Viewpoints

Culture Cul De Sac

Published: Sunday July 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday July 18, 2014 MYT 3:22:23 PM

The lure of the sea

Those endlessly fascinating waters draw people into their embrace.

I once watched two little girls in frilly swimsuits skipping over the ripples of the Andaman Sea for almost an hour. They were completely mesmerised by the lapping waves, their shrieks of delight punctuated only by the roars of the rough, rolling sea in the distance.

On another occasion, on a beach in Kovalam, Kerala, I watched hundreds of people rushing to immerse themselves in the Arabian Sea. Frolicking, fully-clothed, men, women and children just couldn't help themselves. Satiated, they returned to the beach completely soaked in salt water, but with great grins on their faces.

And one September morning along the Greek coast, some European tourists thought nothing of setting off on a long, early-morning swim in bone-chilling waters so unlike our inviting and warm Asian seas. Yet, these sea-lovers remained determined and undeterred.

Nothing quite equals jumping off a boat and diving straight into clean, aquamarine waters, surrounded by rising green hills and crystal-clear blue skies. Floating on your back, it’s meditation at its best. Or watching the sun slowly sinking into the horizon across a glittery sea that transforms – right before your eyes – into a toneless symphony of shades.

At any time of day or night, the sea attracts: the wanderer out to sit on the beach alone to watch the sunset; groups gathering to chat and gossip while the wind caresses their hair; loving couples prompted to kiss, cuddle and promise sweet nothings when faced with the infinite vastness of an ocean.

On a recent trip to Phuket, I heard that the current government had banned and ordered the removal of indiscriminately constructed bars and restaurants on beaches. One consequence? After a long time, along Surin Bay, the coast is suddenly clear, its sea view restored.

Strangely enough, in a way it has democratised the beach. Anyone can now sit, stand or just be there. That hot afternoon, tourists, locals, expatriates, masseurs, trinket vendors and dogs were lounging on the beach as if they owned it. The public had reclaimed their beach and space with a view. Even with the red flag warnings visible, many rushed into the sea without a care.

However, it was not always like this. In The Lure Of The Sea: The Discovery Of The Seaside In The Western World, 1750-1840, French author Alain Corbin reveals the changing attitudes towards the sea.

In the 18th century, for instance, it was viewed as a sinister and calamitous force wrecking ships, drowning sailors and harbouring monstrous creatures. The book explores the elements during that period – such as travel, interest in landscape painting and geology, among others – that brought about a kinder, more reflective perception of the sea.

The author goes back to ancient times to find conceptions of the sea relating to how people thought and felt about their place in the world.

Once ocean-bathing had come to be seen as healthy, the seaside became a retreat for fresh air, exercise and water therapy. Linking all to a re-creation of life. Artists and poets then began their own paeans, aesthetically rediscovering the sea’s spiritual side, as a space for reverie and self-exploration.

Thus, in the process, began the boom of Western seaside towns which, latterly, culminated on this side of the globe with the Asian beach holiday.

It is interesting to note that Jane Austen’s Sandition, her last unfinished novel, is reported to be perhaps the first seaside novel. Published in 1817, it is set in a fishing village that was transforming into a seaside town. By then the sea and its shore were contemplated as pleasurable places to recuperate.

Ruled by the planets and cautioned by the seasons, 71% of the planet is covered in sea water, yet we know so little about the ocean and what lies deep beneath it. Many before us have tried to fathom the mercurial seas and have failed.

Says author Christopher Paolini, “The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.”

It has power to make us think but, as the writer Joseph Conrad noted, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it, has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”

Even that most celebrated oceanographer, Jacques Yves Cousteau, has said that the sea, once it casts its spell on us, holds us in its net of wonder forever. He also claimed that, “Sometimes, we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me ... on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened to the sea.”

Gazing out to sea makes you realise your own infinitesimal smallness in the scheme of things and restores a sense of perspective. Whether it’s the Andaman, the Arabian or the Aegean, just being there since time immemorial makes the sea, for me, so endlessly fascinating.

Tags / Keywords: Sea, Travel

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