Seven Stories from the Ocean: Interview with Laura Trethewey

“Stories about the sea are different,” writes Canadian author Laura Trethewey in her debut book “The Imperiled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea”, where she has collected seven vivid ones.

Book starts in Hollywood with a legendary underwater cinematographer Pete Romano and ends in Fraser River in Canada with a story about a sturgeon, a prehistoric fish, now almost extinct. “The Imperiled Ocean” holds gripping stories about a young gay refugee in the Mediterranean Sea and about behind-the-scene horrors on cruise ships. Laura Trethewey reports on water-dwelling communities and on plastic garbage madness in the ocean streams. It’s a book you won’t be able to put down before reading from cover to cover and traveling with Laura from coast to coast.

The Sea Library wanted to know more about author’s relationship with the sea and if she has a hope in the middle of climate crisis. In the interview Laura Trethewey reveals that she is working on a new book right now – about the ongoing race to map the world’s seafloor by 2030. She also reminds us that this month is a #plasticfreejuly.

What led you to write your first book? How did you choose what stories to tell?

The Imperiled Ocean is the culmination of years of writing and research about what people are doing on the ocean. I grew up in Toronto, Canada, which is not by any ocean, but my family used to spend summers on the East Coast of North America. At an early age, I was steeped in fishing trips, whale watching and tide-pooling. I also started to fall in love with stories about the sea, like Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

When I started writing myself, I realized that the immersive and literary sea stories that I fell in love with when I was a kid were in short supply. I set out to bring those stories back to the page and encourage people to fall in love with the ocean the way I did, through great storytelling.

What is your most vivid memory of meeting with Pete Romano, the underwater cinematographer?

I wanted to kick off The Imperiled Ocean with one of the most mainstream ways we encounter the ocean today: blockbuster Hollywood movies. I did that by focusing on Pete Romano, who has spent the last forty years filming underwater scenes for films like Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Inception, The Life Aquatic and many others. He was also the head cinematographer for Jaws 3-D.

Romano works in this very niche world of underwater film in and around Southern California. I travelled there to see his office in person, which is actually more like a factory filled with all types of film gear used to capture underwater stories. Even more impressive were the film tanks where Romano shoots films regularly. These above-ground pools are situated on unremarkable concrete backlots around Los Angeles but they absolutely transform into magical places on screen.  

You describe the underwater world as darker regions of imagination, and also that water allows us creative licence to imagine our most irrational fears. Why are the depths of the ocean so evocative?

I watched many of the movies Pete Romano filmed and across all I found a few things held true about how we see the ocean. The ocean is a place of transformation for good or for bad. It is very rarely neutral. This says a lot about the human relationship with the ocean. We love the ocean, but we’re also afraid of it because we can’t control it. Because of that, the ocean will always be a very evocative place for humanity.

You learned to sail in your childhood and had a dream of sailing around the world, but when the dream was stripped off any romantic notions, you lost your interest. What took away that romantic part and why it lead to change your mind?

Writing about two sailors preparing to sail across the Pacific demystified going to sea for me. I saw the entire process broken down into each grueling step. I learned that, yes, I too could go sail across the ocean, if I really wanted to. That gave me a certain kind of confidence borne from knowledge. But in the end writing the story cured me of that wanderlust. I realized that I was more drawn to the romance of the sea, rather than the reality. This is probably true for many people like me, who are more familiar with the shoreline than the open ocean.

"The Imperiled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea" by Laura Trethewey. Photo by Beach Books.
“The Imperiled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea” by Laura Trethewey. Photo by Beach Books.

Mediterranean sea is described by the press as a mass migrant graveyard. One of the saddest stories in your book is about “boat people” who try to reach safer grounds over the sea. What was your revelation, when working on this chapter?

In 2016, I had a chance to visit a refugee house in southern Germany during a time when tens of thousands of people were crossing into Europe by boat.  At this refugee house, I met a few boys who had made the trip. They were really just boys, some as young as 12 or 13, and yet they seemed much older to me than I was at that age. There was a feeling of lost innocence about them. One teenager I focused on was Mohammed, who is gay and originally from Ghana where violence against the LGBTQ+ community is widespread. He told me his story of seeing another boat flounder during his crossing from Libya to Italy and that he watched a hundred people drown. Speaking to Mohammed, someone who was deeply traumatized by his first encounter with the ocean, I remember feeling incredibly lucky and privileged that I had grown up with such happy experiences with the sea.

There are people who live happily on boats and form water-dwelling communities. You spent some time with one such community in the Dogpatch, in a habror of a seaside town on the coast of Vancouver Island. You write that living on water draws in a specific kind of people “eccentric, creative, hardy types, such as inventors, artists, engineers, and fishers,” who live outside the mainstream. Why do you think it is so?

I’ve always been intrigued by people who live on boats. The shoreline is one of the last places, in the developed world at least, that sits outside the rules of land. Historically, people who lived on boats were poor and worked at the waterfront. But in comparison to the life they could afford on land, the water offered a lot of freedom, beauty and access to nature.

In recent years, as the environmental movement has grown, I’ve noticed that the waterfront is becoming cleaner but also more gentrified. People pay a lot of money to live by the water today and that is pushing out the poorer boat-dwellers who lived on the water before the environmental movement reclaimed the ocean. I see access to this space becoming more and more contested.

An important story to tell about the ocean is how much trash we have thrown into it. You write about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and about people who are working to save the oceans from “the giant uncontrolled plastic experiment we’ve unleashed”. The chapter is filled with tides of pessimism and optimism. Is there any hope?

I spent a week collecting plastic on what seemed like pristine beaches off Canada’s West Coast. What I discovered was that when I looked closer, these beaches were covered in plastic. It was not just plastic bottles that were easy to remove. The plastic was small, often invisible and mixed into the ecosystem where it was becoming part of the environment. I realized that we can’t take all that plastic back now. It’s out there and we have to reckon with what we’ve done to the ocean. However, we are not lost if we can still change. In recent years, there’s been an incredible push to eliminate single-use plastics in the form of local bag bans and wider government legislation. Coronavirus has set this movement back, but I continue to be hopeful, especially during #plasticfreejuly right now, that we can cut down excessive plastic waste for a cleaner ocean.

Laura while reporting for her book "The Imperiled Ocean".
Laura while reporting for her book “The Imperiled Ocean”.

Life at a cruise ship may seem like a luxurious holiday to some, but a hectic job and claustrophobic depression to others. You tell a story of a man lost overboard a cruise ship and reveal how lawless is the sea. Is ocean the last untamed frontier, a place for unpunished crimes?

We often hear about the environmental impact of cruise ships, but writing about a young chef who died on a cruise ship highlighted the labor issues at sea for me. Most passengers and staff don’t realize before boarding a cruise ship that the vessel is flagged to a country like Panama or the Bahamas. When something criminal happens out on international water, it is up to these countries to investigate, except they have looser regulations and less resources to do so. Cruises are sold as cheap vacations to Western industrialized countries, as well as the growing middle class in the China. However, these trips have real human consequences for the staff and passengers as well as their families back home.

Why did you choose to finish your book with a chapter on sturgeon, an ancient and endangered fish?

I always knew that this chapter would end The Imperiled Ocean. It covers a week I spent on board a research boat with a biologist, Erin Stoddard, who was trying to understand why the white sturgeon is disappearing from the oceans and rivers of the Pacific Northwest. This fish has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Biologists compare the sturgeon to the wooly mammoth or the saber tooth tiger, except this fish is not yet extinct and we can still save it. Erin Stoddard’s quest to understand the sturgeon, before it disappeared, felt hopeful for me and a good way to end the book. If we can still learn from the ocean and its creatures, then we are not lost.

Tell me about the second book you are working on right now.

Right now, I’m in writing a new book about the ongoing race to map the world’s seafloor by 2030. The ocean covers over 70% of the planet and represents 99% of earth’s living space by volume, but only 19% of the seafloor is mapped with modern instruments and accurate detail. My recent story for The Guardian reflects a lot of my early thinking on my next book and why I’m so fascinated by this quest to know the final frontier on earth.  

What is your favorite sea book?

I don’t know if I have a favorite sea book. That’s a cop-out, I know. Instead I’d like to highlight an influential book that I read early on in my obsession with sailing, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. It’s a well-reported and insightful non-fiction book that centers on one of the competitors in the 1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race –  a non-stop solo unassisted sail around the world – who never made it back to land. One of the main themes of the story is the reality of the sea colliding with one’s dreams. This inspired a lot of the thinking and writing in The Imperiled Ocean.

What does the sea mean for you?

The sea is a wonderfully dynamic place. It has meant different things at different points in my life. I guess that’s why I keep coming back to the ocean. It’s a place you can spend your whole life discovering and never fully understand.

Laura as a toddler at Chatham Beach in Cape Cod.
Laura as a toddler at Chatham Beach in Cape Cod.

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