Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts

December 11, 2008

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville's narrator Ishmael declares: "Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Going to sea is a similarly uplifting experience for many scientists, as illustrated in Ellen Prager's Chasing Science at Sea. Her book brings alive the moments of wonder, surprise, enlightenment, frustration, humour, camaraderie and danger involved in fieldwork on and beneath the waves.

Prager is chief scientist of Aquarius, an "inner space" station where researchers live and work underwater in the Florida Keys. She is therefore highly qualified to comment on immersing oneself in the marine environment to understand it. Her book assembles anecdotes from colleagues such as marine biologists, geologists and engineers. Their tales range from divers chasing parrotfish poo with plastic bags to oceanographers seeing an actual step in the surface of the sea at the edge of the Gulf Stream. In bringing these briny tales together, Prager explores some of their common themes to convey why many of us study the ocean - and why it matters.

Prager notes that science often involves as many twists and turns as a compelling drama. Here scientists talk in their own words about what they do, and their stories are highly engaging. This is particularly refreshing: unlike some television documentaries about marine research, there is no unnecessary commentary or highly contrived narrative.

A passionate advocate of the value of seagoing science, Prager explains the need for fieldwork to validate satellite observations and results from models, which are a far cheaper form of research to fund. She argues that fieldwork produces results that cannot come from the lab or a computer. And to put the cost of marine science into context, she offers a poignant comparison of the budgets of space and ocean exploration.

Chasing Science at Sea also calls for more fieldwork opportunities for students. Prager warns that future generations of scientists may be lacking in field skills as increases in class sizes and caps on funding squeeze fieldwork provision at many universities. But there are plenty of us "old school" types who recognise the central importance of fieldwork in training marine scientists, despite these pressures. At my institution, for example, entrepreneurship has provided a new coastal research vessel that is now our flagship for practical teaching and outreach to schools.

For school students, fieldwork can be inspirational, and it reaches those disenfranchised by rote learning. Science is an adventure that can take us to amazing places. It is about asking questions - and sometimes getting one's hands dirty when scrabbling around for answers. It is not about learning standardised answers to prepare for tests, which has become the experience of science for many at school.

William Beebe, a pioneer of deep-ocean fieldwork, once commented that those who return from the abyss speechless in wonder deserve to go again. Fortunately, researchers such as Prager overcome their speechlessness to share their wonder with others. I will be recommending this first-hand account of science at sea to my undergraduate students as they prepare for their first field course. But while I share some of Prager's concerns about the support of marine fieldwork, I am confident of the ocean's continuing allure as a frontier of knowledge.

Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts

By Ellen Prager. University of Chicago Press. 178pp, £11.50. ISBN 9780226678702. Published 19 September 2008

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