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Our ocean has the blues

If you look at a globe, you’ll see the southern hemisphere is bluer than the northern hemisphere. A huge 80% of it is ocean, compared to 60% of the North.The Southern Ocean is the only ocean in which waves circulate without encountering intervening landmasses. It’s gargantuan in size and ferocity. The roaring, furious and screaming latitudes are daunting to maritime traffic.

The Antarctic Convergence - where icy currents meet warmer sub-Antarctic waters - supports an abundance of marine life. There’s no northern equivalent to this phenomenon. But, like the icebound continent itself, no humans live there. Because it uniquely flows into the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Southern Ocean opens possibilities for tracking the intersecting currents and itineraries that compose the global South. As do writers and artists, we’re calling for the global South to be thought of alongside the Southern Ocean, what we call the oceanic South. The global South makes you think mostly of an unequal present, but the oceanic South brings to the fore pasts of maritime imperialism, and what the future might bring. It draws together the dispersed landmasses of the settler South, the decolonised and still colonised countries of the southern hemisphere, the “sea of islands” comprising Indigenous Oceania, and the frozen continent of Antarctica. A research group we are part of, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Oceanic Humanities for the Global South, has turned its attention to cultural representations of the ocean by exploring literature and the arts across different scales of time and place. This includes the Southern Ocean. Many writers and artists have represented the Southern Ocean in ways that layer possible futures over diverse pasts - illuminating the links between them. Two examples we discussed in a recent paper are Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider from Aotearoa New Zealand, and Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller from South Africa. Both novels register the catastrophic slaughter of whales during roughly the same period as European colonialism. Both explore the interrelationship between genocidal and extractive projects and how humans and whales interlock as they journey together through the southern seas. This is the term that Ihimaera uses to describe “the knowledge of whalespeaking” that the ancients once had. The novel shows how the interlocking of land inhabitants and ocean inhabitants that articulates the origin story of Aotearoa is sundered when the whale killing begins. Mda’s novel sketches out similarly intersecting itineraries of land and ocean inhabitants from the vantage point of the southern tip of Africa. The Whale Caller had learned the songs of migrating whales during his own peregrinations, in which he spent many years walking westwards along the coast of the Indian Ocean, until he reached the point where the two oceans met, and then proceeded north along the Atlantic Ocean coast. The Whale Caller surmises that - like the Australasians he has read about - the indigenous inhabitants of these African shores had feasted on stranded whales and that their expressions of gratitude for the bounty delivered by the sea included also mourning for the loss of companion species. Other literature explored includes poetry by South African-born poet and novelist Yvette Christiansë. She links the Indian and Atlantic Oceans by following “Liberated Africans” from Mozambique to St Helena. This is one of the forgotten afterlives of slavery, centred on the South. The Oceanic Humanities for the Global South is also taking into account the entire hydrological cycle. This links evaporation from the surrounding oceans to rainfall on the watershed of the Witwatersrand ridge of white waters in Gauteng.

By - Charne Lavery and Meg Samuelson Meg Samuelson This article first featured on IOL.

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