By Annabel Barker: Literature Columnist.
The Ingo Chronicles is a series of children’s novels by Helen Dunmore, set in Cornwall. The first four books, in chronological order – Ingo, The Tide Knot, The Deep and The Crossing of Ingo – feature Conor and Sapphire Trewhella; the fifth – Stormswept – is a standalone story featuring Morveren Trevail and a different set of characters.
How many of us have ever dreamed of having underwater adventures, without having to worry about drowning? Helen Dunmore’s best-selling The Ingo Chronicles revolves around children to whom this wild dream becomes a reality. Discovering Ingo, an underwater world in which they can breathe freely is only part of the adventures of Conor and Sapphire Trewhella and, in Stormswept, Morveren Trevail, because of their Mer heritage. As well as learning about this heritage, they also hear about various global and social issues.
They (whales) might remember terrible things about humans harpooning them, dragging them for miles with blood pouring from a dozen wounds, and then cutting up their carcasses for oil and blubber. (The Tide Knot, p.180)
In The Tide Knot, a rogue current separates Sapphire from Conor, throwing her into the Deep (the bottom of the ocean). It is thanks to a sperm whale that Sapphire makes it out of the Deep in one piece. When they first meet, Sapphire is already aware that whales have been hunted and killed by humans for their oil and ambergris; this heightens her apprehension that the whale, a fellow mammal but nonetheless a wild creature, might harm her. When it becomes clear that the whale is friendly and kind, Sapphire’s gratitude for saving her life is intensified, mingled with tremendous guilt.
Whales are predators, so play an important part in the overall health of marine life. According to the WWF, they also have a role in fighting climate change by capturing carbon from the atmosphere: in its lifetime, each whale captures roughly 33 tons of C02. But their vast size does not protect them from large dangers. Whales’ communication and even hearing can also be damaged by shipping and the extraction and production of oil and gas.
It’s a young male dolphin, caught by his pectoral fins. He must have struggled and struggled until he drowned. There are gashes in his skin where the net has cut… (The Crossing of Ingo, p.256)
Dolphins make regular appearances in The Ingo Chronicles. Alongside joyful scenes when the children interact with them, there are also references to captivity, stranding and drowning in nets. In The Tide Knot, Sapphire and Conor assist in returning a stranded dolphin to the ocean, which has a happy outcome – sadly, in real life, this is not always the case. In The Crossing of Ingo, in what is probably the most haunting scene of the entire series, Sapphire finally witnesses firsthand what she has only heard about: a drowned dolphin in a net.
Like whales, dolphins are magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Many people dream about swimming with dolphins, which is very profitable for promoters but comes at a cost to the dolphins’ wellbeing. They are taken from the sea and bred in captivity, where they live in shallow, enclosed water. They are then taught to play and perform tricks for the public, all for our entertainment.
Air and Light Pollution
Stars glitter above me…They seem so close, as if I could reach out and touch them. Constellations flash and glitter. There’s no light pollution to hide them, and no smog or smoke either. I’m looking at the stars and seeing what my ancestors must have seen thousands of years ago. (The Crossing of Ingo, p.167)
When making the Crossing of Ingo, the characters end up taking the northern route to escape the sharks. During this journey, there are several references to the crystal clarity of the stars. On one occasion, while Sapphire is underwater, she looks up through the surface and sees the stars clearly above her.
The Milky Way is one of the most wonderful sights of this world. Sadly, in this day and age, it is nearly impossible to even catch a glimpse of our galaxy, except in parts of the world where air and light pollution is limited (if not non-existent). If any good has come out of this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, it is the reduction in air pollution, thanks to a decrease in carbon emissions.
Usually I hate the jumble of rubbish that gets washed up after a storm…every piece of plastic that shows through the tangle of wrack and driftwood. A deflated football, chunks of polystyrene, a child’s trainer with its sole torn off – even an orange plastic milk-crate… (Stormswept, p.94)
In Stormswept, when Morveren finds a child’s plastic bucket to collect water, she is grateful because this enables her to catch water from the ocean to help an injured Mer boy. Even then, she acknowledges that this gratitude is a rarity, for she is normally angered by the plastic she sees washed up on beaches.
The WWF predicts that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than life. Eight million tonnes of plastic are released into our oceans every year. One in two turtles have eaten plastic and ninety percent of seabirds have plastics in their stomachs. This frequent ingestion of plastics by marine life not only disrupts the marine food chain, but is then passed on to the human food chain.
…Tankers releasing thousands of tonnes of oil into the sea. I’ve seen seabirds on TV, coated with oil and struggling in the water until they die. And layers of dead, gaping trawl on the tide line. (Ingo, p.188)
Faro, a Mer boy who is curious and knowledgeable about the human world, is quick to remind Sapphire of the atrocities carried out by humans to Ingo. One of the damages he speaks of is oil leaks; Sapphire reflects on having seen oil-covered seabirds and angling on television.
As well as environmental damage, oil spillage has an effect on the economy. Because trawlers and tourism areas are temporarily closed, local people lose their income. Tens of thousands of marine animals and plants are harmed if not killed. The damage lingers far longer than the spillage. Oil is highly expensive to clean up and the chemicals used to break it up can be toxic.
In addition to telling an enchanting story of Mer people and underwater adventures, The Ingo Chronicles holds powerful messages that serve to educate young readers without preaching. Alongside environmental themes, there are also messages that are all too common in today’s society, including prejudice, discrimination and identity.