From the orca uprising to the Titanic disaster and rising sea levels, ocean-related stories are feeding into internet folklore – but why?
This year Pluto made its ingress into Aquarius for the first time in over two centuries, and pieces of debris from an imploded Titanic submarine are being recovered from the seafloor. To be clear: neither of these stories have any real connection, except for their ubiquitous presence on our social media feeds, where people are piecing together increasingly unreal narratives about the drama unfolding in the world’s oceans.
As I write this, an animation from NASA reveals that the sea levels are rising at an exponential rate – there’s expected to be a ‘mass exodus of biblical scale’ on the horizon. There are viral reports of orcas sinking yachts around the Atlantic – a fact that some Reddit conspiracists have connected to alien debris allegedly found on the ocean floor last week, while others believe it’s the result of US military training. On an anarcho-communist meme page, there’s an image of two orcas encircling the sub, and another comparing the rescue efforts of OceanGate with the capsized boat of migrants found off the coast of Greece. A Taylor Lorenz repost reads: “you have more in common with an orca than with a billionaire” – and, while this is probably true, it feels strangely absurd.
Scrolling my feed, it’s near impossible to ignore the bytes of information rising to the fore: Orcas! Submarines! Billionaires! Even the Atlantis Truthers are resurfacing. Perhaps this is the beginning of a class war, or the great oceanic accelerationist turn as uttered by Reddit soothsayers? Imagining a world where the rich implode in the depths of the seafloor is a weirdly comforting notion when I can barely afford to pay rent, let alone everything else going on in the world. The addition of marine animals gives it a nice, ecological spin, too. A How To Blow Up a Pipeline-style revolt on the side of the orcas.
The ocean has undeniably generated some of the best and most extreme folklore of the year so far – and celestial vibe shifts aside, there appears to be something more profound at work than just conspiracies and anti-establishment memery. “I think a schizophrenic analysis of culture is really great, and it can often be pretty accurate, but it needs to come with a dose of realism,” says Ben Ditto, creative director and cultural researcher. “But just because people are joining the dots in ways that aren’t scientific doesn’t mean those frameworks aren’t helpful.”
Like outer space, the deep sea exists independently of humans, and therefore beyond our understanding. It’s the final frontier, a hyperobject, a terrain so big and alien that it’s hard to comprehend – let alone map out with scientific discovery. The Big Unknown becomes a mirror for our collective fears, struggles and desires. So, while it doesn’t actually matter why the orcas are attacking ships, or whether there’s actually alien meteors at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, what’s important is what it signifies to us – and why.
From the earliest archetypes, tales of fairies and trolls and vampires, folk stories have served as useful tools for understanding what we don’t know. Both Moby Dick and Jonah’s biblical whale have long served as symbols of divine retribution – or even the universe itself. But what sets these contemporary examples apart is how they spread online. Social media flattens information in such a way that everything is available all at once, making it easy to connect otherwise disparate strands. Myth-making functions as a form of technology, a way to fill in the blanks in an era of increasing unreality and uncertainty. Like conspiracy theories and creepypastas, these narratives act as communal magical thinking, a buffer against reality – or perhaps a third more sinister thing.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the ocean is capturing our imagination during a time when corporations are ramping up efforts to colonise its waters for profit. “The deep sea is a very tangible military and corporate domain – it’s the next frontier of harvesting resources,” suggests Ditto. The Atlantic has been described as ground zero for the world’s next ‘gold rush’, while Greenpeace adverts across London hail warnings of the disastrous effects deep sea mining will have on the surrounding ecosystem. As technological innovation accelerates, this will no doubt play into the incentives of the select few who benefit from the ocean’s natural resources, its financial motives mirroring the rise of commercial space tourism. Next thing: billionaires buying into submarine Titanic tours and Michelin meals on Earth’s orbit.
There’s an irony to this too that during a time of climate crisis and eco-anxiety, we’re seeing Big Tech companies double down on their profit incentive – though it’s no surprise. Some artists, curators and researchers have dubbed our current era ‘the technocene’, where emerging technologies have completely scrambled our place in time (scientists are resurrecting dodos and mammoths and recovering ancient artefacts using AI), which only adds to this stranger-than-fiction reality. This allows us to imagine alternative realities, but also plays into our collective desire for myth-making: a tool to carve out new possibilities where technology works alongside nature, not against it.
For astrologists, Pluto’s ingress into Aquarius will usher in a new era for technology, innovation and the collective. As the planet warms and polar ice melts, perhaps a mass exodus is actually on the horizon – at least, the memes seem to suggest so. Perhaps the stories of marine animal attacks and non-human intelligence found on the seafloor are actually useful symbols for interrogating the corruption and evil on the shores of our communal psyche. Mapping out the events of this essay onto an A3 page with deranged glee, I am Pepe Silvia, brought into the IRL. The children of tomorrow might be heading towards a future of uncertainty, but from the bubbling recesses of the deep sea can emerge new ways of seeing.