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Waves, the ocean and the sublime

Today’s Australian contains the last Australian Literary Review for 2010. A chunk of the issue is given over to a long piece by Michael Costa suggesting some solutions to the problems facing the ALP and a forum of prominent academics such as Glyn Davis, Peter Doherty and Stephen Lincoln exploring the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and the world as we look forward to 2020.

But the issue also features a long piece by me about Susan Casey’s new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies. Some of you may know Casey as the author of The Devil’s Teeth, which explored the world of Great White Sharks and the researchers who study them, and while it’s largely shark-free, The Wave often reads like a sequel or counterpart to its predecessor, using the career of big wave surfer Laird Hamilton as the springboard for a much larger study of the science of waves and the gathering storm of climate change.

I won’t rehearse the arguments of the book here, except to say that it’s an intelligent, if sometimes slightly slick piece of work. I’ve subsequently learned there’s been something of a scandal about the fact Casey shared the proceeds from the book with Hamilton, a fact that lends her already over-eroticised and hagiographical descriptions of him a distinctly queasy edge. But as I say in the review, Casey writes brilliantly about the breaks themselves, and the larger picture the book paints of the effects of climate change on ocean turbulence and wave height is likely to be deeply disturbing to anybody who’s not familiar with the facts surrounding the changes taking place beneath the ocean’s surface (if this material is new to you you might want to take a moment to read this story from the ABC, and perhaps this piece by Elizabeth Kolbert as a primer).

Much of what I want to say is in the review itself, but there is one story in Casey’s book I desperately wanted to include but just couldn’t shoehorn in, and that concerns the wave that hit Alaska’s Lituya Bay in 1958. Situated midway between Vancouver and Anchorage, Lituya Bay is one of those rare places where the various factors that generate tsunamis converge, combining a narrow fjord and near vertical cliffs on three sides with a steeply rising bottom, large glaciers and seismic instability. First charted by La Perouse in 1786, it has a long history of sudden and violent wave activity.

But the wave that struck on 9 July 1958 dwarfs all other recorded waves. Triggered by an earthquake, the ocean sent a tsunami which reached 524m in height rolling through the bay and out to sea.

The notion of a wave more than half a kilometre high beggars belief. Yet it is not the most remarkable part of this story. That honour belongs to the fact that at the time of the tsunami several fishing boats were moored in the bay, and one of the captains, Howard Ulrich, survived by steering his boat up the face of the approaching wave.

You can read the review in full here.

Update: I thought these two videos, one of Laird Hamilton in action, the other of an unidentified surfer riding a very big wave might be of interest (thanks to Tim Dunlop for the reminder).



5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane GW #

    wow! that is one spectacular wave (the world’s biggest wave ever surfed). vertigo inducing.

    December 1, 2010
  2. What an amazing story. And I watched that top video over and over. It was mesmerising, the streaks standing up, the silence but for wind. Must go back to work. Must go back to work.

    December 1, 2010
  3. I’m totally obsessed with this stuff – big waves, giant tsunami, etc. I grew up near some wild surf beaches and have had a lifelong fear of tsunami, which turned into an obsession several years ago. I spent a while hunting for pictures or video of tsunami, with little success. Until the awful Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 – and then suddenly there were hundreds of images. Enough to fuel nightmares for years. I felt guilty collecting those photos and videos, and soon turned to surfing movies for a less horrible fix instead.

    Anyway, you’ve just reminded me to go watch ‘Riding Giants’ again – and also to dig up a copy of Peter Weir’s ‘The Wave’ (which made a big impression on me when I saw it as a kid). And of course, to get a copy of Casey’s book…

    December 1, 2010
  4. I like – no, love – the fact that us human beings can do something as completely and utterly dumb as ‘ride’ massive bulks of water and make it look beautiful. It probably justifies our existence on Earth. Probably.

    December 4, 2010

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