Skip to content

Littoral Chronicle: Vignettes on Coasts, Ghosts, Colonialism, Sharks by Ritika Biswas


Littoral is [a]:

                  boundary                                 zone                                           intertidal
            crossing                                  transversal                             transgressive
        chimeral                                 amphibious                                 queer
    human                                 non-human                                  mythical
      home                                    haunting                                       metaphor
          sand                                     beings                                          water
              pleasure                             extraction                                     capital
                     care                                        play                                         colonial
                           labour                                                                                              grief
                                       black                               ]       [


A chronicle is [a]:

And so

We throw it into the sea
And watch it become littoral

Watch it swim
Watch it flail
Watch it gasp
Entangled in

wet; porous

Within the Yorkshire coast

Within the Yorkshire coast


Ghosts. Quotes. Footnotes.

Our entrance to the past is through memory — either oral or written. And water. In this case salt water. Sea water. And, as the ocean appears to be the same yet is constantly in motion, affected by tidal movements, so too this memory appears stationary yet is shifting always. Repetition drives the event and the memory simultaneously, becoming a haunting, becoming spectral in its nature.
– Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip, 2011
Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. […] The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.
The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson, 2402

With increased salination from rising sea levels, ghost forests— bleached and dead remnants of their living selves— have become increasingly common sites and eerie sights along coastlines.3 Currently, they have been mostly documented along North American Atlantic shores.4 But ghost forests can be traced across many watery lines— we simply have not yet named them as such. The coast then incubates both “teeming life” and the spectral. Non-human ghosts litter the littoral. These forests haunt our coastlines, marking and making what Anna McClintock calls “damaged landscapes where traces of disavowed violence haunt the margins of the visible and can now be read to animate forgotten histories and envision alternative futures.”5

Philip writes in the voices of her Black ancestors forcibly thrown overboard the British slave ship Zong in 1781 into the Atlantic so the slavers might claim insurance for their lives as property, and so sea water becomes both remembrance and witness for those who never reached the coast.6

In the 1950s, Carson studied non-human beings in “the ancient world” of Atlantic littoral zones— the shore’s infinitesimal and infinite worlds, the temporal registers of the past mutating into snail shells and limpet evolutions, the drama of our species evolution emerging from the surf.Hannah Freed-Thall draws delicate parallels between Carson’s queer love letters and her attention to the clandestine worlds of shorelines.7 The Atlantic recurs across my research.

I read about ‘female’ ghosts who haunt Korean (mul gwishin 물귀신), Southeast Asian (pontianak, hantu air), and British (bean-nighe, morgens) waters and imaginaries.

And so through these quotes and footnotes we read across plural, femme, and sometimes dissonant currents: the ghosts of our ancestors across temporal and corporal registers. Ghosts of drowned bodies, of eons past, of the Anthropocene, of colonial watery histories borne by tides in littoral zones— they repeat, push and poison, nurture, revive, die, repeats, repeats, repeats, from the river to the sea.8 We attempt to grasp it, to free the ghost from its metaphor even as the metaphor floats closer to its flesh9 only through repetition, even as it “ever eludes us,” swimming across the surface of our memory that is “shifting always” in the foam.

The word time originates from the Germanic word for tide; tides create ghosts that are suspended in the passage of time— language sequesters itself from temporality, from meaning. “In the postcolonial world ghosts are textual, and even linguistic” claim Mélanie Joseph-Vilain and Judith Misrahi-Barak.10

What are the linguistics of ghosts in a still-colonial world and already-haunted waters?

An aerial view of a Seocheon mudflat at low tide

An aerial view of a Seocheon mudflat at low tide

An aerial view of the mudflat with the tide coming in as Ritika runs from the now island towards the new coast

An aerial view of the mudflat with the tide coming in as Ritika runs from the now island towards the new coast



It is a cold sunrise, tinged with last night’s soju. At 7am, Jungwon drives us for three hours from Seoul to Seocheon, during which I get to nap and wake up to him telling me we need to keep an eye out since we don’t know exactly where the mudflat is. But it is unmistakeable— the tides have peeled back to expose a skeletal expanse of calcareous organs and muddy flesh and ancient wind. Half a dozen halmonis and harabujis in knee-high rubber boots and floppy hats dot the vast flats, picking at the rich carcass to harvest oysters, clams, and other shellfish. One of them offers us two fresh oysters she has pried free from their bony bed, telling us that the dozens she has collected is for a family meal. The tide-time breaks in my mouth. For the next precious hour of low-tide, I clamber through the little hills of shell-reefs and mercurial mud as Jungwon films the site and chats with the sea-harvesters. The tide-pools hold infinite chimeral beings I can and cannot name: striped red and black anemones with tiny crowns, flagellating long-legged insects you could mistake for hair, tiny pea-crabs looking for new bivalves in which to hitchhike. Many of these are translucent, barely discernible. Little coastal spectres that expose my lack of language in these topographies. Time recedes in the low tide. Time pools in the crevices of the littoral that itself is becoming ghost— tidal wetlands protect both human and non-human littoral populations of millions in the region but 65% of the tidal flats in East Asia (and several of its inhabitant species) have been lost since the 1950s due to nationalist and capitalist land reclamation, marine resource extraction, and consequent sea level rise.11 I get slightly lost in time and worlds and loss, and realise other humans have receded from the mudflat— the tide is coming in. Racing along a long strip of sticky mud, I barely make it back to the nearly-not-there coast, time lapping at my feet from both sides. Jungwon is both relieved and amused at my amphibious dexterity. We go to a nearby clam kalguksu spot to consume brine-broth and shell-smoke.



The point of the surface is that it provides the field; it enables friction, motion, and surfing. Surface divides and it allows for transformation and explosion. You can look through it or at it: surface is the lens and the screen.
– Melissa McCarthy, Sharks, Death, Surfers, 3612

In her disquieting book McCarthy writes about, among other things, the surface both as horizontal oceanic surface and the coast as surface, sharks, obituaries, and the death of Captain James Cook. The names and histories of white men proliferate in coastal chronicles; frothing, sedimentary, ever returning to their unknown.

Zoffany, Johann. The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779. Circa 1798.

Zoffany, Johann. The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779. Circa 1798.

Born in Yorkshire, the celebrated explorer Cook was stabbed by Hawai’ian natives on his third voyage and died “in the shallow surf” of Kealakekua Bay in 1779 during an attempted kidnapping of the King Kalaniʻōpuʻu by Cook’s crew following a series of fatal misunderstandings between the European crew and Hawai’ian community a month after the former’s arrival to the islands.13 The German painter Johan Zoffany depicts this moment in an unfinished oil painting. It opens our cognitive field into a moment of “transformation and explosion” not only of death, but friction and the intertidal motion propelling Orientalism, marine exploration, colonialism, ritual, all inscribed on the surface of the littoral.

Zoffany spent significant time in India, where he lived for nearly two years in Lucknow with the French Major-General Claude Martin who worked for the British East India Company (a fact that mildly startled me— for fifteen years I was made to thank Martin by name every morning in the colonial school he eponymously founded in Kolkata).14 When shipwrecked in the Andaman Islands on his way back to England in 1789, Zoffany apparently partook in cannibalism after lots were drawn among the sailors and anecdotal evidence tells us he became pale and withdrawn after finding passage back to England, with a “melancholy cast of countenance.”15

Cook dies in the littoral and Zoffany, entangled in his own thanatic friction, paints us a surface i.e. both a “lens and a screen” that is unfinished, ghostly, perpetually in-between.

Cook’s death (and life) and Zoffany’s alleged cannibalism also exhume the idea of the coast as both safeguard against and conduit of connection to the unknown, of risk, of danger, of transgression, of connection. Cook’s crew infamously brought syphilis and gonorrhoea from Britain to Aotearoa (Cook also anglicized its Dutch colonial name to ‘New Zealand’) in 1769 when they came ashore causing death, congenital disease, and panic among Māori people, especially among women, none of whom had immunity to venereal diseases.16 The littoral is a “field” within which we can parse entanglements of the seemingly disparate— art, hygiene, taboo, semiotics, imperialism, personal memory, climate collapse. A coast is the frontier that is the first portal to generative exchange as well as the apocalypse and our extinction.


Is that a shark fin near Cook’s dying body in the painting? Or, some notes on sharks.

  • Summer 2023 marked the most significant shark alerts issued by Korean authorities to communities on the eastern coast of South Korea; the highest acceleration in temperature in the East Sea in three decades (a 10 degree increase in March-May 2023) led to sharks expanding their territories into shallow waters and beaches, which had been exceedingly rare in this peninsular region.17
  • Sharks are some of the oldest extant creatures, with the earliest fossil evidence dating to the Late Ordovician period (approx. 450 million years), but it was only after a massive extinction event at the end of the Devonian period which killed about 75% of all species on Earth, that they truly proliferated, in the subsequent Carboniferous Period (which began 359 million years ago), and some species survived another mass extinction event (overall sharks persisted through five such events which is remarkable) in the Permian period which wiped out 96% of all marine life.18
  • For as long as I can remember I have been viscerally fascinated by sharks and death and how these two entwine in our collective cultural consciousness across so many geographies and socio-economic strata, and not merely because of Jaws.
  • Our shared images of sharks is most commonly the triangular fin that slices through littoral waters; always lurking, indexing the unknown/unseen even as the fear is terrifying familiar— the fin is fear itself, the object of fear that is synonymous not merely with death but violence of the unknowable, of the creature in our imagination, of being taken under the dividing line of the oceanic surface from the human into the non-human realm, of the ghost that roams the littoral.
  • shark = spectral = photograph = anxiety = unstable = boundary = death = climate = littoral = shark
  • In his grief-drenched Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes sees the subject of a photograph as someone or something that is already dead, that taking a photograph leads to the object “truly becoming a specter”— if we follow this thought and compound it with the indexed spectrality of this creature in our visual consciousness, what might we make of a photograph of a dead shark?19

A great white shark that was found dead 2.7 kilometers off the coast of Sokcho’s Jangsa Port on June 23 2023.

A great white shark that was found dead 2.7 kilometers off the coast of Sokcho’s Jangsa Port on June 23 2023.


a coast is a beach is fun is classist is commons is care is gendered is the littoral is economics is tourism is capital is non-linear is privatised is slow violence is deep time is mutable is remembrance is shore is a strand is strandings is necropolitical is haven is departure is migrant is refuge is graveyard is incubation is anti-historical is story is leaching is non-binary is returning is imaginary is transpositional is intertextual is song is invocation is breath is drowning is occupation is oneiric is run-off is toxic is reproductive is barren is waste is parenthetical is vulnerable is unnatural is reclaimed is indentured is summer is adolescence is clandestine is transient is erotic is dissipation is poetry is there is


  1. Philip, Marlene Nourbese, and Setaey, Adamu Boateng. Zong! Wesleyan University Press 2008.
  2. Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. Penguin, 1999.
  3. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Is a Ghost Forest?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 26 Oct. 2017,
  4. Kirwan, Matthew L., and Keryn B. Gedan. “Sea-level driven land conversion and the formation of ghost forests.” Nature Climate Change, vol. 9, no. 6, 27 May 2019, pp. 450–457,
  5. Oldham, James. “Insurance litigation involving the Zong and other British slave ships, 1780–1807.” The Journal of Legal History, vol. 28, no. 3, Dec. 2007, pp. 299–318,
  6. McClintock, Anne. “Ghost Forest: Atlas of a Drowning World.” E-Flux, Jan. 2022,
  7. Freed-Thall, Hannah. “Chapter Three: CARSON’S QUIET BOWER.” Modernism at the Beach: Queer Ecologies and the Coastal Commons, Columbia University Press, 2023, pp. 98–121.
  8. Englert, Sai, et al., editors. From the River to the Sea: Essays for a Free Palestine. Verso, 2023. Note: this is a free e-book from Verso available worldwide.
  9. Namsetoura, the ghost of an enslaved woman who wants Kamau Braithewaite to defend her burial land and his home in CowPastor Barbados from being destroyed by tourism developers, says to him: “O wash me now my child my metaphor flesh of my flash” in his genre-crossing ecological polemic ‘The Namsetoura Papers’, 2005.
  10. Joseph-Vilain, Mélanie, and Judith Misrahi-Barak. “Introduction.” Postcolonial Ghosts, 2009, p. 18,
  11. Murray, Nicholas J, et al. “Tracking the rapid loss of tidal wetlands in the Yellow Sea.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol. 12, no. 5, 8 May 2014, pp. 267–272,
  12. McCarthy, Melissa. Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion. Sternberg Press, 2019.
  13. See McCarthy pp. 42–44.
  14. Dalrymple, William. White Mughals. Penguin USA, 2004, p. 289.
  15. Williamson, George Charles, and Lady Victoria Manners. John Zoffany, R.A. His Life and Works: 1735-1810. Creative Media Partners, LLC, 2018, pages 116–117.
  16. Jane Tolerton, ‘Sexual health – Sexual health to 1914’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 January 2024)
  17. Min-kyung, Jung. “Growing Shark Encounters Put East Coast on Alert Ahead of Vacation Season.” The Korea Herald, The Korea Herald, 11 July 2023,
  18. Davis, Josh. “Shark Evolution: A 450 Million Year Timeline.” Natural History Museum, Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.
  19. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, p. 14.


  • Image I: Photo by Sue Hull on a research trip with Shezad Dawood and Kaia Goodenough.
  • Images II and III: Photos by Kim Jungwon in Seocheon mudflats.
  • Image IV: Image credit and collection – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich Hospital Collection. Royal Museums Greenwich Link
  • Image V: Courtesy of the Sokcho Coastguard Station. Accessed on 05 January 2024 Link