Ice Blink

Professor Marnie Warrington-Hughes

Latitute 43° South, Longitude 147°

Cape Raoul, Tasmania

When the spray hits, I can’t tell whether I am tasting salt through my skin or with my mouth. Residual spray breaks through my cord-wet hair and speckles across my eyes in a dance of colours that seems to have no source, and no end.

Joy McCann helps me to name this after all these years: wild sea, Southern Ocean, and its siren call of ice blink. Wild Sea is beautiful in structure, style and story. The structure is simple: seven chapters, one for each day of the week, though I read the book in two because I enjoyed it so much. The chapters have alluring titles: ocean; wind; coast; ice; deep; current, and the powerfully evocative, convergence. Her style is personal, poetic, sharp. The argument slides up like a whale’s tale that you know is capable of slapping down at any moment. And it does, reeling you in on an unforgettable story journey.

Elusive, enigmatic, the Southern Ocean is, Joy tells us, like no other. It is not good at boundaries, whether that’s travelling up your nose in a swell with twenty metre waves, swirling strangely around the globe without landmass barriers (p. ix), or insisting on being all or each of the roaring forties, the furious fifties, and the screaming sixties.

The ancients believed that it played host to the great southern land needed to keep the world from wobbling or even toppling. We now know that there is no southern land that matched their dreams. Wild Sea, however, reminds us that our world is out of balance for not knowing well enough, or respecting this sea which is a ‘laboratory of continents’ (p. 2) and barometer of planetary climate change (p. xiv).

Land juts out to ocean, but Joy speaks of the Yaghan—Feugian—people’s belief in the sea entering the land. Their choice of the sea over land, with fires tended in the centre of their cherry bark canoes, drives home Karin Ingersoll’s point in Waves of Knowing that Kānaka riding the waves in he’e nalu is not just leisure or a matter of economics, but of a form of knowing quite unlike the solid, unmoving abstractions often taken to sea.

But these ways of knowing have not carried most of the successive waves of explorer and hunter through and over the Southern Ocean. The result is a juddering bump down a ladder of overfishing, from Minke whales down on through to the Patagonian toothfish, and the collateral damage of albatrosses caught on longlines (p. 33).

For we seem perennially surprised that the depths of the sea can play host to a nutrient-rich environment for diatoms, or that the tiny krill can sustain the largest animal ever to live on Earth, the Blue Whale. So easily gone, both of them, at the clumsy hands of this smartest hominid. We grasp at notions of international law to manage the Antarctic, after millennia of group and national ethics that turn us to tiny, inward thoughts of protection of humans as against penguins. Our minds shift and struggle to fix on the role of this ocean, and that of its northern kin as what Joy rightly calls the ‘great ocean conveyor’: an engine of currents that flip on anoxia and resulting ice ages (p. 194).

Why? We have, Joy helps us to see in Wild Sea, historiographical ice blink. Ice blink, she informs us, was the term polar voyagers used to describe ‘the effect of light bouncing off a vast field of sea ice in the distance, casting a glare on the underside of low clouds. It creates a celestial map of the ice below, but it also blurs the visible boundary between ocean and atmosphere’ (p. 90).

For we assume that this is all a refraction of us. In his recent review of what might be variously called entity, commodity or little big histories, Josh Specht diagnoses in the Journal of Global History a historiographical impoverishment. These are, in his estimation, global human histories refracted through the lenses of chocolate, sugar, mushrooms and cotton. They are not. Wild Sea illuminates the poverty of a celestial map in which ethics is a matter of humans for humans and challenges us to think about an historical profession in which the visible boundaries between human and non-human entities are not only broken, but also recognised as shifting. It echoes and yet challenges Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, for this is a strange, scary entity which comingles with us. As Joy reminds us of Alain Corbin’s thought, water can extinguish both fire and love.

Succumb to the confusion between land and sea, she tells us. Know not whether the taste of salt comes this way or that. Ride the waves. Remember that more than one mammal can sing, more than one mammal can wear a tuxedo, and that the smallest entity may be the most powerful in keeping us here. Stand at Cape Raoul, Bluff, Prion or Elephant Islands at the edge of this sea, and remember that our being here may depend on it. Thank you, Joy, for this most powerful gift.

The Polar Journal review

Posted on December 20, 2019 by joymccann

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

Posted on November 18, 2019 by joymccann

My thanks to Leon Vlieger, The Inquisitive Biologist, for his thoughtful and generous review of Wild Sea in the UK’s NHBS website.

‘An ocean’s embrace’ – a recent review

Posted on August 6, 2019 by joymccann

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:

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’

Posted on July 11, 2019 by joymccann

Book and media reviews from the journal Science, edited by Valerie Thompson.

By Louise Fabiani 9 April, 2019

Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean University of Chicago Press 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.

‘The wildest waters in the world’

Posted on by joymccann

Littered with wrecks, the Southern Ocean contains the point on the globe farthest from any land rescue

Katrina Gulliver

The Spectator (UK), 8 June 2019.

‘Below the Forties there is no law, and below the Fifties there is no God.’ Most sailors know some version of this saying, referring to the dangerous waters more than 40º south of the equator.

In Wild Sea, Joy McCann focuses on these waters with a history of the Southern Ocean. The ocean surrounds Antarctica, its northern bound still open to dispute. In the 1928 first edition of Limits of Oceans and Seas, the Southern Ocean was delineated by land-based limits: Antarctica to the south, and South America, Africa, Australia and Broughton Island, New Zealand to the north.

More recently, cartographers have tried to limit its scope. UK officials take the position that the Southern Ocean starts at 55º S, while their Australian counterparts still measure the limits of the ocean by its contact with land masses, meaning that it reaches up to the southern coasts of Australia and South America.

When even defining the ocean is difficult, it proves an elusive subject of study. The Southern Ocean is one we don’t often think about: it has no famous ports and its cultural influence is diffuse. Some don’t even realise it has an identity. (I mentioned it to one friend and he thought immediately of Tahiti. That would be the South Seas.)

But as an ocean it certainly has its characteristics. As the nautical saying suggests, much of this is rough water. For a vessel heading south, rogue icebergs start appearing at 60º S. The cold gales and ocean currents can make even the most experienced sailor wary. But the risk carries a payoff in speed.

This is thanks to the world’s longest ocean current: the Antarctic circum-polar current, which speeds along from west to east with no land masses in the way to slow or divert it. In the 19th century it was discovered that for ships travelling from Europe to Australasia the quickest route was to head south after passing the Cape of Good Hope and be carried along by the current and high winds of the Southern Ocean.

It’s a strategy still used by round-the-world yacht racers. But heading so far from any land or hope of rescue is extremely risky. The Southern Ocean is littered with wrecks. It contains the oceanic pole of inaccessbility (at 48°52.6 S 123°23.6 W), the point on the globe farthest from any land — more than 1,400 nautical miles. That means days of sailing for any rescue vessel, although now that few of us travel by ship it’s easy to forget the scale involved. Readers may remember Tony Bullimore’s miraculous rescue from his capsized yacht, at 52°S 100°E: the remoteness of the Southern Ocean is real, even given today’s satellite mapping and communications.

McCann is an environmental historian and her focus is our growing knowledge of the ocean and its incorporation into our understanding of the world. The first tentative European explorations of the Southern Ocean were made in the hope of finding another great continent (not Antarctica). Circumnavigators dipped into it while working their way round Tierra del Fuego. It was the furthest ocean from Europe, and the last to be charted.

The scientific possibilities were recognised early — the area features species found nowhere else — and the economic value was not far behind. By the mid-19th century, whalers and sealers were heading south to pursue their quarry, chasing them into the currents.

The Southern Ocean contains marine life still being discovered. Today much of it is protected as being part of the Antarctic; but it is not immune from the environmental problems of the rest of the world. Changing ocean temperatures and pollution are affecting it in different ways, and increased tourist traffic to Antarctica creates its own pressures. Its wildness and remoteness unfortunately constitutes part of its appeal.

McCann intersperses her own observations of the ocean with the story of its discovery and exploitation, beginning each chapter with an entry similar to an explorer’s journal. But she does not foreground herself, dropping out of sight subtly to adopt the authorial voice, creating an effective and dramatic narrative.

Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean
Author: Joy McCann
Publisher: Chicago
Page count: 258
Price: £21

Review in Nature journal

Posted on by joymccann