The girl in the sea

Back in February I did a course about poetry and paintings. One if the exercises was to imagine yourself in a painting. I couldn’t immediately think of any paintings so I was writing myself into an imaginary one, but here it is:

The girl in the sea

She is knee deep in riptides
angry greys and blues and browns
swirl round her feet.
Dark cliffs loom behind her

merging with heavy storm-
filled clouds.

I am hot, sticky and oppressed
by the humidity of a city summer.
My blue cotton dress reflects
off the protective glass
and I threaten to overwhelm her.

I step closer
squeeze beneath the gilt frame,
between glass and oils
and sink into her world.
Breathing with relief for a second
as the cool air embraces me.
Then icy spray
spits at my bare arms
leaving goosebumps.

I should have chosen that picnic scene
in the last room;
the one with glasses of wine
and the glow of autumnal gold.

The girl still stares towards the horizon
knee deep water becomes waist deep
and I become afraid.
The sea is untamed and will think
nothing of taking her as prey.

I don’t think I can save her.

Slipper Limpet, Crepidula Fornicata

This post is inspired by a poem from Isabel Galleymore which I looked at in a poetry class and fell in love with.  It’s part of her collection Significant Other which I’d highly recommend.  Whilst the poem is enjoyable by itself, knowing more about the slipper limpet heightens the pleasure and appreciation of Galleymore’s skill.

Whilst slipper limpets are found in the UK, they are a non native species that arrived from America in the 19th century.  The first live slipper limpets were found in Liverpool Bay and are likely to have hitched a ride on the back of oysters.  During the 19th century, eating oysters became fashionable in London and native stocks rapidly became depleted.  To meet demand, oysters were imported from America, along with the now invasive stowaway.

Slipper Limpets live under rocks in the intertidal zone and feed by filtering plankton from the water.  They have thin, flattened shells which has a little shelf and when flipped upside down, apparently look like a slipper hence the name.  The first half of the scientific name actually means slipper in Latin and whilst we’re thinking about the name, it’s also important to note they aren’t actually a limpet… They are instead a type of sea snail.

They live in groups of up to 12 with one stacked upon another, largest at the bottom and getting smaller as you go up the tower (or Galleymore’s “high-rise orgy“).  The base slipper limpet attaches herself to things like rocks, scallops, crabs and mussels and thus the slipper limpets live a sedentary life.  And it is always either a female or an empty shell, with the rest of the stack being male.  It is advantageous for females to be bigger than males so they can carry more eggs.  And they can lay between 10,000 and 200,000 eggs so they need plenty of space!

The male has a penis that can be as long as his body, and it needs to be; it has to extend round and under the female’s shell in order to reach her genital opening.  It is because they need to be so close that they attach to one another – imagine being stuck with your ex literally on your back until you die…

Slipper limpets are born male and will later change sex, something known as sequential hermaphrodism.  Recent research has shown that the change occurs as a result of physical contact with another male.  However, it’s not instant and doesn’t happen as a result of every contact.  The change itself takes about 60 days – or about two moon cycles – to change sex and during this time the penis shrinks and disappears and the female organs develop.

The more you learn about the slipper limpet, the more appropriate you think the scientific name is.  But whilst it would be fun to imagine an animal named for it’s sexual habits, fornicate unfortunately comes from the Latin word for arch – fornix – and refers to their arched shape.

Peak breeding occurs during May and June and most females spawn twice a year, after neap tides.  Egg capsules are brooded under the foot of the female, attached to the inside of her shell or her foot.  The young hatch as larvae after 3 to 4 weeks and will stay in larval form for about 4 to 5 weeks.  After this they will leave home.  In their early life they are able to move, slowly crawling to find a suitable site to set up home, but generally after about two years they are stuck wherever they are.  Hopefully having chosen the perfect spot, given they live up to 10 years.  If they settle alone, they will turn female and become the base slipper limpet.  Alternatively, they will join an existing chain and wait their turn.

Scientists have been looking at the Slipper Limpet to see if it has any medical benefits for us and hemocyanin – the same chemical that makes the blood of horseshoe crabs and octopuses blue – has been found in their blood and is effective in treating breast and bladder cancer.  Their tough fleshy food may also have uses for human medicine.  Collagen from it can be used in regenerative medicine, such as advanced wound care and bone and nerve repair.  Whilst collagen is found in virtually every living organism, the collagen from the slipper limpets is stable in the same range as human collagen and thus provides an alternative source – at present collagen from cows and pigs is used.

Returning to the poem, I am in awe of Galleymore’s ability to make us stop and think twice about this seemingly dull, drab, slightly gnarled looking creature.  Without her poem, I wouldn’t know about the slipper limpet and I certainly wouldn’t have had so many conversations about it.


The sex lives of aquatic animals

Today I’m going to be looking at water and sex as it pertains to non-human creatures but later this month I’ll be looking at how water interacts with men and women.

Gendered language

Before we even dip our toes into this topic, we must acknowledge that how we talk about water is not gender neutral.  We find some rivers that are considered female, and some that are male.  There are no rules in the English language to stipulate this, although there often is in other languages. But how we talk about our bodies of water does matter, the language we use has a ‘profound influence on how we see the world’.


Fish are way ahead of us when it comes to thinking about sex and gender.  Whereas the majority of humans seem set that there can only be two genders and they cannot be changed, fish are rather flexible in their attitude.  They can undergo one or more sex change in their life and they can even have both sexual organs at once.  Sex changes tend to occur if a population becomes too biased to one sex or to improve genetic fitness.  One example of this is the clown fish which generally forms a monogamous relationship.  If the female dies, as in Finding Nemo, instead of hanging around feeling sorry for himself, the male will change into a female.  They will then pair up with a single male.  But that would have made for a more controversial film…

Other examples of sex changing fish include the Kobudai, made famous in Blue Planet II, which slowly but surely morphed into a male.  For the blue headed wrasse, it is the loss of the dominant male which triggers a sex change, usually in the largest female of the group.  This involves dramatic changes in behaviour, anatomy and colouration.  What I really like about this fish is that whilst most juveniles are female, there are a few sneaky males which look like females and then go ahead and mate without the dominant male noticing!

Interestingly, the population size of a fish and the direction they change sex seem to be linked.  There are more than 400 species of sex changing fish, some change from male to female and some from female to male (as well as those which can also change back).  Species who change from female to male have smaller population sizes than those which change from male to female.

As well as aquatic life which can change sex, we also have those creatures which forgo the need to change and make life easy and interesting by having both sets of genitals.  For example, there is a type of sea slug which has both penis and vagina. After it’s had simultaneously fertilising sex (basically some sort of epic 69 position) the penis falls off.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough drama, it grows another one!


No one wants to have sex in polluted water… but for the fish and other aquatic creatures that have to, the consequences can be dire.

For this topic, we need to understand what endocrine disruptors are and where they come from:

What? Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with endocrine (or hormone) systems.

Where? Endocrine disruptors can be found in plastics, cosmetics, medications, pesticides and even in food as a contaminant.  More than 800 man-made chemicals have been found to interfere with hormones.

We started to get a sense of the impact endocrine disruptors were having back in 1985 when a study on male alligators in a lake affected by chemical pollutants were found to have testosterone levels three times lower than those of males in a similar but uncontaminated lake.  The levels were so low they were close to those of females and females in turn had twice the amount of oestrogen.  Further, the males had poorly developed testes and smaller phalli and females also exhibited abnormal sexual organs. This was over 30 years ago.

“Chemicals are disturbing normal hormone-controlled development, affecting gender, sex, and reproduction.  And we are now seeing, low doses are disruption enough.  Fish appear particularly at risk of hormone disruption.”
– Janisse Ray, 2007

In areas where they are exposed to endocrine disruptors, fish have been found with lower levels of hormones, found to take take longer to mature, develop smaller sexual organs and produce fewer eggs, some of which don’t grow.  An example from Florida is that of the mosquitofish where effected females developed a male sex organ and attempted to mate with female fish.  Fish have also been found in the UK with both genitalia (unnaturally) occurring.  More often than not, these were found downstream of sewage treatment works and other industry.  But more recent studies show that the medications we consume are entering the water cycle in amounts which, whilst not of concern to human health, are altering the health and behaviour of animals in our rivers.

The impact of the endocrine disruptors is greater as the chemicals accumulate in animals up the food chain, for example gulls have been affected and a beluga whale has been found with two ovaries, two testes, male genitalia and partial female genitalia.  Female black bears have also been found exhibiting some degree of male sex organs.  A report (I lost the link) from 2003 stated that over 200 animal species were known, or suspected, to have reproductive disorders which might be attributed to these chemicals.

The impact on hormones on population sizes is exacerbated by the effects of climate change.  Changing temperatures affects the sex of species such as baby turtles and crocodiles and could lead to exclusively female clutches which in turn could be the end of the species altogether, especially if males are affected by endocrine disruptors and are unable to fertilise females.

Not that it should be the only reason we act, but these chemicals can also affect humans.  Human exposure can come from ingesting food, dust and water which is contaminated but also through inhalation and through the skin.  They can be transferred from pregnant woman to fetus and from parent to child through breast milk.

Further reading:

The sexuality of the sea

I mentioned in my post about the symbology of the sea that sexuality is often associated with it.  We saw in that post that the sea is considered to be fertile, to be creative, to be the mother of all life.  And so it is only a footstep away from sexuality.

We have also seen that water is often considered to be feminine, tying in again with the maternal aspect but we also find bodies of water dedicated to women.  There are myths about water being created by women or gifted to women by deities.  And of course we have Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and pleasure, who is born from the sea.

Many writers have made use of this construct including Emily Dickinson, using the sea to express wild sensual passion, but the poem I want to consider is by Mary Oliver:

The Sea

Stroke by
stroke my
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself—-
fins, gills
opening like flowers into
the flesh—-my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales
the rest of me would
feel like!
paradise! Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding,
and dive,
and simply
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
sleeking along
in the luminous roughage of the sea’s body,
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
beginning and
conclusion of our own.

Having written it out in word, got the formatting just right, I lost it when it came into wordpress.  I don’t have the patience to make it look right but I do encourage you to have a look at it formatted correctly.

I really like the way she has used line length and structure here to echo the crashing of waves on the sea and the ebbing and flowing of the body.  I read the poem on a blog initially where it was typed without form then turned to my book of her poetry and found it there in this structure.  That in itself was interesting as I’ve never been so moved by the way words are set out before and I think if I’d gone straight to the printed version I would have missed that.

My reading of this poem is that the narrator is experiencing an orgasm after a bit of a drought.  It also reminds me of the selkie and mermaid stories where women who lived in the sea were tricked into living on land, for example by men who stole their seal furs.  It is the longing to return to this former life.  And perhaps also the longing of women who’ve always lived on land to return to their ancestral roots, back so far in time that they were sea creatures, or even back so far that they were the sea itself.  The narrator is becoming one with the sea, echoing a sexual union.

As well as selkies and mermaids, we also find sirens living in the oceans.  All three have been portrayed as sexual, manipulative and dangerous creatures.  Perhaps it is not surprising they have a bad reputation given that they tend to lure men into their worlds and men tell the narrative of our world.

Mermaids and sirens charmed sailors and fishermen with their melodious voices and once they succumbed, they would be dragged down into the depths.  These ‘femmes fatales’ were said to shipwreck entire vessels to fulfil their sexual desires.  To see one would be an omen of disaster but also by being seen by a mermaid or siren, you could become the object of their malevolence.

The original version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid does not provide the reader with the same happy ending you find in the Disney version.  Jen Campbell has a good video about this, but don’t say I didn’t warn you when it turns dark…

Mermaids sometimes fare better than sirens and in some cultures are considered lucky.  Mermen, perhaps unsurprisingly, also have a better reputation – in Trinidad and Tobago, they would grant wishes, transform mediocrity into genius and give wealth and power.

Whether they are kindly, evil, or somewhere in between, mermaids and similar sea people have featured in mythology around the world for a long time.  We find them depicted in Mesopotamian artwork, on a chapel in Durham Castle dating back to about 1078, later in a 15th century compilation of quotes from Chinese literature we find a mermaid who “wept tears which became pearls” and we still find them in our literature, art and folklore today.

Further Reading

March Resources



  • Blue Planet and Blue Planet II
  • Finding Nemo (of course!)
  • Chasing Coral
  • Free Willy





The symbolic sea; life, death and the journey in between

Water is used as a symbol in cultures around the world and back through time.  It represents life, death, purification and our emotions.  The meaning or use of water as a metaphor varies depending on the particular body of water.  Rivers for example can be used differently to lakes.  Today, I’m looking at the sea although inevitably other water bodies will flow in as well.

In particular, I’m looking at the sea as a symbol of life, of death, of emotion and the unconscious.  Being symbolic of birth, the sea is also associated with sexuality and I’ll be exploring this in another post.

Life, in all its entirety, originated in the ocean, in water so perhaps its unsurprising that water symbolises life.  Especially when you think that we are all born from the waters of the womb.  Water also sustains life, giving us the drink we need to survive and watering our crops so we have food to eat.

The sea also features in a lot of creation myths, giving birth to the world, gods and humanity. For example an ancient Egyptian story says that the sun god reposed in an ocean.  An Assyro-Babylonian myth is broader, bringing in fresh water as well:

Assyro-Babylonian mythology states that the gods, and subsequently all beings, arose from the fusion of salt water (Tiamat) and sweet water (Apsu). Apsu is the embodiment of the freshwater abyss that lies beneath the Earth. From Tiamat’s water came forth the clouds, and her tears became the source of the Tigris and the Euphratus.

There is a mothering aspect to this symbolism; life creator, life sustainer. But any relationship can turn sour and so too can the seas of life turn on us.  As easily as they create and foster life, the seas can destroy it.  The sea, as unfathomable depths, can kill and is filled with killers.  It is undoubtedly a dangerous place and can be a destructive force as much as a creative one.

Between life and death, we find the ocean used symbolically in a number of ways.  A common interpretation of water and seas is that of purification.  We have baptism in Christianity, the purifiying tears we cry and the powerful flooding that Noah endured was a purification of the world.  Often, spiritual purification is seen as a type of rebirth, making it appropriate that the sea is as symbol of both life and death as well.

I am sure I am not the only person to find a day by the sea emotionally purifying and feel calmer as a result of it.  For me, the pleasure of being by the water can bring with it a feeling of becoming new, of washing away the sorrows of life and starting afresh.

Life is a journey, and sea crossings can be used to symbolise this.  They can be considered akin to transitioning into a new world and a new self.  A new start, reached only by crossing treacherous waters.  But can also be seen as the rhythms of life, the high tides, the low tides, the calm days and the storms we all face.

Under the surface of the sea, we find emotional depths and our unconscious.  Like the ocean, our emotional world is changeable, sometimes it’s smooth sailing and other times its rocky seas.  High, crashing waves can threaten to drown us in our emotions but when things are serene, we feel on a more even keel.  Literature which involves characters going out to sea can be representing the exploration of emotions and our unconscious fears and desires.

The sea contains so much unexplored space, it has numerous different depths and what goes on under the surface is not visible from above.   Similarly, we have unexplored parts of our minds, there is much that is unknown about ourselves and our minds and of course, what we present to the world often doesn’t reflect what is going on for us inside.

There is much to mediate on when we are considering the sea as a symbol for our own existence.  It is a powerful tool and one we can use for our own reflection.  How we see the sea often says more about our current state than the sea itself.  We see, in the sea, what we want to see.

Learning from the writers of the sea

This post could be epic and uncontrollable*, it could look at all the ways people have written about the sea and try to unpick what works and what doesn’t.  But that would end up being a book in itself.  Instead I’m going to focus on Rachel Carson, particularly The Sea Around Us, and Sy Mongomery who has a number of nature writing books to her name but the one I’ve just read is The Soul of an Octopus.

I’ve chosen to think about Montgomery alongside Carson because the works are very different.  If we think about The Soul of an Octopus with The Sea Around us, we’re looking at two different sea topics – that of a particular species and that of the sea itself.  The books were written at different times and whilst only 60 odd years apart, our knowledge of the sea and her inhabitants has changed a lot.  Because of these differences, I am not seeking to compare the writings.  Instead I want to look at the strengths of both of them and try to unpick what makes them good examples of nature writing.

There are some obvious starting points which both have in common, crucially I think, is the scientific knowledge to write about their topic.  This doesn’t mean you need to know everything, but you need to base your work in fact.

Rachel Carson

Carson writes in a lyrical, poetic fashion, conveying her love of the sea through her enthusiastic choice of language.

Her book Under the Sea Wind is a fictionalised account of animals’ journeys through life and through the landscape so it makes use of different techniques to The Sea Around Us.

Under the Sea Wind uses narratives which are interwoven in a non linear form, instead cycling through the year much as nature herself does.  She focuses on particular species, and by doing so she is essentially creating biological biographies for her characters and succeeds in bringing them to live despite the limitations imposed by choosing a non verbal cast.

The characters can’t speak so the third person narrator helps us to understand what’s going on and provides the scientific content.  She also uses human language, such as talking about what food a fish loved best or that another fish had changed her winter plumage.  This is nudging towards anthropomorphism which is not highly thought of in scientific communities but it does make the animal characters more relatable and Carson seems cautious about over humanising her characters.

Think about what you don’t include as much as what you do.  For example, talking about Under The Sea Wind, Carson said:

“The fish and the other sea creatures must be central characters and their world must be portrayed as it looks and feels to them — and the narrator must not come into the story or appear to express an opinion.”

As such, we see human impact only through the eyes of her characters.

When it comes to language, Carson has a skill which lets her synthesise beauty and knowledge and still maintain a poetic voice.  She mixes a scientific fact based language with descriptive adjectives and nouns and in doing so, she provides specific, objective information with aesthetic details.

Somewhere I read that in writing about the sea, Carson aims to help her readers fall in love with it as much as she has.  In Under The Sea Wind she introduces us to the creatures we come to love and in The Sea Around Us, she guides us to a deeper relationship with the sea itself.

In both books, the sea features as a character in her own right but in The Sea Around Us, she stands centre stage.  There are creatures and plants interspersed but the real drama surrounds the entire ocean.  She creates powerful, memorable images for her readers which capture the imagination as well as put us in awe of nature.  Where she wrote biographies of animals in her first book, here she writes a biography of the sea.

I wasn’t expected to be mesmerised by an account of the creation of the oceans or how the tides developed.  How could anyone turn this dry science into captivating prose?  But Carson does.

“She made of waves a romance, whence they came, how they came, why they were the shape they were, how they bring “the feel of the distant places” interwoven with solid scientific data.”
– Ann H. Zwinger

Her words fascinate and entrance us.  Moving us and leading our eyes to see new things and our hearts towards a deeper understanding of the waters that surround us.  Her careful attention to detail and the pleasurable language and turn of phrase help to create this beautiful poetic prose.

“this combination of science and scintillating prose provides fascinating insights into the mysteries of the tides”
Billy Mills

What we don’t see in The Sea Around Us is “anecdotes of the kind that editors often suggest to “bring warmth” to the page” (Zwinger).  For Carson, the sea is the star, it is the focus rather than being a backdrop for her observations and opinions.  She speaks of the sea with metaphors and imagery but she does not place herself, or any narrator, in the words.

At the risk of overquoting, I think Zwinger sums up what I love about this book when she says:

“It is so beautifully written and researched, filled with enthralling descriptions of the sea.  It rattles no swords, is not strident or aggressive or confrontational.  Its potency lies in the charm and skill of the writing, its erudition and rich organisation of facts, and in its personal reticence – how quietly it captivates our attention.  Before we know it we are charmed into learning about the wonders of the ocean, then into a deep awareness of not only their health but how it affects that of the whole natural world.”

Sy Montgomery

You can read an essay about Montgomery’s first meeting with an octopus on Orion.

Montgomery sets out to “defend the octopus against centuries of character assassination” and the blurb begins this work:

“[The Soul of an Octopus] explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus’ surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature: and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.”

Through my eyes, I have found this book to be primarily about the human experience of ‘other’, with the octopus proving a mirror to reflect back our attitudes and prejudices.

This is a book of characters, human and aquatic, that I grew to love.  Through them we see more ways in which nature can affect us.  There is a volunteer who finds the aquarium to be a comforting, healing place.  Another who worries a lot over the watery residents.  Some of the human characters are portrayed as feeling, or being, ‘other’ outside the aquarium, paralleling the theme of the octopus as other.  Within this watery world, those boundaries are breached and relationships are formed.

One of the things I really enjoy about a lot of nature writing is the connection between nature and humans.  This, as well as being a piece about octopuses, is a piece about friendship, about relationships.  I don’t think Montgomery’s book would have been even half as successful had she chosen to write about octopuses in general.  In choosing a few specific creatures, she has been able to personalise the experience and in doing so helps us relate to it.

I think the inclusion of more than one octopus also helps illustrate their vastly different personalities and the different ways they interact with humans.  Alongside her relationship with the octopuses, we see the affect they are having on the rest of her life.  I enjoy this widening impact of nature and how interactions with nature can change us.

In places emotional, in others humorous, this is an entertaining yet deeply moving love story.  Very early on, Montgomery lays out how most people feel about octopuses – slimy and monstrous – and from there she gently guides us through her experience, showing us, not preaching to us, why we too should love this remarkable creature. I think that gentleness, that guiding, is a quality of good nature writing.  It is easy to tell someone they should care about something, but much more powerful to show them why and to lead them on that journey of discovery.  The linear narration of the story is such that we are on this path of wonder with Montgomery and we see things unfolding in order.

Alongside this time line of deepening admiration, her use of poetic and sensual language soothes the reader into falling in love with these marvellous, characterful creatures.

The subtitle for one version** of the book is “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and whilst we never delve deeply into consciousness, Montgomery touches on it in some interesting ways.  A much criticised wander into her experience learning to dive, to see an octopus in it’s own habitat, takes us to pondering about changing our consciousness whether it be through hallucinogens or simply by entering the ocean.  Visiting this other world changes our perspective and our perception and could have much the same effect as meditation when it comes to consciousness.

Montgomery’s work invites us to reflect on ourselves and our society, to think about beings which are so entirely different to ourselves and to appreciate a different kind of intelligence.

So, what to learn?

Although true of all good writing, it is worth highlighting, use adjectives, verbs and nouns.  Play around with sentence length.  Show don’t tell.  Use all your senses.

Think about structure.  For The Soul of an Octopus, a linear format seems to work really well but for Under the Sea Wind, Carson’s use of cyclical narrative echoes that of the creatures who are ‘telling’ the story.

Regardless of the topic, create characters which have depth and let the reader get to know them within an environmental context as well as a relationship context.  The entirety of nature is interconnected in one way or another and thus nature writing too should not focus solely on one aspect.  Characters need not be human, we can think of animals and plants as characters with roles to play.

Similarly, showing the writer within the writing helps the reader to see the impact nature has had on her, her life and her thinking.  However, omitting the human voice also has a role to play in nature writing, for example in Under The Sea Wind.

Include emotions alongside facts and inject with humour if it feels natural – don’t force in anecdotes as the editors Zwinger mentions suggest.

Attention to detail matters.  Know the names of species.  Firstly, it gives your writing more depth, but secondly, knowing the names of things means you notice the things more often.

Consider your aim.  Do you want people to love your topic?  Do you want to raise awareness of a particular issue?  Do you want to create an extended metaphor which reflects the state of humanity?

Develop your voice.  The writing styles of Carson and Montgomery are very different but both feel indisputably theirs.  Write authentically.

And as with all writing, read.

*Turns out it was inevitably going to be a pretty long post…!

**Mine has the subtitle: A surprising exploration of one of the world’s most intriguing creatures