Book Reviews

A Sense of the Sea Book Cover

A Sense of the Sea Book Cover

A Sense of the Sea:
Our View of the Sea and How We Got It

by Brian G. Whitehouse
Halifax: Glen Margaret Publishing, 2012
228 pages, paperback, $22.95
ISBN 978-1-897462-23-2

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Reviewed by Dan Hutt

What does the ocean mean to people – to individuals and to society as a whole? That is the question Brian Whitehouse answers in his first book, A Sense of the Sea. An avid sailor, oceanographer, and former Executive Director of the influential Alliance for Marine Remote Sensing, Dr. Whitehouse charts a fascinating course through the history, technology, and popular culture of the ocean. The journey is a personal one, drawing upon Whitehouse’s childhood with his British navy father, his experiences on ocean weather ships as a young university graduate, and his deepening understanding of the sea as a professional oceanographer.

A Sense of the Sea consists of two parts, The Ocean We Know and The Ocean We Perceive. The first part presents the development of the science of oceanography and the methods used to observe the ocean. Compared to other disciplines, oceanography is a very new science. Our ability to understand the dynamics of the ocean is based upon technologies that matured as recently as the 1990s – Earth observation satellites, supercomputers, and the Internet.  Whitehouse explains the importance of being able to model and forecast the ocean. Not only is it critical for naval operations, but the next advance in weather forecasting depends upon ocean modelling. That is because the weakest link in weather forecasting today is accounting for the influence of the ocean upon the atmosphere.

Of particular interest to readers of the Canadian Military Journal is Whitehouse’s contention that the science of physical oceanography grew out of military research – funded mostly by the US Navy, but also by the former Soviet Union, France, and a few other countries. The argument that military research created modern oceanography is made convincingly in A Sense of the Sea. Even the Foreword is written by Secretary of the Navy Chair in Oceanography at Scripps institution of Oceanography, Dr. Walter Munk. Thus, during the Cold War, while the public viewed the ocean as a biological wonder, thanks largely to Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World TV series, navy-funded marine scientists concentrated upon the physics of the ocean. Today, operational oceanographers provide deployed naval forces with forecasts of every conceivable ocean quantity including currents, sound speed profiles, through-water visibility, waves, and even bioluminescence. 

In The Ocean We Perceive, Whitehouse examines the ocean through the prism of popular culture. The underwater scenes in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball gave the impression that technology could enable people to live easily underwater. Yet, the story is inspired by the real-life Cold War conflict that played out underwater as it did upon land and in space.  Whitehouse uses the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, where melting polar ice causes a global climate crisis, as a vehicle to explain the world-wide ocean sensing infrastructure that is much more extensive than the public realizes.

Whitehouse recounts the story of Jacques Yves Cousteau’s and Émile Gagnan’s invention of the underwater breathing apparatus they called the aqualung (later known as Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA). SCUBA was a significant development in exposing the public to the beauty and mystery of the undersea world, yet ultimately it did not contribute much to our understanding of the physical ocean. That role fell to more remote technologies, such as drifting autonomous buoys, Earth observation satellites, and sea gliders.

Whitehouse’s early perception of the sea was derived from his father, a Royal Navy NCO who emigrated to Canada in 1953 and became an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. A tour of Canada's last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, made a great impression upon the author as a boy. One chapter of A Sense of the Sea traces the decline of the Royal Canadian Navy, from the 1950s through integration of the Canadian Forces in 1967, as seen by a young man with a navy dad. Frustrated with the navy during the 1970s, the elder Whitehouse imparted a key piece of advice to his son: “Don’t join the navy.”

Following his father’s advice, Brian Whitehouse satisfied his fascination for the ocean by spending three years working on ocean weather ships in the North Pacific. This experience led to graduate school at Dalhousie University and a career as an oceanographer, and it is part of the inspiration for A Sense of the Sea.

A highly original book, I found A Sense of the Sea thoroughly engaging. It gave me pause to reflect upon and to appreciate my own connections with the sea. My next stroll along the beach will be a deeper experience because of it.

Dr. Dan Hutt is a defence scientist with Defence R&D Canada – Atlantic in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He is currently Head of the Underwater Sensing Section.