The Polar Journal review
A review of Wild Sea by Tasmanian musician, composer and musicologist, Rachel Meyers, for the latest issue of The Polar Journal.
UK review of Wild Sea
‘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
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.
‘A major player in weather, climate, and biodiversity, the waters around Antarctica take center stage in a new history’
Book and media reviews from the journal Science, edited by Valerie Thompson.
By Louise Fabiani 9 April, 2019
Of the vast, largely unknown marine environment, the most mysterious section arguably lies at the bottom of the world. In Wild Sea, historian Joy McCann has written a brief but delightfully comprehensive history of the Southern Ocean, “the most remote and inaccessible part of the planetary ocean, the only part that flows completely around Earth unimpeded by any landmass.” The ocean currents and winds originating there provide an engine for the world’s climate, giving rise to El Niño years and their hemisphere-wide cascade of consequential weather patterns. The huge amount of Southern Ocean biomass alone, everything from tiny diatoms to the blue whale, also figures significantly in carbon sequestration—starting with phytoplankton, which are responsible for about half the planet’s total photosynthesis—and thus in climate change’s many complex feedback loops. Seafarers from many nations who first caught and traded animals in the Southern Ocean quickly recognized those waters as a kind of marine El Dorado. In a way, they weren’t far off. Many species prefer colder water for their life cycles and find their food supply in the currents caused by upwelling (the mixing of colder water with the warmer layer on top of it) around 40 degrees latitude. “By the early nineteenth century the oceans were perceived not only as a means to extend territorial ambitions but also as the source of inexhaustible riches unencumbered by any one nation’s legal or administrative instruments,” writes McCann. Factory ships returned home with holds laden with barrels of oils and other precious commodities. Despite dire warnings and anecdotal evidence from experienced whalers and sealers, the impression of unending abundance persisted for centuries. When Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us went into the second edition in 1960, some of the scientific community still saw the world’s oceans “as an infinite resource akin to the emerging frontier of outer space.” Others, however, advocated restraint, moratoriums on catch limits, and pollution guidelines. Studies and international agreements were slow in coming. In 1959, 800 delegates from 38 countries met in New York to discuss the history and biodiversity of the world’s oceans. It was a step in the right direction. From seabirds to whales, many species had become commercially extinct by the mid-20th century. In 1965, the last South Georgia whaling station closed. And in 1986, the International Whaling Commission officially ended worldwide commercial whaling, though countries such as Iceland, Norway, and, infamously, Japan continue to kill hundreds of smaller cetaceans annually, circumventing the rulings. Unfortunately, today’s trawlers have not learned much from the heedless rapacity of the recent and distant past. The newest “limitless resource” is krill, the very basis of the immense southern food chain. Tiny crustaceans don’t possess the charisma of blue whales, and that may explain relatively lackluster scientific and activist reactions to the declining numbers of krill. Yet their serious depletion would have far greater global reach than the loss of most marine mammals. As the supplement industry switches from fish to krill as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, regulation once again will be required to prevent ecological disaster in an area many beneficiaries consider out of sight, out of mind.
Though Wild Sea does feature plenty of grim statistics about disappeared or disappearing species in the Southern Ocean, the author’s primary concern is neither conservation nor the sins of the Anthropocene. McCann successfully conveys the timeless mystery of the Southern Ocean and how it has figured in human history, adding a poet’s touch to many passages. In the preface to each chapter, for example, she relates impressions from her own voyage to the Southern Ocean. In chapter 2, she begins by describing the seabirds on Prion Island, South Georgia: “As I pause on the brow of a hill, I see two light-mantled sooty albatrosses wheel and soar in perfect unison. Then an apparition of an adult wandering albatross comes into view. … Wings locked, it circles above the golden tussac grasses and skims the currents of silver air.” These personal impressions beautifully complement the history, biogeography, and oceanography, giving the reader a vivid sense of the remote, alien, but always changing marine environment upon which so much of the rest of the world depends.
About the author
The author is a freelance science writer and culture critic based in Montreal.