This website is about the ocean, the oceanographers trying to figure out how it works, and the specialized ships they use to do so.
I’m not an oceanographer, nor a scientist of any kind; before 2005 I didn’t even know any scientists. I’m a writer, author of four novels, two plays, and two nonfiction books about the ocean, Rounding the Horn and To Follow the Water. Researching and writing To Follow the Water, I met and went to sea with prominent ocean scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. It’s still surprising to me how that experience changed my direction as a writer. I didn’t want to leave the subject or the ships after the book was published.
I had had a relationship with the ocean long before that. I’ve been “sea struck,” to use the old maritime New England term for the kid who looks out at the horizon and knows that he will have to go, since well before the age of literacy. But my ocean attachment has always been romantic, aesthetic, evocative, resonant—this despite incurring its abuse aboard too-small sailboats, bilious graveyard watches, and periods of heavy-weather anxiety. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been out there; it’s just that I’d never been out there like that—aboard dedicated research vessels with people thinking about the ocean in ways I’d never imagined and learning important things about it that almost never reach public attention. They hadn’t reached mine.
I still have much to learn from the generous scientists who taught me to think about how the ocean moves, about how it works on a global scale. So I continue to go to sea with oceanographers. My job has been to write daily journals from, among other places, the Greenland Sea, the North Atlantic, the Indian and Arctic oceans about the science and the seamanship. The National Science Foundation, which funds most oceanographic expeditions with taxpayer money, calls this outreach. This website is in part a continuation and development of that work.
I grew up in southeast Florida where I fell under the Gulf Stream’s spell at an early age. It was the first place I ever got seasick. Yet until I began to research To Follow the Water, I never thought to ask why it flowed so fast and narrow or why there was a Gulf Stream at all. Was this a failure of curiosity? If so, was I alone in that among ocean people? I asked my sailing friends, some of whom are lifelong pros who read books, did they know why there was a Gulf Stream? They knew where it flowed; they knew how to deftly navigate a race boat though the current, but, no, they didn’t know why it flowed in the first place. And like me, they’d never thought to ask.
After the initial shock confronting the fact that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, I studied, read technical journals and textbooks, pestered professionals at premier institutions, and, most productively, I went to sea with them on month-long oceanographic expeditions (seven at this writing). I like everything about this new ocean world. I like to hear the esoteric language. I like how oceanographers welcomed me aboard after they recognized that I wasn’t just doing 1,500 words and walking away—and that I was interested in talking to non-scientists about their work. I like that they are sea-going scientists, and I like life aboard research vessels and that they take me to wild and remote places I’d otherwise never see.
So mostly this website is about at-sea physical oceanography told from a personal, participatory perspective. Physical oceanography is the branch of ocean science that answers such questions as, why is there a Gulf Stream in the first place? Henry Stommel, hands down the greatest physical oceanographer who ever lived, explained the Gulf Stream in 1948, at the beginning of his career. By the time of his death in 1993, the science had advanced, partly because of him, from adolescence to maturity. Oceanographers would caution that there is still much to learn, but they’ve learned enough that their field has developed from a strictly observational science to a predictive one. And what it seeks to predict is climate change.
This speaks to that matter of how the ocean works. To talk about climate without including the ocean is as senseless as doing so without mentioning air. A permanent system of currents (the Gulf Stream is but one) course through the body of the ocean like blood vessels through a gigantic living organism. Flowing on the surface and in the depths, they transport enormous quantities of heat from where there is too much (the tropics) to where there is too little (the high latitudes) and around again and again—thus moderating climatic extremes. As far as nature is concerned, there is only one World Ocean, and each of those we’ve named Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, etc. are linked by permanent currents to all the others. Because this world ocean is so vast in space and so variable in time, a single research expedition can only examine a small arc in the great global circle. (Please see “Expeditions”). So I’ll participate in two or three of these a year, reporting, in plain language, on the scientific objectives and the clever, specialized tools, including the ship, used to accomplish them, about the scientists themselves. And I’ll try to place that particular arc under study into the context of the great global circle to show how the ocean works.
But a website is a fluid form. While the focus is on physical oceanography, this website can be about more and other aspects of the ocean without losing its way. I’ll try to follow developments and expeditions in marine biology, ecology, and geology, with a dash of sailboat voyaging thrown in, another very different sort of ocean experience. Humbly, like a small-boat sailor in the open ocean, I would like to act as sort of an emissary between sea-going oceanographers and the rest of us interested in the ocean, no matter what direction we come at it.