Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book review: Fathoming the Ocean

Helen M. Rozwadowski. Belknap (Harvard University Press), 2005.

276pp. hardcover, 304 in paperback
Foreword by Sylvia Earle
We all know modern tools are allowing us to get a better view of the deep seas than we’ve ever had, but how did that kind of exploration get started? How did humans first get interested in the word below the first few sunlit meters of the sea, and how did we start probing that world?  Rozwadowski, in the first book I’ve read devoted to the early ocean surveyors, shows us how the Age of Sail fostered the age of deep-sea exploration. As commerce, whaling, fishing, and travel grew in economic importance and matured from coastal to trans-oceanic pursuits, naturalists, professional and amateur, grew more interested in the depths. These men (and women) tried a number of modifications of fishing nets and trawls for this work, then added purpose-built, often very ingenious tools like water samplers and recording thermometers.  In England and the United States, especially, wealthy and then middle-class amateurs took up the new interest in sampling and describing ocean fauna, followed increasingly by government-sponsored professionals, which led to episodes like the fortunate inclusion of Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle, not to mention the epic 1872-76 voyage of the HMS Challenger, which is often called the beginning of the modern age of ocean exploration. In this superbly documented and referenced book, the author includes the views of governments, ordinary sailors, and the Western public along with those of scientists.  This is an essential book for the understanding of deep-sea exploration, both historical and modern.

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