Summer Reading: The Siren Call of the Ocean
Two new books attempt to explain mankind’s strange attraction to the deep blue sea.
Right about now, you might find your mind (or VRBO search) drifting toward the beach. But where does our obsession with the sea come from? Sure, there are obvious recreational draws—big surf, small bathing suits—but why, Darwin might ask, do we pay a fortune to flock to an environment we can’t drink or inhabit? That’s the question driving a new field of research—and two of the summer’s more prominent books.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols’s answer: “Water provides the most profound shortcut to happiness out there.” Nichols has spent years recruiting brain scientists, biologists, surfers, and artists to build a movement he calls neuroconservation. The idea is that if we can figure out why the sea makes us happier, we can save it. Nichols has an annual conference, Blue Mind; a branded personality (he has graced the cover of this magazine); and now a major publisher backing him. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown; $27) is as ambitious as its subtitle—part neuroscience treatise and part self-help manifesto. In one chapter, Nichols relays cutting-edge science on neuroplasticity; then it’s on to an analysis of coastal real estate costs and anecdotes from PTSD-afflicted soldiers who find solace in surfing. All that skipping around can leave the reader wanting some literary Dramamine, but the book’s lynchpin is important. We lose ourselves, Nichols suggests, in mechanized repetition, an overworked blur he calls “gray mind.” The ocean’s constant flux offers a cure. “Unlike all of the other suggested means of reaching mindful clarity,” he writes, “water can do the work for you.”
In Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin, $27), Outside contributor James Nestor throws himself into wild and inhospitable territory. At the French island of Réunion, he accompanies scientists trying to tag man-eating bull sharks. Off Roatán, in Honduras, he rides a creaky homemade sub to the seafloor at 2,500 feet. But the book’s heart lies in Nestor’s quest to learn the sport of free-diving, which he hopes will reveal something essential about our relationship with the sea. The first lesson seem to be that we’re not welcome: Nestor witnesses three near deaths. “My nightmares featured bloated necks and dead eyes,” he writes. But he’s determined to suss out if, as one evangelist tells him, “you are born to do this!” Nestor’s tutorial is a fun and bumpy ride, taking him from Sri Lanka to coastal Japan, where he gets schooled by the ama, legendary freediving fisherwomen. Eventually he catches on, experiencing some blue mindfulness while diving with sperm whales. Freediving, he writes, is “a spiritual practice, a way of using the human body as a vessel to explore the wonders in the earth’s inner space.”
Does all this sound, as Nestor puts it, a little “woo-woo”? Maybe. But if you’re like me, you’ll come away ready for a dip.