Other Oceans: Photographs by Wayne Levin

INTRODUCTION to Other Oceans

Thomas Farber

For twenty-five years, photographer Wayne Levin has been creating ocean images: pods of dolphins; migrating humpback whales; "flying" body surfers within a breaking wave; gravesites of World War II battleships and planes; or very close to home, a tidepool water baby-- his infant daughter. Though Levin has sailed on or immersed himself in tropic seas around our blue planet, much of his work has been achieved where he lives, on the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i. This photographer almost always alone on the face of the deep, free-diving with mask, fins, weight belt, and camera into bottomless depths. Then once again breaking the surface. Sun searing shoulders and neck, reflected light blinding as he scans the horizon for signs of life. Aqua deserta: away from the reefs, so much emptiness before such sudden, sometimes massive, presence.

Inevitably, during endless hours at the interface of sky and ocean, certain moments prove metaphoric. Several miles offshore, for instance, swimming toward a cluster of pilot whales. Great good fortune! But then a dorsal fin: an oceanic whitetip shark, known to be very aggressive. Or the kayaking photographer, dismayed to have miscalculated himself into a strong current, not sure he won't be swept into the winds and large swell of the 'Alenuihaha Channel. This, when only minutes earlier he'd been submerged, hearing songs of migrating whales. Such moments are part of the photographer's relentless and usually solitary pursuit, always within the frame of surrender, the ocean more powerful than self, than art.

In 1997, Wayne's hunger to make representations of what he yearned to see in the ocean culminated in the award-winning book Through a Liquid Mirror . Several years before, he and I were on a magazine assignment on Cocos Island, an uninhabited marine preserve 300 miles west of Costa Rica's Pacific coast. There we witnessed rotating vortexes of thousands of fish, wheeling clusters of bodies and eyes; countless rays, wings rippling; and the squadrons of hammerhead sharks for which Cocos is notorious. In the disturbingly strong currents and dizzying fecundity of these waters, diving with scuba gear three or more times a day in a kind of collective mania, we were perhaps as much a part of the underwater world as living humans get to be. Encountering hammerheads at eighty or ninety feet, we were just barely exempt from the inexorable logic of marine life. Big fish, little fish; the hunters and the hunted; the chase.

On the thirty-hour ocean passage back to Costa Rica, Cocos Island transformed into memory as dolphins surfed the bow wave. Our captain altered course to skirt vast long-line nets. Commercial and sports fishing are banned at Cocos, but poaching continues. And even if Cocos were protected, would it soon be little more than a living diorama? Cetacean specialist Roger Payne was at this time arguing that large marine creatures will die off, poisoned by chemicals. And oceanographer Sylvia Earle was warning that we're over-harvesting fish to the point of extinction. Returning from Cocos' miracles, then, Wayne and I were left with a sense of overwhelming man-made change, of impending loss.

What should one, can one, accommodate? Artists are often drawn to what's ambiguous. Not long after the Cocos trip, back in Hawai'i, I visited a hotel that keeps dolphins in a small lagoon by the ocean. So near, and yet so far. The dolphins were extraordinary; to observe them at close range, and from terra firma, was amazing. But in what context? Something to do with dollars--dolphins connected to display cases of Native Hawaiian antiquities, Italian marble countertops, singers in the lounge. And what could any person bring to this encounter with such marvelous beings? Receptivity? Sympathy? This particular day the Nasdaq was again soaring. Many hotel guests, amiably overweight, lounged in thick terrycloth robes. Little question of which species was at the top of the food chain.

At the hotel that afternoon, I thought about a dolphin research facility several miles away. Its goal, understanding the world through scientific method; impulse to proof, the replicable. Teaching dolphins to "speak." To us, that is to say. The director of the facility using the possessive: "my dolphins."

How do we approach, construe, the Other? As Gavan Daws writes, evolution in the water world has evolved "a distribution and processing of sensory information so unfamiliar to humans that we have no way of bringing it together to make it spell consciousness, at least in our spelling: oceanic change of temperature, light, color, barometric pressure, chemical and nutritive composition, acidity and salinity of water, and--on a cosmic scale--the pull of the sun, moon, and stars, the turning of the earth, acting on the massive ocean currents and running the tides."

In this post-Cocos period, Wayne and I went to see a traveling exhibit-LIVE SHARK SHOW-at the Hawai'i State Fair. Ferris wheels with flashing bulbs, food stands, a roller coaster, bungee jumpers. The audience at the shark show was enthusiastic and curious, parents and children alike. but the tanker seemed to be a sixteen-wheeler's trailer with one viewing wall--had the air of close confinement, the tawdry. At Cocos, Wayne and I had witnessed the phenomenal speed at which skittish hammerheads could disappear. And, one understood, reappear. Here the sharks had, literally, nowhere to go.

This book began in part our of apprehension: a sense that the ocean's dying because of us; that aquariums will be the repository of what remains, the oceans of the future.

To live is to experience fear, but also to see the proverbial glass as half full. In his travels to twenty-three aquariums in the United States and Japan, Wayne sought to understand and depict our complex relationship with captive marine life: aquariums as marvels of technology; human desire for contact with other species; our impulse to educate; our capacity to contain, dominate. In these aquarium voyages, however, sometimes accompanied by his daughter Elise, Wayne was also savoring. He's always enjoyed, say, Disneyland, been intrigued by display cases, shop windows. Reflections, refractions. Doublings, mirrorings. It should also be noted that Wayne is an omnivore. He eats meat and fish. Loves sushi. With this mix of emotions, perspectives, and appetites, then, Wayne journeyed far and wide to other oceans.

In the book of Job. as Stephen Mitchell renders it, the Creator "stopped the waters as they issued gushing from the womb;" then "closed it in with barriers and set its boundaries." This was when "the morning stars burst our singing/and the angels shouted for joy."

How did aquariums begin? As early as two millenia B.C.E., Sumerians kept fish in man-made ponds. And centuries ago, Native Hawaiians were practicing aquaculture in enormous enclosures adjoining the ocean. By the mid-nineteenth century, the first public aquarium opened in England. Soon after, P. T. Barnum, legendary circus entrepreneur, put living aquatic animals on display and sold tickets to the American public.

The age of aquariums. In Portugal, the Oceanario (construction cost: $70 million) attracted nine million people during its first few months of operation. Japan's Kaiyukan Aquarium ($107 million) draws four million visitors a year. And in Italy, only the Sistine Chapel and Pompeii have more visitors than the Genoa Aquarium.

Needless to say, these three water worlds did not invent themselves. Their creator was Boston architect Peter Chermayeff, who sees them as a theater where people can gaze at and dream about other forms of life. Chermayeff well understands, however, that his aquariums are not an accurate representation of nature (as if any representation can be "accurate," or more than a simulacrum). Still, he hopes to encourage an environmental ethic, "to make amphibians" of visitors. As for economics, though many of Chermayeff's creations were designed as nonprofits, they are, as he puts it, "very good business."

Some psychologists argue that water represents the unconscious. is a seductive regression to the instinctive. In Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris , the ocean is sentient, capable of diagnosing the hearts of visiting scientists, creating for them incarnations of their own yearnings.

What, one might ask, do these other oceans show us about ourselves?

A sea dragon swims in the Waikiki Aquarium, pectoral and dorsal fins vibrating. Full grown at twenty inches in length, it looks like a sea horse transformed by Ovid, having sprouted branches and leaves. What kind of story, scientific or otherwise, can explain such an enchanting creature?

Near the sea dragon. there's a large tank: leopard shark. ray. jacks, trevally. all slowly circling, circling. A large grouper hangs motionless by the glass, its eye on mine. Neither of us blinking.

Visitors stand in front of the tank, one member of a couple taking a picture of the other, then roles reversing. The grouper hanging, staring.


Once, I said to Wayne, "If I had to bet. I'd guess very few people have drowned in an aquarium." "Or been eaten by a photograph," he replied.

The stories aquariums tell are not all the same. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium website, we read that they "envision a world in which the oceans are healthy, and people are committed to protecting the integriry of Earth's natural systems...Stewardship begins with inspiration, and we offer enjoyable and enlightening experiences to inspire a love and understanding of nature." Fair enough, one thinks. Grandiloquent, but high-minded.

At the Oregon Coast Aquarium website, which has "live shark cams," we learn there's a 112-foot acrylic tunnel. Visitors can "stroll straight into the deep, cold sea without getting wet:' No worse than an enthusiast's hyperbole, this phrase, but still giving one pause.

Stories aquariums tell and stories told about them. One aquarium, I learn, began with a killer whale; the aquarium was built around it. After protests and eco-sabotage, however, the aquarium announced that this would be the last killer whale it would keep captive.

High-minded, enthusiastic, conflicted: our human endeavors, our psyches, are all of these. On the Cocos Island trip, nearly every diver carried expensive cameras, most costing thousands of dollars. There was a darkroom on board, film developed overnight, and video could be screened immediately. Instant metacommunication, a viewing of images of what we saw to . . . see what we saw? At times, the images themselves appeared to be the goal. Being in nature at Cocos was thus inextricably intertwined with recording experience, something I noted on one of my many trips below deck to turn on my computer, composing a version of our voyage, afraid of "losing" it.

In the aquariums, a visitor realizes, the eye is frequently compelled by yet another screen, model, picture, or digital image. As if life itself cannot measure up to our representations of it. But can you just "take something in"? Is there such a state of being? Are our stories and images not also miraculous? Is there an "us" without them?

Whale sharks are the world's largest fish, up to seventy feet long. Wayne and I planned a trip to Perth, Australia. If you want to swim with whale sharks, you take a jumbo jet to Perth. A spotter plane does the locating, a small boat then speeding you to the rendezvous, dropping you overboard. High-tech; fossil-fuel munching eco-journalism, like some of our other trips. But this one, we rued, never quite happened.

There's a whale shark in the Osaka Aquarium. "I saw the whale shark:' Wayne said on his return from Japan, "but I don't really count it as having seen one."

The verb "behold," from Middle English: to hold, have in sight, keep. Now meaning to observe, look upon, consider. There's also "beholden": bound in gratitude, indebted.

What Wayne Levin's beheld. What he's beholden to. Back home from aquarium travels, he goes out for yet another long swim in Kealakekua Bay. Mask, flippers, Nikonos camera. He comes across a huge school of akule--bigeye scad. A million fish, Millions? Moving, it seems, as a single being, this teeming mass of protoplasm rotating, pinwheeling, spiraling in on itself--themselves. Creating a form that is primary, rudimentary, breathtaking, essential. Think, say, solar system. Think: beginning. Think: world without end?

© Thomas Farber, 2001