Ocean Stories: what it’s really like to work on the world’s seas

Water is second only to outer-space for attracting rapt sub-poetry.

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Along the concrete wharves of Puerto de Malaga looms a cruise ship, in water the colour of lavender. There’s movement around the immense hull, just beneath the surface, a swarming and teeming. Sticking my head over the pontoon for a closer look I see something that seems entirely improbable: catfish. Tons of them. Fat and busy, nibbling at any kelp-clumps. Sometimes vessels here are filled with (dead) fish, Atlantic cod and crab kept on ice for the insatiable dining-rooms of the cruiser – mobile freezers, idling under an electric-blue sky. Much of the stock inside is caught as far away as the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

“You always think about distance and directions on water,” someone muses in the first of a four-part series about working life on the world’s seas (BBC World Service, 22 November, 1.30pm). “Where the wind is coming from. What’s in that direction? Or that one? Always looking beyond the horizon.” This was the one wistful line in a programme more efficient and useful, less sentimental and subjective, than most things made about the ocean. (Water is second only to outer-space for attracting rapt sub-poetry.)

We heard that the average age of a fisherman in Newfoundland is now 60, and that young women are, for the first time, going out en masse in boats professionally – for centuries a female on water was considered bad luck, or “jinkers”. In Reykjavík, the economic crisis of a decade ago was solved in part (again by women) by implementing a “100 per cent fish” movement – utilising every element of any fish already caught, most profitably the skin, grinding it into collagen supplements and expensive serums, or treating it to make accessories.

A cod’s skin has small and immaculate scales that can be turned into an iridescent leather. Dried salmon looks like snakeskin. Perch hide is thick, with an effect not unlike a crocodile’s.

In Malaga, the shore cleaners are blaring Radio Ora on their phones, Sergio Dalmar singing voluptuous regret as men in epaulets hurry on board (“To dance/Just like the sea dances with the dolphins”). The shattering tremor of the ship’s horn and the catfish are gone. Nothing but the sound of a jackhammering starboard turbine, as the vessel departs, white and immense as a cloud. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder