Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Sea by JOY MCCANN
New South Books (2018) RRP $ 32.99
SEA ADVENTURE TRAGICS will love this book by Australian historian Joy Mccann.
You’ll be treated to accounts of expeditions by James Cook and others to discover the great southern land, Terra Australis, that had been predicted since the time of Ptolemy to balance the continents of the north. Their journal extracts describe the extreme violence of the southern ocean, the only one with no land mass to interrupt its raging circumpolar current, but also the magical beauty of Antarctic seascapes.
Their missions were as much about science as territorial conquest. We hear about quests to find the south magnetic pole, or to map currents and the ocean floor. The British scientific expedition ship, the Challenger (1872 - 1876), was especially charged with detailing the abundant wildlife that might shed new light on Darwin’s theories. Its discoveries included diatoms, the silica-coated plants that stain icebergs yellow, and the greatest concentration of whales on the planet. It’s no coincidence. Whales feed on krill that feed on diatoms that provide about 20% of the world’s oxygen. Their lacy forms were made famous by German naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s exquisite paintings, based on the Challenger’s collection.
Antarctica’s magical icescapes unfailingly move the historic chroniclers to poetry. It’s a sentiment that jars with the horrific accounts of the wholesale slaughter of seal colonies and later of whale populations. Norwegian explorer Carl Larsen may be best known for the ice shelf named after him, but his later enterprise on South Georgia island earned him the title: ‘king of modern whaling’. In a single summer season from 1912 to 1913, 10,760 whales were taken!
The author’s poetic overtures open each chapter, which roughly curate the collection into the categories: ocean wind, coast, ice, deep, current, convergence. There’s much repetition and little storyline but most readers, like me, will forgive Mccann’s headlong immersion into the richly intersecting currents of southern ocean history.
She’s certainly succeeded in sparking my wonder, especially for the tenacious Cook. After mapping the east coast of Australia in 1770 on his first voyage, Cook went searching for the real Terra Australis on his second. Though he did not spy the Antarctic continent, in 1773 he was the first to cross the Antarctic circle and correctly surmised that towering icebergs had broken off a land mass near the pole.
Today robotic Argo floats do the job that Cook’s hapless sailors were sent out into the freezing seas in rowboats to do: sample the ocean’s salinity, currents and depth. Two centuries ago scientific wisdom held that this remote frozen ocean would influence global climate. As we try to predict the future, much will depend on the winds, current and ice of the southern ocean.