I’ve put together a selection of my favourite books with an ocean theme, including nature writing, biography, and childhood favourites.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.
I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean. So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.
A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea. Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.
Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend. Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whale rider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.
Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides. But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment. This is a beautiful book to share with young people.
The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.
The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl
This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential it’s been in my life. I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography. I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.
A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14-year-old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult. A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.
Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness. Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf. I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.
The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau
A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration. This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”. It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.
*goood moaning. I didn’t say it was a good one.
There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two. In this, she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having. The dawning of the Anthropocene. It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just as fresh and relevant today.
A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore. A masterclass in the art of observation.
Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.
A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter. The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans. But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.
Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.