One of the obstacles to exploring the ocean, oddly enough, was the cost of glass. During its Napoleonic war and well after, Britain imposed an excise tax on goods like glass. This spiked its price fourfold; marine naturalists couldn’t afford to preserve their specimens under glass (standard practice) until the tax was repealed in 1845. But then came the golden age of the dredge report. Leaning over their boats, scientists and yachtsmen dredged up baskets of dripping life. Haul, look, preserve, theorize; that was the extent of ocean exploration. There was no scuba diving. No bathyspheres, no Cousteaus, no Woods Holes. Our ignorance of the ocean was oceanic.
“Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea” (Belknap, 2005) made me realize how far we’ve come. Helen M. Rozwadowski, who teaches maritime history at the University of Connecticut, plunges deep — partly by following the money. The initial attempts to map the ocean floor, for instance, occurred because Britain and America wanted to find the best place to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. This “eighth wonder of the world” would boost business and trade, plus a “communications breakthrough that would ensure peace between nations.”
Mapping expeditions set off: Rozwadowski features some cool illustrations of primitive sounding devices, these long unspooling wires with a cannonball-ish weight. In 1858, a cable was temporarily laid between Ireland to Newfoundland; Tiffany’s bought the leftover cable sections, cut them up, and embedded them in watch fobs, canes, and souvenirs. Hucksterism aside, the cable expeditions spurred more purely scientific ventures, culminating in 1872, when the research ship Challenger sailed off for four years. The result was a 50-volume report that’s credited with birthing the field of oceanography.
Back then, most scientists guessed sea creatures couldn’t live below 300 fathoms (about a third of a mile). We now know there’s life at even the deepest depths of about seven miles. I learned about these creatures, and others, in the seriously fun “The Extreme Life of the Sea” (Princeton, 2014) by the father-son pair Stephen R. Palumbi (Stanford biologist) and Anthony R. Palumbi (science writer, novelist). Their goal is to gin up “a novel’s narrative flair with the scientific accuracy that these subjects demand.” They pull it off. I loved how they called the waters off Baja “minestrone-warm,” for instance. Or how they liken the awkward, single-horned battles of narwhals to “fighting another person while you both hold broom handles in your mouths.”
My favorite extreme discoveries: giant squids with serrated tentacles; the Pompeii worm, whose body lives at scalding spots by hydrothermal vents, while its head rests at cooler water outside; and the sheepshead wrasse, which changes its gender as needed. The Palumbis plumb, but Susan Casey breaks the surface with “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean” (Anchor, 2011). And by “the,” she means the biggest, the rogue 80 to 100 footers that conventional wisdom deemed a myth (though Ernest Shackleton swore he saw one) until we had recent proof. Namely, tall ocean oil rigs that were toppled by taller water, and the Discovery’s research voyage, in which the crew lashed itself to bunks in an epic storm in 2000, lived to tell the tale, and checked their devices after — which clocked waves up to 90 feet.
Casey, a competitive swimmer and former editor of O, the Oprah Magazine, shores up her subject from wave physics experts to famed surfer Laird Hamilton, who “looked completely at ease inside a barrel as tall as an office building.” Hamilton’s the guy who co-invented tow-in surfing in the 1990s, whereby a partner, on a Jet Ski, tows a surfer to a wave too big to reach by paddling out. It was a revolution; the traditional 30-foot limit was smashed, and now surfers frequent-fly to 100-footers from Portugal to Australia. These dudes abide plenty; since the 1960s, average wave heights have risen by more than 25 percent.
Why? It’s the effects of climate change, something Sylvia A. Earle, Time Magazine’s first Hero for the Planet, covers in “The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One” (National Geographic, 2009). This eminent oceanographer opens her book with photos of the Deepwater Horizon rig spill and insists that the seas are our “life-support system” and our “World Bank. That’s where all the assets are.” With chapters on biodiversity loss, waste dumping, and governance — she proposes “hope spots,” a global network of protected stretches of ocean — she takes her own soundings. (But did you know we now map the ocean floor, not with wire, but by acoustics?) This is a harrowing, inspiring book. I did feel a little smug reading it, though, since we’re so superior to those glass-dependent Victorian dredgers. Then Earle gave me my comeuppance; less than five percent of the ocean has been seen, she reveals, let alone explored.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.