Problems of Place: Fluid As The Ocean

gentle waves spill onto a pebble beach

It comes to me in a fleeting memory: a fine salty mist in the air, a wisp of that seaweed smell, and the comforting cadence of waves gently crashing. Do you hear it? Do you feel it? The ocean is calling me home. 

I don’t come from a coastal town. My family doesn’t have a deep history with the sea. I didn’t spend my childhood playing in the waves. And yet, the ocean has drawn me in and embraced me as a companion. 

There’s no denying the magnetism of the ocean. As humans, we are pulled to this powerful place where culture and nature are deeply intertwined. But what does it mean to tie ourselves to a place that is intrinsically fluid—everchanging, ever-expanding, and everlasting? As a person whose dedicated my time, energy, and my profession to understanding oceans and how we use them, this has meant that my life and my relationship with place has become equivalently fluid.  

a whale breaks the surface of the water with a small island and lighthouse in the background
Humpback whale in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. Photo by author.
[Image description: a whale breaks the surface of the water with a small island and lighthouse in the background]

Since starting down this ocean path in 2012, I have lived in four coastal communities, six towns or cities, and two different countries. As I’ve navigated this journey as an ocean scientist, from an undergraduate thesis to my doctoral research today, the places that I’ve called home are numerous and widespread. By virtue of my field of study, I’ve found that my relationship with place is not tied to amenities or housing in a city, but instead to the coast and the culture existing there.

For me, this has meant leaving my family and other pieces of my life behind as I endeavour to make positive contributions to ocean science and the long-term health of this ecosystem. As an early career researcher, this can be a high price to pay, but I don’t feel alone in this experience of place as fluid—many of my peers and colleagues, I imagine, would feel the same. It is an active choice to engage with a place and a social-ecological system that can be equally inspiring and erratic. I wonder: what does this say about me as a researcher? As a person? And what does this mean for those who commit their lives to the sea?

A woman looks out onto the sea from a cliff's edge
The view from Quidi Vidi Village in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada. Photo by Maddie Mills.
[Image description: A woman looks out onto the sea from a cliff’s edge]

Just as the tide ebbs and flows, the places I choose to live oscillate to the rhythm of my life and, more often lately, the rhythm of my research. As I engage more deeply with ocean research, I’m finding my ties to place are becoming increasingly fleeting. As researchers, we tend to form fast and close relationships to place, often our place or subject of study, sometimes over very short periods. What does this experience teach us? Who do we become in these transient moments?

Like the ocean, those of us who choose this place must also be enduring and adaptable. As marine enthusiasts, seaside dwellers, or ocean harvesters, we are bound to the rhythm of the ocean and its inhabitants. Tides change, nutrients cycle, species migrate, and through it all we wait for our chance to connect and re-connect to this place in our own unique ways.

A small medieval-like fort and French town situated next to the sea,
Looking back onto the Mediterranean town of Collioure, France. Photo by author.
[Image description: A small medieval-like fort and French town situated next to the sea, with rolling hills in the background]

Place is so much more than latitude and longitude, than landscapes and human populations. To me, place is as much emotional as it is physical. So, what brings me back to this fluid place time and again? Of course, there’s the more obvious reasons: my research, the general ocean mystique, the sparkle and beauty of the vast blue horizon. But beneath the surface, this special place offers comfort and the familiarity of home.

In times of stress, loneliness, and crushing imposter syndrome—familiar feelings as a graduate student—a visit to the ocean can serve as a mental reset. A reminder of why I do what I do. Predictable is my experience with a place as unpredictable as the sea. As oceans continue to change, more drastically now than ever before, the solace that I find there remains unmoved. If I’ve perhaps not found my place on the physical map yet, I have certainly found my place among ocean scientists, especially social scientists, and this community of compassionate changemakers.

A woman looks out onto the sea from a sailboat
An evening well spent sailing and re-connecting with the ocean in Barcelona, Spain. Photo bu author.
[Image description: A woman looks out onto the sea from a sailboat. She has a map-like tattoo on her back]

While it can very well be true that oceans physically separate us, from my perspective the oceans are the great unifier. People from all over the world and all walks of life can be brought together by the ocean to share stories, to share wisdom, and to share in action to make oceans healthy and accessible for all. Beyond academia, my relationship with oceans has helped me to make meaningful connections to places and people. That pull we feel from the oceans like the moon pulls the tide is a collective human experience, one that inextricably joins our communities and our cultures together.

The fluidity of this place resonates with my experience as a young researcher, and I continue to wait for my next chance to see the swell and feel the spray. If I listen closely, I can hear the ocean and my next adventure in place calling to me. 

*Cover image credit: Photo by author.

[Cover image description: Gentle waves spill onto a pebble beach on the Mediterranean Sea in Southern France]