‘An ocean’s embrace’ – a recent review

My thanks to Frances Steel of the University of Wollongong for her recent review of Wild Sea published in the journal History Australia.

BOOK REVIEW An ocean’s embrace
Frances Steel
University of Wollongong, Australia

HISTORY AUSTRALIA 2019, VOL. 16, NO. 2, 430–431

Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean, edited by Joy McCann, Sydney, NewSouth, 2018 (paperback), 256 pp., $A32.99, ISBN 9781742235738, Publisher’s website: https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/wild-sea/

Decades after history’s oceanic turn, connections across oceans still tend to be imagined as links connecting shore communities. The Southern Ocean rather confounds such approaches. Crossing this ocean could entail getting trapped by ice, running into islands devoid of human life, or landing on a frozen continent. How, then, to approach its history? McCann’s study is more inspired by the ocean as ocean than models adapted from watery regions more obviously framed by inhabited landmasses. Humans do not dominate centre-stage, even as McCann is concerned to chart the evolving understanding and awareness of this circumpolar world. The chapter structure reflects this, with thematic placeholder titles such as ‘Wind’, ‘Ice’ and ‘Current’, while chapter epigraphs frequently conjure a world before or without people, where ‘in an unbroken dream-time … the seas sigh to themselves’ (Derek Mahan, 54). The cover image of a sperm whale diving off Kaikoura in New Zealand’s South Island might initially appear off-course, straying into the (South) Pacific Ocean. Yet it encapsulates the more-than-human migrations that have repeatedly enticed people into the Southern Ocean. It is suggestive of the fuzzy northern limits of this ocean, as well as the explanatory limits of cartographic divisions of the global sea. Each chapter opens with brief diary entries from McCann’s own southern voyaging in 2016 and 2017. Voyaging lies at the heart of the book. In the first chapter, ‘Ocean’, the Southern Ocean is introduced in deep time, through geological formation and continental drift over millions of years. The narrative then leaps to 1487 as the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias rounded the African continent, followed by subsequent expeditions from the northern hemisphere, principally the voyages of James Cook. One might ponder this initial primacy accorded European awareness and engagement. Some readers might also quibble with a later narrative alignment of the ‘Western legend’ of the Great Southern Land and the ‘myth’ of Ui-te-Rangiora’s voyaging, which might date to 650 CE and recorded less-fanciful encounters with ice, kelp and sea lions (87–88). McCann has a keen appreciation of the myriad ways in which humans animate or impose order on the ocean. The book’s opening assertion is that ‘The Southern Ocean is a wild and elusive place…’ (ix). She draws on Henry David Thoreau, for whom ‘wildness’ connoted alienation (2). But ‘wild’ also echoes nineteenth-century western accounts of people encountered around the ocean’s shores. Charles Darwin described in 1833 the people he observed in Terra del Fuego as ‘bona fide savages … wild man…’(58). Sealers, by another account, were ‘the very refuse of the human species’ (77). Emperor penguins, too, were perceived as primitive forms of life, on the verge of extinction (99). So enduring are such nineteenth-century perceptions of southern lifeways, that even when closely attuned to the ‘moral dimension’ imposed on high southern latitudes (62) it can be challenging to render other meanings for ‘wild sea’. If we read ‘wild’, though, as remoteness and inaccessibility, the world’s oceans certainly shifted in the dominant western imagination from the mid-to-late nineteenth century, largely via heightened surveillance for (often-entangled) scientific and militaristic ends. Other projects to ‘civilise’ the sea through industrial technologies of steamships and undersea cables had less purchase in the Southern Ocean. Thus, we hear little of people, information or goods moving across ocean pathways (‘oceans connect’), but of those who expressly sought out the Southern Ocean as destination. There are many fascinating insights into their motivations and projects, including lesser-known stories of mid-twentieth-century female scientists, or Cold War-era harvesting of krill for human consumption. The more familiar slaughter of seals and whales narrated here remains breathtaking in its scale. More than two million whales were killed over the course of the twentieth century. By the 1930s, Norwegian factory ships could process a 150-tonne whale in less than an hour. Even ice was something against which to wage war and ‘conquer’ (92). Yet time and again we get close to the living sea valued for itself, and painted in vivid word pictures, from penguins that ‘soar’ underwater like the albatrosses above (110) to the Antarctic Convergence that ‘wobbles and moves … like an over-extended conga line’ (142). McCann ultimately plots the turning tide, tracing a growing understanding of this ocean as a ‘massive global engine’ central to the health of planetary life (195–96). And so this is how the Southern Ocean connects. And why there’s no slippage in concluding that, in fact, ‘far from being a wild sea’, it is ‘deeply entangled with humanity’s past and the world’s future’ (200). Science writers once engaged non-specialist audiences with a lyricism now rarely to be seen (129). Wild Sea is primarily an environmental and cultural history, but one grounded in archives of science. It engages this still-evolving knowledge in deeply lyrical, often unsettling and frequently moving ways. It is a powerful testament to a creative imagination harnessed to cross disciplinary divides. Wild Sea is a book to wonder with and return to, often.


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