Bookshelf: 50 Ways to Save the Ocean

50 Ways to Save the Ocean – David Helvarg

50 Ways to Save the Ocean
50 Ways to Save the Ocean

Effective pro-ocean activism is something that everyone who cares about the marine environment can engage in. This is the strong message of the most recent of David Helvarg’s books, Saved by the Sea, and of this short volume, too. It is illustrated by Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon.

Rather than being overwhelmed by ocean-related doom and gloom, there are very simple actions that we can incorporate as part of our everyday lives that have a direct impact on the health of the marine environment. The Two Oceans Aquarium does a great job of speaking about this aspect of responsible citizenship on their blog and on Twitter – you should follow them if this is important to you.

Some suggestions for simple actions that can make a difference include:

  • Don’t use single-use plastic bags
  • Say no to straws and balloons
  • Drink only tap, not bottled, water
  • Put cigarette butts in the bin
  • Cut all loops of plastic and other non-biodegradable materials before throwing them away (this prevents entanglement by seals and other marine life if/when the material ends up in the ocean)

Many of the actions that Helvarg suggests entail simply enjoying the marine environment, and this is a profound but familiar idea. When we care about something, we will protect it, and by enjoying the sea through diving, visiting the beach, or riding on a boat, we will come to care about it and its inhabitants. The emphasis in many of the sections is also on safe enjoyment of the ocean. Helvarg does not explain his focus on safety, but one reason I can think of for encouraging careful and safe enjoyment ocean-related activities is to ensure that these activities will remain available to everyone. Bad publicity after marine accidents can drive people away from the beach!

50 Ways to Save the Ocean connects patriotism and pride with care for the environment, which is an excellent approach for robustly patriotic people like Americans. For South Africans, whose feelings towards their country are – for historical reasons – often a little less straightforward than those of your average flag-waving American, this approach may not be the best one. Helvarg also provides the contact details of a large number of US-based organisations that espouse the values he advocates and engage in the kinds of conservation activities he describes. Someone needs to write a version of this book for South Africans!

This is the kind of book you could go through with a relatively young child, and decide together which actions you’re going to implement together. The reading level isn’t complex.

Get the book here, here or here (if you’re in South Africa).

Bookshelf: North to the Night

North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic – Alvah Simon

North to the Night
North to the Night

Having for some time immersed myself in literature and film about the Antarctic (Endurance, Empire AntarcticaIce Patrol), I have lately turned my attention to the Arctic. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is inhabited by humans, but if you go too far north, you run out of land. This is not a problem experienced by Antarctic explorers.

Alvah Simon and his wife Diana set out to explore the Arctic in their sailboat, and decided (against all advice) to overwinter in a cove in Baffin Bay (which is more like a sea than a bay, and is situated between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic). North to the Night tells the story of their journey to the Arctic, and the dark, freezing winter that Alvah Simon spent there, alone save for his cat Halifax, with his boat trapped in the ice.

The subtitle of the book is apt: the intensity of Simon’s winter experience was such that he underwent a sort of spiritual transformation – perhaps an argument could be made that he started to lose touch with his sanity, or reality. The book thus serves to contrast the intensely practical preparations that the Simons had to make for the voyage, with the epiphanies they experienced as they explored and survived in one of the most challenging environments on earth.

I was frequently frustrated with Simon’s over confidence and willingness to disregard the advice of people with far more sailing and survival experience than he had, but to his credit he seems to be able to see his own stubbornness, and does not attempt to justify or defend it. He is also able to see, in retrospect and to his credit, to what extent he tested his marriage with this journey.

Probably a requirement to embark on this kind of trip is a certain steeliness of will and ironclad self confidence that manifests itself as arrogance, or even foolhardiness. It is also my suspicion that many with similar aspirations don’t return from their adventures, or don’t even set out in the first place. For this reason Alvah Simon’s beautifully written account is particularly precious and rare.

You can get the book here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt

The Man Who Ate His Boots
The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Northwest Passage  is a sea route (routes, actually) running between Canada and Greenland, across the top of the North American continent through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. At its end is the Far East, for hundreds of years the destination of the thousands of sea voyages that made their way around the Cape of Good Hope, and later through the Suez Canal. Its existence was an enormously appealing idea to Europeans, because if the east could be reached by sailing along the top of the world, great savings of sailing time and expense would result.

For a long time the existence of the Northwest Passage was merely a hypothesis, and in the 1800s the British expended vast quantities of energy exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a sea route. The passage was first traversed in 1850-54 by Robert McClure, by ship and sledge. Roald Amundsen traversed it entirely by ship in 1903-1906.  Until this century, the route was not navigable for most of the year owing to the presence of sea ice. Now, thanks (?) to climate change, there is far less ice to contend with.

Sir John Franklin was one of Britain’s most eminent Arctic explorers. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. His final expedition, starting in 1845, ended in the disappearance of his two ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror), Franklin himself, and all 128 of the men with him.

The story of his expedition, and the searches for evidence of its fate (upwards of 30 expeditions were mounted to look for him), and the subsequent discovery of what had happened (no spoilers here – it was awful) is related in gripping detail in The Man Who Ate His Boots. Brandt also provides ample historical context, describing prior expeditions which serve to illuminate the British motivations behind their exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

There was a curious mixture of stoic heroism and wild arrogance at work during this period of British history. The rigors endured by early Arctic explorers cannot be overstated – the environment is almost entirely hostile to human survival. The British did not believe that there was anything to be learned from the Inuit, indigenous people who live widely spread across the area, and suffered as a result. As one of the Inuit pointed out when the awful lengths Franklin’s men had gone to in order to try to survive were revealed, his people “know how to starve.”

There is a strong thread throughout this book relating to the colonial attitude towards colonised peoples. A belief prevailed in Britain that, equipped with a shotgun and a good pair of shoes, an Englishman could survive anywhere, and that his Christian piety would serve to protect him and speed his endeavours. (On one of Franklin’s earlier expeditions, which was a complete fiasco largely owing to poor planning, the British officers survived whereas the mixed-race local fur traders – who were doing all the manual work and carrying the supplies – perished. This was attributed to the protective influence of the Christian beliefs of the British men.) It was further reckoned that there was nothing to be gained from studying the techinques of the Inuit. Eyewitness accounts from Inuit turned out to hold the key to the fate of Franklin’s party, although their account was not believed initially (they were dismissed as habitually lying “savages”).

Last year, one of Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered by Canadian archaeologists in Queen Maud gulf, where it sank after being trapped in the ice. They are still studying it (the area is only accessible a few months each summer), and I am watching this story with intense interest. There’s more on the discovery at National Geographic.

You can read reviews of The Man Who Ate His Boots at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. If you enjoyed Endurance, then I recommend you investigate this book. In light of the developing findings of the excavation of HMS Erebus, the material has refreshed relevance today.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Want more Arctic? Check out True North. There’s also this article on what lives under the ice, and this one on what happens on top of it!

Bookshelf: Blind Descent

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth – James Tabor

Blind Descent
Blind Descent

In Blind Descent, James Tabor has written a rip-roaring account of the race to find the deepest cave on earth. Two “supercaves” (Chevé in Mexico and Krubera in the Georgian Republic) were in contention for the world’s deepest cave. The “deepest” measurement is one of vertical depth. Bill Stone and Alexander Klimchouk led multiple expeditions, over a period of years, to Chevé and Krubera respectively, striving to extend the deepest known point of each cave.

One of the two men Tabor profiles in this book, Bill Stone, sounds like a real-life Clive Cussler character (I do not say this with unalloyed admiration). Among other impressive accomplishments, Stone invented a type of rebreather (later acquired by Poseidon) that he tested and refined during his cave explorations. (Stone has subsequently turned his attention to space exploration and mining. It turns out I read an article about him from 2004, some time back – it’s a cracking good read and gives you a sense of the man.)

There are many ways to die in a cave – for example by falling, contracting an infection, drowning, getting lost or trapped – a litany of horrors. An array of specialised skills is required to explore supercaves. Cavers spend weeks underground, often in damp, unstable conditions.

An integral part of any team doing caving of this nature, are cave divers. Their role is typically to explore sumps – passages submerged underwater. Visibility may be poor, the water may be in motion, and it is usually unclear whether the sump has an exit at the other end. Squeezing through confined spaces, after doffing dive gear, is not unusual. They also have to get themselves and their dive gear into the cave, rappelling down vertical cliffs, crawling through tunnels, or whatever is required.

Having grown up (as a diver) believing that cave diving is one of the ultimate technical and mental challenges, and certainly one of the pinnacles of diving accomplishment, I was mildly amused and puzzled that Tabor did not make more of these individuals in Blind Descent, and glossed over many of the aspects of cave diving that make it so ridiculously challenging. At certain points he actually makes it seem like something someone who qualified as an recreational scuba diver a year or so ago can do, if they just get shown how the controls on a rebreather work. Right. (If you are brave, watch Sanctum for some dramatised spelunking and cave diving.)

This is definitely not a book about cave diving, but there is some of it in here and it gets overshadowed by other feats of strength and endurance. Blind Descent is, however, a gripping read and I do recommend it.

Read a review of Blind Descent here and an interview with Bill Stone here. Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: True North

True North – Gavin Francis

True North
True North

Let us continue our armchair travels in the Arctic, among polar bears, icebergs, misty bays where compasses fail to find north, and tundra inhabited by indigenous peoples. Gavin Francis is the author of Empire Antarctica, and in True North (which he actually wrote first) he travels to all the places I’d like to see in the Arctic circle.

He starts in the Shetland Islands, and progresses to the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard. He concludes in Lapland. Like Antarctica, the Arctic is cold, snowy, and hostile to life. Unlike Antarctica, however, it is home to several indigenous peoples, for the most part wonderfully adapted and exquisitely attuned to their environments. These people are also greatly challenged by the pace of change in the modern world, and by changing climate, and Francis describes a fierce intensity characterising the societies he encounters in Greenland and Iceland, in particular.

There is also the magnificent landscape, and a surprising (to me) depth of history to be found above the Arctic Circle. Francis proves an adept travel guide and historian, referring always to the writings of the explorers and travellers who first ventured into this part of the world. For most of his journey he backpacks, pitching his tent where he can. If you are planning a trip (real or imagined) to any of the places Francis describes in this book I would strongly recommend you read his account.

You can get the book here, here or here (South Africa).

Bookshelf: Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa – Noel & Belinda Ashton

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa
Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa

This is an enormously useful book for local whale watchers, and provides details on the life history and characteristics of the cetaceans found in Southern Africa’s waters. The text is illustrated by beautiful paintings and photographs showing the animals in full from various angles, including what you’d see if they were on the surface of the sea or about to sound.

Noel Ashton is an artist, sculptor and conservationist, whose sculptural work can be seen in the foyer of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Nature writer and designer Belinda Ashton has co-authored several books with him.  The Ashtons also provided the whale and dolphin identification posters upstairs between the Predator Exhibit and the Kelp Forest tank. Their love for the natural world is evident in the beautiful illustrations and careful attention to detail in this book.

There is a history of whaling in South Africa, but fortunately there is now a yearly strong recovery in whale numbers and an appreciation of the economic value of whales alive rather than dead. There are incredible whale watching opportunities all around South Africa’s coast, including world-class shore-based viewing from Cape Town to De Hoop via Hermanus and De Kelders. There is boat-based whale watching out of Cape Town and from Gansbaai, Hermanus, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Durban, St Lucia, and other locations in between. For those who do not remember whaling, it is easy to become blasé about this embarrassment of cetacean riches, but it makes us, as South Africans, extremely privileged indeed.

For ocean lovers, this book is as indispensable as a bird book to a twitcher. It is highly recommended.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa) or here.

Bookshelf: SEALAB

SEALAB – Ben Hellwarth


In the 1960s the US Navy developed three undersea habitats, in order to experiment with saturation diving and to explore the possibility of humans living on the ocean floor. Of necessity, any group of people engaged in this pursuit would be separated from life on the surface, in some cases by days or weeks of decompression obligations. SEALAB I, II and II were progressively deeper and more complex habitats. Developing them was a technical challenge that led to many advances that we benefit from today. The experiments also provided an opportunity to study the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, and of long periods of breathing mixed gases under pressure.

The SEALAB experiments took place during the same era as the efforts by NASA to put a person on the moon, and received far less attention. Jacques Cousteau was interested in the project, and himself experimented with underwater habitats called ConShelf I, II and II. These habitats were far better publicised than the US Navy’s efforts, even though their aims were more modest.

Author Ben Hellwarth does not confine his attention to the habitats, but also provides a fairly detailed history of decompression theory and diving history. Like Neutral BuoyancySEALAB might provide a relatively painless introduction to dive theory for Divemaster candidates. In fact, this book reads like a thriller at times! Some photographs from the SEALAB projects are available on the US Navy website, and in this slideshow. To our modern eyes, the clunky and primitive appearance of some of the gear is a reminder of how pioneering the now 60 year old work to allow humans to live and work in the sea was.

If you’re interested in the history of saturation diving, I recommend this article, which covers some of the ground that Hellwarth does in SEALAB. If you want to see it in action, check out Pioneer (fictional movie based on actual events) or the series Deep Sea SalvageYou should also check out this article by Hellwarth, entitled The Other Final Frontierand this podcast/radio show. If you are EXTREMELY interested in this subject but don’t want to read a book, try out this hour-long lecture video by Ben Hellwarth.

Experiments with underwater habitats are ongoing.

Get a copy of SEALAB here (South Africa) otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Most Important Fish in the Sea

The Most Important Fish in the Sea – H Bruce Franklin

The Most Important Fish in the Sea
The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Menhaden are smallish, ordinary looking fish. If you asked a child to draw you a picture of a fish, they’d probably produce something that looks a lot like a menhaden. In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H Bruce Franklin makes a forceful case that these fish are vital to the ecosystem, and allowing their overfished populations to rebuild to levels closer to pristine could be the most effective measure we can take to restore the health of the oceans.

Menhaden are found all along the western Atlantic coast, from Mexico to Canada. They are filter feeders, and move about in massive schools. This, of course, makes them incredibly easy to catch. Currently they are fished and ground up for fish meal and fish oil, which are used as animal feed, fertiliser, and those omega 3 and 6 dietary supplement pills that can cause fish oil-tainted reflux a few hours after ingestion!

None of the uses I listed above are good ones for a fish that has such important roles in the ocean ecosystem. Menhaden are remarkably fast maturing and fertile little fish, which is an excellent characteristic for a fishery that is the largest on the United States west coast. They clean the water as they feed, straining algae and plankton out of the water. This helps reduce the possibility of harmful phytoplankton blooms (which cause “dead zones”, hypoxic areas, when they die). Menhaden also serve as food for a wide range of larger predatory fish and birds, including tuna and sharks. In quite a literal sense, an entire ecosystem depends upon their presence. (They are also historically important – for example, Native Americans taught European settlers how to plant menhaden with their crops, as fertiliser – Southern Fried Science explains. For more on the fish oil subject, check out Paul Greenberg‘s article for the New York Times.)

Menhaden populations have in the past been fished almost to the point of collapse, and their range has been significantly reduced. Recently catch limits have been reduced in the United States, but even more recently they have been increased again. In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H Bruce Franklin returns again and again to the fact that the menhaden fishery is essentially a monopoly, with a single company called Omega Protein allocated 80% of the catch quota. This leads to all kinds of problems. As Carl Safina points out, expanding the menhaden fishery benefits this one company. Menhaden left in the sea benefit a large number of companies and individuals, from whale watching operations to recreational fishers and fisheries for all the predator species (tuna, striped bass, etc.) that feed on menhaden.

The Most Important Fish in the Sea is an impassioned ode to a remarkable small fish, and an equally impassioned plea for our attention to its continued existence at levels sufficient to perform its role in the ecosystem and sustain all the species that depend upon it. As Mark Kurlansky does in Cod, Franklin places the menhaden in their historical context, and establishes the debt that we owe to these unassuming ocean inhabitants. When we destroy a species, we don’t just destroy a food source or a fertiliser ingredient or a tourist attraction and bear the economic consequences. There are cultural results, too – this book and others, like People of the Sturgeonexplain this devastating unintended consequence. Worth thinking hard about.

Get hold of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Saved by the Sea

Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish – David Helvarg

Saved by the Sea
Saved by the Sea

I think this book belongs to the same broad genre – one for which I have a lot of time – as Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy. If I had to describe the authors of this genre, I would call them “thinking scuba divers” (as opposed to the unthinking kind). David Helvarg is a former war journalist turned environmental activist. In this beautiful, heart-wrenching book he chronicles his own life as it has touched upon the world’s oceans.

Helvarg is founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign, and, as he explains in this book, he encourages and facilitates environmental activism. Helvarg’s idea of activism does not seem to be topless protests about vague global issues, but rather entails groups of concerned citizens becoming involved in intensely local issues: a Seaweed Rebellion. The feeling of helplessness and doom which sometimes threatens to overwhelm those with a concern for the ocean’s future can be fruitfully channeled into unglamorous but entirely useful small acts of advocacy and change. The kind of activism that Helvarg encourages in Saved by the Sea comprises small, cumulative actions, like writing letters to government representatives on subjects that concern you; participating in coastal clean ups; getting involved in citizen science projects in your area. He lists fifty ways to save the ocean (and has written a book on that subject) – print them out and do your bit. The key is to do something, where you can (and that is usually right on your doorstep).

I would recommend the book purely for the activist spirit that Helvarg espouses (he explains why he formed Blue Frontier in the prior link), but in addition to this his book is wonderfully written and affirming of the variety and beauty of the ocean. He describes scuba dives in some of the world’s most pristine areas, surfing trips in South America, travels to the Antarctic. Interwoven with these encounters with the natural world is Helvarg’s own life, and love, story. He does not shy away from difficult feelings and experiences. This is an autobiography, and one you’ll be richer for having read.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africans), here or here.

Bookshelf: Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, Seaworld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish – John Hargrove

Beneath the Surface
Beneath the Surface

As a counterpoint to orca scientist Dr Ingrid Visser’s memoir that we discussed earlier this week, John Hargrove’s Seaworld exposé describes the conflicted, thrilling life of an orca trainer working at a marine theme park. Hargrove appeared in the documentary Blackfish, but in this book he greatly expands on his experiences at the Seaworld parks in the United States, and at Marineland in the south of France.

Hargrove counts being close to the orca, and having opportunities to interact with them, as one of the great privileges of his life. Understandably, he grew to love the animals, and ultimately he says that it was his love for them that forced him to stop working as a trainer and to become an anti-captivity advocate. This decision clearly came after great internal struggle, and he has been subjected to vitriolic online attacks and character assassinations as a result of his new stance on keeping cetaceans captive. I have no doubt that there are aspects of the story he tells that it may be possible to re-tell with greater accuracy, but when so many elements of his story are corroborated by other sources, I feel it is nitpicking to take issue with what is, ultimately, Hargrove’s life story.

You can read reviews of the book here and here. If you’ve been as hypnotised as I have been by the unfolding train wreck that is the post-Blackfish Seaworld story, however, you will be completely absorbed by this memoir.

If you want to experience orca, whales or dolphins without buying a ticket to a marine park, may I suggest you read this article for suggestions, or book a ticket to South Africa between June and November (whale season), or visit Dolphin Encountours in Ponta do Ouro, or connect with a host of other responsible, licenced operators who will allow you to experience the animals in the wild without harassing or harming them.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.