Bookshelf: Rescue Warriors

Rescue Warriors: The US Coastguard, America’s Forgotten Heroes – David Helvarg

Rescue Warriors
Rescue Warriors

Much of this book reads like one of the Reader’s Digest “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the magazines that my granny brought us when she came to visit. (She’d also bring a packet of Sparkles or Cadbury Eclairs.)

Journalist, activist and former war correspondent David Helvarg (who also wrote Saved by the Sea and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean) spent two years embedded with various branches of the US Coastguard in order to experience their work.

I had naively thought that the US Coastguard, despite being funded by the government, and despite their website having a .mil for military domain name, was just a slightly larger, more financially flush version of South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

I was wrong. The mandate of the US Coastguard is to enforce maritime law (this is its primary difference from the NSRI) as well as to perform search and rescue operations. Viewers of the Deadliest Catch series will be familiar with the rescue work of the Coastguard in extremely challenging conditions. As a result of its law-enforcement mission, the Coastguard uses weapons and provides a lot more military-style training than you’d expect from a pure rescue operation. The Coastguard falls under the department of homeland security and operates cutters (with guns), icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Helvarg’s conservationist tendencies shine through in several parts of Rescue Warriors, and he does not shy away from confronting the aspects of the Coastguard that he finds problematic. His contention is that the Coastguard receives far less publicity than it deserves. This book goes some way towards bringing attention to the individuals who have saved tens of thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina, via water evacuation during the September 11 attacks, and in countless other less well-known emergency situations.

This is a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was amazed by the amount of funding and equipment that the Coastguard has at its disposal compared to the NSRI, even though the organisation is actually badly underfunded, especially when considered relative to the rest of the United States war machine. I was also impressed by the egalitarian approach that draws many women to join the Coastguard and enables them to rise in its ranks. The Coastguard made all its jobs available to women in 1977, something which other branches of the military have not yet done.

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

Video (TED): Camille Seaman on photographing icebergs

In this very short talk, Camille Seaman, photographer and author of Melting Away, talks about her approach to iceberg photography, and shows some of her pictures.

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Saeaman also photographs storm clouds; she started storm chasing in 2008. Depicting these clouds is another way for her to illustrated how everything in nature is connected.

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Bookshelf: Melting Away

Melting Away – Camille Seaman

Melting Away
Melting Away

I first saw Camille Seaman’s photography in a feature on She is thinks about photographing icebergs the way one would photograph a person of advanced age: with respect and reverence.

Melting Away is a book of magnificent photographs taken in the Antarctic and the Arctic. Seaman worked as a resident photographer on cruise vessels taking passengers to each end of the earth, and over a ten year period was able to take portraits of icebergs, each of which has its own character, and to observe the changes that are taking place at the poles as a result of climate change.

A feature on Seaman in the New York Times explains how her Native American heritage influenced her connection to nature and her ability to observe it closely. Her grandfather taught her to recognise trees as one would a person, and to be consciously quiet and observant in the natural world.

The text interspersed between the photographs is surprisingly personal and autobiographical. Seaman writes about her childhood, her aspirations, and the formative experiences that have brought her to where she is: a world-renowned photographer with a unique perspective on the impact humans are having on our planet. I found this part of the book to be fascinating, and would recommend it particularly to young women, especially those who might feel they don’t fit or conform, who are needing hope that somewhere in their future they will find their calling.

You can follow Seaman on instagram for photographs of her travels, and check out a slideshow of her images on The Telegraph website. An interview with Seaman can be found here; she talks quite a lot about her upbringing.

Get a copy of Melting Away here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Blue Hope

Blue Hope – Sylvia Earle

Blue Hope
Blue Hope

National Geographic Explorer in Residence Sylvia Earle gave a TED Talk in 2009 in which she made a wish – that we would all

… use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — to create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas; Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.

Sylvia Earle is the kind of person – with a storied career in marine science, conservation and exploration – that people listen to. She is the author of several books and contributor to many others, among them The World is BlueSea Changeand an illustrated atlas of the ocean.

It is therefore not surprising that Mission Blue, a global initiative to establish Hope Spots all over the planet, was the response to Dr Earle’s wish. There are are to be six Hope Spots in South Africa, with new ones (False Bay! False Bay!) being announced on a regular basis. The Sustainable Seas Trust is locally co-ordinating the establishment of the South African Hope Spots.

This book is a commemorative volume that accompanies the Hope Spot initiative (there is also a companion film that I haven’t gotten my hands on yet). Each of the seven chapters commences with a short essay by Dr Earle, reflecting on her long life lived in close relation to the ocean. She outlines the marine conservation challenges and priorities that should engage us today. As a woman scientist beginning her career in the 1950s and 1960s, she has faced the challenge of forging a career for herself during a time when it was considered humorous and clever to belittle women’s contributions through sexist language (I refer you to Mad Men for an accurate depiction of the milieu). She recounts the story of her first week-long stay in an underwater habitat, in the company of a group of female scientists. Upon their return to dry land, news of their adventure flooded the newspapers. Instead of being referred to as “aquanauts”, like their male counterparts, the female scientists were called “aquabelles” and “aquanauties” in the press.

The bulk of the book, however, is visual, and comprises photographs by a veritable pantheon of underwater photographers, including Paul Nicklen, David Doubilet, Thomas Peschak, Brian Skerry, and Alexander Mustard. The photographs are interspersed with quotes from poets, actors, scientists and other thought leaders (I don’t mean to imply that actors are thought leaders).

This is a beautiful book – a worthy addition to the library of underwater photography aficionados and Sylvia Earle fans. (I am the latter.) You can get it here or here, and if you’re in South Africa try here.

Bookshelf: Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us – Alexandra Morton

Listening to Whales
Listening to Whales

Listening to Whales is marine biologist Alexandra Hubbard’s memoir of the thirty-odd years she spent studying wild killer whales, as well as other cetacean species. Morton was born in the United States, the daughter of a famous artist, but discovered her passion for cetaceans while working for eccentric dolphin researcher John C. Lilly. Her orca research took her into Canada’s remote Broughton Archipelago, where she and her husband (who passed away during the research in a solo rebreather diving accident) lived a romantic, itinerant, lonely, and very challenging life following pods of wild orca around and studying their communication.

Morton also spent time in oceanariums and theme parks, observing and working with captive orcas and dolphins. Her insights into the trauma that these unnatural environments inflict on the animals held there are illuminating, and dovetail with the observations made in articles such as The Killer in the Pool and Blood in the Waterand Death at Seaworld.

When the orcas disappeared from British Colombia’s remote waters, Morton wanted to find out why. She soon discovered the reason for their absence: there was a growing number of salmon farms, which started proliferating in earnest in the late 1980s, in the archipelago. The salmon farms used Acoustic Harassment Devices (AHDs) to chase away seals that preyed on the captive salmon. Since sound is of vital importance to orcas for hunting, echo location, and communication, the whales found the noisy environment unliveable and intolerable, and left the area. Morton’s persistence (she wrote over 10,000 letters) led to the withdrawal of the AHDs starting in the early 2000s.

The salmon farms have affected the area in ways other than noise pollution. They generate massive amounts of physical pollutants (from excess food pellets, waste products, and antibiotics used to treat the farmed fish), reducing the water quality. The salmon are also prone to infestation by parasites. Because the farmed fish are kept in such close quarters, there is unchecked spread of diseases and this can spill over to wild populations. There are also potentially serious consequences if farmed salmon escape and breed with wild salmon populations. The fish farming industry is growing rapidly in both size and vogue, and there is massive financial incentive for companies (and government bodies) to cover up the shortcomings and failures of mariculture. Morton’s work uncovering the abuses occurring in Canadian (and other) salmon farming continues to this day. She is a hero.

I think that if I’d had more access to women who were working as scientists when I was a child, my career might have panned out a little differently from the way it has. This is why I am very enthusiastic to discover memoirs by women who are respected in their chosen field, particularly when pursuing that particular field of study would seem to preclude some of the things that some people want, such as a stable family life. Whale scientist Elin Kelsey’s book Watching Giants also falls into this category. Morton’s life story is one of a wandering, resourceful, curious person who has managed to combine significant scientific output with a fulfilling life that has included raising two children, one of whom now works at NASA. Part of her son’s childhood was spent curled up in the bow of the Zodiac his parents were using to track pods of orca!

I’d strongly recommend this book to girls considering a career in the natural sciences, and to anyone else who is interested in the ocean, killer whales, fish farming, or just in interesting lives well lived. You can get a copy here or here.

Bookshelf: The Sea Around Us

The Sea Around Us – Rachel Carson

The Sea Around Us
The Sea Around Us

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, conservationist and writer whose life and work should serve as an inspiration to any independently minded schoolgirl considering a career in the sciences. I wish I had heard of her when I was younger – she carved out a career for herself quite outside of the expectations that society held for women in the first half of the 20th century.

She wrote several books, of which the fourth, Silent Spring (concerned with the increasing use of pesticides and their effects on humans and the environment), is probably her best known. Her second book, The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, was the one that initially propelled her into the public eye.

The Sea Around Us is a natural history of the sea, based upon the oceanographic and scientific knowledge of the workings of the world’s oceans that was available at the time of writing. I read an edition of this book that Carson updated in 1961 with knew scientific developments of the last ten years, and there are other editions available with supplementary chapters that bring the science and oceanography completely up to date. The required updates aren’t sufficiently vast to render the book useless or even annoyingly out of date, and indeed, once you’ve read some of Carson’s prose it becomes clear that the majesty and poetry of the sea is as much the subject matter here as the science.

The first chapter of the book, describing the origins of the oceans, reads like a creation myth – one that has some science behind it, however! It just begs to be read by a sonorous, James Earl Jones-type voice, and captures perfectly what it is about the ocean that fascinates us. Here is the first paragraph:

Beginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with that great mother of life, the sea. Many people have debated how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see, and in the absence of eyewitness accounts there is bound to be a certain amount of disagreement. So if I tell here the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean, it must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole chapters the details of which we can only imagine. The story is founded on the testimony of the earth’s most ancient rocks, which were young when the earth was young; on other evidence written on the face of the earth’s satellite, the moon; and on hints contained in the history of the sun and the whole universe of star-filled space. For although no man was there to witness this cosmic birth, the stars and moon and the rocks were there, and, indeed, had much to do with the fact that there is an ocean.

The Sea Around Us, Chapter 1, “The Gray Beginnings”

Carson’s focus is more on oceanographic information than on marine biology, although she does devote several chapters to the life found within the oceans. It was lovely to read about the palolo worms of Samoa, after seeing the BBC South Pacific episode that deals with them. Carson also writes with reverence about the sargassum weed that is captured in a massive gyre in the Atlantic ocean, and describes the hosts of small creatures that make their homes in and beneath the weed.

My favourite sections were the chapter on the birth of an island through volcanic processes, and her explanation of tides. In my reading prior to our Malta holiday last year, I tried desperately to figure out why in Malta there is almost no tidal movement, and in other places (Jersey in the Channel Islands and the Bay of Fundy spring to mind) the tidal range is so vast. Moreover, not all parts of the world experience two high tides per day – some regions, such as the Gulf of Mexico, only experience one high and low tide daily. How could this possibly be the case? Carson explains tidal science as simply as it can be done, and in the process gave me just enough information to satisfy my curiosity but not enough to give me a headache. Tides are determined by the moon and to a lesser extent the sun – every school pupil knows this – but the shape of the coastline, ocean basins and nearby land masses also go a long way to determining tidal range and frequency. If you’re interested in this subject you could do some preliminary reading here, here and here.

This is one of those books that will delight ocean-minded people, but that will also persuade those who are less fascinated with the sea that it is something wonderful and worth thinking about. Carson’s conservationist urgency is less to the forefront of this book than, say, Carl Safina‘s is in his books, but it is there nonetheless. I found it deeply disturbing that sixty years ago it was already painfully obvious that fishing pressure at its then-current levels (nowhere near as technologically advanced as it is today) was removing marine life from the ocean faster than natural processes of birth and growth could replace it.

The Sea Around Us is a beautiful and important book that will occupy your thoughts long after you finish reading it. You can buy the book here if you are in South Africa, and here if you’re not. For Kindle, try here or here.