Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Mermaids" on Animal Planet Raises Deeper Issues: Aquatic Ape Theory and Dangerous Sonar

original artwork, Justina Frantez

            Is our blue planet also home to mermaids? For centuries we’ve enjoyed myths of sea creatures sharing our seas and shores as lovers, mothers, and lost children. From the plaintive Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid to “mermaids-are-the-new vampires” fantasy novels, to celebrities like Lady Gaga donning dazzling silver tail flukes — mermaids are again swimming into our storytelling.

 Animal Planet premiered “Mermaids: The Body Found” on Memorial Day weekend amidst massive media coverage. Most reviews focused on whether mermaids are real, missing the deeper issues the film raises: the lethal affects of military sonar on sea life — and a very intriguing Aquatic Ape theory.

Many of us ocean advocates and researchers have long been fascinated by The Aquatic Ape theory first offered in 1960 by marine biologist Alistair Hardy and made popular by Oxford-educated, Welsh author Elaine Morgan in her many books. The Aquatic Ape theory of human evolution is an alterative hypothesis to the reigning “Savannah” theory of homo sapiens, which states that our ancestors left the trees to hunt and gather on the African open plains.

But recent pollen analysis and fossil evidence reveals that the emergence of the savannah occurred after our ancestors stood upright and walked on four legs. East Africa’s climate was warm and wet. At the end of the Miocene period, seas were rising and the jungles often underwater. Our ancestors might well have adapted to a more amphibious life in estuaries and along coastlines.

The Aquatic Ape hypothesis asks some important questions not explained by current anthropological dogma:

Why do bi-pedal humans have so little body hair when other plains' predators are furry and walk on four legs?

Why can humans hold their breath up to 20 minutes, longer than any other terrestrial animal?

Why are human infants more like water babies, with the instinctive ability to swim?

If humans evolved in a hot, dry savannah, why do we have so much subcutaneous fat as if to insulate ourselves from cold water?

Mainstream and academic anthropologists ridicule and dismiss The Aquatic Ape theory as an alternative to their savannah hypothesis. Academics and scientists can be as slow to consider a new theory or ideas as established religious leaders. But despite the academic brouhaha, the Aquatic Ape conversation is quite lively and enduring. Michael Odent, author of We Are All Water Babies, offers fascinating notions of how aquatic childbearing and nurturing might have helped our evolution

In Aquagenesis: the Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea, Richard Ellis wonders why this theory of our possible human amphibious origins has not yet been respectfully considered by mainstream anthropologists? “Something has to replace the savannah hypothesis,” Ellis concludes in Aquagenesis, “the aquatic theory is gaining more and more support.” Why is science leaving this provocative theory to Animal Planet’s Monster Week?

Water babies. Mermaids. Aquatic Apes. How could our human imaginations not be captivated? The Animal Planet “Mermaids” also explores another issue that is based on current events and actual science — the dangers of military sonar in our waters. Mermaids and Aquatic Apes may not yet be proven. But the deaths all over the world from the lethal drone of military sonar are well documented. And increasing.

After long denying that military sonar tests were linked to deadly dolphin and whale strandings — from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas to Japan — the U.S. Navy has recently admitted: The violent blasts of its military sonar may be more harmful than previously thought. By its own estimates, U.S. Navy sonar and explosives “may unintentionally cause more than 1,600 instances of hearing loss or other injury to marine mammals in one year.” 

Military sonar at its most intense frequencies can disorient, deafen, and even rupture living tissue. The acoustic trauma so shocks marine mammals that even deep-diving whales surface too quickly and die from the bend’s — decompression sickness. Other injuries linked to military sonar include brain hemorrhages and lungs shredded into pulp. For the whales and dolphins whose lives depend upon their own sophisticated echolocation, it’s like being bashed and brutalized with the blunt instrument of unbearably loud sound waves. A horribly traumatic death.

Earth Justice, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Indian tribes are now suing the Navy over its plans to expand their sonar tests off Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. Public comment meetings will be held June 11th in Hawaii and June 20th in Southern California.

 Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island who has studied the mammals for years describes military sonar as “acoustic bullets.” When a three-year-old orca, Victoria (L112), mysteriously died in February off Washington, military sonar was suspected. Balcomb stated that injuries to Victoria’s head, chest, and side are consistent with blast trauma from Navy sonar. 

Dolphins are known to rescue us from drowning. Can we do no less to protect them from this lethal weapon of military sonar, these underwater sound bombs they cannot escape?

When you tune into Animal Planet’s Mermaids, dive beneath the surface of fascinating CGI mermaid images and listen to the subtext of this timely film: You don’t have to be a mermaid to know that our oceans are in deep trouble. “Mermaids” is most valuable for the questions it raises. What if the Aquatic Ape is not just entertainment? What if it’s a viable theory of our own origins? Would we take better care of the oceans? 

And what can we do in real-life to stop this military sonar that is an underwater holocaust for our marine mammals. After all, this water planet is our first womb and our life support.

Maybe it’s because our islands and coastlines are sinking that we’re obsessed with mermaids. Maybe like those possible amphibious ancestors, we might again learn to adapt to a water world. Homo Aquaticus.

Brenda Peterson's recent novel, ANIMAL HEART, explores the issues of military sonar, dolphin strandings, and the Aquatic Ape theory.

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