Trashing our own backyard

We're still oceans away from understanding the sea's vulnerabilities

Since ancient times, people have thought of the oceans as being too vast and powerful for us to possibly damage. The oceans, so much larger than we are, could take care of themselves.

Over the past two decades, a series of ecological disasters has proved that assumption wrong. Sewage and fertilizer runoff have rendered the Black Sea hospitable only to algae slicks and jellyfish. Coral reefs are dying all over the world from pollution and overheated seawater. The Grand Banks, one of the greatest fisheries the world has known, has been closed for lack of fish.

Now that the scale of the human enterprise is large enough to disrupt entire marine ecosystems, we need to start understanding how the oceans work. We know surprisingly little about marine systems, and we need to do our homework if we are to avert the destruction of one of our planet's greatest resources.

Drawing on the latest scientific research in marine ecology, biology, and geology, physical and chemical oceanography, Deborah Cramer has produced an exhaustive description of the inner workings of the Atlantic Ocean. From the violent geological forces that created the Atlantic to the breeding habits of sea turtles, "Great Waters" is a digest of recent scientific inquiry into ocean systems.

Cramer's tour reveals how human activities have left almost no aspect of the Atlantic untouched. Whales die from eating herring whose bodies are laced with PCBs and other toxins. The tiny marine algae at the bottom of the food chain respond poorly to increased ultraviolet radiation from the ozone hole.

The earth may plunge into an ice age if the greenhouse effect melts polar ice caps, slowing the great oceanic currents that act as the planet's radiator.

But this is a book that would have benefited from an attentive editor. Cramer's prose often reads like bad poetry, unrelenting in its effort to force symbolic poignancy from each and every fact and observation. She witnesses a man-overboard drill at sea: The person floats awkwardly in her bulky survival suit awaiting rescue. This leads Cramer to observe: "How much better suited to water environs, how much more at home, are the fish." She then actually sets out to prove this point over several paragraphs with sentences like: "The sea challenges our ability to breathe."

Cramer is a lot better at explaining the social behaviors of fish and whales than those of people. Reading "Great Waters," you'd think that every fisherman in the world works on a large trawler, dragging the seafloor for bottom fish. It's true that large draggers destroy the bottom and sweep up and kill millions of small or unwanted fish every day, turning fishing into not "a harvest, or even a hunt, but a slaughter." But to paint Maine lobstermen and clam diggers, Micronesian throw-net fishermen, or Newfoundland hook-and-line men with the same brush is neither fair nor accurate.

Later, we're treated to a long diatribe about how GPS satellite navigation systems have separated us from the larger world and denied us a "mythic sense of the connection of life and liquid." These are the words of someone who lacks an appreciation for the connection between knowing your location on the sea and keeping yourself and your crew alive in a raging storm or blinding fog.

But if you hold your breath long enough to get past this book's shortcomings, you'll learn a great deal about the state of the oceans.

Colin Woodard is the author of 'Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas' (Basic Books).

Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage

By Deborah Cramer W.W. Norton 442 pp., $27.95

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