Norton, Underwater to Get Out of the Rain

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 28 (2006), 616-617

Trevor Norton, Underwater to Get out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea, London: Da Capo Press, 2006, 385 pp., $25.00 / £14.99.

Some of the great popular science has been written by marine biologists.  Rachel Carson brought the oceans to life in The Sea Around Us (1954), and Jacques Cousteau explored the deeps with The Silent World (1950), to name the most famous.  Unlike outer space, explorations of the oceanic world bring real—not imagined—aliens to life in aquaria, film documentaries, and in the books we read.  Trevor Norton, a distinguished expert on Sargassum muticum—a giant brown seaweed—continued the tradition with his 2001 Reflections on a Summer Sea and now with a book on his life and travels in Britain, the United States, and various research locales around the world.  Underwater to Get Out of the Rain is part natural history and part memoir of a life in science—particularly in marine ecology and scientific diving.

Having studied biology at the University of Liverpool, Norton went on his first major diving expedition to Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands.  He paints himself as a bumbling budding scientist doing as much exploration and adventure as science.  These early chapters read like a diary kept by a young man encountering the outside world for the first time, recounting experiences with local people, trying to get around the island and camp, and eating local food.  Occasionally Norton jumps out of this narrative to describe the anatomy and mating habits of creatures such as the octopus, or to recount local history, as in his speculations on the origins of the guanches, the islands’ earlier inhabitants.  After this experience he returned to Liverpool to earn a Ph.D. in ecology.  This was in the 1960s; he quips that if he had realized it was ‘Liverpool in the Sixties,’ as popular culture would remember it, he would have paid closer attention.

All of this is fun to read, but historians will take a greater interest in the later chapters, in which Norton discusses his work on seaweed and the activities of leading marine ecologists and scientific divers.  He captures the camaraderie of this small community, and even his whimsical writing style cannot mask his compassion and sadness for those (no small number) whose lives were taken by the very sea they loved.  Also, only in these later chapters can we see what Norton’s genuine interests were.  At one point in his career he came to Washington, on the West Coast of the United States, to investigate the long-term effects of Sargassum muticum, the Japanese seaweed that was spreading in coastal areas in Europe.  It seemed that—as he wryly explains the process of getting research grants—the entire British way of life was threatened.  He became entranced by the importance of hydrodynamics in understanding how creatures spread and colonize.  These studies took him far down the coast to Santa Barbara, California, where he worked closely with diver and phycologist Michael Neushul, who excelled at making technical innovations to improve the scientific value of dives.

Norton contextualizes his own experiences with useful historical asides.   He ultimately would become the director of the Port Erin Marine Laboratory on the Isle of Man, and he dutifully describes his illustrious nineteenth-century forebears such as the lab’s founder, William Herdman, and the pioneer in biogeography, Edward Forbes.  Typically self-deprecating, Norton observes that when he came to Port Erin himself, he was the least famous marine biologist ever to work there.  He also dwells on influential twentieth-century figures such as Jack Kitching, whose work at Lough Ine, Ireland, was a powerful influence on marine ecology.  In the 1940s, Kitching had turned the lake into a laboratory to begin discovering the relationship between the currents and the distribution of plants and animals.  Norton saw his own work at Lough Ine as something of a pilgrimage.  The same could be said of his work in California, which is contextualized here by telling the story of two of his heroes.  One was Conrad Limbaugh, the chief scientific diver at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the 1950s, who drowned after losing his way in an underwater cavern off the French Riviera.   The other hero was Ed Ricketts, the hard-drinking author of Between Pacific Tides and the basis of the marine biologist character in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

For the lay reader, perhaps Norton is (as the dust jacket claims) “Bill Bryson underwater.” For the historian, however, Norton’s writing style takes some patience.  It is enjoyable, and Norton is eminently quotable, but sometimes he is just silly.  ‘I like rivers,’ he writes on p. 146. ‘They seem to know where they’re going.’  Or as he quips on p. 113, ‘Drowning is the ultimate release from a dependency on air.’  Elsewhere he writes that he loves being underground, but is not sure he wants to be buried.  ‘I suspect the novelty wears off.’ This is hardly mesmerizing prose and it typifies Norton’s levity.  Nonetheless, one cannot help but take up his enthusiasm in the myriad subjects of the book.  Beyond his own experiences, there are extended discussions of scientific topics, such as the history of saturation diving, and of intriguing questions, such as why there are no insects in the sea and whether humans might have aquatic ancestry.  Behind the wit and raillery is a mind replete with ideas from a lifetime studying the sea.


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