This list will grow over time…
Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth – Chris Dixon
Chris Dixon is a surf journalist and author, with strong connections to the big wave surfing community. Nominally concerned with Cortes Bank, a submerged mountain in the deep Pacific ocean that rises nearly to the surface and generates massive waves under the right conditions, Ghost Wave is also a cultural history of big wave surfing.
Cortes Bank is located nearly 170 kilometres west of San Diego, California. It is a seamount that rises from nearly two kilometres’ depth, with a flattish top about 30 kilometres long. Its shallowest point is called Bishop Rock and is very close (1-2 metres at times) to the surface. When swells arrive from the right direction, with a long period, they are pushed up by the sudden depth change, creating waves up to 30 metres high. The wave moves so fast that surfers sometimes need to be towed into it on jet skis (igniting a whole other debate), and being held down on the reef is a potentially fatal experience. This video purports to explain how the wave works, but may require more than one viewing as the graphics whizz by a bit fast. Dixon says that the waves at Cortes Bank may have no theoretical upper limit.
Dixon also describes the known history of Cortes Bank, which has long been known as a navigational hazard to shipping – because of its shallowness at Bishop Rock, and also because sometimes a wave tens of metres high is standing up unexpectedly in the middle of the ocean! The first attempt to surf the wave may have been in the 1960s, but Dixon describes the first “recent” attempts, beginning in 1995.
Big wave surfers are a closed, almost secretive group, privy to experiences more terrifying and incredible than most ordinary people will ever face. Part of this secrecy, I suspect, is a deliberate and unnecessary attempt to add mystique to the sport. Dixon’s insight into one part of the developing big wave culture, and his descriptions of other big waves (Jaws, Mavericks, etc) add welcome colour to this – to me at least – mysterious pastime. It is entirely different to ordinary surfing. For some other perspectives on big wave surfing, from characters mentioned only in passing in Ghost Wave, check out The Wave (all about Laird Hamilton), and this article about Ken Bradshaw.
Here’s what Cortes Bank looks like:
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Can Tell Us About Ourselves – James Nestor
I was very excited to start reading this book, and wanted very much to like it. I am eternally puzzled and fascinated by freediving, a sport which seems wrapped in much mystique and mumbo jumbo by its participants, but which is appealing in its simplicity and risky to the rash. I read and enjoyed The Last Attempt and The Dive, books which for me underscored the risks inherent in the sport. I was pleased that James Nestor, who writes for Outside Magazine, had decided to tackle the subject in a less dramatic form than the Audrey Mestre tragedy.
Sadly the book didn’t live up to the promise of its cover and title, at least to me. Far from focusing on the subject of freediving, as I expected, the book does that as well as attempting to provide a tour of the entire range of ocean depths down to the very deepest parts.
The author freedives, meets freedivers, and does amateur scientific research with freedivers, all of which are fascinating things to read about, but he also takes a trip in a home made submarine, tries repeatedly to visit a research ship, visits an underwater habitat, and wanders through a variety of other oceanic themes. While each of these topics is interesting in its own right, I struggled to discern the book’s structure and point after the initial couple of chapters relating to depths that humans can penetrate without the use of machines, and this was frustrating.
The best bits of Deep relate to freediving as a sport, and I would have enjoyed learning more about what it is that drives freedivers – how do they decide how deep to go, and how do they know when to turn around? Why is there so much yogic mysticism surrounding the sport? Is it simply because yoga is useful for expanding lung capacity and stilling the mind, or is there more to it? How does one reach the pinnacle of the sport? What went wrong for Herbert Nitsch, Nicholas Mevoli, and others?
Perhaps I have read too many books of this type (author inserts him/herself into unfamiliar environment; drama and factual information ensues). Don’t not read the book because I struggled to apprehend its overarching purpose. Rather check out reviews of the book at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Independent, and Scientific American, as well as what may be a pertinent review by one of the book’s subjects on Amazon.com. They all enjoyed it far more than I did. You can read extracts from the book here, here and here.
Finally, watch William Trubridge dive to 101 metres and back without fins, and then tell me this sport isn’t beguiling in some deep way:
I had high hopes for The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, for reasons that will be revealed (I hope) in the course of the next few years. Monterey Bay is in California, and opens onto the Pacific Ocean. It has approximately the same surface area as False Bay but is shallower and less square. Filled with diverse marine life, it was formerly bounded by a row of sardine canneries (setting for John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row) which were responsible for massive pollution in the area. Tons of stinking sardine guts fouled up the bay, which had been stripped of much of its marine life by aggressive fishing practices and cascading effects in the ecosystem.
In 1892 the Hopkins Marine Station was founded, a research laboratory of Stanford University. In 1931, the area of ocean in front of the lab was designated the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge (now Reserve). The bay’s populations of abalone, sea otters, killer whales, kelp forests, whales, and other life gradually recovered, and the sea urchin barrens were overgrown and once again supported a variety of life.
In this book Palumbi and Sotka trace the decline and recovery of the bay, lingering on colourful local characters such as Monterey mayor Julia Platt, whose no-nonsense attitude ensured access to the ocean for all the residents of the area. I expected the book to be more about marine biology, with information about how the various species recovered in the ecosystem once the polluting and overfishing forces were removed, but it is definitely more of a human history, with a strong focus on Platt, John Steinbeck, and his friend Ed Ricketts, with whom he travelled to the Sea of Cortez.
The establishment of the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row effectively redeemed an area that was the source of seemingly limitless pollution. The aquarium was opened in 1984 after years of planning. It is a sister aquarium to Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, and also has the distinction of being the first aquarium to attempt to exhibit a (juvenile) great white shark, an enterprise that (fortunately) seems doomed to failure.
There’s an excellent article on Palumbi and the book here.
Here’s Stephen Palumbi giving a TEDx talk on how Monterey Bay came back to life:
The Unnatural History of the Sea – Callum Roberts
Conservation biologist Callum Roberts has spent years researching the history of the last 1,000 years’ exploitation of the sea by human beings. The result, The Unnatural History of the Sea, is a stunning and detailed illumination of the scale of destruction we have wrought on our oceans. I had been under the impression that the development of industrial-scale fishing capabilities (factory ships, flash freezing, gill nets and the like) in the mid 20th century was what prompted the most egregious overfishing practices. This, however, is an example of baseline creep, in which successive generations look back at the conditions of nature experienced by the previous generation, and mistake them for pristine.
Humans have been harvesting marine life for over 1,000 years, moving from the freshwater ecosystems of Europe’s rivers and lakes after denuding them of all significant fish life through astonishingly aggressive (and familiar-sounding) fishing practices such as stringing nets across the entire width of rivers when fish returned to spawn. Siltation of the rivers caused by deforestation on their banks, and the development of better fishing equipment, also contributed to the move to marine fishing.
Millions of sea turtles and whales used to roam the oceans. To put that in perspective, there are under 15,000 southern right whales alive today (we think they’re recovering well – haha), and approximately 200,000 breeding green sea turtles. Numerous sea turtle rookeries, where the animals return year after year to lay eggs, are now lost to memory, after their breeding populations were completely wiped out during the 16th and 17th century by explorers and settlers in the New World. Entire seal and otter populations were hunted to extinction for their pelts. Hunters and fishermen often took far more than they needed, killing for amusement, squandering the abundance and leaving carcasses to rot or tossing excess fish – already dead – back overboard. After perusing logbooks, letters, diaries and other documents, Roberts remarks that rarely did the explorers, settlers and merchants remark on any aspect of the natural beauty of the creatures they saw on their travels, and if they did it is immediately followed by instructions on how to kill and prepare the animal, and what it tastes like.
Natural marine spectacles such as the sardine run off the Eastern Cape coast of South Africa were once far less remarkable and unusual than we find them today. The migration of herring from the Arctic down to the latitudes of the United Kingdom between May and October each year drew thousands of basking sharks (now we get a news article when four are seen in one day) and other predators, and their spawning left eggs lying on the sea floor in layers up to two metres thick. Roberts says that great white sharks also feasted on this bounty of fish, and mentions that there are too many detailed reports of white sharks up to nine metres long from the 18th and 19th century to discount all of them as false. (The maximum recorded length of a white shark in modern times is approximately six metres.) Today white sharks are seen so rarely in European waters as to create a great fanfare when one of them is spotted.
The point is that the oceans used to support far, far more life and abundance than we are able to conceive of today. Herring used to be so abundant in the seas around Scandinavia that they held up shipping. Pods of dolphins didn’t number in the thousands; they numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Whales were seen in similar numbers, surrounding boats, rubbing against them, and drenching them with spray from their blowholes. Ships navigated towards land by following the sound of countless sea turtles swimming towards the beaches they laid their eggs on.
This is a crushing, shocking book. While reading it I frequently felt myself assailed with despair and regret at how long the over-exploitation of marine resources has been underway, and how much we have lost. Bottom trawling dates back to the 14th century, and already then there were complaints (to Edward III of England, in 1376) about its indiscriminate destructiveness. Scientists visiting newly-discovered (they think) sea mounts have found their once thriving slopes reduced to fields of rubble, littered with discarded trawl nets and other fishing gear debris.
The sections on fishing in the deep sea and on trawling are devastating. Roberts contends that there is no such thing as a sustainable deep sea fishery, as the target species are so long-lived and slow growing (and unknown to science), with unknown population sizes, that there is no sustainable number of fish that can be removed without risking the species’s ability to survive.
Finally, Roberts offers some solutions to arrest the awful, seemingly inevitable slide towards ocean barrens populated only with sea jellies and urchins. The steps Roberts outlines in order to save and recover the world’s fisheries are simple to state, but will be challenging to implement:
- reduce present fishing capacity (i.e. number of boats, level of sophistication – this is not referring to reducing quotas)
- eliminate risk-prone decision making (i.e. use science, and act only when you have the facts – don’t use hope or gut feel as a decision making tool)
- eliminate catch quotas and instead implement controls on the amount of fishing (i.e. how much effort can be expended)
- require people to keep what they catch
- require fishers to use gear modified to reduce bycatch
- ban or restrict the most damaging catching methods (e.g. trawl fishing)
- implement extensive networks of marine reserves that are off limits to fishing
He advocates the use of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – scientists estimate that it is necessary to protect 20-40% of the world’s oceans in order to save fisheries for the future. Strangely, to someone who lives here and doesn’t think much of our collective will and ability to police MPAs, especially when fishing is allowed in many of them, South Africa is actually a world leader and has protected a larger proportion of her territorial ocean than many other countries (the world total is about 1.2% of the oceans, with only 0.01% of the world’s oceans designated “no take” zones, according to Wikipedia). The benefits however, even of poorly policed marine parks, are significant.
I am not sure I share Roberts’s optimism that the situation can be reversed or arrested – passages from this book come to me at odd moments, leaving me nauseated at the greed, waste and ignorance that we have displayed as a species, against the life of the sea.
Flotsametrics and the Floating World- Curtis Ebbesmeyer & Eric Scigliano
I found Flotsametrics to be a profound and moving memoir slash ocean science book. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is an oceanographer who cut his teeth in the oil industry, and later moved to private consulting. His late-life interest in beachcombing, and reading the debris he finds in order to chart the paths of ocean currents, was sparked by a question his mother asked him upon reading about a shipment of Nike shoes that had burst out of its container and floated all over the world.
The chapters of Flotsametrics are organised chronologically and by theme, and Ebbesmeyer mingles his life story with revelations about the oceanographic discoveries and projects he was part of at each stage. Cadavers, bath toys, messages in bottles (lots of these), drifting Japanese junks (seriously fascinating!), hockey gloves, sneakers, sea beans, and plain old garbage give up secrets of ocean circulation.
I stopped and re-read several parts of the book, particularly in the chapters that dealt with the death of Ebbesmeyer’s friends and family members. His meditations on releasing his loved ones’ ashes into the ocean gyres are quite beautiful and profound, notwithstanding an alcohol-fuelled incident in which he and a group of friends flush another friend’s ashes down a toilet in Seattle!
Thanks to Rochelle, I came across this article about a shipment of nautical-themed Lego that spilled out of a container 17 years ago, and is washing up (still) in Cornwall. Ebbesmeyer is lending his expertise here, as well. There is a New York Times review of Flotsametrics here, and one from The Guardian here. If you have to choose between Flotsametrics and Moby Duck, which deals with some overlapping themes, I would recommend Flotsametrics a thousand times over. The author actually has something (many things) to say!
Surf Science – Tony Butt
It is well known that:
- I am not a surfer (but Kate is, lately!); and
- Conditions that make for great surfing generally mean poor diving, and vice versa.
The second point above is exactly why reading a book on what makes waves turned out to be an extremely enlightening experience.
Dr Tony Butt lives in Spain on the exposed north Atlantic coast (good waves), but apparently spends the southern winter in Cape Town, surfing Dungeons where possible I imagine! He is a physical oceanographer. In Surf Science he explains where waves come from, and what leads to different kinds of surfing conditions.
His explanation of the origin of the waves that reach the coast starts at the very beginning, with an explanation of the drivers of weather systems. This section caused me to jump up and down with excitement, and to speak many long sentences to long suffering husband Tony. His expository method is easy to follow at each step, and for the first time I feel that I have a grip on . First we build up a mental model of the earth as a stationary globe with no land, and then gradually add rotation about its own axis, rotation around the sun (seasons), and the presence of continents to the model. At each step further understanding of the average world weather patterns (north Atlantic high, roaring forties, and so on) is improved.
The book goes on to cover the propagation of swell, and what happens when waves arrive in shallow water, break, and possibly allow surfing. Butt also deals with water temperature, tides, and rip currents, and concludes with a few chapters on surf forecasting models and how to read them. Throughout the concepts are illustrated with straightforward diagrams, and end-of-chapter boxes contain formulae for the mathematically inclined.
This is a shorter and more richly illustrated book than The Wavewatcher’s Companion, serving a different audience. Both surfers and divers can benefit from Surf Science, as well as the yachting fraternity, NSRI crew members, and anyone else who has an interest in the mechanics of the ocean. This volume has more the flavour of a textbook, with no unnecessary information, anecdote or humourous asides. There is a place for both books!
The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice – Trevor Corson
I didn’t really know what to expect from this book – I admit that I tried it out because it had a fish on the cover, and because I’d previously enjoyed Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters. I was pleasantly surprised. Showing the same narrative flair as he exhibits in his lobster book, Corson interweaves science and history with a present-day story with novel-like characteristics.
Formerly titled The Zen of Fish, The Story of Sushi takes place at the California Sushi Academy, tracing a (real and) diverse group of students as they spend several months learning to be sushi chefs. The principal character, the weakest student in the class, is squeamish about handling raw fish, and scared of her sushi knives – one wonders if she had done any research about what being a sushi chef entails. Despite this drag on the overall mood of the classroom scenes (one can only read about someone being berated for their incompetence, or deliberately shirking tasks that they find unappealing, so many times) Corson manages to invest the reader in the lives of the chefs and students that he profiles. As the students learn about sushi, so do we.
The history parts of the book deal with the development of sushi as a cultural and culinary phenomenon, first in Japan and then spreading to the rest of the world. Corson also delves into food science, explaining why things taste the way they do, and the microbial processes that give us vinegar and other fermented foods (essential in the development and preparation of sushi), and marine biology. Make no mistake – bluefin tuna, abalone, urchins, eels and octopus play only bit parts in this book, and appear more frequently as sushi toppings than as vibrant life forms populating the world’s oceans. Corson talks about the biology of the animals only insofar as it enables development of his main – food related – themes.
I found this a surprisingly good read, and a helpful informer on the subject of an aspect of Japanese culture other than their well known penchant for whale hunting and general disingenuousness around ethical fishing practices. It has made me a more informed sushi consumer but not as regards what fish are best to eat (use SASSI for that). There is hardly a mention of whether one can ethically consume all sushi toppings with gay abandon, or whether the environmentally conscious consumer should think twice about eating certain seafoods. I do feel that I have more understanding of the construction and serving of sushi, and am able to watch the chefs at my local sushi bar with a bit more awareness.
There’s a New York Times review (and another book recommendation).
The Extreme Life of the Sea – Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi
Father and son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi tackle the ocean superlatives in this entertaining, easy to read volume. The Extreme Life of the Sea is riddled with pop culture references (many of which whizzed right over my head), but in between these the Palumbis conduct a tour of the most notable parts of the ocean food web. They pause at the creatures that are smallest, largest, oldest, most tolerant of heat and cold, fastest, strangest, first to evolve, and least changed since the dawn of time. The pace is rapid, but despite this the authors manage to be both interesting and detailed where necessary.
There is a recurring element of storytelling as the Palumbis introduce new creatures (they cover approximately 200 species in just over 200 pages), and I can imagine a relatively young reader with a scientific bent deriving great enjoyment from these interludes as well as from the rapid fire facts that follow each lyrical species introduction. Albatross, whales, sea jellies, worms, and giant squid line up one after the other, demonstrating their particular adaptations to the environment in which they live. Billions of microbes and viruses duke it out beyond the range of human vision. I was dazzled by how different all marine life is from humans, and how ridiculously varied.
The final chapter treats “future extremes” – the extremes we will be left with as global warming and our current fishing practices run their course. As the authors point out in concluding this chapter,
… over the long term the oceans don’t need saving. People need saving. people will need to live through the next hundreds or thousands of years when the oceans are no longer the pantry of the world, no longer safe to swim in or sail across, toxic and wracked by ever-stronger storms… The fate of the oceans has become our fate too, and we are out of easy ways to ensure that the future of the ocean is secure.
The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet: How the Study of Ocean Currents Became a Science – Eric L. Mills
This beautifully-titled book is a slow moving history of physical oceanography, tracing the contributions and occasional theoretical dead ends that, over the decades, have led us to our current understanding of ocean circulation. Eric Mills has a special interest in the history of the marine sciences, and – rather than get bogged down in too much explanation of the underlying processes – focuses here on the history and development of the science. His account is not normative in the sense that I sometimes didn’t know why a particular scientist’s ideas were wrong (not being a particularly hardcore student of physical oceanography), and he concentrates on providing a historical account.
The arrangement of the book traces the history of oceanography around the globe, from Canada to Berlin to Monaco to Scandinavia, and finally to the United States. I didn’t realise just how mathematical the field is. Mills makes clear the immense challenges in doing empirical oceanographic studies of the deep sea, which may be a contributing factor to the rate of development of the theoretical side of the science.
Mills provides interesting detail of the protagonists in his story, lifting them out of history as the often quirky individuals that they were (much as Trevor Norton does in Stars Beneath the Sea – although this is a more serious historical work). I enjoyed the fact that Columbus Iselin, Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, complained in 1939 that:
The main difficulty with oceanography is that the Lord made the ocean too big and this is the chief obstacle, which we must use our collective ingenuity to overcome.
Mills’s writing is detailed and a pleasure to read. There are comprehensive references as well as a list of the canonical textbooks in the field, at the end of the book. I’d recommend this book to you if you have a special interest in the history of science.