Bookshelf: Flotsametrics

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!

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

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 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.

Article: Outside on the sinking of the Bounty

Having turned our attention to the mighty Gulf Stream current yesterday, let’s think about the kinds of phenomena that the warm current can give rise to. As weather systems such as thunderstorms move over warm water, they draw water into the lower atmosphere by causing the seawater to evaporate. This water vapour is pushed up, leaving space for more, and the storm grows in power as long as it stays over the warm sea. The Gulf Stream is a warm current in a cold ocean, and is thus a major generator of hurricanes. NOAA explains it properly.

Outside Magazine published a detailed analysis of the sinking of the Bounty during Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. The Bounty was a replica of HMS Bounty, an eighteenth century three masted sailing ship. She was built in 1960 for a Marlon Brando movie about the mutiny that led to the establishment of the pit of despair that is the settlement on Pitcairn Island. (Why pit of despair? Read this.) After the movie was completed the vessel passed through several owners, all of whom struggled to finance the constant repairs and maintenance required on a wooden ship of that scale. Her story concluded in the glare of the world’s media attention, as the ship struggled to stay upright while sailing into the eye of Hurricane Sandy (for reasons unclear).

As the drama of the Bounty’s final hours unfolded on CNN and the Weather Channel, seamen and landlubbers alike were asking the same question: what was a square-rigged ship doing in the middle of a hurricane—a storm that had been forecast for days?

But the full answer to why the Bounty sank was much more complex than a captain’s rash decision. It was a story decades in the making, a veritable opera of near misses and fantastic schemes involving a dogged captain, a fiercely loyal crew, and an owner who was looking to sell. 

This is a story of a nautical disaster told with a strong focus on the personalities involved. It’s quite a terrifying read.

Read the full article here.

The incident report was released by the United States’s National Transportation Safety Board in February of this year, and places much of the blame for the sinking on the captain’s decision to sail into the hurricane.

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: Dark Descent

Dark Descent – Kevin F. McMurray

Dark Descent
Dark Descent

Kevin McMurray is the author of Deep Descent, a riveting account of diving the wreck of the Andrea Doria. Here, he turns his attention to the largely forgotten wreck of the RMS Empress of Irelanda liner that sank in Canada’s St Lawrence River in 1914, after colliding with a Norwegian vessel in thick fog. Over 1,000 people lost their lives. The Empress lies in just over forty metres of water, but the current, cold water, low visibility and lack of ambient light make it an extremely challenging dive site on which several divers have lost their lives.

McMurray provides a detailed account of the collision, sinking, and subsequent enquiries into the accident. He also describes the history of diving endeavours on the vessel, which began in 1964, when diving equipment was considerably more rudimentary than it is today. As with the Andrea Doria, it is possible to penetrate the Empress of Ireland through the collision hole in her side. The wreck lies partially on her side, which makes the interior disorienting.

The author has dived the wreck several times himself, which enables him to speak authoritatively of the challenges of cold water, low visibility diving (much like what we sometimes do in Cape Town). The wreck lies some distance out in the river (the St Lawrence is wide and eminently navigable) which has its own associated challenges, too.

There has been a fair amount of political wrangling over the wreck, perpetrated by rival dive charters, self-appointed guardians of the wreck site, and others who hoped to benefit materially from the wreck, and McMurray details some of this.

I found McMurray’s account of diving the Andrea Doria to be more immediate (and to give me more nightmares) than Dark Descent, but it is nonetheless an extremely interesting book that itself serves as a monument to what is Canada’s worst peacetime disaster. Both McMurray’s books go some way to explaining the allure of challenging wreck dives that only few divers will ever have the chance to visit.

You can get a copy of the book here or here.

Dive sites: Roman Rock

I’m not sure why I haven’t written about Roman Rock before. I’ve actually done four dives on the main reef, the first in 2010. The pictures in this post are from more than one of the dives – I’ll group them together, and you’ll be able to see by the water colour which dive is which.

Reef life at Roman Rock
Reef life at Roman Rock

Roman Rock reef is a very large collection of boulders separated by sand patches, centred on the Roman Rock lighthouse. Nearby reefs include Castor RockLivingstone ReefRoman’s RestWonder Reef, and Tivoli Pinnacles. The reef is comprised of granite boulders, heavily encrusted with typical Cape Town reef life – feather stars, brittle stars, nudibranchs, sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers and ascidians – varying with the depth. If the current is strong you will find a lot of fish here, mostly roman and hottentot, enjoying the tasty bounty brought by the tide.

Part of the dive is along high walls that are reminiscent of Atlantis Reef, further south. There are deep dead-end passages in between the rocks, wide enough to swim through (or drive a car through), and the rippled sand looks like a white carpet or a runway. In the middle of nowhere you will come across a ladder; it’s been there since the first time I dived Roman Rock in 2010. Your guess is as good as mine.

Ladder in the middle of nowhere
Ladder in the middle of nowhere
Redbait at Roman Rock
Redbait at Roman Rock

The site is suitable for Open Water divers, as the maximum depth one can attain while staying adjacent to the reef is about 18 metres. There are several pinnacles and shallower plateaus that are suitable for deeper safety stops. It goes without saying that each diver must have a surface marker buoy – the site is a relatively short boat ride from False Bay Yacht Club, but offshore nonetheless and there may be boat traffic, depending on where the current takes you.

Dive date: 3 August 2013

Air temperature: 22 degrees

Water temperature: 14 degrees

Maximum depth: 16.5 metres

Visibility: 10 metres

Dive duration: 38 minutes

Video footage of Bluff Point (Big Gubal Island, Red Sea)

So apparently I took a lot of videos on our Bluff Point dive on our Red Sea trip. It was an exhilarating drift dive along the outside of the lagoon wall, and as we came around the corner under the lighthouse we were flung out over water hundreds of metres deep. Let’s start with my favourite video, about which I am expecting a call from National Geographic any day now. Here’s a moray eel swimming down the outer lagoon wall in the sunlight, finding a hole in the coral, and going inside.


Here are my fellow divers: Tony, Christo, Kate and Veronica.


This shows you how fast the current was moving. I didn’t fin at all while taking this video (or, indeed, for much of the dive).


Here is some of the coral that we saw. It’s very dense and colourful here.


Finally, here’s a little panorama taken while we were still against the outer lagoon wall.