When I first received this book for a review I thought I would learn some neat facts for impressing people on trivia night. I was ready to learn, but I wasn’t ready to feel. Tides: The Science and Spririt of the Ocean by Jonathan White is poetry, prose, and practical science intertwined with incredible skill.
White is not someone who writes from abstraction or lab room observation. He lives his passion for the ocean through surfing, sailing, and acting day-in and day-out for its conservation. Yet to fully protect the ocean from being irrevocably damaged by human beings, we first need to understand how it works, and that is more than a herculean task.
The oceans of Earth are more multi-faceted and nuanced than you would ever imagine, and that’s not even getting into the tides. I had no idea that places on earth boasted a tidal range of fifty-five feet (the difference between low and high tide.) Or that in China exists a tidal bore on the Qiantang river called Yin Long (Silver Dragon) and at full power it can rush down the river basin at twenty miles an hour with a twenty-five foot tidal wave in front crushing anything and anyone in its path.
In fact centuries ago there used to be a swimming competition where contestants would jump in to test their luck. So many of these “tide players” died that it was outlawed a long time ago.
Tides moves swiftly back and forth between travel narrative and scientific explanation and investigation. Admittedly there was some heavy math going on that flew far above my head, but White lays it out in such good form that I never lost the train of thought he was opening up. Numerous times in the book, White relates a moment with such descriptive flavor and texture, it reads like poetry. One of my favorite is this one:
I shut the engine off, and for hours we skate along a broad reach, her bow knifing the dark water as if slicing through ripe fruit, throwing foam like laughter across the bow.
If I didn’t get horrible motion sickness, I would’ve been on a boat the second after reading that.
White does not shy away from the facts around climate change. The data he presents and messages from other scientists are more than harrowing, they’re nearly apocalyptic. We have a quickly closing window in which to change course, but the damage already done will take more than a century to fix.
Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is a travel journal, a lifelong quest, and a deep dive into the vast mysteries of the oceans. For something that covers a large majority of the planet, it’s shocking how much we still don’t know about it. Now you can do your part and learn a little more.