Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Oceans

Blue Hole

blue hole

In 1989, I accepted a two-year job teaching English in Egypt. The school offered $50/month and a place to live. The city of Cairo offered everything else, a theater of sound and spectacle, and a small part for me to play alongside seventeen million other residents, all acting out their lives on a stage twice as crowded as Tokyo. None of this felt comfortable.

Growing up in Maine, I was nurtured in a world of careful distances, social and spatial. This was exactly the point, I guess, in going to Cairo: to push beyond the boundaries of comfort, to come up against the hard-to-digest, to learn truths not accessible in the coffee shops of Portland or the classrooms of Boston.

Still, everyone has limits. When I reached mine, we, my roommates Joe and Alex (also American teachers), would head for Dahab, a dusty Bedouin village on the East coast of the Sinai Peninsula – about as remote and sparsely populated a place as you could reach from Cairo on our salary.

Dahab was the anti-Cairo, a place of self-indulgence and open spaces. It was our refuge from work in the city, a world of scattered huts and ex-pat dive shops, a place that always smelled of grilled fish, motor oil, and hashish, where daily calls to prayer had to compete with Sinead O’Conner’s Nothing Compares 2 U.

We spent most of our time there underwater. When we weren’t snorkeling, we were reading, or writing, or drinking warm beer in the bars that lined the beach. One time we arranged a ride to the Blue Hole, a coral lagoon just outside of town.

The Blue Hole, Eastern Coast of the Sinai Peninsula

The Blue Hole, Eastern Coast of the Sinai Peninsula

From the front seat of a Fiat, the Blue Hole did not look like much. It was much like the rest of the Sinai coast, arid, brown, and rocky, devoid of life. Two things stuck out though: a giant gouge of blue water in the long shallow shelf of coral that hugged the shore, and a set of improvised memorials for dead divers on the rocky beach.

I put on my snorkel and flippers and swam towards the gouge, the tip of which was only a few feet from the shore. What I saw there made me flinch: a vertical wall of coral that dropped straight down, hundreds of feet, out of sight into blackness. The wall extended in a rough circle the size of a stadium.

Beneath me were schools of fish, angel and butterfly fish, clown fish, and beneath them, anemone fish and coral groupers, and beneath them, other fish that I couldn’t see clearly because they were so far away.

To swim in the Blue Hole was to hover at the top of a giant underwater atrium, the walls of which were alive and moving with color, a column with no bottom, no reference points except void and sky. It was unnerving and disorienting, an effect that became more pronounced the further I swam away from shore and towards the outer edge of the reef. There, I felt as if I was swimming through an electric current. My limbs felt twitchy and my heart raced. I felt exhilarated and ebullient and, strangely enough, like I was about to die.

Joe and Alex were also deeply moved. We spoke about it back in Dahab, wrote about it, continued talking about it back in Cairo. It entered our discussion of books — The Razor’s Edge, On Human Bondage, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Fountainhead — , which we swapped back and forth, the young man’s library of self-discovery.

Swimming into the Blue Hole, “the abyss” as we now called it, became a metaphor for this quest of meaning, a measure of authentic experience. Real change, it seemed to us, had to evoke fear and present dangers. It could not be controlled and would always exact something as payment. After I started graduate school in the 1990s, I laughed when I discovered that a long tradition of Romantic self-discoverers had already thought through this sort of experience and named it “the sublime.” We were only 250 years behind Edmund Burke. At twenty-three, I had the hubris to think it was something new.

Assuaging the Waters, John Martin, 1840

Assuaging the Waters, John Martin, 1840

But I didn’t care and don’t care much now. If the questions were not historically unique, the experience was, a moment seared into our collective memory. It still is. And the questions raised by Dahab still linger: does authentic, change-provoking, experience always come through such electrifying moments? Does it have to produce terror and exaltation? Or is this a young person’s enlightenment, only one of many paths to discovery? Perhaps are there different, more incremental experiences that etch change more indelibly on the psyche: a decade of grading papers, reading bedtime stories, tying shoes, changing diapers.

Twenty years after Dahab, I have different questions. What are the elements that most affect us when we travel? People buy guide books and travelogues and maps on the presumption that places have qualities that are important, durable, and thought-provoking, that a meaningful tour of New York City requires stops to the Statue of Liberty, Nathans, and Broadway. Historians tend to see the larger forces at work: our trip to Dahab came only seven years after Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt – and was only a few months removed from the beginning of the First Gulf War.

Yet maybe these features of landscape, culture, and politics are not always so important – the catalysts at best to a process of change that is latent, subliminal, primed for expression. Perhaps my moments of discovery — Boston 1988, Dahab 1990, Copenhagen 2009 — are about people rather than places. Perhaps Joe and Alex were the key features of this Sinai landscape, not deserts or coral reefs. Or maybe the peoples, places, and things of any trip always take on changing levels of importance, values of meaning that, like schools of fish, are always in flux.

Travel Tips on raveable
Travel Tips on raveable

Digital Archive: James Cook

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook

In his book New Lands, New Men, William Goetzmann describes the 18th and 19th centuries as the “Second Age of Discovery.” The First Age of Discovery, kicked off by the Mediterranean powers of the 15th century, developed maritime routes to Africa, Asia and the Americas.  Best known of these early discoverers is Christopher Columbus who sought to extend Spanish dominion, proselytize natives, and bring home piles of loot, objectives followed by his 16th and 17th century successors.

By the 18th century, however, the goals of exploration had changed. Empire and commerce still had their place in voyages of discovery, but they increasingly made room for other, secular objectives such as natural history, ethnography, and natural philosophy, changes that reflected new attitudes about knowledge and learning back home in Europe.

Captain James Cook, who led three expeditions to the Pacific in the 1760s and 1770s, became the poster-child of Enlightenment voyaging. Of modest birth and education, Cook was not himself a philosopher of nature. But his command of three discovery expeditions – to study the transit of Venus, discover the extent of the Antarctic continent, and investigate the possibility of a Northwest Passage – set the benchmark for scientific expeditions to come over the next century. Cook’s chronicles and those of his men of science (Joseph Banks and Johann Forster) provided models for the expeditions of Jean-Francois de la Perouse (France), Alessandro Malaspina (Spain), and Charles Wilkes (United States) among others.

Cook’s serendipitous discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 (which he named the Sandwich Islands) was also, ultimately, the cause of his demise. After a series of quarrels with Hawaiians of the Big Island, Cook was killed in a skirmish with islanders on the beach of Kealakekua Bay.

The Death of Cook

The Death of Cook

The National Library of Australia and the Center for Cross-Cultural Research have developed an impressive website on Cook’s legacy, South Seas: Voyaging and Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Pacific. Focusing on Cook’s first voyage, South Seas offers accounts from Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and John Hawkesworth. A world map of Cook’s route allows the viewer to zoom in features of interest, identifying the dates of Cook’s passage, landfalls, as well as diary entries for dates mentioned. A set of four “Cultural Atlases” offer maps and descriptions of the native peoples which Cook visited in Tierra Del Fuego, the Society Islands, Botany Bay, and Endeavour River. South Seas also offers some indigenous histories and European reactions to Cook’s voyage.

Cook welcomes visitors to Waimea, West Kauai

Cook welcomes visitors to Waimea, West Kauai

There are a few “links to nowhere” on South Seas. Perhaps the project ran out of funding before it was fully completed. But even in its unfinished form, there are gems here for the student of Enlightenment voyaging.

Also on Cook see:

The Mariner Museum’s Age of Exploration

The Historical Record of New South Wales on Google Books

Many of the full text books on South Seas are also available on Google Books for viewing or download

Web Review: ExplorersWeb

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

Theodore Roosevelt on Safari

There is a freedom that comes with studying dead people. We, the historians of the not-so-recent, learn about our subjects in archives and newspaper columns, from photos, maps, and bank statements. We reveal what we’ve learned, personal and perhaps unflattering, knowing that the people we’ve researched cannot talk back to us, sue us, or toss rocks through our windows. (This is work best left to other historians). Still there are times when I meet my subjects sort of. I often talk shop with modern-day explorers at meeting and lectures, some of whom share the goals and sensibilities of the people I study. This is always a welcome experience for me, but one that often feels a bit strange, since I look at the work of past explorers with such a critical eye. What has been refreshing to find, however, is how self-aware and historically-minded many modern day travelers and explorers are.

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

Tom and Tina Sjogren, founders of Explorersweb.com

For example, take the site ExplorersWeb.com, a clearinghouse of information about extreme travel in the polar regions, the oceans, mountains, and space. It is the brainchild of Tom and Tina Sjogren, two Swedish uber-travelers, who provide daily updates about expeditions in the field as well as their own exposes of expeditionary bad-behavior, from selfish guides, and faulty equipment manufacturers, to climbers who fib about their summit climbs. The reports of Explorersweb have not been without controversy, particularly from veteran mountaineers who’ve been the object of scrutiny. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a look at.

Explorersweb.com

Announcements

Darwin, grumpy, and Dawkins...knitting?

Darwin, looking sullen, and Dawkins knitting?

Darwin remains remarkably fit for a man who’s been dead 126 years. The UK’s Channel 4 has been airing Richard Dawkins’ three part series “The Genius of Darwin” since 4 August. See screen clips and other bits at the Channel 4 site. Also make sure to check out The Beagle Blog and the Dispersal of Darwin for updates and reactions.

Also on Darwin: Dale Husband rants at length about the attempt to recreate HMS Beagle, update it for science, and sail it around the world. Like Dale, I am skeptical of historical voyage reenactments, something I’ve written about here. Most reenactments, unfortunately, try to prove points about the past by “recreating” them in the present. However, as I see it, Dale is off-base when it comes to the Beagle Project, an enterprise that does not fall into this category of reenactments.

Why? Because the Beagle Project has other fish to fry. When it sails, the new Beagle will offer 1) a consciousness-raising memorial to the work of Darwin, 2) a modern day platform for science, and 3) an opportunity in experiential education, the benefits of which are accepted by schools and universities throughout the world.

Deep Sea News has a big announcement which they reveal, brilliantly, in their first music video. Congratulations Craig, Peter, and Kevin. I want a t-shirt when you guys go on tour.

Poles Apart Exhibition, University of Delaware, Newark

Poles Apart Exhibition, University of Delaware, Newark

The University of Delaware is showing an exhibition on Arctic photography called “Poles Apart: Photography, Science, and Polar Exploration.” I’ll be giving a lecture there on 24 September. Information on the event is available here.

The History of Science Society Annual Meeting will be held in Pittsburgh this year from 6-9 November. I’ll be chairing a session called “Vertical Geographies of Science” on Sunday 9 November. Michael Reidy will be talking about Brit scientist and mountain lover John Tyndall, Jeremy Vetter will take on issues in Rocky Mountain ccience, Catherine Nisbett will explain the Harvard College Observatory’s Boyden Expeditions, and Brianna Rego will get to the poisonous bottom of arsenic contamination in mines and groundwater. This excellent team will win us, I’m confident, an HSS playoff berth, and, if Reidy is on his game, a trip to the Series.

But, as conference goers know, Sunday morning sessions are rather deadly. One offers one’s precious research to misalligned chairs and crushed plastic wine glasses. (I think I had four people at my last Sunday morning talk. Two of them were from hotel catering and one was waiting to take back the AV.) So if you are at the HSS, drop by and say hello. I’ll save you a seat.

The Beagle Project

HMS Beagle, famous ride of Charles Darwin, now rots quietly on the bottom of the River Roach. But if The Beagle Project is successful, the storied ship may sail again, retracing its famous round-the-world route from 2009-2011. In the words of Beagle Project organizers:

We aim to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday by building a sailing replica of HMS Beagle and then retracing the 1831-1836 Voyage of the Beagle with an international crew of researchers, aspiring scientists and science communicators. The new Beagle will symbolise both the physical and intellectual adventure of science; she will be equipped with laboratories, 21st century science equipment and satellite communications, she will host cutting-edge science projects of international relevance while serving as vehicle for improving wider public engagement with and understanding of science.

The Beagle Project exemplifies what I think is best about reenacted voyages (something I wrote about two weeks ago). While some reenact expeditions in hopes of proving historical points (e.g. sailing an ancient Phoenician ship around Africa to “prove” that Phoenicians did it first) others sail to experience life aboard ship, and hopefully, insight into particular aspects of the original voyage. The Beagle Project is very much an enterprise of the latter variety – a voyage which will sail between the worlds of history and the present day. Meanwhile, the scientific crew of the new Beagle will be pursuing a variety of projects including metagenomics and DNA barcoding.

In other words, this is a project that deserves support. If you aren’t convinced, consider the money now pouring into anti-Darwinist reenactments. Millions have been spent on Kentucky’s 60,000 sq ft. Creationist Museum and Florida’s Dinosaur Adventure Land, venues that base their historical reenactments on the Old Testament rather than geological or biological history.

Close your eyes now and imagine your children walking through the Creationist Museum’s Garden of Eden diorama. Now they’re off to the humans-living-with-dinosaurs exhibit. Soon they’ll be at the gift store, emptying their pockets to buy “4 Power Questions to Ask an Evolutionist.” Now open your eyes, wipe the sweat off your brow, and give generously to the Beagle Project.

Humans Frolicking with Dinosaurs at the Creation Museum

Keep up to date with expedition plans at The Beagle Project Blog.

The Reenacted Voyage

SSV Corwith Cramer

In May 2006, I sailed out of Key West aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, a 134 ft steel brigantine belonging to the Sea Education Association. With 7800 square feet of canvas, the Corwith Cramer looks like it sailed out of a painting by Fitz Hugh Lane. Yet it is a modern craft, fully outfitted for research, complete with bathymetric equipment, hydrographic winches, biological sampling equipment, sediment scoops, and rock dredges. Not that I would know the difference between a scoop and a dredge. In my former career in science, the mysteries of life were something best looked at indoors, preferably under a laminar flow hood where they wouldn’t infect you.

The Laminar Flow Hood

Today my research questions are different. They focus on humans rather than marine ecology or rarefied microbes. And it was the human element of the voyage that made the its greatest impression on me, namely my own halting adaptation to life aboard ship. As the Cramer’s B squad, we worked in eight hour watches, manning lookout, checking the weather, hoisting sail, and swabbing the sole. My berth was above the table in the galley, so I had to step over people eating (day and night) in order to get anywhere else in the ship. I slept three to four hours at a time, bathed in sweat. It was a breathtaking, bewildering, exhausting experience.

Crow’s Nest, Corwith Cramer

It was, nevertheless, an experience which affected my research, because it showed me, in a way I never really understood before (reading books in the archives), the profoundly exhilarating and unsettling nature of life on a ship packed with officers and crew. Suddenly it seem didn’t odd that scientific specimens disappeared or disintegrated before making it back to the metropole. It didn’t seem odd that Pacific and Polar expeditions so often ended in mutiny or violence. (Not that we had mutiny on our minds. The crew of the Corwith Cramer was friendly and professional. I’m just projecting what it would be like to be on such a vessel for years at a time, with a larger crew, smaller berths, no fresh food or refrigeration, few links to the outside world, mixed together with the occasional bout of scurvy). Nor did it seem odd that explorers sometimes stayed in touch with former shipmates forty or fifty years after the end of the expedition. While the Corwith Cramer bore no resemblance to the the Fram, the Beagle, the Endeavour, or any other famous crafts of discovery, it gave me a way of understanding some of the events that took place on these vessels long ago.

For me the reenacted voyage offered inspiration, a way of seeing, in a new light, historical events. But this is not alway the objective of such voyages. Maritime adventurists often find a different inspiration in the reenactment, principally to recreate earlier events. For example, Philip Beale, leader of the Phoenician Ship Expedition, plans to sail a 21 meter square rigged ship around Africa in hopes of showing that the Phoenicians accomplished this route in 600 BC.

The Good Ship Phoenicia

As Beale put it in a Reuters interview:

“”The Europeans think it was Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias who did it first. But I think the Phoenicians did it 2,000 years earlier and I want to prove it.

And on his website:

“The Phoenicians obviously conquered the Mediterranean, but did they really go all the difficult and long way around Africa? That is the question.”

That is indeed the question, but one that Beale will be no closer to answering after the Phoenician Ship Expedition sets sail. Phoenicians may or may not have sailed around Africa, but Beale could never recreate the voyage with any accuracy because he knows where he’s going and how he’s going to get there, something that the first Phoenician navigators would not have known. Indeed, 14th century Venetians had a much better sense of the African coastline and Atlantic currents, but still feared passing beyond Cape Bojador (on the West Coast of Africa) because they’d be sailing against the current on the way back.

Another example: in 2005, British trekker Tom Avery sledged with to the North Pole in 36 days, a feat that he claimed “rewrote the history books” because it proved Robert Peary could have made it to the North Pole in 37 days as he claimed in 1909. While there may still be doubters, Avery hopes “that we have finally brought an end to the debate and that Peary’s name will be restored to where it belongs in the pantheon of the great polar explorers.”

Avery, channeling Peary, at the North Pole

But Avery’s expedition differed from Peary’s in significant ways. Avery was a robust 29 when he reached the North Pole. By contrast, Peary was 52, hobbled by the loss of eight toes, and suffering from a variety of ailments. Avery could afford to pack light on his trip since he didn’t have to make a return trip back to land (his party was airlifted from the North Pole shortly after he arrived). Peary, by contrast, had to slog his way back under dog power.

Beale and Avery, I’m afraid, have succumbed to Kon-Tiki Syndrome, a state of mind in which reasonable explorers start believing that they are the philosopher’s stone, agents with the power to transform reenactments into the gold of historical proof. I am a great believer in such voyages as experiential education, but they have no value in telling us what really happened in the past. Unfortunately there are no shortage of adventurers and sponsors willing to organize such expeditions. What to do. Blame Thor Heyerdahl.

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