Author talk at the State Library of NSW

It’s certainly been a busy couple of weeks since the publication of Wild Sea. On Saturday 9 June I gave a talk at the State Library of New South Wales to a wonderful Sydney audience who braved the cold (and a long weekend) to come and listen and discuss the book with me. Below is an extract from my talk.

I grew up in Adelaide, and spent summer holidays on the storm-scoured beaches along Australia’s southern coastlines and islands. I remember on one occasion my sister and I were camping on Flinders Island in Bass Strait, and we had to scramble out of our flimsy nylon tent during the night as the Roaring Forties blew it to pieces. In the morning we could see why the casuarina trees around us were bent over in deference to those winds! But like most people, I knew very little about the Southern Ocean where those winds had come from, beyond the coastal fringe. It seemed mysterious and alien, and perhaps it was this sense of the unknown that finally drew me to exploring its history.

Ocean is our planet’s most prominent feature. It is a vast interconnected body of salt water covering seven-tenths of Earth’s surface, and containing about 97 per cent of its water. The Southern Ocean is the southernmost part of this planetary ocean, a vast, stormy region encircling Antarctica. Apart from a chain of tiny subantarctic islands scattered through the Southern Ocean like black jewels in a white crown, there is nothing but powerful winds and strong currents, fog and ice – and the myriad of creatures that call this tempestuous region home. It is the least known and least visited of the world’s oceans, one of the last great wildernesses on Earth.

It was a region known to early those who voyaged southward around Africa and South America, as a stormy ocean where the air and sea temperature suddenly dropped and powerful westerly winds propelled their ships eastward. During the 20th century, when maritime nations attempted to map all the oceans and seas of the world to improve navigational safety, they could not agree on exactly how the boundary line should be drawn through the midst of this ocean hemisphere. So today different nations have different northern limits, and even different names, for the Southern Ocean, although scientists recognise the Antarctic Convergence as a biological frontier, where the cold polar waters from the Antarctic meet and mix with the warmer northern waters.

Below the Convergence lies the mighty Antarctic Circumpolar Current. It is the largest current in the world. It flows completely around the globe uninterrupted by any landmass, carrying enough water to fill all the world’s rivers at least 150 times over. The current conspires with the powerful westerly winds, between latitudes 40 and 60 degrees South, to create one of the stormiest regions on Earth. Early sailors had names for these winds: the Roaring Forties, after the sounds they made as they howled through masts and riggings. Further south lay the Furious Fifties and, finally, the Screaming Sixties.

This circumpolar storm track, with its winds, waves and drifting ice bergs, has long brought fear to the hearts of anyone who sails into it, conjuring up images of storms and shipwrecks. It is a world apart, more imagined than real. Cape Horn is perhaps the best known landmark in these latitudes. This is the approach to the Horn from the south across Drake Passage – an area that’s known as the sailors’ graveyard. It’s where the massive current squeezes between South America and Antarctica, creating hazardous conditions particularly for ships relying on windpower.

When I began my research on the Southern Ocean’s history, I read conventional maritime narratives and ventured into the archives to examine maps and diaries and letters. Many of these focused on northern empires in search of new lands and resources, maritime explorers trying to make sense of this strange, upsidedown hemisphere, Antarctic explorers who became entangled in immense fields of sea ice on their way to the South Pole, sealers and whalers who ventured into uncharted southern waters in pursuit of wealth from the oil of whales and elephant seals, and clipper ships negotiating the five great capes of the Southern Ocean in the quest for ever-faster sailing times. I know that some of these narratives will be familiar to you.

I decided to put the ocean at the centre of the narrative, and the winds and currents and ice became the framework for the chapters. I wanted to weave together stories that explored the Southern Ocean and its history from new and different and new perspectives. As an environmental historian, I am particularly interested in how people in the past have perceived the natural world and interacted with it, how they might have changed it or been changed by it. For me stories are a useful vehicle for exploring these interactions, and I discovered many intriguing stories – some familiar, others less so.

The Southern Ocean’s remoteness has tended to render it invisible, beyond the reach of human affairs. Apart from scientists and round the world sailors, most of us have become disconnected from this vast ocean to our south. That was one of my reasons for writing Wild Sea. I argue that we need stories that reconnect us with this little-known part of our planet, a sense of that place and its history that engages us emotionally and offers a way to imagine a different relationship with our oceans. 

So, if you are drawn to remote and wild places, the mysteries of the deep ocean, myths and legends about the sea, creatures that inhabit this stormy realm, ocean science and technology, or the cultural significance of the sea– then the Southern Ocean has much to offer. Ultimately, I have sought to portray the Southern Ocean as a very real and powerful force in this world, to celebrate its remarkable creatures, to recognise its interconnectedness, and to tell the stories of those who have lived with it or ventured into it and been changed forever by that experience.

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