y types of actions. The places where and the ways that sea and land meet are vast and varied. There’s a lot of oceanfront property out there, after all.
But oceans themselves are varied, too. They each have personalities, quirks, moods. By the end of the calendar year 2010, I will have spent four years of the last decade on those various oceans. I like to think that those oceans and I have gotten to know one another a little bit. Well, rather that I’ve gotten to know them a bit. They don’t really notice us people, y’know.
The Atlantic was my first. I wasn’t on it very long — we were headed for the Caribbean, a very different body of water — but it was educational. My memories of that first meeting go something like this:
Dark, choppy water beneath a sky filled with sunlight-laced storm clouds.
High waves that washed our ship back and forth like the proverbial cork.
Gunmetal depths that I could not see, but rather felt.
Subsequent visits have not changed my perspective. The Atlantic is always moving, always on the verge of being angry, always reflecting storm clouds.
The Caribbean, on the other hand, welcomes the seaborne traveler with blue deeps that are so blue that you cannot believe that the color is real. It’s HD TV color. Fuji film color (anyone remember Fuji film? Film? VHS? Anyone?). Hallucinogenic color. The Caribbean skies are puffy-cloud skies; skies that are affronted whenever there is a storm and that quickly take back possession of the air lanes when the storm passes.
On the other side of the world, the Mediterranean is a sea of pastels and metaphorical rose petals. Even crisp, early-morning light is converted, somehow, to something softer, to the palette of a Renaissance master painter. The waves of the Med are softer, too, softer than nearly any other body of water. When the Mediterranean rolls, it rolls in long, languorous motions like waking up on a Sunday morning with nothing more strenuous to face but to fetch the paper and pour a cup of coffee.
South, in pirate territory off the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean is vast and surprisingly quiet. It knows how strong it is and doesn’t need to prove it until it has to. Even when it does, the Indian Ocean doesn’t show off. It isn’t flashy. Instead, she becomes choppy, trying to roll whatever irksome pests are on her back onto some convenient land somewhere.
Up in the Persian Gulf, the water becomes white. The gulf is white, the sky is white, the sun is a white brightness that expands to encompass the whole body of water. But the Gulf is also almost waveless. It stretches out and out and out, just like the deserts that surround it, more an extension of those deserts than a competing entity, even though they are made of seemingly incompatible substances.
Now, further. Ah, the Pacific. Whatever you may have been told, it is definitely not pacific. Whoever named it, named it out of irony. Passionate, is the Pacific, easily taunted by storm and cloud and earthquake into violence. Not as dark as the Atlantic, though; the Pacific puts on a good act until enlivened into giant wave crests and deep, dark troughs.
So the next time you wander along the littoral, wherever it may be, take a look out farther, see what you can see. Maybe you’ll see what you expect.
But maybe you’ll be surprised.