Atlantic's gentle rhythms of life and death

Great Waters
September 6, 2002

On receiving this book, I thought I would have the pleasure of reading an updated version of the book of the same title written by Sir Alister Hardy, which drew me into marine biology when it was first published in 1967. But Deborah Cramer does not mention Hardy's classic text, even though her book opens with the same quotation from Psalm 107 about "those who do business in great waters", and she uses, as he did, the personal experiences of a sea voyage to introduce the teeming life of the oceans to a wider readership.

This is a great pity because both authors are erudite and visionary and combine a scientist's rigour and attention to detail with an artist's eye and sensitivity. While Hardy considered the Antarctic Ocean from the decks of RRS Discovery , Cramer focuses on the Atlantic Ocean (or simply "Atlantic", as she prefers to personalise it), using a voyage on a sailing ship from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to Barbados to link her contemplations on the ocean from coastal waters to the deep sea.

Her account is well researched (there are more than 50 closely packed pages of notes and up-to-date references), but it is also passionate and accessible and is reminiscent of the chautauqua style championed by Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance .

This loosely linked structure enables her to illuminate a wide range of phenomena from plankton growth and climate change, through the demise of marine fisheries, to continental drift and the birth and death of the Atlantic Ocean basin. Throughout, she emphasises the interconnectedness of the ocean system and the inevitable and sometimes catastrophic entanglement of human beings in this web of interactions. Cramer takes up the challenge laid down by Rachel Carson in 1951, and explored more recently by Sylvia Earle, of persuading us that unbridled human exploitation is making an impact on the oceans on a global scale.

However, she does not attempt to provide an Art of Ocean Maintenance - her impassioned description of the problems we are creating within ocean ecosystems is not matched by any guidance for their resolution. The global consequences in terms of the depredation of accessible food resources are now brutally apparent but the longer-term impacts, for example on climate change, remain unclear. Her summary of this uncertainty nicely illustrates her style. "The sea brought us here. We have adjusted to its more gentle rhythms. As ocean-born rains deliver or withhold life-giving water, our civilisations and cultures flourish and fade. Now, toying with our atmosphere, we break the rhythms of the sea, nudging the climate, ignorant of whether we can adapt to the new niche we are creating. It may be an arrogant gamble."

The writing is rich and poetic, and her explanations and explorations are only occasionally fogged by an over-exuberant style. There are a few irritations (such as her description of the phytoplankton as "the wandering grasses" and her predilection for the word "nurturing") and errors (for example a three-fold error in converting temperature differences from Fahrenheit to Centigrade) and the book, unlike Hardy's classic, is only sparsely illustrated. The reader unfamiliar with the marine species discussed would benefit from a companion book of photographs such as Jonathan Bird's Beneath the North Atlantic to bring out their true beauty.

But these are minor problems with an otherwise excellent book that should bring enlightenment and pleasure to a wide audience. Above all, it promotes a holistic vision of a living, breathing ocean. If you read only one book about the ocean, this should be it.

Michael Whitfield is honorary visiting professor in marine science, University of Plymouth.

Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage

Author - Deborah Cramer
ISBN - 0 393 02019 3
Publisher - Norton
Price - £22.00
Pages - 442

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