The common view of the sea is not based on facts. To convince yourself of this, ask anyone how many oceans or seas there are. Alternatively, ask him or her to name the seven seas, or simply to tell you the definition of a sea. Even seasoned sailors cannot answer these basic queries with confidence, and for good reason.
Oceanography is the study of the dynamics of the marine environment. In other words, oceanographers try to figure out what makes the ocean tick. Everyone knows a few facts about the sea, but unlike other subjects of nature, oceanography is not a prominent subject in public school. My echo boomer daughter had the option of taking it in high school; however, it is not recommended for university preparation. There are undergraduate courses in oceanography, but usually it is studied within elite graduate schools. This means that while most people have seen the sea, either in person or through the views of others, very few understand how it functions. As a result, your understanding of the sea is probably based on perception, not fact. Most baby boomers obtained their view of the sea through personal experiences, mass media, and twentieth-century celebrities such as Jacques Cousteau. His books, films, and television programs captured our imagination and showed us the wonders of the seven seas, but they did not expand our understanding of the dynamics of the sea. They didn’t even teach us how many oceans there are or the names of the so-called seven seas.
The reason why no one names the seven seas is that they no longer exist as such. The phrase predates Christ and refers to the bodies of water that comprise Earth's marine environment. Definition of the original seven changed with empire and location, and the phrase waned when explorers discovered and named many new bodies of water. But in 1896, the poet Rudyard Kipling brought the phrase back into vogue when he published a collection of works by the same name.
In his 1957 five hundred and twelve page treatise on the seven seas, Peter Freuchen refers to Rudyard Kipling's resurrection of the phrase “seven seas” as “a triumph of poetry over reality.” Freuchen lists the original seven as the Mediterranean, Red, China, West African, East African, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, but states that as a result of Kipling they were rebranded as the Arctic, Antarctic, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian.
As there is no longer a definitive set of the now poetic seven, and no universally accepted definition of a sea, Freuchen's view is as plausible as the next. Wikipedia states there are more than one hundred seas, but in my opinion there is no set number. One reference's gulf or bay is another's sea or collection of seas. Certain references identify bodies of water as seas, even though they are freshwater lakes. Some seas have more than one name, and a subcomponent of a sea may have its own sea name in certain references but not others. In an ad hoc exercise akin to finding Waldo, on late twentieth century maps I found seventy-five bodies of saltwater whose name includes the word Sea: Adriatic, Aegean, Alboran, Amundsen, Andaman, Arabian, Arafura, Aral, Aru, Azov, Banda, Balearic, Bali, Baltic, Barents, Beaufort, Bellingshausen, Bering, Bismarck, Black, Bohol, Caribbean, Caspian, Celebes, Celtic, Ceram, Chukchi, Coral, Cosmonaut, Crete, East China, Dead, Flores, Greenland, Halmahera, Iceland, Ionian, Irish, Japan, Java, Kara, Labrador, Laccadive, Laptev, Ligurian, Lincoln, Marmara, Mediterranean, Mindanao, Mirtoan, Molucca, Natuna, Norwegian, North, Okhotsk, Philippine, Red, Ross, Sargasso, Savu, Scotia, Siberian, Sibuyan, Solomon, South China, Sulu, Tasman, Timor, Tyrrhenian, Visayan, Wadden, Wandel, Weddell, White, and Yellow. No single reference includes all seventy five and this list does not include known seas whose names no longer appear on these maps, such as the Vermilion Sea and Sea of Cortez off of the Baja Peninsula. Also, as an oceanographer I could not bring myself to exclude the Sargasso Sea, even though its name did not appear on these maps. On the other hand, certain publications refer to the Great Lakes as seas whereas I do not.
The five oceans of Earth are the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Southern. Many baby boomers likely perceive the planet as having four oceans–the Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. The four oceans view considers the Southern Ocean to be the southern parts of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Ocean. The five oceans view is similar to Peter Freuchen’s definition of the seven seas, except he divides both the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean into two, and calls the Southern Ocean by its other name–Antarctic Ocean.
Somehow, when growing up I remember a Southern or Antarctic Ocean, even though the name Southern Ocean did not come into vogue for me until the last quarter of the twentieth century, in association with around-the-world yacht races and satellite images of diminishing polar ice formations. Both my enlightenment and confusion originated with Rachel Carson. Her 1951 epic book, The Sea Around Us, talks about both an Antarctic and Southern Ocean, but Rachel Carson also refers to the Arctic as both a sea and an ocean. In which case, did she believe we had four oceans or five? Carson was an acclaimed marine naturalist with a strong background in science, yet even she seemed ambiguous about the number of seas and oceans and their names.
I am uncertain as to who holds the responsibility for establishing and promoting the definition of a sea or ocean, or other such facts, but I believe the public fills this knowledge void with perceptions founded upon popular opinion, folklore, regional politics, and the views of the rare individual who attracts the attention and respect of the masses. We do not live in the sea and do not study it in public school; thus most people do not gain knowledge of it firsthand or formally.
Based on personal experience and what we see on television and silver screen, or read in novels and newspapers, we form land-based perceptions of the sea around us. What we see when we think of the sea is a network of ill-defined environments. Without official definition, your view is as correct as the next. For a recent example, news headlines from the west coast of North America for the month of November 2009 suggest we now have a new sea–The Salish Sea. It washes the shores of both the United States and Canada and comprises the waters of the Straits of Georgia and Juan De Fuca, Washington State's Puget Sound, and waters in between. Newspapers from the region lead us to believe this discovery arose as a result of our knowledge of marine biology. A respected biologist coined the name on the grounds that this person viewed these waters as an ecological entity. Is this the new definition of a sea–an ecosystem? Whether you view these western bodies of seawater as an ecosystem depends upon your perspectives of time and space. You could, for example, view them not as one ecosystem but as a multitude of nested ecosystems. In which case, why not define these waters as a collection of seas?
I am being cynical here, and the referenced biologist’s rationale is not an isolated point of view. Managing the sea as an ecosystem is sound and accepted advice. This was not always the case, and in my view, Rachel Carson first presented it to the general public in the 1950s. My point is that this new sea is a result of popular opinion and political correctness, not definition. The lands that border these waters were first populated by aboriginal Coast Salish nations. The name Salish Sea recognizes their heritage a few thousand years after they got there. Given that the Coast Salish people themselves do not refer to these waters as the Salish Sea, but as Sqelatses, khWuhlch, Whulge or Whulj, the name satisfies language requirements of more recent settlers.
Like our perception of the seven seas, language evolves. Today, when we say that someone is at sea or he or she is sailing the seven seas or the ocean blue, it simply means the person is somewhere within the marine environment, whether it be on one of the five oceans or numerous seas. As a sailor, I take the simple view that if it is saltwater, then I am at sea, and if it is brackish, then I soon will be, assuming I am not sailing on one of those bizarre inland saltwater lakes. When referring to the marine environment in general, people often use the words “sea” and “ocean” interchangeably.
It is not that we lost a sea or ocean or found another sometime during the twentieth century. Although Antarctica is a dynamic region, it did not morph into something completely new over a period of years to a few decades. It is our perception of the sea that changed during this period and it continues to do so, and I am not only referring to those who sail the seas for a living.
Eight of the world's ten largest cities are located by an ocean. In 2008, approximately fifty percent of the human population, more than three billion people, lived within one hundred kilometers of the sea, including fifty-three percent of Americans. Four hundred million Chinese live by the sea, which is more than ten times the population of Canada.
A geographically disproportionate number of people live in the coastal zone. In the United States, for example, the coastal zone represents eleven percent of that country's area but houses more than half its population. Canada, by comparison, is an anomaly in that although it is washed by three oceans, the majority of its population does not live by one. Regardless, the sea is no longer just about food, transportation and warfare, as it once was. It holds ninety-seven percent of the planet's water.
Geographically, it divides nations, but environmentally it unites them. Even those who do not live by the sea feel the influence of its global effects because the sea impacts the daily priorities of all living creatures: security, a constant demand for energy, and quality of life. Yet, unless you are an oceanographer or addicted to nature programs shown on public television, you likely have cursory knowledge of what makes the ocean tick. Even consensus on how to name them eludes us, with the result that a poet is as likely as anyone to influence our view of the sea, and there is much more to this issue than merely names. We have yet, for example, to quantify the oceans' role in climate change.
Understanding what makes an ocean function is as much about change detection as about observing its features. When scientists study not only the composition of the sea but also its dynamics–how it varies in time and space–they are viewing it from the perspective of an oceanographer. The subject of oceanography applies the basic sciences of biology, chemistry, geology, and physics to the sea. This is why oceanography is not an integral component of public school or undergraduate curricula. Prior to studying oceanography it is best to first learn the basics of science. This is why I found myself at the right place at the right time when I stepped aboard a coast guard vessel in the late 1970s, with a bachelor of science degree in hand. I knew almost nothing about oceanography, but I had just devoted four years of my life to studying the basics of science. My father did not advise me to major in science and I had no idea what I wanted to be when I enrolled in university. I simply followed the path that lay before me. In the 1960s and 70s, science was held in high esteem and it was not uncommon to see scientists featured on the cover of magazines such as Time. Not so much now, as you are just as likely to have a politician or editor slam the science community as praise it, especially when it comes to the environment. It was not like that when I was growing up.
As it turned out, although the 1970s produced defining moments that changed our view of the sea, I have a different perception of the last two decades of the twentieth century. There were substantial advancements in marine science during this period, but they did not inspire the masses with visions of great discovery. The period was largely one of percolation, which is a necessary part of the discovery process. It takes time to brew the perfect cup. Consider the US Navy, for example. During this period it shifted its operational focus from blue to coastal waters. This changed the focus of military oceanography and initiated a renaissance in the development of coastal monitoring and surveillance technologies. But are you aware of them? Perhaps not, and as a result you may not realize that the lottery for the enlightened is once again building its pot of ocean gold for those who position themselves to be in the right field at the right time. The next defining moment in our view of the sea lies just in front of us, not just behind.