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Fear or Thrill? Oceans in pop-culture

Traditionally, the ocean’s place in pop culture has been classified largely by one of three spheres: adventure, beauty, or fear. Whether you were of movie-going age in 1975 or have experienced the trickle effects of that summer’s big blockbuster, Jaws may come to mind as an enduring example of the fear-evoking category. And it’s not surprising – what lies beneath the surface of our ocean is largely a mystery, and therefore, often scary. In the adventure bucket, the Pirates of the Caribbean offers a prime example. Somehow, Jack Sparrow doesn’t seem to get ruffled by a few unknown sea creatures trying to ingest him. But what’s happened in the last decade(s)? Where does the ocean fit into pop culture today, and how does it influence our attitudes toward the deep blue? We took a look at the sea’s presence in our culture and what it might mean for the sea of tomorrow.

Oceans of Pop

Songs about the ocean seem to number right up there with how many sharks are swimming in the sea, and most are conveniently available on the streaming service of your choice (songs, that is). From Billie Eilish’s breakthrough track "Oceans Eyes" to Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean" to The Little Mermaid‘s "Under the Sea" and many more between.

Another more recent ocean favorite is rapper Masked Wolf’s "Astronaut in the Ocean", to which TikTok has given new life through the 8.9 million videos that play the tune alongside their footage. Masked Wolf uses the song to open up about his battle with depression – a topic well-worth our attention as a society. Apparently, the message resonates with more than a few of us; as of this past March, the song had 312 million listens.

Getting Fancy in … Algae?

Yup, you heard us right: fa-fa-fashion is finally making algae the stars of the runway. Who says pop culture has to be all about what we watch and read? What we wear counts, too. And algae, no longer dismissed as a slimy green goo to be avoided while swimming, are now experiencing their apparel hey-day (what we hope is just the start!).

It looks like American actor Jason Momoa took his role in Aquaman to heart: he’s recently launched a line of limited edition vegan shoes featuring an insole made from none other than algae! (They’re cute, too.) Reebok has also launched a plant-based running shoe called The Forever Floatride GROW with an algae foam insert. Floating doesn’t have to be limited to aqua terrain anymore.   

Even Kanye’s jumping onboard with the release of Foam Runners through his fashion line Yeezy. The Croc-esque footwear is made using foam produced from algae. Long-term plans for the brand include building a hydraulic farm in Wyoming to grow their own algae, creating a true “seed to sole” product, as Mr. West put it. Along these same sustainability lines, Adidas has collaborated with Parley for the Oceans to create a running shoe comprised of more
than 75% recycled ocean plastic
. The oceans have never been so excited about a line of footwear.

Hang Ten in the Green Room

Our surf lingo may not be quite on point, but this wave-lover’s sport is growing in popularity and will debut in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics being held this month. With its own language and lifestyle, it may be more about surfing culture than sport. Surfers are constantly refining their relationship with the ocean: at battle one day, in sync the next, in an ongoing effort to tame its mighty surges and flows. Surfing will now join ranks with 32 other sports in this prestigious international event of athletic prowess. The International Olympic Committee decided to add surfing to the roster in 2016, and we’re looking forward to seeing 40 talented surfers from around the world compete for gold for the first time.

Surfer surfing
Surfer surfing

Surfing in general has surged in popularity over recent years. The pandemic could have something to do with this upward trend, creating more interest as people seek outdoor recreation options. But the shift actually began pre-pandemic – in 2019, a whopping 35 million people around the world were surfing, and that number has only risen since. These wave chasers are finding refuge in the playgrounds of our coastlines, from the sunny beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the frigid seas of Norway’s fjords.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”

Let’s circle back to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. This cinematic phenomenon filled screens with a toothy predator and left its global audience terrified for years, even decades to come. Dubbed by many as one of the best summer films ever made, this 45-year-old classic is still going strong and continues to leave bite marks on pop-culture worldwide. Did anyone notice the parallels between the fictional town of Amity Island and early pandemic America? “Nothing to see here, just business as usual and a beautiful, sunny day.” If you ask us, this film has some lasting lessons to tell.

Since that fateful summer of Jaws, a few more shark-themed movies have made it big, including Deep Sea Blue, The Shallows, 47 Meters Down and Open Water. And in case you’re missing old sharkey, there’s a new fish-film out: Great White, which promises 100 minutes of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

There are, of course, a wealth of ocean-themed movies that aren’t all about sharks. Some of the best ocean movies include White Squall (battling a storm), Happy Feet (opposing a penguin emperor), Cast Away (struggling against remoteness), Captain Phillips (battling pirates – the real kind), The Life Aquatic (whoops, here’s a shark protagonist, too) – the list goes on.

If nothing else, these films increase our interest in the sea – and consequently, something known as The Nemo Effect along with it. This phenomenon refers to the fact that the more focus a species gets in pop culture, the greater the desire to bring home said species to keep (case in point: clownfish after the hit that was Finding Nemo). We say enjoy the film and leave the animal living to nature.

Clown Fish in corals

Pop culture has and forever will influence our attitudes toward the sea and everything within it. The presence of the ocean in our culture has taken on a truly multi dimensional role, with countless angles and facets. We’ve surpassed the adventure versus beauty versus fear framework to realize that the blues of our world are complicated places that we are only just beginning to understand. As Bill Murray’s character Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic so aptly puts it, “The deeper you go, the weirder life gets.” Let’s soak up the weirdness in all its glory.