We land mammals are learning all too much about deadly germs, shelter in place, body bags.
But is there corona virus at sea?
I am a Blue Theologian - my ministry is to honor and advocate for the ocean’s power and promise and peril. So I wondered:
-Do viruses in general live in the ocean as well as land, in fish bodies as well as our bodies?
-Does this corona virus stop at the water’s edge?
-Is there a theology of viruses?
Some (very preliminary) Blue Theology wonderings - please respond, correct, add. (I am not a scientist, I’m a pastor.)
-Yes, there are viruses in the ocean. In fact, they are the most common living thing in the ocean. 200,000 different kinds. So tiny that in one spoonful of seawater there are over 20 million individual viruses. One article I read began, “Swallow a mouthful of sea water and you’ve swallowed more viruses than the population of North America.”
-Then why aren’t they the ONLY living thing in the ocean? Because of sponges! Put a sponge in a tank of sea water and in 24 hours they filter feed/have for dinner 98% of the millions of viruses, their main food source. Sponges are plentiful and live in all ocean habitats. Thank you, sponges. Would that we had a land sponge for this virus. (Thanks Jim Covel of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for info about sponges and viruses.)
-Marine viruses infect ocean critters just the way land viruses infect us terrestrials. That’s what they do, that’s what they live for, to move in and poison. (The word virus comes from the Latin word for snake venom.) Whales and fish and plankton can get sick and can die from viruses. And yes, there are even some forms of the corona virus at sea, found in sick whales and dolphins. But Covid 19, this particular corona virus, is only on land.
-Sometimes marine viruses do “good” deeds. So many and so powerful, they keep certain other populations in check, like deadly marine bacteria. Their actions move chemicals around the marine ecosystem, like nitrogen, encouraging “nutrient turnover.” They even have a role in reducing climate change. Of all the CO2 we land mammals create from our fossil fuels, a full half of it ends up “sequestered” in the seabed, thanks to the action of viruses. (It’s complicated – a virus-infected plankton will “burst” (I’m quoting scientists here!) and drop their loads of carbon into the ocean floor, which means less carbon in the atmosphere – trust me.) Thank you, viruses.
-Tragically there is one huge place where the corona virus is extremely active at sea - on cruise ships, military ships, all marine traffic. Because such ships are contained, the virus’ maritime spread has been rapid and deadly.
Is there a Blue Theology of viruses? What do viruses and this pandemic teach us about God’s creation on land and sea?
-God’s creation is diverse and complex. We now speak of food webs, interconnectedness, cycles, rather than food chains, simple linear cause and effect. There is life and death throughout the web. As a person of faith I try to choose life, but we know, especially in this Eastertide, that life and death move in a complex dance.
-All are part of God’s creation. There are no “good” organisms or life forms and “bad” ones. The viruses are being viruses. Like every living thing, they want to find dinner, not be someone else’s dinner, reproduce. Viruses are really good at all three. Evil as they seem, they are just being who they are.
-Lamentation. To weep is a completely faithful response to the current virus deaths of hundreds of thousands of land mammals. When viruses kill whales and dolphins and seals, we also weep. “How long, O Lord?” is a faithful prayer. Life and death happen, but this hurts, I hate this!!
-Healing. To be faithful is to want to heal, make whole. Who are our heroes, who is essential? The healers and helpers. Salvation means to make whole. We mourn because death seems to have the upper hand and healers themselves are dying.
-Justice and mercy. When you do it to the least of these, you do it to me, says Jesus. The poor suffer more from all viruses, not just this one. In our cities, in developing countries, the pandemic is much more deadly, the resources much less available. One of many examples: on the hundred or so cruise ships idle now in US ports, 90,000 crew members wait in tight quarters, employees of American owned companies flying under foreign flags, their crews not protected or paid according to US laws. That is wrong. Throughout scripture God has a “preferential option for the poor,” but the poor still seem to suffer so much. One could also say the ocean is a poor cousin of the land when it comes to protection, spending, international cooperation. When one suffers, we all suffer. God calls us to mercy and to justice.
OK, my heart is breaking for God’s creatures, land and sea.
Photo: marine viruses. I post these ocean devotionals every Wednesday here and on Facebook.