Elspeth Probyn


On her book Eating the Ocean

Cover Interview of December 20, 2016

A close-up

I would hope readers open the book at the introduction where I describe the following:

Imagine a sparkling day on Sydney’s Harbour… eating creamy Sydney rock oysters and drinking a glass of fine Australian white wine with a light warm salty breeze on your face. Look - there’s the Opera House with her shells, to your left is the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the “Coathanger”) that each New Year’s Eve features actual over-the-top fireworks touted as the first to be seen globally on the first day of a new year. On the water there’s the crazy skittering of the ferries, sailboats and kayaks criss-crossing east and west, north and south. Around Circular Quay the usual huddles of tourists handle the faux Ugg boots and the didgeridoos made in China. Next to the berth for the ferry to Manly, Aboriginal musicians play proper didge. Over by the old shipping wharves – now eye wateringly expensive real estate – some young boys but mainly old women and men fish. Many came from Vietnam on boats and fresh fish will feed the family. Day-in day-out, they sit on milk crates fishing under the bridge. Holding all these stories together is the water of Sydney Harbour – it is normally a color called ‘harbor green’ but sometimes it burnishes to a shimmering near-turquoise. There’s something like 500 gigalitres of water in the Harbour, an amount that is called one Sydharb. Below the surface swim some 586 different species of fish. In amongst the local fish there are now tropical fish who, like the clownfish in Finding Nemo, ride the East Australia Current over a thousand miles down the from Great Barrier Reef in the north.

It sounds rather magic, and it often is; at least on a surface level. The reason why you can now go snorkeling in the Harbour and encounter tropical fish is that this part of the Pacific Ocean is warming faster than anywhere else in the world. And unbeknownst to many the water in the Harbour leads the world in the amount of heavy metals it contains. Untreated storm water flows into the Harbour carrying pesticides and nitrogen. Fish get used to the manmade modification of their world and take advantage of the increased nutrients. They seemingly thrive, and yet they are poisonous for their human and nonhuman predators.