In the memorable second instalment of Blue Planet II, we are offered glimpses of an unfamiliar world – the deep ocean. The episode places an unusual emphasis on its own construction: glimpses of the deep sea and its inhabitants are interspersed with shots of the technology – a manned submersible – that brought us these astonishing images. It is very unusual and extremely challenging, we are given to understand, for a human to enter and interact with this unfamiliar world.
The most watched programme of 2017 in the UK, Blue Planet II provides the opportunity to revisit questions that have long occupied us. To whom does the sea belong? Should humans enter its depths? These questions are perhaps especially urgent today, when Nautilus Minerals, a mining company registered in Vancouver, has been granted a license to extract gold and copper from the seafloor off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Though the company has suffered some setbacks, mining is still scheduled to begin in 2019.
This marks a new era in our interaction with the oceans. For a long time in Western culture, to go to sea at all was to transgress. In Seneca’s Medea, the chorus blames advances in navigation for having brought the Golden Age to an end, while for more than one Mediterranean culture to travel through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the wide Atlantic was considered unwisely to tempt divine forces. The vast seas were associated with knowledge that humankind was better off without – another version, if you will, of the apple in the garden.
If to travel horizontally across the sea was to trespass, then to travel vertically into its depths was to redouble the indiscretion. In his 17th-century poem Vanitie (I), George Herbert writes of a diver seeking out a “pearl” which “God…