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Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water, Our World    by Deborah Cramer order for
Smithsonian Ocean
by Deborah Cramer
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I have always read science fiction and used to scuba dive. What's the connection? The ocean depths always struck me as the only truly alien environment humans could find on this planet - and one of my all time SF favorites is Arthur C. Clarke's The Deep Range, an excellent story about farming the oceans. So I picked up Deborah Cramer's coffee-table sized volume, Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water, Our World, with high expectations. I was not disappointed.

The book is a companion volume to 'the Smithsonian's newly renovated Ocean Hall exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History' and is filled with splendid color photographs that reflect the constant life and movement of our magnificent oceans. It opens on a Rachel Carson quote extended across three powerful double page images: 'To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.' How could that not ignite the imagination?

In his Foreword, National Museum of Natural History Director Cristian K. Samper tells us that Smithsonian Ocean 'explores the vital relationship between life and the sea.' He encourages readers to dive deeply into the book. The Introduction reminds us that our own story begins in the ocean where life 'emerged and evolved', making the sea 'both a cradle and a museum of seemingly infinite forms of life'. Smithsonian Ocean 'explores the sea's dazzling diversity and examines the myriad ways the sea touches us, and we, increasingly, touch the sea.' There are three main sections: Beginnings, Touched by the Sea, and Touching the Sea.

In Beginnings, Cramer starts with the inimical 'hot springs of the deep sea' where 'earth's first life may have emerged.' Explaining how ancient fossils tell tales of man's evolution, she takes us to locations of 'some of earth's oldest rocks' around the world. In Touched by the Sea, she presents the seafloor's plains and mountains, the extraordinary creatures that live down there, and their interdependencies. Cramer lyrically writes that the 'ancient floor of the sea is written into the landscape of continents'. She describes 'earth's most spectacular waterfall' hidden under the ocean; follows a drop of water on its travels around the globe; tells us 'we owe our backbones' to fish; explains how shifting ocean currents might have contributed to the collapse of the long-lived Mayan civilization; and much, much more.

Finally in Touching the Sea - that covers the last half of this gloriously illustrated and highly informative book - Cramer addresses mankind's dangerous impact on earth's lifeline. She warns us that 'We hold earth's life-giving waters in our hands' and 'may be initiating earth's sixth mass extinction.' Here we learn about: a great variety of endangered species such as whales and sea turtles; the toxic passage of durable plastic through the ocean; the impact of fishing excesses; how fish farming is inadequately regulated; threats to once vibrant coral reefs; life on the edge at the poles as sea ice retreats; and about the threat of rising sea levels to the world's largest coastal cities.

Smithsonian Ocean ends with a summation of the enduring and well-tried partnership that has existed between life and the sea from the beginning, a partnership on which evolution continues to depend. Deborah Cramer informs us that 'on 41 percent of the sea, our mark is heavy' but that we can still choose 'a legacy of stewardship', suggesting an ocean ethic and closing with the plea, 'May ours be a time remembered when we embraced the sea as it embraces us.' This remarkable - and highly recommended - book would make an outstanding gift, but do read it yourself first and take the time to think about its contents.

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