Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Although only a fortunate few can ever visit the deep sea, the precise instruments of the oceanographer, recording light penetration, pressure, salinity and temperature, have given us the materials with which to reconstruct in imagination these eerie forbidding regions
- Rachael Carson, The Sea Around Us

I wouldn't call the deep ocean eerie. Alien is perhaps a better descriptor, as it's a place where survival is only possible with extreme measures similar to what we would need to survive in outer space – minus the rockets. I like the idea of being in a profession (ie oceanographer) that includes exploring an alien world right here at home. The more I think about the exploring part of my last post, the more I wonder if I consider myself an explorer? I've been reading about early attempts made by the British to explore Africa's interior. Most expeditions ended in a typical horror movie ending – everyone dies. What prompted them to set off on expeditions that would most likely kill them?

Mungo Park, an Englishman who barely made it home the first time, traveled to West Africa for the second time in 1805 – the trip didn't end well. 40 soldiers accompanied him (not by his choice) along with the few friends he really wanted to travel with. A twist of traveling fate started them walking into the jungle in the rainy season, resulting in malaria and dysentery. Wild dogs, crocodiles and lions attacked the group, and locals stole their gear. Party members dropped one by one. By the time they reached the Niger River, only 12 of the original group remained. In the end, when the party was whittled down even further, they constructed a 'boat' to ride the Niger back to the ocean. Angry locals, who weren't paid the tributes they expected, ambushed the boat. Park was never heard of again. Years later, Mungo Park's son, Thomas Park, vanished into Africa looking for his father – all that was ever seen of him again was a freshly laundered shirt labeled 'T Park' that was delivered with another explorer's laundry on the coast. (from The Age of Wonder: how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science by Richard Holms).

I've gone on expeditions to various places for various reasons, but I've always left confident I would come home okay. I'm not sure how well I would fare if I knew everyone who went before me had died, but I suspect I wouldn't be keen on going.

If I look in an issue of Outside Magazine, there is always a tale of travel to some remote place. In the issue on my desk, it's to Mongolia (it's an issue from last summer). These expeditions are more about adventure and less about exploration. We've already explored the surface of our globe – which doesn't negate the value of exploring a place because it is new to you. The only places in this planet that are new to everyone are in the water or under the ground.

My field – physical oceanography, includes exploring the waters beneath the ocean surface. The term 'oceanography' comes from the ancient Greek 'oceanus' and 'graphia' and literally means recording and describing the ocean. 'Oceanology' might be a better descriptor for the field as it means 'the science of the ocean,' but, it isn't in common usage. Oceans make up a significant part on the surface of earth and includes vast unexplored areas. Huge unanswered questions about the physics of the oceans still exist – for instance we know how much energy is put into the ocean through the tides but we can't account for where all that energy goes.

For my work, I still consider the pressure, salinity and temperature in the same way they did back in the 1950's when The Sea Around Us was written, except now these values are measured electronically. This means I can get significantly more information. In fact, there is probably significantly more oceanographic data out there than oceanographers to analyze it.

Back to my original question – can I consider myself an explorer? Since, there is stuff out there for everyone to explore, I'll conclude we all can be explorers if we choose to. For some ideas on how to start check out How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith. Here are some of my ideas: What about the exploration of ones own mind? One's own world? Or even cyberspace? How about exploring the world through food?

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