Atlantic, By Simon Winchester

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The Independent Culture

If you're holidaying in Penzance, St Malo, Tiree or anywhere else on the Atlantic, this is the perfect beach read. The biggest topic tackled by the indefatigable Winchester has produced his most heartfelt and magnificent book.

From the prologue, when he describes his first crossing by liner in 1963, the Atlantic surges from the page: "There was something uncanny about the sudden silence, the emptiness, the realisation of the enormous depths below us and the limitless heights above, the universal greyness..."

Winchester's prodigious descriptive powers bring our local ocean to life in all its many aspects. Advancing the case for the Atlantic as "the classic ocean of our imaginings", he insists that it is "surely a living thing – furiously and demonstrably so... It generates all kinds of noise – it is forever roaring, thundering, boiling crashing, swelling, lapping... where it encounters land, it mimics nearly perfectly the steady inspirations and exhalations of a living creature."

Winchester fills his epic portrait with salty yarns and startling detail. We learn, for example, that Cape Bojador on the coast of Western Sahara is endowed with a hidden sandbar and a powerful current that deposited adventurous vessels in the doldrums. In consequence, the mid-Atlantic was the last of the great seas to be navigated. Until the 15th century, the waters beyond Cape Bojador were "known in all ports as the Green Sea of Darkness". Henry the Navigator hectored a servant into negotiating Bojador and the Portuguese were able to circumnavigate Africa and head east.

In biological matters, the Atlantic has held on it secrets with equal tenacity. As recently as 1986, Penny Chisholm of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered in the Sargasso Sea what is "quite probably the most common creature in all the world". At the very end of the food chain are massive numbers of "oval-shaped entities" known as Prochlorococcus. By exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, these minuscule organisms play "a central role in keeping land-based creatures alive." This is one bright spot in the troubled ending to an epic portrait. In a justifiable threnody, he cites examples of the "malign influence of landsmen so utterly careless of the sea" that has resulted in the Atlantic becoming "by far the most polluted, the most plundered, the most disdained, the most dishonoured of the world's oceans."