Great Waters: an Atlantic passage by Deborah Cramer

Oceans are the reservoir of life on earth
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The Independent Culture

We are land animals, and being so shapes our thinking. We instinctively see life as a terrestrial phenomenon, and this perception is embedded so deeply in us that we have given the same name to the substance we stand on and to the planet itself: the Earth. Yet most of the planet is sea and ocean, and a far more accurate name for the third sphere out from the Sun would be the Water.

Two thirds of world's surface is water-covered. Deborah Cramer points out at the start of this new study of the Atlantic that, once you take account of the ocean depths, fully 99.5 per cent of the biosphere – the membrane around the world which contains life – belongs to the sea. Unseen most of the time, much of it still unknown, marine life is a vast reservoir of millions of species that range from bacteria to the blue whale, interacting in complex food webs and reproducing in unimaginable profusion. We have thought of it throughout history as inexhaustible.

The limits to its exploitation, however, are at last being reached. With the doubling of the earth's population from three billion in 1960 to six billion in 2000, our demand for fish is now destroying stocks in every sea, our profligate use of artificial fertilisers to grow crops is leading to blooms of toxic algae, and our globalising of trade is bringing foreign crabs and seaweeds and parasites into every inlet. Having hitched a ride in the ballast water of some Japanese tanker, they set about disrupting the local ecology. The future is bleak: for instance, pollution, climate change and overfishing mean that the world's coral reefs may be gone by 2100.

With all this in mind, Cramer exhorts us to peer deeply into one of the earth's great oceans and treasure it for its beauty, its mystery and its bounty. She has set out to tell us everything modern science knows about the Atlantic, from its formation 200 million years ago to its eventual disappearance millions of years hence. Great Waters ranges over the latest findings in physical, chemical and biological oceanography as Cramer tells of the Atlantic's control of the climate, the complexities of its currents, the shifts of its geology and the fascination of its wildlife: turtles, swordfish, tuna, whales – and the once-infinite, now-vanishing shoals of cod.

The publishers are making great claims for Great Waters as Rachel Carson's classic The Sea Around Us come again. Such a hugely ambitious synthesis is a noble idea, and properly brought off would be a triumph. Unfortunately, it's too much for Cramer. To anyone who cares for literary quality as well as morally worthy scientific fact, this book presents the melancholy spectacle of a writer overwhelmed by her subject matter.

The book has good things, it must be said. Cramer's phrase-making can be memorable: "if the sea were lit and we could see how full it once was and how empty it has become, we might act more quickly"; "man grabs from the sea and strews his waste there". There are insights to please anyone interested in biology: "Earth's first reef builders had broken the surge of the open sea, creating calm water, the cradles of early animal life."

But there is simply far too much information, mined from the pages of Nature and Scientific American, slapped down in great slabs, much of it repeated several times, for the interest of a non-specialist reader to be held. Perhaps because the book is in part "a meditation", Cramer feels she can be expansive: she has merely abandoned concision, and her 365 pages are a good 100 too much.

Edward Gibbon had undoubtedly read the whole extant corpus of classical literature, but there is never a sense that the narrative force of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is checked for a moment by too much knowledge. Deborah Cramer is not Gibbon, alas; she isn't Rachel Carson, either. But there is still much to be enjoyed in Great Waters – as long as you can plough your way through the many passages where information overload drags at her theme like seaweed.

The reviewer is the Environment Editor of 'The Independent'