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A major player in weather, climate, and biodiversity, the waters around Antarctica take center stage in a new history

Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean

Joy McCann
University of Chicago Press
288 pp.
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Of the vast, largely unknown marine environment, the most mysterious section arguably lies at the bottom of the world. In Wild Sea, historian Joy McCann has written a brief but delightfully comprehensive history of the Southern Ocean, “the most remote and inaccessible part of the planetary ocean, the only part that flows completely around Earth unimpeded by any landmass.”

The ocean currents and winds originating there provide an engine for the world’s climate, giving rise to El Niño years and their hemisphere-wide cascade of consequential weather patterns. The huge amount of Southern Ocean biomass alone, everything from tiny diatoms to the blue whale, also figures significantly in carbon sequestration—starting with phytoplankton, which are responsible for about half the planet’s total photosynthesis—and thus in climate change’s many complex feedback loops.

Seafarers from many nations who first caught and traded animals in the Southern Ocean quickly recognized those waters as a kind of marine El Dorado. In a way, they weren’t far off. Many species prefer colder water for their life cycles and find their food supply in the currents caused by upwelling (the mixing of colder water with the warmer layer on top of it) around 40 degrees latitude.

“By the early nineteenth century the oceans were perceived not only as a means to extend territorial ambitions but also as the source of inexhaustible riches unencumbered by any one nation’s legal or administrative instruments,” writes McCann. Factory ships returned home with holds laden with barrels of oils and other precious commodities.

Despite dire warnings and anecdotal evidence from experienced whalers and sealers, the impression of unending abundance persisted for centuries. When Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us went into the second edition in 1960, some of the scientific community still saw the world’s oceans “as an infinite resource akin to the emerging frontier of outer space.” Others, however, advocated restraint, moratoriums on catch limits, and pollution guidelines.

Studies and international agreements were slow in coming. In 1959, 800 delegates from 38 countries met in New York to discuss the history and biodiversity of the world’s oceans. It was a step in the right direction.

From seabirds to whales, many species had become commercially extinct by the mid-20th century. In 1965, the last South Georgia whaling station closed. And in 1986, the International Whaling Commission officially ended worldwide commercial whaling, though countries such as Iceland, Norway, and, infamously, Japan continue to kill hundreds of smaller cetaceans annually, circumventing the rulings.

Unfortunately, today’s trawlers have not learned much from the heedless rapacity of the recent and distant past. The newest “limitless resource” is krill, the very basis of the immense southern food chain. Tiny crustaceans don’t possess the charisma of blue whales, and that may explain relatively lackluster scientific and activist reactions to the declining numbers of krill. Yet their serious depletion would have far greater global reach than the loss of most marine mammals. As the supplement industry switches from fish to krill as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, regulation once again will be required to prevent ecological disaster in an area many beneficiaries consider out of sight, out of mind.

Though Wild Sea does feature plenty of grim statistics about disappeared or disappearing species in the Southern Ocean, the author’s primary concern is neither conservation nor the sins of the Anthropocene. McCann successfully conveys the timeless mystery of the Southern Ocean and how it has figured in human history, adding a poet’s touch to many passages.

In the preface to each chapter, for example, she relates impressions from her own voyage to the Southern Ocean. In chapter 2, she begins by describing the seabirds on Prion Island, South Georgia: “As I pause on the brow of a hill, I see two light-mantled sooty albatrosses wheel and soar in perfect unison. Then an apparition of an adult wandering albatross comes into view. … Wings locked, it circles above the golden tussac grasses and skims the currents of silver air.” These personal impressions beautifully complement the history, biogeography, and oceanography, giving the reader a vivid sense of the remote, alien, but always changing marine environment upon which so much of the rest of the world depends.

About the author

The author is a freelance science writer and culture critic based in Montreal.