The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

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Jonathan White
Trinity University Press
Publication date : February, 2017
ISBN: 9781595348050

In Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, writer, sailor and surfer Jonathan White takes readers across the globe to discover the science and spirit of ocean tides. In the Arctic, he shimmies under the ice with an Inuit elder to hunt for mussels in the dark cavities left behind at low tide; in China, he races the Silver Dragon, a twenty-five foot tidal bore that crashes eighty miles up the Qiantang River; in France, he interviews the monks that live in the tide-wrapped monastery of Mont St. Michel; in Chile and Scotland, he investigates the growth of tidal power generation; and in Panama and Venice, he delves into how the threat of sea level rise is changing human culture – the very old and very new.

With lyrical prose, colorful adventure travel, and provocative scientific inquiry, Tides explores the force that keeps our planet’s waters in constant motion.

Photographs, scientific figures, line drawings and 16 color photos dramatically illustrate this engaging, expert tour of the tides.

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Jonathan White provides us in this fine, fascinating book with a clear understanding of the infinitely complex and wild nature of our planet’s tidal forces in all their mystery and beauty. He is to be warmly congratulated.

Let me be clear. This is one of the most fascinating, engaging, relevant, and impeccably brilliant books I have ever read. It has profoundly changed my sense for the earth, the oceans, the sky, and how they are deeply interwoven with the course of human thought and history.

Jonathan White’s tidal explorations drew me in with just the right mix of science, history, and storytelling, propelled throughout by the author’s infectious curiosity and sense of wonder. Beautifully written, impeccably researched, and filled with unexpected connections and discoveries, Tides is a splendid book.

I loved this book. As a physical oceanographer, I understand the tides from a scientific viewpoint. I really enjoyed learning the history of tidal theories, the spiritual meaning the tides have for many people around the world, and how the tides affect so many places in such varied ways. I recommend it to both scientists and non-scientists.

Table of Contents

Foreword: Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen, author of over 30 titles and a naturalist, wilderness writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, read an early draft of Tides before his death in 2014, and graciously agreed to write the Foreword.

1. The Perfect Dance

The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada has some of the world’s largest tides. Fundy’s epic mudflats have billions of corophium shrimp - and those shrimp feed millions of Semi-palmated Sandpipers migrating from South America to the Arctic. It’s just one of many complex points of planetary life shaped by the tide.

2. Star of Our Life

Mont St. Michel is a spectacular and ancient monastery on the coast of Normandy, France, surrounded by the sea at every high tide – and dramatically exposed at each low. It is the perfect venue for a meditation on the earliest history of man’s relation to the tides, both spiritual and scientific.

3. Silver Dragon

The Silver Dragon is the worlds largest daily tidal bore – a twenty-five foot wave that rushes up the Qiantang River in China, and has been a source of fascination, celebration, and mortality for thousands of years. Jonathan takes a good long look at it, and its history, before scampering out of its path.

4. The Last Magician

The book that got Galileo in trouble with the church was originally named The Flux and Reflux of the Tides. In London’s Royal Society inaugural edition of Philosophical Transactions in 1665, many of the articles were about the tides. Jonathan visits the Royal Society to walk readers through the history of tide science, including Aristotle, Galileo, Kepler and others.

5. Big Waves

Tides share attributes with waves – really big waves. The monster waves at the Mavericks surfing contest in Half Moon Bay, California help to explain that ocean tides are like really big, really fast waves moving around the world. Jonathan describes how the moon, sun, and many other forces combine to cause the tide.

6. Fast Water

When water squeezes through a narrow, tumbles over rocks, or smacks into the continental shelf, it’s basic physics at work: it produces friction (yes, even in water there’s friction). Tidal friction slows the earth, moves the moon, and even bends time. Jonathan sees friction’s effects in the thrilling narrows of Skookumchuck in British Columbia.

7. Resonance and Big Tides

The biggest tides in the world happen where the shape of the ocean’s bottom in a bay, sea, or river delta resonates perfectly with the timing of the moon’s influence. One such place in the Arctic is Ungava Bay, off the Labrador Sea – where Jonathan slithers under the sea ice at low tide to gather mussels with Lukasi Nappaaluk.

8. Turning the Tide

Human beings have harnessed tidal power for nearly one thousand years to grind grain, cut wood, and now, generate electrical power. Jonathan visits the oldest tide mill in the United Kingdom, and a global conference on tidal energy generation in Chile, to understand the past and future of tidal power.

9. Higher Tides

Many of the world’s most important cities are shaped by the tides. As sea level rises and extraordinarily high tides are predicted, humanity is seeking solutions to one of our oldest problems – made new again by climate change. Jonathan visits Venice, Italy and the Kuna Yala people in the San Blas Islands, Panama, to see how we are coping – or not – with rising sea levels.

Sample Chapter

Angie Dixon, 1992.
Angie Dixon, 1992.

My interest in tides springs from a fascination with the ocean. I grew up on the southern California coast, surfing, diving, sailing, fishing. I built a 26- foot sloop after college and sailed it for a couple years in the Atlantic and Caribbean, making several offshore passages. In the early 1980s, at twenty- five, I bought a leaky old 65-foot wooden schooner, Crusader, and founded a nonprofit educational organization, Resource Institute. For eleven years we sailed Crusader off the Northwest Coast, from Seattle to Alaska, around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. We conducted weeklong seminars afloat on topics ranging from natural history, photography, and whale research to psychology, music, poetry, and Northwest Coast Native art, culture, and mythology. Among the seminar presenters were Peter Matthiessen, Lynn Margulis, Gary Snyder, Paul Winter, Robert Bly, Art Wolfe, Gretel Ehrlich, and Roger Payne. Six or eight participants from across the country — sometimes from around the world — would join us at a coastal town, and we’d sail off, often not seeing another human settlement until the seminar’s end.

Lukasi Napaaluk climbs under the ice at low tide in the Arctic to gather mussels and other seafood - in the dead of winter.

The Kuna Yala people in Panama are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

The tide...is a wave. The author rides a heavy one in Indonesia

A massive tidal bore, coincident with an offshore storm, overwhelms riverside viewers at the Qiantang River, China (Wang Chaoying/Imagechina/AP Images)

Venice routinely floods at high tide. Here, tourists walk on the passarellas in Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Billions of Euro are being spent on the MOSE tidal gates, to protect Venice from major storms at high tide.

Fishing boats at low tide in the Bay of Fundy, Canada, where the tidal range is 50 feet.

Ungava Bay, like the Bay of Fundy, has 50+ foot tides because of resonance. The shape of the bays resonates with the tidal influence of the moon.

Tidal friction slows the rotation of the earth...very, very gradually. Skookumchuck Narrows, British Columbia, Canada, contributes a good bit of friction.

Intense daily tidal friction on Bedwell Rocks, Bay of Fundy, has worn away the stone.

Earth's raw tidal power is the equivalent of about 3500 coal plants. We are just beginning to tap it, here at an EMEC site in Scapa Flow, Scotland

A Mont St Michel monk said: "...tides remind people of why they are here on earth. They can be moved by the tide, and then there is is only one more step to being moved by God."



Jonathan enjoys speaking to audiences of all kinds. He has given talks and keynote presentations at museums, aquariums, yacht clubs, government institutions, book clubs, writing conferences, grade schools, bookstores, and universities. In 2017, he will be speaking about Tides at over 60 venues across North America, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the LLBean Discovery Speaker Series, the Port Townsend Northwest Maritime Center, the Maine Audubon Society, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the San Francisco Yacht Club and many others.