Collecting the sea

A jar of the sea, every day for one hundred days.

I walk out to meet the tide. Crouching down I offer out my small glass jar to the waves. It is as if I am making a prayer to the sea, kneeling at its edge. It beckons to me.

For a while I watch, attempting to judge its speed, waiting while water seeps in to my shoes, soaks up my trousers. Some days I am more patient than others, have more time, am more inclined to linger. Holding the jar to the ground I wait. Some waves scurry in obediently, creeping over the lip and settling carefully into their new home. Some take wide routes around and beyond it, teasing and drawing me closer. Some hurl themselves with such force they rush in and fly straight out again, heading skyward – repelled by the confines of a jam jar. Some bring with them sand and grit and stones that slowly settle on the bottom, leaving a still transparency above.

It has been a ritual continued for more than three months. It has surprised me how much has happened in this small and quiet time, how much the act of collecting – of having a daily ritual – has made me remember things within a timeframe more clearly. Like a diary, but without all the words. The physical process of doing creates a memory and record of itself.

Photograph by Nicole Zaaroura.


98, 99, 100

On Friday morning at low tide I collected my hundredth tiny ocean. It was foggy and quiet and the air was filled with heavy mist. The weather kept those usually encountered elsewhere. It meant I had the whole beach to myself. There was a palpable stillness, with only the sound of the sea. With the tide at its furthest and the horizon hard to place, the whole space changes. It was one of those beautiful days when the sky smudges into the ocean and it feels as though this could be the edge of the world. It seemed entirely possible that there might be nothing beyond the retreating visibility and that I could get swallowed up, slipping in to another dimension.

After stooping down to the incoming waves and catching a small amount of water in my jar, I wanted to capture something of this ritual in a photograph. So preoccupied with taking the picture, I didn’t realise I was kneeling in water. As I walked home, salt water climbed up my jeans, rain penetrated from above. One way or another I would be engulfed by water.


Ninety four

Ninety four times I have walked to the beach. Each walk had ninety four different views and ninety four shades of green, blue and grey. There were ninety four different kinds of wave – height, speed, gradations between high tide and low, phases of the moon, temperature and wind direction. Each wave carried ninety four different thoughts and moods. Each thought had ninety four new possibilities.

Day 82

Tiny Ocean number 82. It has become a diary. A post it note logging date, time and number along with notes, about the weather, idle thoughts, preoccupations, is wedged under each jar. The sea is different every single day. The weather, the tide, it all changes. Yet it is always there, constant. An unpredictable constant.


It is 61 days since I started to collect these Tiny Oceans, 61 days and 61 jars. Over time their contents have settled. What started as cloudy water that looked a murky green brown has become clear, crystal clear. Sediment settles to the bottom, the process of gravity filtering the larger particles out from the water. I’ve woken at 6am, not with these thoughts, but with thoughts of plans and ideas I have had during these 61 days – of things I have thought I should do, could do, might do. These have been things influenced by others opinions, others expectations, their assumptions. And it occurs to me that in time this has settled also. I am left with a clarity of thought I did not have before the cloudiness was stirred up. The fog brought with fatigue makes this a slower process sometimes, filtering out the noise of the outside world – to listen, to see, with clarity. The grit of sand and small stones are clearer too, now that they have settled – the water is clearer and I can see them, I could count the grains if I chose. This is only possible in time, with the passing of time and the settling of sediment.

Tiny oceans 2

Twenty three days and I have collected twenty three tiny oceans. A small scoop of a wave each morning as I walk the coastline. It has been still and stormy, I’ve been at high tide and low. Every day is different and each view is the same.

I bend down trying not to get my feet wet, sometimes the jar fills quickly and easily – I find a groove in the stones that the water sits in after a wave. Sometimes I am bent over for ages, left with just foam, the water too quick for me to catch. The contents of the jar always starts cloudy, a bit murky and brown. Sand and stones are stirred up, fragments of what else creates the beach is caught with the salty water. On Wednesday it felt as though the whole world had been stirred as the tide continued to smack at the shore, clambering higher and higher across the prom.

In this short time I have learned that a loved one has cancer. In this short time I have lost my beloved cat. These jars show nothing of that. They are jars of memories. Water washes away and water dilutes. They are, for me, for now, a constant. A repetitive ritual to my day. If I do nothing else I will visit the sea and catch a wave, a fragment at least. I had anticipated working with the residue that is left. Today I am urged to replace their lids and keep them safe.

In the Eye of the Shoal at Wealden Literary Festival

Learning to dive in 2014, my love of the ocean has grown as my fear has diminished. After working on a seahorse conservation project in the summer of 2016 I discovered Poseidon’s Steed, Helen Scales’ first book (published by Gotham Books). With this in mind, and having been confined to dry land ever since, I was waiting for Helen Scales’ new book, Eye of the Shoal, with baited breath.

Published earlier this year by Bloomsbury, Eye of the Shoal has it all – sex, death, deception and intrigue. Everything you could want in a book, and fish – fish as the most incredible creatures you could imagine, most of which you could not imagine. Challenging any notions that might be held of fish as simple creatures, Eye of the Shoal shows how they live in complex social structures, communicate, feel pain and have adapted to many wild and varied landscapes. There are fish that live on land, in deserts, some that walk and some that breed in the air – mid flight. This beautiful book is an elegant and gripping read which includes many complex scientific findings and the history of our understanding of evolution. It is a journey around the globe and through time, illuminating the darkest recesses of the oceans and giving an inside glimpse at some hardy scientists tasked with developing our understanding of the sea.

It was with some degree of awe and anticipation that my invitation to interview Helen for the Wealden Literary Festival was received. We emailed and Skyped, Helen mid book tour was giving a lecture in California the week prior to the festival. She was as warm and generous as her writing suggests, indulging me in a great many questions and wonderings about diving, conservation and writing.

Dr Helen Scales is a marine biologist, broadcaster, writer, surfer and diver. Helen lectures at Cambridge University in Science Writing and Marine Biology. Eye of the Shoal is her third book about the sea – the second, Spirals in Time, is a beautiful study of sea shells and was chosen as book of the week by BBC Radio 4 and book of the year by The Times, the Guardian, the Economist and Nature. Her deft skill at weaving through time and place creates a sense of being under water with her and makes for a very seductive and colourful read. Interspersed with folklore and illustrations (by Aaron John Gregory), Helen creates a wonderful exploration beneath the waves with thoughtful insight and intriguing science.

The final speaker at Wealden Literary Festival 2018, we followed an impressive line up. Edited highlights included talks from: Tim Dee, Mark Cocker, Diana Henry, Miriam Darlington, Natasha Carthew, Tim Birkhead, Katherine May, Yuval Zommer and Will Atkins. Blessed with endless sunshine in a glorious setting, it was a joy to share some of the riches from Eye of the Shoal with the audience. Helen talked eloquently, skilfully and energetically about bioluminescence, the wonders of sharks, and her thrill at meeting the ‘Shark Lady’ herself, Eugenie Clark. Helen shared stories of other scientists, including Losey and his research trips, and the repercussions of keeping the blennies he was studying in his swimming trunks. Reading passages from Eye of the Shoal, Helen ended the session reading the final folk tale in her book, an early fishy version of CinderellaThe fish and the golden shoe – a ninth century Chinese tale of Sheh Hsien and her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Helen Scales’ enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for her work and the oceans spread throughout this patch of Kent countryside on Sunday afternoon, several people sharing a new found desire to learn to dive.

Wealden Literary Festival is a celebration of nature and place through literature, arts and craft. The dates for 2019 are June 29th and 30th.

Dr Helen Scales with Louise Kenward at Wealden Literary Festival, photo courtesy of Alex Woodcock