Soundings: Diving for stories in the beckoning sea by Kennedy Warne (Massey University Press, 2023), 238pp, $39.99
In this book, Kennedy Warne engages the reader with stories both above and below the surface, taking us through highlights from his experiences as a writer for National Geographic and New Zealand Geographic. These reminiscences move around the globe, from the middle of the Indian Ocean to the Agulhas Current; from the Philippines to the Gulf of Arabia to the Okavango Delta (his only freshwater assignment). And in Aotearoa New Zealand, from Fiordland to the Bay of Islands.
He begins in the Bay of Islands, with his most memoir-like chapter. ‘A Life Aquatic’ starts with him untethering a chain from a pōhutukawa root in Russell to set out in his dinghy with his 92-year-old father. They climb aboard Marline, their launch moored off the pebble beach. As they depart Warne scans the shore: ‘All this I have known from childhood, and most of it my father has known from his childhood. He was born here.’ They fish and reminisce, and Warne mentions notable shoreline sites and historically significant changes. In this way, he situates New Zealand as the place where he connected to his specific locality and the world. Warne writes of being inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s imperative—‘Il faut aller voir’: ‘One must go and see’. He takes us back to what he felt when he first put his head underwater in the Hauraki Gulf.
Warne’s life has been a succession of first-hand looks at the world, and he has brought those into view for others through his articles. These chapters are filled with rich descriptions that can only come from close-up views and literal immersion. We follow him and his curiosity around the world as he explores its diversity, from giants to tiny creatures. We hear about the communal sharing of knowledge among sperm whales—notably possessing ‘the largest brain of any animal that has ever lived’; we also learn that ‘from their battering-ram heads they emit the loudest sounds ever recorded in nature’. We witness a male seahorse carrying eggs in its pouch.
In fact, the small creatures often carry the largest impact (for him, for our world). Of the kelp forests near False Bay off Cape Town, he writes: ‘I finned through a jungle of sea bamboo, a type of kelp with trunks as thick as baseball bats, smooth as velvet and honey-coloured as varnished kauri.’ And then, in the same underwater world: ‘Among the hottentots, red romans and other kelp forest fish I saw shysharks, their skin an elegant dapple of chocolate and fawn … I found a shyshark’s egg case, delightfully known as a mermaid’s purse, attached to a kept front. It was the colour and shape of a large ravioli.’ He describes red bait as ‘fat maroon sea squirts the size of chimney pots and thick as an old boot’ and tells us he came to think of them ‘as the wineskins of the sea—ancient, leathery bladders with spouts’. And in the Knysna Estuary near Cape Town—the ‘most important estuary in South Africa for biodiversity’—he writes:
I wasn’t expecting to find much in this world of silt and throwaways, but the place was a revelation. In the estuary’s sheltered waters, many organisms grow large and luxuriant. Sponges form fat cushions, road-paint yellow and soapy to the touch. Tubeworms in pastel shades of salmon and white make graceful sweeps of the water with their plankton-catching feather-duster crowns.
It’s noticeable that when he encounters a right whale on the same trip to South Africa, he focuses in on the world emerging:
The shadowy terrain below me slowly materialised into a moving shape, and I realised it was not the seabed but the top of a whale’s head, a head that was rising steadily towards me. I saw clumps of barnacles and jagged projections of skin, part of the animal’s callosity, a miniature ecosystem of organisms that right whales carry on their heads, Whalers used to refer to them as the whale’s bonnet or crown. No two are the same.
Warne pays as much attention to the seahorse and sponge, the barnacle ecosystem and the kelp limpet’s adaptability, as he does to the shadowy shark or powerful right whale. Warne’s vibrant descriptions invite us into this unexpected world as if to say: You can see them too.
His assignments demanded at times a certain kind of fearlessness as he encountered hippos, crocodiles and, of course, sharks. When his editor at National Geographic said he was looking for someone to dive in ‘very cold, very rough shark-infested water’, Warne replied: ‘You’ve found him.’ In the Okavango River, he slipped into the water to hover above the back of a two-metre crocodile that had just submerged as their boat approached. Warne’s descriptions—even the suspenseful moments—are imbued with the curiosity of someone totally absorbed by the wonders of a world so uncommon in our everyday life. Note this detail as he dives to see the croc:
Pulling myself through a tangle of waterlilies, I reached a position directly above the animal, then dived down for a closer look. Magnificent!—the vivid black-on-fawn markings; the two lines of upraised scutes on the back, merging in to the serrated keel of the tail, jagged as a ripsaw; the gorgeously veined irises of the unblinking eyes; teeth like a white zipper.
With a background in marine biology, Warne is exact in his approach to ‘seeing’ the world but deeply human in his interactions; his views are layered and complex. He comes to view the harp seal in the icy waters of Canada’s St Lawrence River—‘a conservation success story’—with a new lens after a stint there: ‘Look at a harp seal and what do you see? Lamb of God or wolf of the sea? Nature’s sanctity or nature’s utility? Perhaps it is possible to see both.’ After encountering whales, he allows himself time to ponder what our animal kin might be thinking. ‘Recognition and response may flow both ways across the species boundary.’ Sometimes he wonders about animal curiosity—or lack thereof, in the case of Botswana hippos. And he allows himself a moment of deep affection in the silty Knysna Estuary:
Seagrass is seahorse habitat … and soon we found one. The little fellow curled its tail around my finger and laid its head against my palm. I have rarely felt as tenderly touched by a marine creature as by that hippocampus.
This collection, then, is not only about the phenomena of the underwater world but human engagement with it. Warne connects with people along the way—from childhood models such as Jacques Cousteau (even if he takes issue with some of Cousteau’s views) to current-day conservationists. Warne is no solo explorer; he is always embedded—importantly—in community. He includes photographers who accompany him; captains who guide the boats taking him out to sea or navigate along dangerous capes; locals cooking up a braai or handing him a warm cup after a cold dive; conservationists with favourite spots and hobbyists (serious hobbyists) with favourite stories. He also notes significant cultural contributions to watery landscapes, such as the old pearl divers of Oman, ‘part of a maritime tradition that was as Arabian as deserts and dates’.
With human encounter comes the undercurrent, too—inevitable and necessary to tell. We see, through Warne’s eyes, the impact on marine life in Arabia of the rapacious search for oil and the increasing number of fibreglass skiffs better suited for faster fishing and smuggling than the traditional dhow. Warne references a 2009 report from a group of leading marine scientists who warned that this was a ‘sea in decline’:
Too many human hands are reaching too deep into Arabia’s seas and taking more treasure than the sea can possibly replenish … Unsuitable fishing, incessant seabed dredging and massive coastal modification were crippling marine ecosystems, they wrote.
Bottlenose dolphins failed to show up one year, and night by night a ‘mountain of shark carcasses’ arrives in the Deira fish market in Dubai. Even when he writes of the adventures of Zane Gray and the bounty of marlin and other billfish in his Bay of Islands home waters, Warne appreciates the adrenaline of big game fishing but sees how the world has changed irrevocably since the early days of ‘the angler’s Eldorado’. The record-breaking catches bring a sense of awe but also cast light on human avarice: ‘It was a kind of craving, an addiction. Grey considered himself uncurable, a martyr to rod and reel’.
Nowhere is the impact of the diminished seas so evident as in the ‘dystopian story’ of the coral reefs of Palawan in the western edge of the Philippines. He describes what he experienced when he dove in:
The water temperature was 31 degrees Celsius, which exceeds the threshold at which coral polyps expel the symbiotic algae that gives them their kaleidoscopic colours, producing the effect known as coral bleaching. Among the living corals were many that were iceberg white—they looked as if they had been sculpted from marble. Others had streams of slime wafting from the dying heads.
It was strangely quiet. The usual reef symphony of crackling, popping, scratching and gnawing was muted. I was swimming through a sepulchral world of stressed, diseased and dying corals, from which other creatures had largely disappeared.
Marine scientists warn that worse is in store. Warming seas. Acidifying seas. Rising seas—these are the dark shadows that fall across the world’s coral reefs now.
While avoiding hyperbole, Warne shows us the speed with which our natural world is changing. But he also knows diversity brings sustainability, citing the success story of Apo Island, for example, where a long-term conservation plan has delivered results that the locals support and maintain.
Warne brings us the beauty that so few may see up close—and demonstrates how we can swiftly lose it, and how we can care for it. Here he reflects more generally on ‘the underwater cosmos’:
… where so much is unexpected, mysterious and profound. Profound—profond—is the word the French use for deep. As in English, it is both a measure of water and a quality of thought. Perhaps our minds and the sea are twins. Deep calls the deep.
He calls this book ‘a memoir of a life with the sea’ and even if I found this more like a set of travel essays, there’s no arguing that his has been ‘a life with the sea’. The book is not about Warne himself but the unique view he can give us into our oceans. And in the greater context, this gives further meaning: one man’s life may not be as relevant as all he has come to experience. In fact, one might go so far as to say that for Warne his life holds meaning because he has lived in commune with nature and shared it with us.
Near the end of the book, he goes back to his earliest underwater moment, his first dives in the kelp forests of Tāwharanui when his eyes ‘were opened on the sea’. ‘There, finning through the golden fronds that … wafted like locks of hair, I felt the beckoning of the underwater world.’ He returns, also, to his student days and the dogged advocacy of Bill Ballantine, the first director of the University of Auckland Leigh Marine Laboratory. Warne writes:
When I was a marine biology student in the 1970s I used to see him kneeling on the rocky shore at low tide, measuring molluscs, putting his small measure of knowledge towards an understanding of the mystery of the sea.
This book can be read as Warne’s ‘measure of knowledge’ towards understanding the deep blue and its mysteries, and we can use it to further our own.
And what of the title? Soundings, stories and a beckoning. Warne writes how whales sound as they dive, and he compares this with his own curiosity to probe the depths—literally and figuratively: ‘I like to think I have been taking soundings—a traditional nautical term for the act of determining the depth of water but also a phrase that has come to mean testing ideas and seeking knowledge.’ With that knowledge flow stories, and it’s noticeable that stories from other people bookend his personal encounters. An epigraph opens the pages, lines from Melville’s Moby Dick declaring a ‘loveliness unfathomable’, and in the Author’s Note he references Keri Hulme: ‘the sea has all our dreams’. The book closes with the Inuit tale of the mother of the sea, the Greenland story of the ‘creator and guardian of the ocean realm’. These stories support Warne’s connection with the wondrous watery world, underscoring his experiences with other stories of the sea. And through them, he connects with his reader. The book is his beckoning: an invitation to immerse ourselves in this world of blue, to listen to the stories, to see what he sees.
MICHELLE ELVY is an editor, manuscript assessor and creative writing teacher. Her books include the everrumble and the other side of better, and her anthology work includes, most recently, A Kind of Shelter: Whakaruru-taha (Massey University Press, 2023). She edits at Flash Frontier and At the Bay | I te Kokoru.