Bookshelf: Surf Science

Surf Science – Tony Butt

Surf Science
Surf Science

It is well known that:

  1. I am not a surfer (but Kate is, lately!); and
  2. 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!

You can get a copy here or here, or here (if you’re in South Africa).

Bookshelf: The Story of Sushi

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice – Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi
The Story of Sushi

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 FishThe 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).

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Extreme Life of the Sea

The Extreme Life of the Sea – Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi

The Extreme Life of the Sea
The Extreme Life of the Sea

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.

Reviews at the Washington PostThe IndependentThe Guardian, and Scientific American, if you crave more.

You can get a copy here or here. If you’re in South Africa, here.

Bookshelf: The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet

The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet: How the Study of Ocean Currents Became a Science – Eric L. Mills

The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet
The Fluid Envelope of Our Planet

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.

You can get a copy of this book here or here. South Africans can find it here.

Bookshelf: Mapping the Deep

Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science – Robert Kunzig

Mapping the Deep
Mapping the Deep

Robert Kunzig won the Aventis Science Book of the Year award in 2001 for this book (the 2011 winner was The Wavewatcher’s Companion!). It is an absolutely fantastic piece of science writing, charting the state of the art in ocean science as well as the historical processes that led us to where we are today (or were in 2000).

Kunzig mostly used scientific papers and interviews with the scientists themselves as his primary sources, making complex mechanisms understandable without loss of information in the transmission.

The first few chapters of the book deal with the challenges of finding out what the ocean floor looks like, and of representing it in a useful way. Those beautiful maps of the ocean floor that I pored over in the atlas as a child, or in Sylvia Earle and Linda Glover’s wonderful Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas aren’t as precise as you may think they are – we often repeat the aphorism about how little of the ocean we have explored – but conveniently forget that this also precludes us from making detailed maps of it. The United States Navy probably has the most comprehensive sea floor maps, but they aren’t sharing.

Kunzig devotes several chapters to the type of life found in the ocean – he is not so much concerned with coastal as pelagic life forms, and devotes many fascinating pages to hydrothermal vent communities without once mentioning Robert Ballard. I experienced serious job envy reading about the blue water diving that Bill Hamner did to collect and study pelagic marine organisms such as jellies and plankton.

The influence of humans on the ocean’s environment is the subject of the next few chapters. There is a terrible, compulsively readable chapter about the New England cod fishery that was so convincingly destroyed, even with the assistance of government scientists. The final sections of the book deal with climate change and the ocean.

You can read other reviews of the book here and here. Here’s some of Kunzig’s writing, to give you a taste of what this book is like.

If you’re in South Africa, get a copy of the book here, otherwise try here or here. This is an updated edition of The Restless Sea, so don’t buy that one!

Bookshelf: The Secret Life of Lobsters

The Secret Life of Lobsters – Trevor Corson

The Secret Life of Lobsters
The Secret Life of Lobsters

Journalist Trevor Corson spent two years lobstering off the coast of Maine in the United States, giving him an excellent understanding of the rigours of that (or any) fishery, and its seasonal dynamics. (It also invested him, perhaps too deeply to allow him sufficient objectivity to tell this story, in relationships with the fishermen working there.)

He centres his book on the community of Little Cranberry island off Maine, a ridiculously beautiful island with a small permanent population, sustained by fishing for American lobster. These crustaceans can weigh up to 20 kilograms and are the heaviest in the world. He interweaves stories of the lobstermen at work with stories of the scientists who study the animals, and with details of the life of lobsters. (The title of the book is apt.) His characterisations of all of the individuals who appear in the book are fully formed, and by the end one feels a warm familiarity for many of them.

At the heart of the book is a conflict between scientists employed by the United States government to make recommendations regarding the management of its fisheries, who insisted for years that the lobsters of Maine are overfished, and the lobster fishing community, which has seen catches rising, has implemented their own measures to protect very small and very large lobsters and females (one of which is notching the tails of actively breeding females to indicate that they shouldn’t be kept), and is convinced that the stock is healthy.

Corson makes no secret of his antipathy for the “government scientists” who predicted the fishery’s disappearance and his disdain for their fears, but fails to explain why they are so convinced the stock is in danger of collapse. New England, the primary range of the American lobster, is the site of the devastating failure of a massive and lucrative cod fishery (in short, they were all eaten), and perhaps this failure informs the scientists concerned with excessive caution.

The Maine lobster fishery has, since 1995, evolved a system of co-management between regulations set by the government to manage the fishery, and management systems imposed and maintained by the fishermen themselves. This is an innovative and effective way of avoiding a “tragedy of the commons” (here’s Garrett Hardin’s original paper) that can arise when a common resource is free to be exploited by everyone. The Maine lobster fishery is presented at the end of Elinor Ostrom’s 1998 paper on coping with tragedies of the commons, as an example of how decentralised (or polycentric) management systems can work for common resources such as fisheries, clean water, or clean air. With very few government patrols, the fishery is kept regulated largely by its participants – the fishermen themselves. This is a fascinating success story. James Acheson, an economic anthropologist, has studied this fishery extensively. Some of his papers can be found here and here. Attempts to manage marine resources in a centralised, top down manner don’t work (c.f. abalone in South Africa – or all our fisheries, for that matter), and co-management solutions in which industry participates with government seem to be a very viable and effective solution.

The scientists Corson profiles are renegades (at least in comparison to the government’s people), who favour experiments and field work (involving scuba dives, ROVs and many laboratory tanks of lobster) over calculations and theory, and who back up the claims of the fishermen that the lobster population is healthy. I’m afraid the demonising of the government scientists didn’t sit well with me, and perhaps with a little more explanation or attempt to understand their perspective, Corson could have presented a more nuanced take on the matter. Lobster catches continue to boom in Maine, but because of larval lobsters’ dependence on ocean currents and water temperatures to usher in each phase of their development, global warming and the resulting changes in ocean currents and ocean temperatures could impact this fishery adversely in the future.

The details about lobster biology and behaviour that Corson presents are fascinating, and, I suspect, an excellent layperson’s substitute for wading through all the scientific literature on the life and times of the American lobster. He explains how the scientists reached their conclusions, too, giving detailed descriptions of experiments involving superglue, plastic tube, and long term observation of both wild and captive lobsters. I think (hope) a lot of what I learned here is generalisable to our own West coast rock lobsters: as I pointed out to Tony while I was explaining to him how male American lobsters urinate on one another from their heads while they fight vigorously over territory and mates, we don’t often observe lobsters behaving when we encounter them on dives. We sometimes see them eating, but most often they scoot backwards into a hiding place, or just gently wave their antennae at us. They have intricate social and reproductive lives, not to mention a dizzyingly complex life cycle (the difficulty of artificially replicating the conditions required for multiple larval transformations are part of the reason why they aren’t farmed like abalone). I will certainly be watching more closely next time I bump into one of these remarkable crustaceans.

This book has its origins in an article Corson wrote for the Atlantic, which features many of the characters who appear in The Secret Life of Lobsters – you can check it out to see if it catches your interest. Also, a second viewing of Deadliest Catch – Lobster Wars might be in order, after everything I’ve learned from this book.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The View from Lazy Point

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World – Carl Safina

The View from Lazy Point
The View from Lazy Point

The Carl Safina we (I) know and love – brilliant, lyrical, and wide ranging – returns with this book after his angry eulogy for the Gulf of Mexico (A Sea in Flames) after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This book is a return to the style of his other titles, which you should read as a matter of urgency: Song for the Blue OceanVoyage of the Turtle, and Eye of the AlbatrossIf you had to choose one author to be your guide to everything that’s wrong with, and everything that’s hopeful about our blue planet, Carl Safina would be that writer.

Safina won the 2012 Orion Book Award for The View from Lazy Point, but not everyone loves his sometimes wordy style (channeling great American nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau), so he may be an acquired taste. If you like a bit of literature mixed in with your science, I think you’ll love Safina’s writing. At intervals he allows outrage or anger to break through into his reverie; an encounter with duck hunters near his home, for example, left me with my heart pounding.

Lazy Point is a promontory at the end of Long Island Sound, not that far from New York city. Just looking at the area on the map makes me want to go there – it’s in an area frequented by vast numbers of migratory birds and abundant fish species, with an intriguingly convoluted coastline. Safina owns a cottage at Lazy Point, and The View from Lazy Point is structured around the seasonal changes he is able to observe from this spot. The daily walks he takes on the beach with his dog reveal the changing landscape and its inhabitants as the year passes.

Safina is a fisherman, and mounts an impassioned (and relatively convincing) defence of the activity. He also admits that he struggles with it, which I found slightly reassuring. He has given up shark fishing (at least, he doesn’t keep the sharks he catches any more). I’ve struggled with his fishing narratives before; fortunately in this book he’s more concerned with food than sport.

During the course of the year, Safina also travels – to Palau, Alaska, Svalbard, Belize – seeking first hand the effects of climate change and pollution on the marine environment and the people who depend on it. He sees ice melting and coral reefs bleached and overgrown with algae. I didn’t realise the extent to which coastal communities (mostly on islands) are already having their lands inundated by rising sea levels, crops destroyed and homes flooded. The problems and challenges identified in this book are massive in scope, and probably the most important (self-created) threats humanity has ever had to contend with.

After all, only in the last few decades have we understood anything, really, about how the world actually works. … Consequently most of civilization remains uninformed about the two great realities of our existence: all life is family, and the world is finite. … What I’m saying, basically, is that in very consequential ways, our modes of conduct are so out of sync with reality that they’re essentially irrational.

His call to action is justified. You can read an interview with Safina here, and other reviews of this book at the LA Times and New York Times.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I think you should read it.

Bookshelf: The Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic – Stan Ulanski

The Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream

Stan Ulanski is an academic with a special interest in the Gulf Stream, both as an oceanographer and meteorologist, and as a keen angler. I was drawn to this book because it reminded me of a book I took out of the school library when I was twelve, also about the Gulf Stream. I remember devouring that book, and have been trying to find it again for much of my adult life. I haven’t succeeded, and this isn’t it.

The Gulf Stream is a fast flowing, warm current that runs from the Carribbean up the east coast of the United States, past Canada, and across the Atlantic Ocean. It is responsible for about ten percent (popular opinion has always held this number to be higher, but it’s not) of the warming of England’s climate, transporting heat from the tropics up into northern latitudes. At the surface, where its flow is fastest, it can move at up to 9 kilometres per hour and the water in the current may be ten degrees warmer than the water surrounding it. Oceanographer/cartographer Matthew Fontaine Maury called it a “river in the ocean”, as it is so distinct from the water surrounding it:

There is a river in the ocean. In the severest droughts it never fails, and in the mightiest floods it never overflows. Its banks and its bottom are of cold water, while its current is of warm. The Gulf of Mexico is its fountain, and its mouth is in the Arctic Sea. It is the Gulf Stream.

The Physical Geography of the Sea, 1855

Ulanski divides his book into three parts. The first section provides an oceanography lesson, as well as a history of how we came to know what we know about ocean circulation. The second section, which I felt could have been beefed up significantly, has a chapter on the plankton, sargassum weed and other small life in the current, and another dedicated to bluefin tuna. I know from Richard Ellis’s tuna book how incredible these creatures are, and I felt that Ulanski could have made more of them. (He may have felt that since tuna have been so extensively eulogised, he has nothing to add – fair enough.)

The final chapter of the second section grated my goat and I struggled to read it – it’s about fishing, a sport of which Ulanski is a keen proponent, and profoundly smug (he “feels no remorse”). I cannot understand sport fishing  (or hunting) of any kind: if you’re going to release the animal after fighting it, exhausting it, and injuring it, what have you achieved? The inflicting of a prolonged, possibly fatal wound on a creature at a significant disadvantage to you in your motorised boat with expensive fishing tackle and crafty lures? How manly. We can appreciate how marvelously put together earth’s creatures are without damaging them with our ego in the process. (I realise that other people feel differently, with equal forcefulness.)

Ulanski concludes with an examination of the history of the exploration and colonisation of the New World, both aided and impeded by the Gulf Stream. It seemed that at times he wanders far from his main subject, but it is instructive to be reminded of what was involved in crossing an ocean before the advent of GPS and the creation of detailed charts. The section on piracy is fabulous and created in me a strong urge to re-watch Pirates of the Caribbean.

While my personal preference would be for a heavier focus on the oceanography and marine biology of the Gulf Stream, Ulanski is quite right to include a comprehensive section exporing humans’ relationship to this massive current. It has shaped the settlement and economies of all the lands adjacent to it.

Here’s an incredible visualisation of ocean currents – you can see the Gulf Stream prominently in the Atlantic. What is it like to be adrift on the Gulf Stream? Find out here.

The Perfect Storm deals with the 1991 nor’easter, a storm (not uncommon in the western United States) generated by the interaction of the warm water of the Gulf Stream with atmospheric phenomena. The Gulf Stream is the “weather-maker” of the western Atlantic, according to the author, and these interactions between the current and the atmosphere will become increasingly important and explosive as the global climate changes (and let me clarify, the change has come about because of human behaviour).

If you’re in South Africa, get the book here, otherwise here or here. For an even more wide-ranging view of the Atlantic ocean (minus the marine biology), check out Simon Winchester’s Atlantic.

Bookshelf: The False Bay story

The False Bay Story – Jose Burman

The False Bay Story
The False Bay Story

The False Bay Story is one of a trilogy of books about the notable bays of the south western Cape,  written by Jose Burman. The other two books (which I have not read) are The Table Bay Story and The Saldanha Bay Story. This volume was published in 1977, and is chiefly concerned with the colonial history of False Bay. It is well illustrated with early maps (which I found particularly interesting), paintings, drawings and photographs. Burman quotes at length from letters and diaries of the Dutch and British settlers at and visitors to the Cape, which makes this book particularly useful as a collection of primary sources.

The book concentrates on the human settlements: Gordon’s Bay, St James, Kalk Bay, Simon’s Town. Burman pays slightly more attention to the shipping and naval activity in the bay than does Arderne Tredgold in Bay Between the Mountainswith particular attention to how this shaped the settlement at Simon’s Town.

It was Burman’s explanation of why False Bay has that name that finally made sense to me. I had a half remembered idea that it was called False Bay because sailors mistook it for Table Bay, but could never imagine how someone could be that stupid. The truth is that Hangklip used to be known as Cabo Falso (False Cape) by Portuguese seafarers who mistook it for Cape Point. Rounding it, they found themselves in a bay, instead of heading up the western side of the Cape Peninsula heading for Table Bay. False Bay got its name from False Cape. Upon investigation, Wikipedia has this precise explanation. Should I have checked there first, and saved all the time I spent reading this book?

As with Bay Between the Mountains, I found a copy of this out of print book on Bid or Buy.

Bookshelf: The Cloudspotter’s Guide

The Cloudspotter’s Guide – Gavin Pretor-Pinney

The Cloudspotter's Guide
The Cloudspotter’s Guide

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society (over 35,000 members), and this book is a natural outflow of his immense, self-professed love for clouds. I’m mentioning this book here not because it mentions scuba diving even once, but because clouds form part of the weather system that is driven by the ocean, and furthermore affects all our activities on and under the sea. And, because paying attention to the rhythms of the weather is important amid the regimented humdrum of everyday activities, and is one of the things that enables me to live a relatively sane life.

The Cloudspotter’s Guide is divided into chapters by type of cloud. Pretor-Pinney explains how to identify the different types, how they form, and how they fit into the greater scheme of things. I find meteorology hard to keep in my head, so it’ll bear another reading, but I learned several (I suspect extremely basic – deep ignorance as my starting point) things about how clouds are formed that have improved my understanding of how the world works. This is a great book to take on holiday, alongside your bird book, or to keep near a window so that you can practise identifying the clouds that roll overhead, and start to understand the type of weather that they presage.

The other book I’ve read by Pretor-Pinney is The Wavewatcher’s Companion, and The Cloudspotter’s Guide is the same kind of deceptively simple, amusing take on a fairly complex phenomenon. By the end of the book you’ll have chuckled several times, admired some remarkable photographs of clouds (contributed by Cloud Appreciation Society members), and contemplated booking a plane ticket to Cairns, Australia in order to check out the Morning Glory cloud in person. You’ll also have learned quite a lot.

Did you know, for example, that the contrails (condensation trails) created by plane traffic contribute more to global warming than the carbon emissions of those same planes? The contrails are an artificial cloud that – by increasing cloud cover – trap heat at the earth’s surface and prevent it radiating out into space. You can read more about this here and here – the circumstances that allowed scientists to come to this conclusion were highly unusual.

You can get a copy here or here, otherwise here if you’re in South Africa. You can also grab the companion volume The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, which is an identification guide combined with a checklist (for serious work in the field), here.