The Gulf Stream

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.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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