The Changing Oceans: Rock Pools and Deepwater Canyons

Over the last year I’ve been working on a collaboration with a marine scientist named Bryce Peebles towards an exhibition called Art & Water: Mountains to the Sea - a collection of approximately thirty local artists and scientists who have come together to make work on the theme of water. The exhibition opens at 5:30pm on Monday the 9th of September at the HD Skinner Annex (near the Otago Museum and Otago University) and will run until the 21st from 10am-3pm everyday. If you live in Dunedin, come and check it out! The work is exciting to see in person and there are so many great projects being exhibited.

The artwork in the exhibition incorporates and builds on ideas and images I've been working with since I went whale swimming in Tonga in 2017 and 2018–work I have continued over the last few years and hope to continue over my lifetime–as well as ideas and images from a more local setting. The water, along with color and light, energy and form, weaves everything together.

What follows is a scientific and poetic description, exploration and catalogue of our project.


When Bryce and I set out, we decided on two areas of focus based on his research, the deep sea canyons off the Otago coast and the effect of ocean acidification on marine calcifiers, with one core theme of exploration: the changing oceans.

The deep-sea is the most expansive area on earth (around 324 million km2) but also is the least explored. There are multiple features of the deep sea – flat plains-like areas, underwater mountain ranges, hydrothermal vents, and submarine canyons that are carved into the sea floor. Submarine canyons are similar to canyons and valleys on land and are caused by a combination of factors, including: earthquakes, glacial movement, sediment transport and other geological processes. These canyons are a unique environment since they provide a habitat for deep-sea life to flourish. Deep, nutrient-rich water flows though the canyons and helps build an ecosystem that can have 3 – 100x more biomass than the surrounding non-canyon areas. New Zealand has several submarine canyons, including a network of them just offshore of the Otago Peninsula. Typical animals found in the Otago submarine canyons are a variety of sponges, sea stars, brittle stars, fish, worms, and molluscs. These canyons also provide good hangout spots for larger organisms too, like whales who can dive to greater depths closer to shore than otherwise possible. Sediment transfer within the canyons is a major aspect of the environment since they connect the offshore and the deep sea areas. Not only does the amount and type of sediment within a submarine canyon affect the organisms living there, but sediment flow is an excellent example of how interconnected our world is and one of the ways humans can affect ecosystems without realising it. The sediment removed by dredging a harbour can end up in these canyons and make it more difficult for organisms to settle since extra sand and silt is flowing through the canyon. (Bryce Peebles)

The deep sea canyon work would center around the biodiversity of the canyons, their importance to marine flora and fauna (including marine calcifiers) and their interconnection to our urban environment (and the interconnection of the wider environment and globe generally), explored through a series of drawings and water-color sketches drawing inspiration from canyon cartography and photographs from a submersible dive deep within the canyons.

Marine creatures that form shells are called “Calcifiers” since they use Calcium Carbonate to build their shells. These animals can pull calcium and carbonate ions directly from the water around them to form their shells and skeletons. They include but are not limited to starfish, mussels, para (abalone), chitons, marine snails, kina (sea urchin), shrimp, lobsters and shellfish. As the ocean gets warmer and relatively more acidic, it becomes harder for marine animals to form their shells. The amount of shell material present in the water column depends on the temperature and pH of the ocean. Marine calcifiers have evolved with the current balance of dissolved calcium and carbonate in the ocean, so they can form their shells without any problems under normal conditions. If the water is too warm or acidic, the balance is thrown off and any existing shells will start to dissolve. This dissolution happens because the ocean always tries to maintain an equilibrium, so if there is too little carbonate in the water it will be taken from the shells of marine animals. This weakens the shell, makes the animal vulnerable to predators, and forces the critter to spend energy fixing its shell instead of on: gathering food, mating, regulating body functions, and other things necessary for it to stay alive. (Bryce Peebles)

The ocean acidification work would focus on how ocean acidification compromises the ability of marine calcifiers to make fossils of themselves (their shells are dissolved before they can be preserved). When a fossil is formed it inadvertently takes a sample from the water allowing scientists a glimpse into what the temperature, salinity and ph were at the time of the shell's creation. Looking at the fossil record we can bring into focus past environments and draw similarities to the trends we see happening now. Ocean acidification will potentially destroy the fossil record and hinder our ability to study the past.

Drawing on Bryce's work for inspiration, I explored. I took underwater images at noon from inside rock pools on the South Otago coastline, creating submerged still-lifes of creatures which experience a process akin to ocean acidification during any low tide at peak sunlight hours. Hours spent peering into these pools led to long exposures at dusk, capturing the tide on its way in, leading to even longer exposures of star trails rising over the southern ocean, rock pools glittering in the star-shine beneath. 

As the sky darkened, so did my mood. Ocean acidification will make it difficult for many marine species to survive. Not only will marine calcifers struggle to create their own bodies but as acidification worsens, their ability to create fossils of themselves will be compromised. Fossils allow future generations a snapshot of the past. The privilege of describing the environments of earth's eras is in large part due to the ability of fossils to store information about the temperature, salinity and composition of their habitats. What will survive of the human era? Who will know what was ocean and what was desert and what, in the many-layered past, was once both? In more ways than one, our world is going dark. 

Rock Pools at Dusk  - Archival print in Oak Frame - 20x30in

Rock Pools at Dusk - Archival print in Oak Frame - 20x30in

 
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The canyon maps Bryce sent me led me deeper. I sketched and traced and colored their lines until my hand had memorized them. Neither Bryce nor I could pick an area to focus and refine: the rock pools? The stars? The canyons? What we kept coming back to was the intrinsic connection between all things.

A quote from Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, describing the end-Permian world struck me: “glassy purple seas released poisonous bubbles that rose to a pale green sky.” I imagined epochs beginning and ending and couldn't get the colors out of my mind. Nor the whales I swam with in the South Pacific whose migratory routes pass right through the deep canyons I had been tracing.

 
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Video still taken from a 2018 recording in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga by Sean White (fellow open ocean swimmer) and humbly borrowed as inspiration for  Another Migration Begins and Ends Where We Pause to Sing the Songs .

Video still taken from a 2018 recording in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga by Sean White (fellow open ocean swimmer) and humbly borrowed as inspiration for Another Migration Begins and Ends Where We Pause to Sing the Songs.

Another Migration Begins and Ends Where We Pause to Sing the Songs  - Acrylic on Canvas - 1900x1800mm

Another Migration Begins and Ends Where We Pause to Sing the Songs - Acrylic on Canvas - 1900x1800mm

 

I feel a responsibility to be submerged and to tell the tale. The origins of humiliate:to make humble or bring low–I want to bring people low down to the earth; I want to draw them under, into the deep below. Listen, we are as fragile and insignificant as a mollusk in a rock pool next to an ocean twenty million square kilometers wide–and yet we have changed the oceans beyond how we believed they could be changed. 

This work is an attempt made at recovery of the deep, the telling of a story one hopes is not passing into oblivion. The artist endeavours to make known what cannot be easily communicated: The body, immersed in song, water and color, dissolves into sound and attention as the deep in turn is disassembled and made ruin by our kind.

Experience is translated into energy, form + color: the blues of peace and flood; the vermilions, oranges and seared-flesh tones of warning; the burgundies and verdant hues of the greenhouse world of many ages ago, where glassy purple seas surged under a pale green sky; and the darker shades of transition, of lost worlds, of epochs beginning and ending.

The further you go from the known world, the faster time falls into eternity: When one enters deep water, human construct falls away. There is no artist, woman, daughter, sister; no time, or boat, or depth, or end. Only concentrations of thought and matter, treading water at the surface, no body but the pacific body, no body but all the bodies of all things moving through the world.

Whalesong carries the record of the world so far, the millennia of distances crossed and the energy dispersed throughout the oceans–the first forms leaving the water, the first to stay above, the first to live between, the last to leave below. We are not the end of the line. 

Song rang out over the great expanse of blue and all the while we were swimming sharks and their prey, manta rays, pilot whales and great pelagic fish were circling below. I looked down to see where the light fell and there was no end. My heart broke open in the water and everything that didn't belong to me poured out. 

 
Crossing the Divide -  Humpback Calf ( Megaptera novaeangliae )- Archival Print in Oak Frame - 20x30in

Crossing the Divide - Humpback Calf (Megaptera novaeangliae)- Archival Print in Oak Frame - 20x30in

 

What does fragility look like?

Fifteen feet and one tonne of newborn, a six-thousand-mile return trip pressed into her DNA like flowers?

Or a human body in the midst of the Pacific, losing herself to the fact of her being alive, kicking, treading, breathing–all her trying-to-be-strong finally set down?

Is it in the breach, the breaking of the layer between two worlds?

Is it in the looking, where two vastly different beings, made from the same components, look one another in the eye?

Is it in the recognition of fright and delight in this other body, whose language you can’t know but whose feeling comes across her face just as your own does?

Is it in the greater depths as the beings swim away from one another, as each makes their own circles on this earth, over water?

Is it in the way the memory of interaction leaves you, as you pull yourself into the boat, water coursing from your body, even as you try to recall it?

Is it in the way you wish everything could be simpler, different, better but every day takes you further away?

The five sat on the back edge,

their legs hung over where the white-water of the engine carved a track through the sea.

They waited to go in, wet from the time before.

The water was warm over their legs as it came up out of the engine,

snow white against the startling topaz at the surface and the deep navy beneath.

Five sets of eyes set to the horizon, to the surface, in anticipation.

Five sets of ears waiting for the sound of breath,

the jet of water as it broke the surface and signalled

where in all that blue space the whales swam.

Their hearts were blue in the pause and quiet,

nothing but the motor and the hum of the waves

and the not-sound of the breath before it came.

Thank you for reading!

With love and appreciation,

Anne Marie Basquin