These Books Explain the Draw of the Ocean
Two new releases go (ahem) deep on watery obsessions and how they foster closer relationships with fragile environments
In his new book In Oceans Deep: Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneath the Waves ($28, Little, Brown and Company), journalist Bill Streever says that he has an agenda, right off the bat. He wants to tempt people to go diving, to think differently about what might be happening under the water’s surface. “I wanted readers to embrace the part of our world that is shrouded by depth,” he writes.
The book is broadly about the science and history of underwater exploration, from 17th-century submarines to today’s freedivers. But Streever, who is also an obsessive diver and lives on a boat, drills down to the human scale, too. He starts with a gripping story of the 1960s exploration of the Marianas Trench and the fear and anxiety divers and scientists felt when they tried to get to the deepest point on the planet. He explains the ways we’ve figured out how to manage water and air over time—the hows of deep-sea diving—but it’s also about the whys and what drives people to push themselves farther under water.
Streever, and his history as a diver, is very much a part of the story, and he’s fascinated by the quirks and evolution of the sport: how freedivers train and what Aristotle thought about early diving bells. But he’s also thinking about the future and how both science and love for a place can contribute to protecting the struggling ocean. He ends the book with renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle and her plea for divers, or anyone who cares about the water, to do something about it.
Streever’s is one of two new books that look at how recreation can translate to a deeper relationship with the sea. Casting into the Light: Tales of a Fishing Life ($27, Penguin Random House), a memoir about fishing on Martha’s Vineyard from competitive surfcaster, fishing guide, and fish taxidermist Janet Messineo, also describes an obsession with unknown vastness, whether stalking striped bass or mapping the ocean floor, is the most interesting part of both books.
Messineo takes a slightly different tack to show how she developed her relationship with the ocean. While finding purpose through time spent outside isn’t a new premise for a book, her in-depth look into the macho world of surfcasting, and how she became a part of it in the seventies, is novel. She was one of the first women fishing for stripers and other big fish on the Atlantic coast, but her path there was winding and unexpected, starting with a tough, mill-town childhood. A trip to California chasing LSD dealers with a bad-news ex-husband eventually brought her to the Vineyard. She shares the lifetime of early mornings it took to learn the subtleties of surfcasting, the flashes of luck involved in landing a monster fish, and how she nearly drowned in leaky waders and was dragged offshore by strong catches.
Casting into the Light occasionally gets bogged down in the details, but it’s a glimpse into the obsessive world of surfcasting, chasing huge striped bass, and the low-key past of a now-fancy island. The best parts are when Messineo gets into the tight, wild fishing community living on the margins of a resort town. The taxidermy tidbits don’t hurt either, like asking her neighbor to fell a pigeon with a slingshot for her to practice on, and mounting fish for Spike Lee.
The two books are thoughtful in different ways. Streever pulls together stories that show his evolving appreciation for the sea, to demonstrate how important and misunderstood the ocean is. Messineo twists the kaleidoscope of her own life on the shore to give a long-range view of her love for the sport and the fish and the sea. “Come April, the first time I get my fishing rod out of it’s winter storage and stand in surf up to my thing to cast, I exhale. I feel as though I’ve been holding my breath for the last five months,” she writes. They’re both about trying to understand the ocean, but they both acknowledge the catch: that we never really can.
Two More New Ocean-Oriented Books
“Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean,” by Joy McCann
Australian environmental-historian McCann gives a sweeping history of the Antarctic Ocean, the world’s least-known body of water. It’s full of polar-explorer stories and current environmental risks, and it’s nice to feel like there are parts of the world that still hold mystery.
“Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer,” by Bren Smith
The ocean holds a ton of potential for sustainable agriculture, and Smith, who runs what he calls one of the first sustainable 3-D ocean farms, makes a great case for it. He tells the story of how aquaculture pulled him away from the adrenaline of commercial fishing and the role he thinks it can play in the future.