Sunshine Recorder

Link: The Ocean is Broken

A Newcastle sailor’s trip across the Pacific Ocean after the Japan tsunami was frighteningly similar to a nightmare.

IT was the silence that made this voyage different from all of those before it.

Not the absence of sound, exactly.

The wind still whipped the sails and whistled in the rigging. The waves still sloshed against the fibreglass hull.

And there were plenty of other noises: muffled thuds and bumps and scrapes as the boat knocked against pieces of debris.

What was missing was the cries of the seabirds which, on all previous similar voyages, had surrounded the boat.

The birds were missing because the fish were missing.

Exactly 10 years before, when Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.

"There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice," Macfadyen recalled.

But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two.

No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.

"In years gone by I’d gotten used to all the birds and their noises," he said.

"They’d be following the boat, sometimes resting on the mast before taking off again. You’d see flocks of them wheeling over the surface of the sea in the distance, feeding on pilchards."

But in March and April this year, only silence and desolation surrounded his boat, Funnel Web, as it sped across the surface of a haunted ocean.

North of the equator, up above New Guinea, the ocean-racers saw a big fishing boat working a reef in the distance.

"All day it was there, trawling back and forth. It was a big ship, like a mother-ship," he said.

And all night it worked too, under bright floodlights. And in the morning Macfadyen was awoken by his crewman calling out, urgently, that the ship had launched a speedboat.

"Obviously I was worried. We were unarmed and pirates are a real worry in those waters. I thought, if these guys had weapons then we were in deep trouble."

But they weren’t pirates, not in the conventional sense, at least. The speedboat came alongside and the Melanesian men aboard offered gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves.

"And they gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish," he said.

"They were good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while.

"We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard. That’s what they would have done with them anyway, they said.

"They told us that his was just a small fraction of one day’s by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing."

Macfadyen felt sick to his heart. That was one fishing boat among countless more working unseen beyond the horizon, many of them doing exactly the same thing.

No wonder the sea was dead. No wonder his baited lines caught nothing. There was nothing to catch.

If that sounds depressing, it only got worse.

The next leg of the long voyage was from Osaka to San Francisco and for most of that trip the desolation was tinged with nauseous horror and a degree of fear.

"After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead," Macfadyen said.

"We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.

"I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen."

In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.

"Part of it was the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan a couple of years ago. The wave came in over the land, picked up an unbelievable load of stuff and carried it out to sea. And it’s still out there, everywhere you look."

Ivan’s brother, Glenn, who boarded at Hawaii for the run into the United States, marvelled at the “thousands on thousands” of yellow plastic buoys. The huge tangles of synthetic rope, fishing lines and nets. Pieces of polystyrene foam by the million. And slicks of oil and petrol, everywhere.

Countless hundreds of wooden power poles are out there, snapped off by the killer wave and still trailing their wires in the middle of the sea.

"In years gone by, when you were becalmed by lack of wind, you’d just start your engine and motor on," Ivan said.

Not this time.

"In a lot of places we couldn’t start our motor for fear of entangling the propeller in the mass of pieces of rope and cable. That’s an unheard of situation, out in the ocean.

"If we did decide to motor we couldn’t do it at night, only in the daytime with a lookout on the bow, watching for rubbish.

"On the bow, in the waters above Hawaii, you could see right down into the depths. I could see that the debris isn’t just on the surface, it’s all the way down. And it’s all sizes, from a soft-drink bottle to pieces the size of a big car or truck.

"We saw a factory chimney sticking out of the water, with some kind of boiler thing still attached below the surface. We saw a big container-type thing, just rolling over and over on the waves.

"We were weaving around these pieces of debris. It was like sailing through a garbage tip.

"Below decks you were constantly hearing things hitting against the hull, and you were constantly afraid of hitting something really big. As it was, the hull was scratched and dented all over the place from bits and pieces we never saw."

Plastic was ubiquitous. Bottles, bags and every kind of throwaway domestic item you can imagine, from broken chairs to dustpans, toys and utensils.

And something else. The boat’s vivid yellow paint job, never faded by sun or sea in years gone past, reacted with something in the water off Japan, losing its sheen in a strange and unprecedented way.

BACK in Newcastle, Ivan Macfadyen is still coming to terms with the shock and horror of the voyage.

"The ocean is broken," he said, shaking his head in stunned disbelief.

Recognising the problem is vast, and that no organisations or governments appear to have a particular interest in doing anything about it, Macfadyen is looking for ideas.

He plans to lobby government ministers, hoping they might help.

More immediately, he will approach the organisers of Australia’s major ocean races, trying to enlist yachties into an international scheme that uses volunteer yachtsmen to monitor debris and marine life.

Macfadyen signed up to this scheme while he was in the US, responding to an approach by US academics who asked yachties to fill in daily survey forms and collect samples for radiation testing - a significant concern in the wake of the tsunami and consequent nuclear power station failure in Japan.

"I asked them why don’t we push for a fleet to go and clean up the mess," he said.

"But they said they’d calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there."

Link: You're Eye-to-Eye With a Whale in the Ocean. What Does It See?

A deep dive into how the most intelligent creatures in the ocean perceive their world.

There is almost nothing about a whale’s body that we can relate to. They breathe air like we do. They give birth to live young like we do. But the similarities seem to stop there. Their scale, body structure, and environment are all different.

But we do have a point of connection: the eyes. Both humans and whales are mammals, so our eyes are derived from a common ancestor. Not only can we look at whales and they can look back at us, but we know enough about optics to infer their eyes’ capabilities from their anatomy. Animal eyes can be imagined as technological systems evolved with biological materials.

"We will make the fairly bold claim that it is sensible to approach eyes in essentially the same way that an optical engineer might evaluate a new video camera," write Michael Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson, the authors of the Oxford University Press treatment of our topic, Animal Eyes.

Their eyes capture light in ways we can understand. Their eyes have a focal length. Their eyes have a maximum resolution.

So, what does the world look like to a whale?

Here’s what got me pursuing this line of inquiry. The photographer Bryant Austin makes life-size composites of whales: humpbacks, sperm whales, minkes. The results are sublime. Each fin, each ridge in the skin, seems worth pondering. Austin is especially obsessed with photographing their eyes, and with good reason.

To create these images, Austin thought a lot about what kind of visual system could represent the experience of floating next to one of these creatures. Most whale photographers use wide-angle lenses to capture as much of the whale as possible at longer distances, but he realized that wide-angle lenses do not capture enough data to create high-resolution, life-size photographs of whales.

So, on a very fancy Hasselblad H3DII-50, Austin mounted an 80mm portrait lens with a narrow field of view. The consequences of that decision are startling: Austin has to get within ten feet of the whales, and he has to take many photographs from that distance in order to get enough photographs to stitch together the life-size portrait. In practice, that brought him eye-to-eye with these multi-ton animals time and again.

In his new book about his process, out next week, Beautiful Whale, he describes a moment where he came eye-to-eye with a sperm whale named Scar. “I lowered the camera so that our eyes could meet once again, I noticed his eye moving along the length of my body before returning to meet my gaze,” Austin wrote. “As I reflect upon that moment and reconsider the question, ‘What does it feel like [to be so close to whales]?’ the only word that comes to mind is ‘disturbing.’”

Why is it disturbing? Because, as Austin puts it, the whale challenges him “to reevaluate our perceptions of intelligent, conscious life on this planet.” This mammal’s eye—lens, cornea, pupil, retina, photoreceptors and ganglion nerve cells—is a direct passageway into its brain. And when we look at it, Austin can’t help but see an intelligence there, a connection to a brain that, perhaps, works enough like ours for us to understand each other.

… Whales, unlike nocturnal rodents or ourselves, see the world in monochrome. Leo Peichl at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research co-authored a paper with the nearly tragic title, “For whales and seals the ocean is not blue.” Indeed, the first thing that we can know for sure about how whales see the world is that it exists only in shades of gray. The water we see as blue they would see as black. “They do want to see the background. They want to see animals on the background. And the animals on the background are reflecting light that’s not blue,” Johnsen explained. If we try to imagine what that might look like, Johnsen said perhaps we could picture a grayscale photograph of people wearing fluorescent clothes under a black light.


Sunk: The Incredible Truth About a Ship That Never Should Have Sailed
When the Bounty went down during Hurricane Sandy, millions watched on TV as the Coast Guard rescued 14 survivors—but couldn’t save the captain and one of his crew. A huge question lingered in the aftermath: what was this vessel—a leaking replica built in 1960 for the film Mutiny on the Bounty—doing in the eye of the storm?
On the night of Sunday, October 28, 2012, Coast Guard lieutenant Wes McIntosh and the crew of his C-130 transport plane were holed up in a hotel room at North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham Airport. They’d been relocated there the day before, after winds from Hurricane Sandy had forced runway closings at their base in Elizabeth City. The seven-man flight crew congregated around the TV, flipping between Sunday Night Football and the Weather Channel.
It was nine o’clock, and the Denver Broncos had just taken the lead over the New Orleans Saints when McIntosh’s phone rang: the Coast Guard’s North Carolina Sector Field Office—the regional command center in Wilmington—had received a distress email from Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization. The 180-foot, three-masted ship, a replica of the famous 18th-century vessel, had lost power and was taking on water somewhere near Hatteras Canyon, a treacherous section of the Atlantic roughly 90 miles southeast of the Outer Banks.
No one knew the ship’s exact position or what kind of shape it—or its 16-member crew—was in. Since the captain’s initial email to Simonin at 8:45, the ship’s onboard electronics had failed, and communication was possible only by hand radio, the range of which is limited to line of sight. Storm conditions had intensified beyond the capabilities of the Coast Guard’s cutters and even its Jayhawk helicopters, so the Sector Field Office issued an urgent marine bulletin requesting Samaritan assistance from the handful of vessels still in the region. Only the Torm Rosetta, a 30,000-ton Danish oil tanker, was in hailing range. But it reported back that conditions were too dangerous to respond.
As far as hurricanes go, Sandy was not particularly powerful—on the weekend of October 28, it was fluctuating between hurricane and tropical-storm status—but it made up for that in size and complexity. Sandy would ultimately cover 1.8 million square miles and take on characteristics of what meteorologists call a hybrid storm: in this case, part hurricane, part nor’easter. The Bounty’s last known position—about 100 miles off Cape Fear around noon—put the vessel right in the worst of it, with winds at 60 knots and pelting rain severe enough to render even a large wooden ship invisible on radar. Sending the C-130 was risky, but Coast Guard officials hoped McIntosh could get close enough to establish communication and assess the situation. Once weather conditions allowed, rescue choppers could fly out from Elizabeth City if need be.
The plane took off from Raleigh around 11 p.m. Before long its anti-icing system failed, forcing McIntosh to fly below 7,000 feet. Then the weather radar malfunctioned. McIntosh and his co-pilot, Mike Myers, were now flying using visual flight rules in zero-visibility conditions. Wearing night-vision goggles to help them pick through layers of clouds, they descended to 1,000 feet. Then to 500 feet—right into the brunt of the storm.
By now it was just after midnight. While McIntosh struggled to steer, Myers searched for the Bounty. “I kept asking Mike, ‘What do you see? What do you see?’” McIntosh recalls. Finally, Myers shot back, “I see a giant pirate ship in the middle of a hurricane.”

Sunk: The Incredible Truth About a Ship That Never Should Have Sailed

When the Bounty went down during Hurricane Sandy, millions watched on TV as the Coast Guard rescued 14 survivors—but couldn’t save the captain and one of his crew. A huge question lingered in the aftermath: what was this vessel—a leaking replica built in 1960 for the film Mutiny on the Bounty—doing in the eye of the storm?

On the night of Sunday, October 28, 2012, Coast Guard lieutenant Wes McIntosh and the crew of his C-130 transport plane were holed up in a hotel room at North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham Airport. They’d been relocated there the day before, after winds from Hurricane Sandy had forced runway closings at their base in Elizabeth City. The seven-man flight crew congregated around the TV, flipping between Sunday Night Football and the Weather Channel.

It was nine o’clock, and the Denver Broncos had just taken the lead over the New Orleans Saints when McIntosh’s phone rang: the Coast Guard’s North Carolina Sector Field Office—the regional command center in Wilmington—had received a distress email from Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization. The 180-foot, three-masted ship, a replica of the famous 18th-century vessel, had lost power and was taking on water somewhere near Hatteras Canyon, a treacherous section of the Atlantic roughly 90 miles southeast of the Outer Banks.

No one knew the ship’s exact position or what kind of shape it—or its 16-member crew—was in. Since the captain’s initial email to Simonin at 8:45, the ship’s onboard electronics had failed, and communication was possible only by hand radio, the range of which is limited to line of sight. Storm conditions had intensified beyond the capabilities of the Coast Guard’s cutters and even its Jayhawk helicopters, so the Sector Field Office issued an urgent marine bulletin requesting Samaritan assistance from the handful of vessels still in the region. Only the Torm Rosetta, a 30,000-ton Danish oil tanker, was in hailing range. But it reported back that conditions were too dangerous to respond.

As far as hurricanes go, Sandy was not particularly powerful—on the weekend of October 28, it was fluctuating between hurricane and tropical-storm status—but it made up for that in size and complexity. Sandy would ultimately cover 1.8 million square miles and take on characteristics of what meteorologists call a hybrid storm: in this case, part hurricane, part nor’easter. The Bounty’s last known position—about 100 miles off Cape Fear around noon—put the vessel right in the worst of it, with winds at 60 knots and pelting rain severe enough to render even a large wooden ship invisible on radar. Sending the C-130 was risky, but Coast Guard officials hoped McIntosh could get close enough to establish communication and assess the situation. Once weather conditions allowed, rescue choppers could fly out from Elizabeth City if need be.

The plane took off from Raleigh around 11 p.m. Before long its anti-icing system failed, forcing McIntosh to fly below 7,000 feet. Then the weather radar malfunctioned. McIntosh and his co-pilot, Mike Myers, were now flying using visual flight rules in zero-visibility conditions. Wearing night-vision goggles to help them pick through layers of clouds, they descended to 1,000 feet. Then to 500 feet—right into the brunt of the storm.

By now it was just after midnight. While McIntosh struggled to steer, Myers searched for the Bounty. “I kept asking Mike, ‘What do you see? What do you see?’” McIntosh recalls. Finally, Myers shot back, “I see a giant pirate ship in the middle of a hurricane.”

Link: Diving Deep into Danger

The first dive to a depth of a thousand feet was made in 1962 by Hannes Keller, an ebullient twenty-eight-year-old Swiss mathematician who wore half-rimmed glasses and drank a bottle of Coca-Cola each morning for breakfast. With that dive Keller broke a record he had set himself one year earlier, when he briefly descended to 728 feet. How he performed these dives without killing himself was a closely guarded secret. At the time, it was widely believed that no human being could safely dive to depths beyond three hundred feet. That was because, beginning at a depth of one hundred feet, a diver breathing fresh air starts to lose his mind.

This condition, nitrogen narcosis, is also known as the Martini Effect, because the diver feels as if he has drunk a martini on an empty stomach—the calculation is one martini for every additional fifty feet of depth. But an even greater danger to the diver is the bends, a manifestation of decompression sickness that occurs when nitrogen gas saturates the blood and tissues. The problem is not in the descent, but the ascent. As the diver returns to the surface, the nitrogen bubbles increase in size, lodging in the joints, arteries, organs, and sometimes the brain or spine, where they can cause pain and potentially death. The deeper a diver descends, the more slowly he must ascend in order to avoid the bends.

In 1956 a Royal Navy boatswain had successfully dived to six hundred feet, breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen to avoid nitrogen narcosis, but he took twelve hours to resurface. Keller, by comparison, returned to the surface after his first record dive in less than an hour. He boasted of using “secret” mixtures of gases for his underwater breathing apparatus, with different mixtures designed for different depths, but wouldn’t disclose exact figures. After an editor from Life, who had accompanied Keller on his 728-foot dive, wrote an article about their accomplishment, the US Navy took interest. So did the Shell Oil Company.

The industry is currently in the midst of an expansion that originated in 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita together destroyed more than one hundred drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and compromised another fifty; the storms also damaged nearly two hundred pipelines, contributing to four hundred incidents of pollution. Remotely operated vehicles could only assess and repair some of the damage, so much of the work had to be done by divers. Wages increased accordingly, and since then, as the oil industry has drilled in increasingly deep waters, demand for divers has continued to grow.


Not everybody is cut out for the job. A diver cannot be claustrophobic or antisocial, because he must spend much of his time in a tiny sealed capsule with several other divers. He must be well-disciplined and perceptive, for he is likely to encounter a variety of unexpected hazards on the job. Many divers are military veterans, or have worked as roofers or mechanics. “The best are those who have a great deal of confidence in themselves and their abilities,” one former diver, Phil Newsum, told me. “You have to be willing to adapt to any situation. Philosophically, when you go out on a dive job, you’re expecting something is going to go wrong.”

Often, because of the depth, the job is performed in the dark, with only a headlamp to light the way. Divers have told me stories of sudden encounters with manta rays, bull sharks, and wolf eels, which can grow eight feet long and have baleful, recessed eyes, a shovel-shaped snout, and a wide, snaggletoothed mouth. One diver sent me a video, filmed from a camera in the diver’s helmet, of an enormous turtle that was playing a game of trying to bite off the diver’s feet and hands every few minutes. The diver finally sent the animal swimming away by pressing a power drill to its head. Someone else sent me a photograph of a diver riding a speckled whale shark, as if on a rodeo bronco.

Newsum, who is now the director of an industry group called the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI), estimates that only three of every fifteen people who graduate from commercial diving school are able to withstand the rigor of the profession for a full career. Many are enticed by the high salaries, but few can endure the job’s physical and psychological toll. Those who stick it out tend to do so out of a passion for the job’s eccentricities.

Link: Why the Ocean Matters to Everyone, Everywhere

Sylvia A. Earle is the former Chief Scientist of US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, as well as the founder of Sylvia Earle Alliance, Mission Blue, and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research. Dr. Earle has been called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and the New York Times and named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress and the first “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine. She has lectured in more than eighty countries, led more than a hundred expeditions—including the first team of women aquanauts—and logged nearly 7,000 hours underwater with a record solo dive to 1,000 meters and nine saturation dives.

Sometimes I tell young women that I come from another planet because the world I experienced during the first half of my life is so different from the relatively open attitudes about the role of women now prevalent in this country and around the world. My mother could not vote during the first two national elections when men of the same age could. As a graduate student, I was cheerfully told that all the coveted paid teaching assistantships would be given to men “because they would be wasted on women who would just get married and have kids.” Social changes have paralleled unprecedented advances in technology that have driven growth and the dissemination of knowledge. More has been learned about the nature of the ocean in the past fifty years, perhaps even the last thirty, than in all of preceding history.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy noted, “We are just at the threshold of our knowledge of the oceans … [This knowledge] is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it.” The investment made in the decades that followed have forever altered the understanding of the ocean as the driving force underlying climate, weather, planetary chemistry—and indeed, our “very survival.”

Unknown until the late 1970s was the existence of deep water hydrothermal vents gushing a hot soup of water, minerals, and microbes, and fostering complex communities of creatures, including a previously unknown kingdom of microbes that synthesize food in the absence of sunlight and photosynthesis. No one attained access to the deepest sea until 1960 when two men descended to 35,797 feet (greater than the height of Mount Everest) in the submersible bathyscaphe Trieste for a brief glimpse of the deepest point on Earth—the Challenger Deep—in the Mariana Trench near Guam. And no one returned to those depths until March 2012, when Canadian explorer and film director James Cameron ventured there in his personal one-man submersible.

Technologies that enabled humans to go to the moon and send robots to Mars have given us a vitally important view of Earth from afar—a living blue jewel in a vast universe of unreachable, uninhabitable planets and stars, suspended in a seeming emptiness. On a cellphone or iPad or computer, ten-year-old children can now view Google Earth, zoom from space to their backyard, fly the Grand Canyon, and, starting in 2009, dive into “Google Ocean” to vicariously explore the depths of the sea. New methods of gathering, connecting, evaluating, and communicating data—of measuring change over time, and projecting future outcomes based on knowledge no other species has the capacity to acquire—are all causes for hope, but the gains need to be approached with a healthy dose of caution. Even now, with all our advances, less than 5 percent of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored or mapped with the same precision and detail presently available for the moon, Mars, or Jupiter.

The great conservationist Rachel Carson, who summed up what was known about the blue part of the planet in her 1951 book, The Sea Around Us, was unaware that continents move around at a stately, geological pace, or that the greatest mountain chains, deepest valleys, broadest plains, and most of life on Earth are in the ocean. Nor did she appreciate that technological advances developed for wartime applications were being mobilized to find, catch, and market ocean wildlife on an unprecedented scale, reaching distant, deep parts of the ocean no hook or net or trawl had ever touched before.

“Eventually man … found his way back to the sea,” she wrote. “And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents.”

In her lifetime—1907 to 1964—she did not, could not, know about the most significant discovery concerning the ocean: It is not too big to fail. Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean, or what we could take out. Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now. We are in a “sweet spot” in time. Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can insure an enduring place for ourselves within the living systems that sustain us. We are at an unprecedented, pivotal point in history when the decisions we make in the next ten years will determine the direction of the next 10,000.


Philip Marsden on the Sea
FiveBooks interviews asks writers, academics, and experts to list recommended books on a given topic.
Philip, we’re talking about the sea and I notice that your list includes lots of different sorts of book. You’ve got a grand sweeping history of the British navy. You’ve got memoirs. You’ve got Moby Dick on the one hand and on the other a polemic against overfishing. Which would you like to start with?
Let’s start with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s an extraordinary novel in all sorts of ways, and the scale of it reflects the scale of the sea. Melville had this great wealth of experience from his own whaling days and he wanted to express that in some way, but came up against the same problem every writer who tackles the sea faces. You have this huge subject, but not a lot of contours; not a lot to differentiate it all, with which to forge a narrative. The sprawl of Moby Dick reflects that, the apparent randomness of the chapters, the jumble of fiction and non-fiction. Like all writers on the sea, he’s intrigued by the practical problems, seamanship, fishing techniques. But underlying it all is this great, undifferentiated mass. One of the interesting things about the sea as a subject is that it doesn’t hold history. As soon as a ship passes through the water the water closes up and that’s it, whereas the land, whether it’s urban or rural, has great layers of history visible to the eye…
Moby Dick is obviously a psychological drama too, isn’t it? The pursuit by Ahab of a white whale – a terrifying sort of ghost whale. Ahab is a very proud man and in a sense he seems to be attempting to destroy his own death. But is this a theme you see running through other books about the sea? A sense that man simply shouldn’t be there at all? That he’s out of his element?
Yes, Ahab pits himself against this infinite element which will never be conquered or changed by man. That’s what the story’s all about. I wrote a novel about the sea some years ago and watched it form itself into a shape similar in some ways to Moby Dick. I realised then that it was perhaps the only story you could write about the sea. A man is drawn to it, is seduced by it, gets a living by it but is eventually destroyed by it. That’s the basic plot structure of Moby Dick. It’s also that which Peter Benchley chose when he wrote Jaws – he famously took Moby Dick as a template. That’s part of the novel’s power – it established a great myth and that’s why it endures.
Let’s move on to your second book, which I suspect might be Conrad.
Yes, Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea – which again suggests the inscrutable blankness – in this case reflecting man back at himself. It was his first memoir, written in 1906, and a bit like Melville he was drawing on personal experience. Conrad was a sailor and of course the sea is the context for many of his stories, but I was particularly interested in this non-fiction book. He’s fascinated by the psychological patterns: departure, how a captain feels when he first goes out to sea, how he refers back to the land. It’s the only book I know that really addresses all those issues head on.
Conrad’s also very good on the language of the sea, which is endemic to sailing books. Anyone who’s read the Patrick O’Brian books always comments on the language and is either put off by it – this arcane nautical lexicon – or intrigued by it. I’m intrigued. In fact one of the great pleasures of the sea is that it requires a different language. A ship’s not just different to a land vehicle in shape, it’s different absolutely. And the language reflects that. There’s a phrase Conrad picks up when the anchor is dropped. The captain asks the man at the head, “how did it grow?”, referring to the way the anchor warp goes out from the bow of the ship – at what angle, at what speed. Conrad says no one who hasn’t actually seen the way an anchor warp goes out would understand why the term is used. It’s absolutely precise.
Precise because it refers only to one thing or because it’s a good metaphor for what’s happening?
Well, both. I mean, you can’t talk about a rope on a ship, because there are sheets and halyards and warps and hawsers and they all do different things. So it’s technically precise. But the reason Conrad’s interested in that particular example is that it has a certain poetry to it. It has the precision of experience. And of course the question itself – “how did it grow?” – has in it the anxiety of seamanship. Anchoring a ship is an anxious business. You’re close to the shore, you don’t know what ground you’re on. It’s a very difficult moment. It’s interesting that in “The Mirror of the Sea”, the concerns and the style are little different from Conrad’s fiction – he’s simply placed the sea and seamanship to the fore.

Philip Marsden on the Sea

FiveBooks interviews asks writers, academics, and experts to list recommended books on a given topic.

Philip, we’re talking about the sea and I notice that your list includes lots of different sorts of book. You’ve got a grand sweeping history of the British navy. You’ve got memoirs. You’ve got Moby Dick on the one hand and on the other a polemic against overfishing. Which would you like to start with?

Let’s start with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s an extraordinary novel in all sorts of ways, and the scale of it reflects the scale of the sea. Melville had this great wealth of experience from his own whaling days and he wanted to express that in some way, but came up against the same problem every writer who tackles the sea faces. You have this huge subject, but not a lot of contours; not a lot to differentiate it all, with which to forge a narrative. The sprawl of Moby Dick reflects that, the apparent randomness of the chapters, the jumble of fiction and non-fiction. Like all writers on the sea, he’s intrigued by the practical problems, seamanship, fishing techniques. But underlying it all is this great, undifferentiated mass. One of the interesting things about the sea as a subject is that it doesn’t hold history. As soon as a ship passes through the water the water closes up and that’s it, whereas the land, whether it’s urban or rural, has great layers of history visible to the eye…

Moby Dick is obviously a psychological drama too, isn’t it? The pursuit by Ahab of a white whale – a terrifying sort of ghost whale. Ahab is a very proud man and in a sense he seems to be attempting to destroy his own death. But is this a theme you see running through other books about the sea? A sense that man simply shouldn’t be there at all? That he’s out of his element?

Yes, Ahab pits himself against this infinite element which will never be conquered or changed by man. That’s what the story’s all about. I wrote a novel about the sea some years ago and watched it form itself into a shape similar in some ways to Moby Dick. I realised then that it was perhaps the only story you could write about the sea. A man is drawn to it, is seduced by it, gets a living by it but is eventually destroyed by it. That’s the basic plot structure of Moby Dick. It’s also that which Peter Benchley chose when he wrote Jaws – he famously took Moby Dick as a template. That’s part of the novel’s power – it established a great myth and that’s why it endures.

Let’s move on to your second book, which I suspect might be Conrad.

Yes, Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea – which again suggests the inscrutable blankness – in this case reflecting man back at himself. It was his first memoir, written in 1906, and a bit like Melville he was drawing on personal experience. Conrad was a sailor and of course the sea is the context for many of his stories, but I was particularly interested in this non-fiction book. He’s fascinated by the psychological patterns: departure, how a captain feels when he first goes out to sea, how he refers back to the land. It’s the only book I know that really addresses all those issues head on.

Conrad’s also very good on the language of the sea, which is endemic to sailing books. Anyone who’s read the Patrick O’Brian books always comments on the language and is either put off by it – this arcane nautical lexicon – or intrigued by it. I’m intrigued. In fact one of the great pleasures of the sea is that it requires a different language. A ship’s not just different to a land vehicle in shape, it’s different absolutely. And the language reflects that. There’s a phrase Conrad picks up when the anchor is dropped. The captain asks the man at the head, “how did it grow?”, referring to the way the anchor warp goes out from the bow of the ship – at what angle, at what speed. Conrad says no one who hasn’t actually seen the way an anchor warp goes out would understand why the term is used. It’s absolutely precise.

Precise because it refers only to one thing or because it’s a good metaphor for what’s happening?

Well, both. I mean, you can’t talk about a rope on a ship, because there are sheets and halyards and warps and hawsers and they all do different things. So it’s technically precise. But the reason Conrad’s interested in that particular example is that it has a certain poetry to it. It has the precision of experience. And of course the question itself – “how did it grow?” – has in it the anxiety of seamanship. Anchoring a ship is an anxious business. You’re close to the shore, you don’t know what ground you’re on. It’s a very difficult moment. It’s interesting that in “The Mirror of the Sea”, the concerns and the style are little different from Conrad’s fiction – he’s simply placed the sea and seamanship to the fore.

Link: The Keystone Species of the Southern Ocean

The Antarctic krill population has declined by 80% since the 1970s, and without them the entire ecosystem of the Southern Ocean will collapse.

Worldwide there are about 85 species of krill, the largest of which is the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) which averages about five centimeters in length. Antarctic krill live in dense concentrations in the cold Southern Ocean. At any given time there are four or five billion individuals, and when they congregate for spawning they create a pink swarm so large that it can be seen from space.

Krill are crustaceans like crabs, shrimp and lobsters. But unlike their cousins that are bottom-feeders, krill are pelagic—they make their living in the open ocean. And unlike the plankton they feed on, krill are nektonic—they are able to swim independent of the ocean currents. 

Antarctic krill feed on algae and phytoplankton that are suspended in the water column. They are preyed upon by nearly every Antarctic predator that exists. And if a predator doesn’t eat krill, it feeds on the ones that do. A penguin’s diet consists of nearly 100 percent krill. Blue whales rely on krill for almost all of their dietary requirement. During the summer months, an adult blue whale eats up to 40 million krill in a single day to fulfill its 1.5 million kilocalorie nutritional needs. Antarctic krill is the keystone species in the Southern Ocean, and without it, the ecosystem would collapse. 

Antarctic krill use intensive searching and rapid feeding techniques to take advantage of high plankton concentrations. Krill form dense schools that move horizontally in the water column when feeding. Krill spend their days avoiding predators in the cold depths of the Southern Ocean. At night, they drift up toward the surface to search for phytoplankton.

Recent studies show Antarctic krill stocks have dropped by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s. Scientists attribute this decline in part to ice cover loss caused by global warming. This ice loss removes ice algae from the Southern Ocean which is a primary source of food for krill. NASA satellite data reveals that there has been continuous ice loss from Antarctica since 2002—more than 100 cubic kilometers of ice per year.

The Dark Side of the Lens is a short film from renowned surf photographer Mickey Smith. He presents a side to surfing that few of us will glimpse. What drives him to spend countless hours in cold and hostile waters in search of a single shot? The six minute film lets you experience Smith’s aesthetics translated into beautiful practice.

I never set out to become anything in particular, only to live creatively and push the scope of my experience for adventure and for passion… The raw brutal cold coastlands for the right waveriders to challenge – this is where my heart beats hardest…

Most folk don’t even know who we are, and what we do or how we do it, let alone what they pay us for it. I never want to take this for granted so I try to keep motivation simple, real, and positive… If I only scrape a living, at least it’s a living where I’m scraping…. If there’s no future in it, this is a present worth remembering.

I see life in angles, in lines of perspective – the slow turn of a head, the blink of an eye, subtle glimpses of magic – other folk might pass by. Cameras help me translate, interpret and understand what I see. It’s a simple act that keeps me grinnin’. I never set out to become anything in particular, only to live creatively and push the scope of my experience for adventure and for passion. They still all mean something to me, same as most anyone with dreams. My heart bleeds celtic blood and I magnetize the familiar frontiers. The raw brutal cold coastlands for the right waveriders to challenge – this is where my heart beats hardest.

The aesthetic choices. The personal decisions. It’s all what’s happening behind the camera, the place no audience sees, the “dark side of the lens.” A final note: Dark Side of the Lens was born out of a project called “Short Stories.” Established by Relentless Energy Drink, the UK-based project challenged filmmakers to create their own mini opus, to explore and celebrate “no half measures” in film.


The Phantom Island of Brazil
Map-readers knew about Brazil long before America was discovered; but they didn’t think of it as a giant country on a distant continent. Brazil, also known by the name Hy-Brasil, was a small, mist-shrouded island in the North Atlantic, not too far off Ireland’s west coast.
Only, Hy-Brasil never existed. Shown here on a Mercator map dating from 1623, it was one of many phantom islands that haunted marine cartography, sometimes for centuries, before more accurate observational techniques (and ultimately satellite photography) eliminated them all. 
Like many other phantom islands, the cartographic existence of Hy-Brasil was based on a combination of flimsy legend, faulty observations, wishful thinking, and outright mendacity.
Although its name might refer back to age-old Irish legends of sea-faring expeditions striking land in the Atlantic, Hy-Brasil’s first recorded appearance on a map dates from around 1325, as Bracile on a portolan map. 
In 1497, Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala reports home that John Cabot, the first European to visit North America since the Vikings in the 11th century, had made his journey with “the men from Bristol who found Brasil.”
Ayala also mentioned in that letter the Sete Cidades, a mysterious collection of seven cities supposedly founded in the 8th century on one or more islands in the Atlantic by Christians fleeing the Muslim conquista of Iberia. Which goes to show how fertile a breeding ground the oceanic expanse was for fantasies of phantom islands.
Sometimes fantasy became indistinguishable from fact. Hy-Brasil was rumoured to be continuously obscured by mist, except for one day every seven years. It must have been on one of those days in 1674 that captain John Nisbet, piercing a sea fog, anchored before the island, and sent a party of four ashore. The amazed sailors spent an entire day on Hy-Brasil, meeting an wizened old man - an Irish monk? - who provided them with gold and silver. A follow-up expedition by a captain Alexander Johnson also found Hy-Brasil, and confirmed captain Nisbet’s findings.

The Phantom Island of Brazil

Map-readers knew about Brazil long before America was discovered; but they didn’t think of it as a giant country on a distant continent. Brazil, also known by the name Hy-Brasil, was a small, mist-shrouded island in the North Atlantic, not too far off Ireland’s west coast.

Only, Hy-Brasil never existed. Shown here on a Mercator map dating from 1623, it was one of many phantom islands that haunted marine cartography, sometimes for centuries, before more accurate observational techniques (and ultimately satellite photography) eliminated them all. 

Like many other phantom islands, the cartographic existence of Hy-Brasil was based on a combination of flimsy legend, faulty observations, wishful thinking, and outright mendacity.

Although its name might refer back to age-old Irish legends of sea-faring expeditions striking land in the Atlantic, Hy-Brasil’s first recorded appearance on a map dates from around 1325, as Bracile on a portolan map. 

In 1497, Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala reports home that John Cabot, the first European to visit North America since the Vikings in the 11th century, had made his journey with “the men from Bristol who found Brasil.”

Ayala also mentioned in that letter the Sete Cidades, a mysterious collection of seven cities supposedly founded in the 8th century on one or more islands in the Atlantic by Christians fleeing the Muslim conquista of Iberia. Which goes to show how fertile a breeding ground the oceanic expanse was for fantasies of phantom islands.

Sometimes fantasy became indistinguishable from fact. Hy-Brasil was rumoured to be continuously obscured by mist, except for one day every seven years. It must have been on one of those days in 1674 that captain John Nisbet, piercing a sea fog, anchored before the island, and sent a party of four ashore. The amazed sailors spent an entire day on Hy-Brasil, meeting an wizened old man - an Irish monk? - who provided them with gold and silver. A follow-up expedition by a captain Alexander Johnson also found Hy-Brasil, and confirmed captain Nisbet’s findings.