Wild Sea: A His­tory of the South­ern Sea by JOY MCCANN

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — EL­IZ­A­BETH FINKEL

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.

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