Canberra Times journalist Karen Hardy kindly included me in this article. It also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 June 2018.
Wild Sea: A history of the Southern Ocean. (New South Books, $32.99)
Quite a few people have said to Joy McCann it seems odd she’s written a book about the Southern Ocean when she’s based in Canberra, a long way from the sea. “I grew up in South Australia and I knew the Southern Ocean as my backyard,” she says. “But I knew very little about it myself. It’s quite a mysterious environment, not many people really go there, it’s very stormy and remote and pretty much inaccessible. I had to find out more.”
McCann is a historian working in the relatively new field of environmental history, an honorary research associate with the Centre of Environmental History at the Australian National University School of History. “I’ve worked for many years in the public sector as a public historian, working mainly on land-based projects to do with the cultural heritage of rural communities, the history of particular places and how people form close attachments to places. “I’ve always been interested in this idea of sense of place and attachment and how people invest meaning and significance into a place over time.”
When she started her research for the book she realised the Southern Ocean was incredibly rich in stories, from the maritime histories of the northern empires coming south to colonise new lands, to the indigenous peoples of the region who had their own connections, to scientific voyages changing the way we look at the world as a whole. “I’ve woven all these different facets of its history into the book in a way that I think people will find quite surprising,” she says. “It’s really about people going on their own journeys of discovery into this unknown and mysterious place.”
She spent most of her time writing in her little office at the ANU, looking out over the campus and imagining she was in the Southern Ocean, she says. But as she was finishing the book she had the chance to set sail. She spent about three weeks on board the MS Expedition, sailing the Southern Ocean from South America to Antarctica via South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands.“We were experiencing everything the Southern Ocean has to offer, the storms and the winds, it’s a difficult environment to spend time in. “I was lucky to have the comforts of the ship but I was out there on the deck with the Roaring 40s and Furious 50s roaring through. We had the fog and the ice, lots of ice.” It was the first trip south for the season and a special ice captain from St Petersburg was on board to make sure they got through the sea ice safely. “You don’t actually know what you’re going to get until you get down there,” she says. She remembers setting foot on the beach of South Georgia, surrounded by 400,000 king penguins and elephant seals all in mating mode. “It was an incredible experience.”
She says she might not have tackled the topic if she hadn’t been based in Canberra. “There’s this intellectual core of people that have, through conversations and through seminars and conferences and things, really inspired me and helped me to tackle such a huge topic as this, and to also find a way to approach it in a way that is accessible to a general audience.”