Thinking Like an Ocean

There are three things I love – conservation, the ocean, and great writing. When I first studied conservation, required reading included Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949) and his iconic essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain.” I distinctly remember the first time I read the essay because it so beautifully combined a lesson in the vital ecosystem-function of a top predator with his very personal and sad experience of killing a wolf. What I found so moving about his essay, was the sense of loss he communicates – loss not just of the individual wolf he killed but of all wolves. And the first time I saw a shark killed, I immediately felt the same thing. It wasn’t until years later, re-reading the essay, that I fully realized all the parallels.

With great respect for the original, I have, humbly, taken the liberty to ‘alter’ Leopold’s essay, keeping it as close to the original as possible, in a re-telling of the first time I saw a predator die, a shark. I’ve chosen this vehicle to more closely draw all the parallels between the stories of predator extirpation both on land and in the oceans, both past and present.

For the ocean,

Samantha Whitcraft
Director of Conservation Biology & Reseach
Oceanic Defense - Activation Through Education

Thinking Like an Ocean

By Samantha Whitcraft

A fast silvery streak flashes from reef to reef, cruises along the ledge, and fades into the deep blue of the ocean. It is a symbol of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every swimming thing (and perhaps many on land as well) pays heed to that symbol. To the reef fish it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the kelp a forecast of midnight hunts and blood in the water, to the ‘cuda a promise of gleanings to come, to the aquaculturist a threat of red ink at the bank, to the fisherman a challenge of teeth against hook. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the ocean itself. Only the ocean has lived long enough to witness objectively the symbolic majesty of the shark.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nonetheless that it is there, for it is felt in all shark waters and distinguishes those waters from all other ocean realms. It tingles in the spine of all who dive with them at night, or who fish for them by day. Even without sight or sound of shark, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight shadow of a ghost net, the rattle of the rigging, the bound of a jumping fish, the way shadows lie along the seawalls. Only the ignorant and careless can fail to sense the presence or absence of sharks, or the fact that oceans have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a shark die. We were eating lunch on a Bertram 410, making passage from Midway Atoll to Kure. We saw a wahoo following our lure, its tail a flash of white water. When it closed the distance between us and took the bait, we realized it was also hunted: by a shark. A half-dozen others, evidently schooling, swam up from the depths and all joined in the hunt. What was literally a pile of fishes writhed and tumbled in the wake of our Bertram.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a shark. In a second we were reeling in the line, but with more excitement than skill: how to work a rod the first time is always confusing. When our line was in, the big shark was exhausted, and all the others scattered in fear back into the impenetrable blue.

We landed the big shark in time to watch a fierce black fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the ocean. I was young then, and full of science; I thought that because fewer sharks meant more fish, that no sharks would mean fishermans' paradise. But after seeing the black fire die, I sensed that neither the shark nor the ocean agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see nation after nation extirpate its sharks. I have watched the face of many a newly sharkless sea, and seen the reef ledges wrinkle with a maze of algae. I have seen every reef and estuary, first resplendent with fish, and then destitute. I have seen every edible fish and fin extracted by commercial fisherman. Such an ocean looks as if someone had given God a massive fishing net, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the ungrazed reef overwhelmed by the too-muchness of unhunted predator fish, chokes and bleaches and recedes under the hot sun.

I now suspect that just as a school of snapper lives in mortal fear of its sharks, so does an ocean live in mortal fear of losing them. And perhaps with better cause, for while a snapper taken by a shark can be replaced in a season, a reef taken down by too few grazing fish may fail in replacement in as many decades. So also with fisheries. The fisherman who cleans his grounds of sharks does not realize that he is taking over the shark's job of balancing the ocean foodweb. He has not learned to think like an ocean. Hence we have dead zones, and reefs’ future crumbling into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The snapper strives with his spawning, the fisherman with rod and reel, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the symbol of the shark, long known to the oceans, but seldom perceived among men.

Leopold’s lesson to us was simple: "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land" and the time has come to apply it, with equal passion, to the oceans.

Read Aldo Leopold’s inspiring original essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain” click here!


  1. One of the first times I swam amoung the dolphins I was backstoking looking at the dolphins swimming along side me. Dolphins on the right dolphins on the left. They followed me to within 10 feet of shore.They whole time with each stroke and in between strokes the word Harmony screamed silently in my head. Man is the only creature who fights Harmony. This is a beautiful piece. Thank you =0)

  2. This is beautiful, thank you for writing it!!

  3. "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land" and the time has come to apply it, with equal passion, to the oceans.

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for sending me the link - lets hope that our oceans havent gone past the point of no return as the destruction is exactly the same as what happened in Yellowstone...that lower level predators overtook the grazing lands, same as in the ocean, but the challenge is that in the oceans EVERYTHING is getting fished out...God help us all mate