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Posts tagged ‘Ocean’

November update

I’m deep in the middle of two books, so not here all that often, but just a few quick updates.

The first is the wonderful news that my essay, ‘The End of the Oceans’, which was published in The Monthly in August, has been nominated for the Walkley Award for Feature Writing (Long). I’m thrilled for all the obvious reasons, but I’m also delighted because it’s a subject of the utmost importance that I care about very deeply. If you enjoy it please share it.

I’ve also had several other pieces of non-fiction published over the past few months. The most significant was ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, a long essay about Adelaide, extinction and the death of my father for Sydney Review of Books’ New Nature series. It’s a very personal piece and was extremely difficult to write, but I hope people find something in it.

Also in Sydney Review of Books I have ‘A Family of Disguises’, a long review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in The Australian (and staying with the oceanic theme), a review of Joy McCann’s terrific new history of the Southern Ocean, Wild Sea (possible $$$). And finally, I’ve recently uploaded a long review of the imaginary history of Australia Rodney Hall mapped out in the Yandilli Trilogy, The Island in the Mind and The Day We Had Hitler Home. It’s a few years old now, but they’re marvellous books, and it would be wonderful if they found new readers.

 

2017: the year that was

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Because I’ve had my head down for a lot of this year I haven’t had much time for posting, but since it’s almost the new year I thought I might pull together some links and news.

The big news for this year was obviously the publication of my first YA novel, The Silent Invasion, which was released in Australia in April. It’s done well so far – it topped the bestseller lists in August and it’s just been longlisted for the Indie Awards (something I’m particularly thrilled about) – which has been great, especially since the second book in the series, The Buried Ark, will be out in April. If you’d like to know more about the series I wrote a piece about the inspiration for it to coincide with the publication of The Silent Invasion.

The other big news was the international publication of Clade by Titan Books in September. It’s had lovely reviews in various places, not least The Guardian and SFX, and I’ve done a number of interviews about it, most significantly for the fabulous Eco-Fiction and the Chicago Review of Books. I also did a long interview about climate change and fiction for Five Books, something that was doubly wonderful because I love the site so much (if you’ve never seen it I urge you to check it out: it’s an extraordinary resource).

I also published The Death of Neutrino Man, a comic I created with artist Melanie Cook from a script I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a project sponsored by iF Book (an experience I wrote about at the time). You can buy it for 99c at Comixology or read it online for free. I’ve got a couple of other comic projects cooking away, so hopefully there will be more soon.

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On the non-fiction front I wrote a couple of longer things, most notably a review essay of Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and a piece about the place of fiction in the Anthropocene, both of which were published on Sydney Review of Books. I also wrote about fish intelligence in The Monthly, which I’m delighted to say was shortlisted for the Bragg Prize for Science Writing and has recently been republished as part of Michael Slezak’s excellent Best Australian Science Writing 2017 (which would make an excellent Christmas present). And just a few weeks ago I published another ocean-themed piece in The Monthly, this time about the kelp forests of Australia’s other reef, the Great Southern Reef. And finally I’ve just written an appreciation of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career for The Neighbourhood Paper.

I’ll have more news about future projects, in particular The Buried Ark and my new adult novel in the new year. In the meantime I wish you all a very happy holiday season and all the best for 2018.

Fish have feelings too

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Steve Dunleavy, ‘Big Eyed Scad, Kona Hawaii’, cc by 2.0 2010

I’m delighted to be able to say my article, ‘Fish have feelings too’, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bragg/UNSW Bragg Prize for Science Writing, alongside pieces by Jo Chandler, Alice Gorman, Elmo Keep, James Mitchell Crow and Laura Parker. Originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Monthly, the piece is about recent research into fish cognition and intelligence. It will also be published later this year in The Best Australian Science Writing 2017, edited by Michael Slezak. I’m incredibly grateful to everybody at The Monthly and to Jodi Pini-Fitzsimmons and Culum Brown from Macquarie University for being so generous with their time and research. The winner will be announced in November.

 

 

Ghost Species

shell-219665_960_720It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on the beach beside the steel gantries and fuel tanks of Botany Bay’s container terminal watching my kids build a sandcastle by the water’s edge, a structure that keeps collapsing because the waves keep hitting it. But what I can’t get out of my head is the section of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, I read this morning, in which an unnamed narrator offers an imaginary account of the first sudden sea level rise in the 2040s. It’s a possibility I’ve also imagined in Ghost Species, the adult novel I’m writing (although mine is done from a more personal, experiential perspective), but simultaneously it’s a scenario that no matter how difficult it is for us to comprehend is now pretty much assured even if we do get emissions under control (as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently, “once feedbacks take over, the climate can change quickly, and it can change radically … It’s likely that the “floodgates” are already open, and that large sections of Greenland and Antarctica are fated to melt. It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen”). All of which means this beach, a lot of this city, most coastal habitats, mangroves and reefs and, I suspect, much of our world, are all already lost, swept away by the ocean, like the bathetically symbolic sandcastle my kids are trying to build against the backdrop of the engine of global trade. Is there a word for his prospective grief, this knowledge nothing here will remain? For all the species and ecosystems that still linger, although they are already lost? For the way I feel when I watch my kids, and know that however safe the world they inhabit seems the future holds dislocation and disaster, or for my own uncertainty about what I should be teaching them? In his book Orison for a Curlew the writer Horatio Clare talks about Greece’s economic ruin being a cenotaph for our society, I wonder whether this moment might be another.

Immense Heaven

1024px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaOur sun is one of the approximately 300 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of what is known as the Local Group, a formation of at least 54 galaxies galaxies spanning 10 million light years. The Local Group lies on the fringe of a much larger supercluster of galactic groups and clusters which contains more than 100,000 galaxies and spans some 520 million light years.

I’m not sure how many of us can really make sense of these sorts of numbers, or the idea that the universe is composed of a web of galactic clusters that shift and flow like water. Yet there’s something deeply fitting in the news earlier this week that the team responsible for identifying this vast supercluster have named it Laniakea, a Hawaiian word that means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven”, and was chosen to honour the Polynesian sailors who once navigated the great space of the Pacific by reading the stars.

It’s a name whose poetry extends beyond the obvious resonances with the ocean. It often seems there is something irresistible about our tendency to see the ocean infinite, immeasurable, trackless. There’s little doubt it’s an association that runs very deep, but it’s also at least partly a cultural construction, a legacy of Romanticism and the ways technology has progressively alienated us from the environment.

In fact the ocean is anything but trackless. As the achievements of the Pacific Islanders (and other pre-modern sailors) demonstrate, it is quite possible to read the sea, to learn to make sense not just of the stars but of patterns of wind and wave, the movement of birds and fish and driftwood (as several of the pieces in The Penguin Book of the Ocean attest).

The systems of knowledge, of fine-grained observation and remembered experience that underpinned this process were developed over hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Yet because the cultures that encoded them were largely oral, they were also vulnerable, and as the Pacific was colonised, and its cultures disrupted and suppressed, they largely disappeared. Indeed the fact that persist at all is largely due to the efforts of people such as the late Will Kyselka and David Lewis, who worked to preserve and recover as much of them as possible.

That systems of knowledge acquired over thousands of years should have been lost like this is strangely ironic: after all, the colonial project was spearheaded by the scientific voyages undertaken by explorers such as Banks and Cook during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, voyages that were themselves part of the extraordinary project of discovery and description that underpins modern science, and which has led, more than 200 years later, to us being able to map the flow of galaxies through billions of light years of space with such sophistication that it is possible for structures such as Laniakea to be identified and understood.

Lanikea isn’t the first astronomical object to be given a Polynesian name: astronomers have already chosen to name two of the dwarf planets discovered in recent years in the outer solar system MakeMake (for the creator of humanity and god of fertility worshipped by the Easter Islanders) and Haumea (the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii), yet it’s certainly the most significant. Nor should we be so naive as to think giving Polynesian names to heavenly bodies will bring back what has been lost: as Victoria Nelson has observed, “the death of a culture, like the death of a star, lasts longer than anyone can possibly imagine. The sadness, the echoes and ambiguities, persist for hundreds of years”. But reading about the naming of Laniakea I found myself wondering whether it’s possible that by incorporating the language and poetry of the Polynesians into the scientific endeavour we begin to acknowledge the repositories of knowledge embedded in their cultures (and by extension other non-Western and indigenous cultures), and just perhaps, go some small way toward recognising the injustices that have been inflicted upon them.

Laniakea. Immense Heaven.

 

Two of the most extraordinary things you’ll see this week

I’ve not seen Oceans, the most recent documentary from Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the creators of Travelling Birds, but after seeing the two videos below I think I need to. The first is of sleeping whales, and is just luminously beautiful, while the second is of one of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen, the Blanket Octopus (while we’re on the subject of octopi, you might also want to check out Sy Montgomery’s fabulous piece about octopi in Orion).

And in case it’s driving you crazy, that very sexy voice you can hear is Pierce Brosnan’s.

Thanks to io9 for the heads-up.

 

 

Moby Duck

I’ve got a review of Donovan Hohn’s Moby Duck: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them in this weekend’s Weekend Australian. As the review hopefully makes clear I liked it quite a bit, not least because despite the silly title (and the sometimes irritatingly digressive style) it’s a book that’s grappling in genuinely interesting ways with a series of questions about what Nature actually is, and perhaps just as importantly, how we should think about ideas such as wilderness and preservation in a globalised world.

These aren’t new questions, of course. There’s a growing body of theoretical work exploring them, and even in a more popular context recent years have seen the publication of books such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and Mark Lynas’ The God Species, but what makes Hohn’s book so refreshing is his interest in using the reality of the contemporary natural world to ask quite difficult questions about many of the assumptions underpinning environmental thinking. Some of these relate to what we actually mean by natural in 2011: there’s a great moment where he hikes through a rainforest only to realise when he hears a popping underfoot that it’s rooted in a great mound of old plastic bottles. But others are political, such as his argument the corporate-funded Keep America Beautiful campaign was less about cleaning up the environment than about transforming the public perception of litter and waste from a responsibility of polluting companies into something connected to personal conduct.

The book’s also interesting because it deliberately avoids the pieties of so much nature writing. Hohn isn’t interested in the chiselled prose and watchful reverence of Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen or Robert MacFarlane, instead he adopts a more contemporary (and more garrolous) style, one that allows him to write as lucidly about Chinese factories as vast, submarine gyres.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying there’s a lot to like about the book, and if you get a chance it’s well worth checking out. As I say, the review’s in The Weekend Australian, and you can find links to buy the book on Booko.

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).

 

 

Of Penguin Worms and Hairy Water

Launch of the James Caird from the shore of Elephant Island by Ernest Shackleton and his men, April 1916

As the ongoing silence in Tonguesville no doubt suggests, I’ve been a little busy, mostly trying to whip The Penguin Book of the Ocean into shape. I’m pleased to say that it’s finally beginning to take shape (indeed I’d go so far as to say it’s looking really good) and I’m not going to reflect too much on the irony that I’ve been so busy reading about the bloody ocean I’ve barely visited visit the beach all summer (admittedly the three month old baby may also have something to do with that, but it sounds better if I blame the book).

My irritation at being kept from the beach aside, I think it’s safe to say the real joy of putting this book together has been the reading it’s involved. Some of it’s been achingly beautiful, a lot of it’s been fascinating, and some of it’s been deeply chastening in its reminders of the sheer dangerousness and brutality of life at sea.

That being the case, I thought I’d share two snippets from the masses of books and documents I’ve worked my way through that have really stuck with me.

Both are from records of almost unimaginably dreadful struggles against the elements (there have been moments in the making of this book when I’ve wondered whether I shouldn’t just retitle it The Penguin Book of Truly Appalling Journeys by Open Boat and be done with it). The first is from Hakluyt’s account of the journey of Captain John Davis and his men aboard the Desire in 1592. Separated from the rest of their fleet in the Straits Of Magellan they made their way east to the Falklands, where, mad with hunger and thirst, they fell upon the local penguin population with a vengeance, killing 14,000 in the space of a few days. Without salt they could only attempt to dry their haul, which they did, and so, on a boat piled to the gunwales with rotting penguin meat they set sail for England, and home. The trip was difficult, to say the least, but eventually, after managing not to die of thirst or go mad while becalmed they reached warmer waters.

Which is when things got really bad:

“After we came near unto the sun, our dried penguins began to corrupt, and there bred in them a most loathsome and ugly worm of an inch long. This worm did so mightily increase, and devour our victuals, that there was in reason no hope how we should avoid famine, but be devoured of these wicked creatures: there was nothing that they did not devour, only iron excepted: our clothes, boots, shoes, hats, shirts, stockings: and for the ship, they did so eat the timbers, as that we greatly feared they would undo us by gnawing through the ship’s side. Great was the care and diligence of our captain, master and company to consume these vermin, but the more we laboured to kill them, the more they increased; so that at the last we could not sleep for them, but they would eat our flesh, and bite like mosquitoes.

“In this woeful case, after we had passed the Equinoctial toward the north, our men began to fall sick of such a monstrous disease, as I think the like was never heard of: for in their ankles it began to swell; from thence in two days it would be in their breasts, so that they could not draw their breath. . . . For all this, divers grew raging mad and some died in most loathsome and furious pain. It were incredible to write our misery as it was; there was no man in perfect health, but the captain and one boy. The master being a man of good spirit, with extreme labour bore out his grief, so that it grew not upon him. To be short, all our men died except sixteen, of which there were but five able to move.”

Choice.

The other, much shorter snippet is from Shackleton’s account of he and his men’s extraordinary journey from Elephant Island, just off the coast of Antarctica, to South Georgia in April 1916 (if you haven’t read South, do: it’s one of the more amazing books ever written).

After more than a fortnight alone in an open boat in the waters of the Southern Ocean they came into sight of land, only to discover the seas were so huge, and the shore so hazardous they couldn’t land. At which point they:

“stood off shore again, tired almost to the point of apathy. Our water had long been finished. The last was about a pint of hairy liquid, which we strained through a bit of gauze from the medicine-chest”.

My OED’s in storage, so I haven’t had a chance to check whether “hairy” has an archaic meaning I’m not aware of, or whether it’s just poetic license on Shackleton’s part, but the notion of “hairy liquid” certainly isn’t one I’ll be forgetting in a hurry.

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The Book of the Ocean

As I mentioned a while back, one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is an anthology of writing about the ocean for Penguin. It’s been a fascinating process, both because it’s given me a chance to revisit a number of books that have meant a great deal to me over the years and because it’s forced me to acquaint myself with many more I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation.

As the imbroglio over the Macquarie/PEN Anthology demonstrates, assembling anthologies is a perilous business. The bigger the subject, the more people have invested in it, the more likely you are to come in for a bucketing for mistaken emphases and omissions. And since the literature of the ocean is one of those subjects which is both vast and weighed down by its history it’s one that offers plenty of pitfalls.

As a result I decided early on that I had no desire to be either definitive or exhaustive. Instead my intention has been to assemble a relatively personal collection, which draws together a selection of writing I love. As someone whose life has been spent on the shores of the Southern and Pacific Oceans I also decided I wanted to put together a collection that spoke to and about that experience, rather than concentrating on the exploration of the northern seas that has traditionally preoccupied collections of this sort. In practice that’s meant letting go of a number of things I wanted to use, but it’s also helped give the collection a shape and cohesiveness it might not otherwise have had.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. The book’s now largely done, but I’ve still got space for a few more pieces, so I thought I might call upon all of you out there for suggestions. Is there anything you can think of that absolutely, definitely should be in a book of this sort? Or do you have ideas for things I might have overlooked? Because if you do I’d love to hear them.

A few caveats. I’m not looking for unpublished work or submissions. And while it doesn’t have to be Australian I’m very keen for a couple more pieces by Australians. Likewise, given the fact most of the pieces I’ve got so far are by men, I’m very interested in suggestions about work by women which might be suitable. And in the interests of preserving my sanity I’ve also limited the collection to writing in English, so no Jules Verne or Bachelard.

And please don’t assume I’m only after prose. Although the collection is predominantly prose it contains poetry, so suggestions for poems (especially Australian poems!) about the ocean are very welcome. Likewise I’m relaxed about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, though since this is a book aimed at the general reader I’m not after academic writing, or monographs (which has, much to my regret, precluded a couple of idols of mine like Greg Dening I was hoping to include). What matters is that it feels urgent, and necessary, and – though obviously this isn’t something any of you are able to gauge – that it fit with what’s already in place.

I’ll look forward to your ideas.

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Beyond the break: On Surfing and Writing

 

Bondi Waiting, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Bondi Waiting, © aquabumps.com, 2008

While digging through my hard drive yesterday I came across the piece below. It’s a few years old now, and I think a rather different version of the same piece ran in Good Reading in 2004, but it seemed worth giving it an airing, not least because I so rarely find time to surf anymore, and I miss it so much.

Two or three times a week, twelve months of the year, I make my way to the beach with my brother and a small group of friends. Although the purpose of the trip is what we call “ocean time”, which is code for surfing, it is also about a sort of escape, not just from our work and from our day to day lives, but from the more controlled aspects of the selves we need to be to live those lives.

The result is a little like playing hooky: slightly overcharged and somehow suspended out of normality. It’s also almost exclusively male, and curiously, for something that is about escape, is itself highly ritualised. From the time-coded pick-ups to the arguments about which beaches we will check out to the perving on chicks these excursions conform to a script which varies only in its detail.

Explosion duckdive, Bondi  (courtesy www.aquabumps.com)

Explosion duckdive, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

How much the sense of escape is connected to the actual surfing I’m not sure. It may be that the surfing is merely a pretext for this behaviour, as shopping or golf or fishing clearly are for other people, at least in part. But although we all spend time together for other purposes, much of it also involving physical activity – running, gym, occasionally snorkelling or diving – none of these other expeditions have the same sense of excitement and freedom, either for me or the others.

I suspect most people conceive of writing – and people who write, with a few notable exceptions – as confined to a sphere which not just excludes the physical, but which actually exists in some sort of opposition to it. In fact the processes of writing, and of entering a space where it is possible to write, seem to me to be about a way of being which is almost seamlessly continuous with the life of the body.

Writing, at least the sort I’m interested in, is about communicating the nature of being. Despite its medium, it is a conversation between minds about aspects of existence – psychological, spiritual, emotional – which exist independent of language, and which are for the most part irreducible to mere words. It’s about making the apprehended but inexpressible communicable, about taking the pre-verbal and ineffable experience of emotion and passing that experience on to another. That mere words have this ability to transcend their own meanings, to offer us a glimpse of the mirrors that lie in the inner worlds of others is something we have all felt in that moment of recognition that comes when something we read or hear strikes us as somehow right or true, that sense a chord has been struck somewhere within us, its meanings neither simple nor easily explained.

Like music, any piece of writing has a shape and cadence of its own. It is about rhythms, in language, in character, in story. It is these rhythms that you seek when you write, for they are the contours you try and bring forth. What guides you is not the intellect, or at least not the conscious part of it, but something more intuitive. It is the sense that you are following a shape which somehow already exists, something not so much invented as implicit in the thing itself. Just as sculptors claim to see a shape within the uncarved stone, so the story seems to be already there, like a name half-forgotten which lingers on the tip of the tongue.

Understood like this the process of writing is more a kind of listening than anything, a quiet attendance to the thing. Like the shaping of objects with the hands, the turn of a pot upon a wheel or a lathe upon wood, it is a process in which the intrusion of the conscious mind is often a hindrance, for the important thing in trying to find these rhythms is not to try too hard, not to force it. To hear the rhythms in a thing, to let it happen, you must learn to let go of your intentions, to forget the self and just be.

Learning to do this is one of the hardest things about writing. When a book is near its end it usually has a kind of momentum, an effortlessness, as if some apex has been passed and now the run is downhill, but before that point it can be difficult to find the rhythms you are seeking. Forgetting the self and entering that state of flow is not something that can be just picked up and put down: it requires large spaces of time, room to think and tinker, or just to be.

But it’s not just a question of time. What is needed is a way of escaping the life you are immersed within, of connecting with those things which ground you and your work. Different people find this in different ways, but increasingly I have found it through the stolen time of surfing.

Surfers often talk about their sport in almost religious terms, and although I don’t have a lot of sympathy for much of the culture that surrounds surfing, this sense of the act as a kind of spiritual journey is one I understand very well. To leave the shore and swim out, through the break and over the back, is to feel yourself slip free of your moorings and give yourself to the elements. Although your conscious mind still matters, you enter a world where it is your physical existence that matters first and foremost, the movement of your body in the water, with the water.

Rays of Light, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Rays of Light, Bondi, © aquabumps.com, 2008

Sometimes the rewards for this are no more than the joy of playing in the ocean, a simple pleasure in the act itself. But there are other times, most often in the last hour or so of dusk, when the beach is quiet and the sky has begun to fade, when it is far more. Then, as the ocean moves beneath you and the long feed of the clouds passes overhead it  possible to sense the presence of a meaning which lingers just out of reach. It is to do with time, and its depth, with the rhythm of the sky and the waves, the cry of the birds as they pass overhead. Apprehended not consciously but somewhere deeper, this meaning beats like the pulse of a heart, something always there but of which we are only occasionally aware; deep and ceaseless, it fills the fabric of the world until it trembles with its weight.

This sense of the world’s presence in its pieces, of its divinity is one which runs deep in my writing. But the knowledge of its existence grounds me in a more mundane way, binding me to the act of surfing, to the escape it offers. For in the loss of self that surfing demands, the submission of the conscious mind to the rhythms of the ocean, I find a sort of peace, a capacity to move and think freely, and ultimately, to attain the sort of equilibrium I need to write.

(The images on this page are provided courtesy of Eugene Tan at www.aquabumps.com, whose daily email chronicle of the changing moods of Sydney’s beaches has been a bright point in my day for more years than I care to remember).

© James Bradley, 2009

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The Hunt

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Photo by Paul Nicklen

This is an amazing and beautiful thing. Photos and video of sailfish cooperating to herd schools of sardine.

“The hunt seems almost mammalian. Sailfish—which often travel in loose groups—clearly join forces. Males and females alike circle the prey, pushing the school into tighter formation, and taking a few bites in turn. Each forward rush is punctuated by a startling flare of the dorsal fin, which more than doubles the hunter’s profile . . . The sardines, too, work in concert. Detecting each other’s proximity and movement, they shift in synchrony, each fish both leader and follower. The fish mass slides like a drop of mercury, mesmerizing, with a shimmer that may help to confuse predators . . .”

Read more at National Geographic.

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Google Earth maps the deep

google-earthThere’s something to be written here about the gap between our ability to image the natural world and our understanding of it, particularly in the context of the oceans. Certainly there’s an irony at work in the fact that we know so little about what lies beneath the waves, the speed with which we are destroying it and the fact anyone with a computer terminal can now gaze at an exquisitely detailed sonar model of the ocean floor. But all that aside, this is an amazing thing, so perhaps rather than maundering on I’ll just give in to the marvel of the technology for a moment.

Google goes deep with ocean simulations

And if anyone is interested in the things that live in the ocean, check out the Census of Marine Life.

Update: New Scientist helpfully informs me that the new version of Google Earth also lets you visit the empty oceans and towering peaks of Mars. Check out the Google Earth blog for instructions on how to use the new feature.

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Wayne Levin

'Baluga Whale, Hakejima Sea Paradise' from Other Oceans

'Baluga Whale, Hakejima Sea Paradise' from Other Oceans

Flicking through some books the other night, I came across my copy of Wayne Levin’s Other Oceans. It’s a remarkable book, showcasing a series of black and white photos taken by Levin in aquariums around the world, and juxtaposing an almost sacred sense of the mysteriousness and wonder of the ocean and its inhabitants with the hushed, oddly utilitarian surfaces of the aquariums themselves. It is a juxtaposition that is haunting because it speaks so directly to our yearning for communion with the otherness we see embodied in the ocean and its inhabitants. But it is also, as Thomas Farber points out in his introduction, unsettling for the way it reminds us that if we do not change the path we are on, and quickly, it will not be long before the only way we will know the ocean’s inhabitants will be as creatures in submarine zoos of the sort featured in Levin’s photographs.

Levin’s photography probably isn’t familiar to many outside of the United States, and the broader community of those who are fascinated by the ocean, but he’s a Hawaii-based photographer who, working largely in black and white, has spent the best part of the last three decades documenting a very personal portrait of the ocean and its inhabitants. Although he has explored seas further afield, most of his photographs have been taken in the waters around his home, capturing surfers and divers and, most remarkably, what he describes as the resident spirits of the seas – the whales, dolphins, turtles and fish that move beneath the surface, largely unseen.

441The best of his photographs capture something of the immensity and mysteriousness of the ocean, its elusive and constantly-changing beauty. Some are collected together in Other Oceans and Through a Liquid Mirror, both of which feature introductions by Thomas Farber, author of the remarkable The Face of the Deep and On Water. But he also operates a beautiful website, Wayne Levin Images, which draws together a terrific selection of his work, and is well worth a visit.

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All images © Wayne Levin.

Sharks

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In 2005, along with my brother, Patrick, I spent several days cage-diving trip with Great White Sharks off the south coast of South Australia. It was one of the more remarkable experiences I’ve ever had, and I subsequently wrote about it for the now-defunct Bulletin. Since the piece is no longer available online, and sharks are all over the media at the moment, it seems a nice moment to resurrect the piece, together with some photos from the trip.

“Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

As we leave Port Lincoln a shearwater moves beside us, appearing and then disappearing behind the swell’s smooth motion as it skates across the waves. Behind us dolphins shoot through the water, slipping out and around the bow, their pale bellies flashing as they veer and turn. The weather is high, and still; the early morning water like silk.

Only as we round the cape does the wind hit, the swell thunking heavily into the hull so we pitch and roll, spray rising. To the west the low outline of the coast moves slowly past, the treeless hills and barren beaches strangely, powerfully familiar like so much I have seen in the last 24 hours. Although I’ve not lived in South Australia for the better part of 15 years it’s still there, inside of me: I realise thisas I stand watching it pass, those hills and the open sea evoking the same sense of loneliness and loss one can hear in the names the early explorers gave them: Dangerous Reef, Memory Cove, Cape Catastrophe. Coffin Bay.

Our destination is to the south-east, a lonely series of rocky islets called Neptune Islands that sits scattered across the mouth of the Spencer Gulf. Save for the seals and the seabirdscongregating on their low shores they would harbour little of interest — a ruined lighthouse, the condemned remains of a scientific station — were it not for the fact that they are also one of the few places in the world where Great White Sharks are known to congregate. Having spent the last few weeks reading and thinking about these shadowy creatures I am now travelling to this place I last visited as a child, to see them for myself.

Four hours later we arrive. Choosing a mooring in the lee of South Neptune baits are set and berley cast out into the water. Tommy ruffs rise to peck at the red cloud of messy fishmeat, glittering and quick, darting and turning while others nibble at the hunks of tuna carcass that trail behind the boat on baitropes. We stand watching as the crew lower a battered cage from the back of the boat into the water, the passengers laughing excitedly at the dents in the metal — evidence of previous encounters with the creatures we are here to see. ‘How long do you think we will have to wait?’ someone asks, but as they say this one of the baitropes goes taut with a crack and all 17 metres of the boat jerks sideways. With the others I run to the side, but the bait — the back third of a tuna that would have been a metre and a half long when it was alive — is already gone, the rope floating free.

I struggle into my wetsuit, digesting instructions on how to enter and exit the cage without being tipped over the side by the swell or overbalanced by my weightbelt. And then I’m off the back, and into the water.

Beneath the surface I grasp for my regulator. Although broken cloud moves overhead and the cage rises and falls in a metre or more of wave, the visibility is good, the water an impossible blue, deep and smoky. Immediately in front of the cage a tuna’s ruined neck and gills float, a billow of filmy guts beneath it. The water is cool, enclosing.

For a long time nothing happens. And then, just when it seems that the creature must have gone, slipped away into the ocean, a shape appears out of the blue, swimming steadily towards us. In the perspectiveless colour of the water it is hard at first to tell how large it is; it moves casually, almost effortlessly, its body weightless, its eyes trained on us. Only as it gets closer does the size of it become apparent, the power. I had thought it would be more beautiful, I realise, sinuous, and sleek, like a tiger. But despite the sinister ease with which it slides through the water there is nothing beautiful about it. Rather it is brutish, possessed of the overdeveloped look of the tomcat — that massiveness, though applied to a frame more than five metres in length.

As it approaches we move closer to the bars of our cage, eager to see more. Its mouth — surprisingly small in its head — hangs open, the uneven teeth protruding raggedly, the nostrils visible above them as blunt depressions. Behind its pectoral fins swim a school of silvery baitfish, following its motion with quick, shimmery turns like a clutch of young. The effect is oddly tender.

In a moment it will turn, striking at the cage with sudden ferocity, the force of the blow sending all three of us staggering to the floor and leaving teeth embedded in the metal of the tanks. But for now it simply turns, passing so close beside us that we could touch it. One gill is torn, scars crisscrossing the nose and face, the black eyes cold and depthless as it gazes through the cage at us.

What will be most surprising to me, as I look back, is that I am not afraid, even as it circles and strikes. Perhaps it is simply the reassuring fact of the cage, but faced with their lazy power of their motion, their careless brutality, I am filled instead with a sense of wonder that such things might still exist. It is as if the fact of their movement through these waters, the ghostly way they have appeared and will later disappear into the ocean’s immensity, like some half-remembered dream suggesting not terror, but something buried deeper, something primal, and deeper than words. Yet this is a creature with which I have shared an uneasy proximity all of my life. Always, everywhere: when we are in the water the idea of the shark is there with us, a shadowy presence lurking just out of sight, like the monsters that once lurked just beyond our campfires, unseen, unstoppable, implacable. And of all the sharks it is this one – the Great White, Carcharodon carcharias – that we fear the most.

Seeing sharks up close, such fears seem natural enough. Sharks are sometimes caricatured as primitive, their basic design dating back some 400 million years, but in reality they are highly adapted and sophisticated creatures, their longevity testament to their perfection. Watching as they glide past or strike at the baits it is obvious that in some deep sense this is what they are for, that in their speed and savagery they are entirely and utterly themselves.

Over the hours and days that follow, as I watch them gather around the boat, I find myself wondering at this quality in them. It’s easy to romanticise wild creatures, particularly ones as singular as sharks. Indeed in the case of a creature so feared, so maligned, romanticisation might almost be seen as a response to the horror they provoke in many. Watching them as they circle the cage, looking into their strangely empty eyes I find my own desire to see something ancient and unknowable reflected back at me, rendered somehow ridiculous by their obdurate alienness.

And yet are the fears we project onto them any less ridiculous? As we drove through Port Lincoln, we had passed the Sorrento Motor Inn. Seeing it my brother reminded me that we stayed there once as children, 25 years ago, on a holiday with our parents. Looking out the window I realised he was right; I remembered not just the hotel but our parents’ warnings about the beach that runs behind it, curving away towards what is now the marina. People got eaten here, they told us over and over again, disappearing after diving off the back of fishing boats or dragged under while snorkelling off the rocks. My parents were not nervous people, but the threat posed by the sharks seemed real enough to them then, and real enough I suppose to us.

*

On my second dive I take off my glove, peeling the nylon from my pale and wrinkled skin. Though they live alone in the ocean, gathering only to feed or breed, there are four or five sharks now attracted by the smell of the bait and moving in long arcs around the boat, sometimes vanishing into the failing light for minutes at a time. Seen together they are surprisingly individual, their bodies and markings, even their faces, easy to tell apart. Some look tired, their mouths hanging open with apparent exhaustion; others are sinisterly clownish, their wide, bland faces cartoonish; others are sleek and savage, their bodies still slender.

One by one they pass, watching the drifting baits. And for creatures with such a fearsome reputation they are surprisingly cautious, refusing to take a bait more often than not. Biologists have argued this caution reflects the risk that their prey — adult Great Whites prey almost exclusively on large mammalian creatures such as seals — pose to them, rather than the other way round. Their characteristic mode of attack is designed not to maximise their chances of a successful kill but to minimise the chances of damage to their eyes from the teeth and claws of struggling seals, and so their lips peel back to push their jaws forward, and their eyes roll back into their head.

Outside the cage I can see three of them circling, some way off. Flexing my hand I wait, watching them, and then, almost on cue, one — a five-metre male recognisable by the claspers behind his pelvic fins — turns inwards, heading towards me like a steadily moving torpedo. Despite the effortlessness of his motion he moves improbably quickly, his speed a reminder of the power of his body. Out on the perimeter of my vision I can still see the others, waiting, no doubt watching.

As he draws closer he does not turn aside, and for an instant or two I have a very clear sense of being watched, considered. At first I think he means to ram the cage, maybe try and force his snout through the gap designed to allow easy filming. But then, at the last moment he turns aside, his body pressing against the metal so it creaks and grinds. Reaching out I grasp his pectoral fin, feeling for a moment the power in him before he pushes on. The mottled line where his darker back meets his paler belly passes close, and reaching out again I press my hand against it, not sure what to expect. Great Whites, like makos and some large turtles, have warm blood: a heat exchange system in their bodies heats it to 24-27º, making their physiology closer in many ways to that of mammals and birds than that of other fish. That they can exchange energy more efficiently means their muscles can contract faster and more powerfully.

As he moves by his skin slides under my hand, surprisingly smooth — the skin of sharks is made up of thousands of tiny dermal denticles, or skin teeth; rubbed against the grain these are abrasive, like sandpaper, but traced with it they can seem almost frictionless — and pressing harder I seek the warmth I know should be there. But whether or not it is my own skin gone numb in the cool water or the layers of insulating flesh between us, I feel nothing, only the skin itself, its resistance beneath my hand. And then he is gone, peeling away from the cage and away.

I watch him go, swimming away as if my clumsy attempt to touch him has driven him to retreat: it’s strange how little is really known about these creatures, particularly given the space they occupy in our cultural imagination. Studying marine animals of any sort poses considerable practical difficulties, and in the case of large, dangerous and migratory predators these problems are only exacerbated. It’s not even clear how many of them there are: some South Australians believe their numbers have increased since they were protected in 1997, but most other data points to an ongoing decline in their numbers, the recent spate of attacks along Australia’s coasts notwithstanding.

There’s something peculiarly tragic in this. Of course the extinction of any species is a tragedy, but it’s difficult not to feel that we ourselves will be somehow diminished on the day the last Bengal tiger falls to a poacher’s bullet or the last polar bear is reduced to scavenging in rubbish dumps as the polar ice melts.

In a similar vein the biologist David Quammen has recently argued for a reappraisal of the way we understand those few species which have regularly preyed upon human beings, seeking to tease out a more complex way of seeing them and, by extension, our place in the world. Drawing together narrative threads as diverse as Gligamesh, Beowulf and Alien, he suggests that our deep-seated fears of creatures such as the shark are not just predictable but actually necessary, even desired, serving to remind us of our limitations, our mortality.

What’s interesting about Quammen’s argument is that it points out that those communities who live closest to these creatures — be they lions or bears or crocodiles — do not fear these creatures so much as respect them, even venerate them. Predator and prey are, if not quite two sides of the same coin, at least bound together by the nature of their relationship, the one made somehow more real by the other.

By contrast societies such as ours, mercifully free of predators, feel the need to invent them, projecting our subliminal terrors and cultural anxieties onto cinema screens, and, presumably, beneath the waves. Like Alexander with the armies of the world vanquished, we find ourselves not ennobled by our success but diminished, and so we create monsters to make ourselves feel alive, as if knowing life depended on understanding how easily it might be snatched away.

*

Near dusk on our third day, great clouds of shearwaters wheel overhead, dark against the paling sky as they gather for the night. At the back of the boat my brother and one of our fellow passengers are fishing, when one of them hooks something big. There is much laughter, speculation that the shark from earlier — a massive five-metre male with a nose scored clean and pale by some unknown collision — might be on the end. Earlier today he’d struck at one of the baits, rolling up between the boat and the cage, sending the berley bucket tumbling into the water and smashing the occupants of the cage back in a great kicking surge before biting clean through the massive rope which secures the cage to the boat. And though we all of us know it is not that shark’s weight against the rod — that the line would have snapped — we gather, curious to see what has been caught.

Almost on cue, as they strain to bring whatever it is that has been caught on board, he appears, gliding beneath the boat, the white spot on his snout clearly visible in the dark water. We all shout, excited, and as we do a huge grouper, almost a metre and a half in length, comes looming into view, fighting on the line.

A few metres from the boat the shark turns, swinging back as we haul the grouper higher, trying to save it. As it thrashes on the line the captain leans over, only inches from the water, trying to draw the hook from its mouth. The shark passes underneath again, and as it does the grouper floats free, flapping half-submerged, its swim bladder swollen from the too-quick ascent to the surface. It flounders away from the boat, struggling to dive, and we laugh and shout, urging it to swim while in one long, almost lazy roll the shark surfaces, its huge head rising from the water to engulf the fish in its maw. It rolls once and then again, its body flashing dark and dazzling white as it turns. Though this afternoon I stood so close to it I could touch it without fear the effect now is terrifying, the sheer size of the shark, its power suddenly brought home to me — to all of us — as much by the casual economy of its attack as by anything. For a few seconds the shark turns near the surface, flicking its tail and slicing around, still caught up in the attack. On the boat all of us are whooping and shouting, horrified by the spectacle and excited by it, demanding of each other, did we see it? And then a few seconds later the shark erupts from the water again, caught in a craypot’s ropes, struggling in the buoys, turning and fighting, before pulling the buoys down with it and vanishing.

For a long time we stand staring after it, wanting it to return. I’m sure I should feel sorry for the grouper but I don’t or not very. Indeed I almost wish one of the seals I can hear crying on the rocks a few hundred metres away might swim close so I could see it get taken too. I know — all of us know — that we have seen something here modern humans rarely get the chance to see, some vision of the primal, horrible and magnificent. And in its wake I feel enlivened somehow, as if my awe has reminded me of some part of me I had forgotten, the feeling lasting until long after the shark has gone, so long that later that night, in the silence of our cabin my brother and I find ourselves laughing at it, elated, still buoyed by the violence of the shark’s attack, the memory wild in us.

First published in The Bulletin
© James Bradley, 2005

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