home>courses>college courses>esc130 home page>course syllabus>tales part 1

Tales of Ocean Exploration: Part I

endeavour.gif (42748 bytes)
H.M.S. Endeavor, a converted North Sea coal carrier,
on which Captain James Cook made his first voyage
"My conversations with Augustus grew daily more frequent and more intensely full of interest. He had a manner of relating his stories of the ocean (more than half of which I now suspect to have been sheer fabrications) well adapted to have weight with one of my enthusiastic temperament, and somewhat gloomy although glowing imagination. It is strange, too, that he most strongly enlisted my feeling in behalf of the life of a seaman, when he depicted his more terrible moments of suffering and despair. For the bright side of the painting I had a limited sympathy. My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian horde; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown. Such visions or desires-for they amounted to desires-are common, I have since been assured, to the whole numerous race of melancholy men..."

-- Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket

A Caveat

For some years now, I carefully avoided teaching the history of oceanography. First, I am skeptical of historical accounts: I think that history often presents an incomplete and distorted account of the times and events it represents. And second, among the vast menu of subjects encompassed by oceanography, some of them, by necessity, must be left uncharted. Much as we try to cover everything, it isn't always practical in a 16-week course.

However, history does offer a window to the past. It provides a frame of reference from which modern-day events can be judged and adds a little spice to what otherwise might be   a mundane and tedious subject. Oceanography is, after all, a human endeavor, emanating from the lives of the men and women who choose to pursue a career with the sea. And in this story-rich age, the lives of these men and women reveal just a little of what it's like to be at sea, even to this very day.

In an effort to continually expand my own knowledge and that of my students, I present to you a very fractured and highly selective historical account (if I may even call it that) of oceanography. The tales here are intended to pique your interest, give you a "bit of the salt," and, in some ways, to amuse you. By no accounts am I a historian and even more treacherously, many of these historical tales were chosen because they interest me. As I said, history can be an incomplete and distorted account. That is no less true of the slender offerings I sketch here.

A Common Thread

History is full of fascinating stories and none are more rich than the tales of the sea. It might be said that the very fabric of human existence is woven by the sea. Certainly the nations of the world gained their greatest riches by conquering the seas. (This may, in fact, still be true!)  Equally as certain was the realization that those who understood the seas ruled the seas. And so it was that ocean science was born.

From a need and desire to understand the ocean grew the foundations of modern oceanography. If I had to characterize the history of my field as having any common themes, here are the ones I would pick:

No doubt other oceanographers and historians could expand upon these themes and perhaps add their own. But as a framework from which the goals and dreams of oceanographers may be better understood, I think these do a pretty good job. As you read each of the stories below, think about how they support one or more of these common themes. And try to imagine yourself faced with similar problems and the approach you might have taken in each of these circumstances.

What's hidden in a midden?

Man's interaction with the sea began (as I like to say) the moment the first human set foot on the an ancient shore. Where this occurred can only be a matter of speculation (until such time that time-travel is perfected) but anthropologists propose that it first happened somewhere in Africa. There is a great body of scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that humans evolved from primates in Africa, recently substantiated by advances in molecular biology (a new field of science called molecular paleoanthropology). But just so I don't lose the more sensitive members of our congregation who feel uncomfortable with this talk of evolution, let me attempt to appease you with this paragraph from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS):

Opinion polls show that many people believe that divine intervention actively guided the evolution of human beings. Science cannot comment on the role that supernatural forces might play in human affairs. But scientific investigations have concluded that the same forces responsible for the evolution of all other life forms on Earth can account for the evolution of human beings. [See Science and Creationism]

primitivessm.jpg (7726 bytes)Although the NAS web site does not mention anything about the first human beachcombers, it's probably a reasonable guess that an African shore was the first to be imprinted with human (Homo sp.) footprints some 2.4 or so million years ago. Sometime during that first walk on the beach (which is what really concerns us here), someone surely noticed that the sea was rich with food and other enticing resources.

Anthropological accounts tell us that the first humans were gatherers and hunters. The seashore is ideal for this type of activity. There's lots of sand for putting out fires, seawater for obtaining salt and, of course, lots of vitamin-rich seafoods, especially the seaweeds (macroalgae) and molluscs (shells, bivalves, octopus).

Now in this tale of man's first days on the beach that I'm weaving here, I can just imagine that first encounter: Fred picks up a piece of seaweed. Takes his first bite. Yuck! But might taste good with rice. Spots a sea gull (yes, they were around back then). Sea gull drops a shell on the rocks and ferrets out the fleshy contents. "Hey, that's a good idea," says Wilma, who throws a rock at Fred, hitting him on the head. She tells him to give it a try. Fred rips a black mussel from the rocks and whacks it a good one. The orange and purple flesh ooze out. Fred takes a bite. "Hey, not bad. Could use a little cocktail sauce."

So began a long and delightful partnership with molluscs, a liaison that continues to this very day and from which many seaside cities, like Oysterville and Mussel Beach (j/k), made their riches. And the shell collecting wasn't limited to food. Fred found it a cheap way to find presents for Wilma's birthday and, of course, their anniversary. Shells made great necklaces and pieces of shells could be embedded in wood to make even cooler looking things. Thus, a cottage industry to the molluscan food industry was born: molluscan trinkets.

How do we know that our first ancestors delighted in sea shells? The same way you can tell what your neighbors are eating and drinking for dinner: by checking the trash barrel. Yes, should you have ambitions to become an anthropologist or paleontologist, rest assured that at some time in your career, you will spend some time digging through someone's trash.

Which brings me to the main topic of our first story here: middens.

Main Entry: midĚden
Pronunciation: 'mi-d&n
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English midding, of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse myki dung & Old Norse dyngja manure pile -- more at DUNG
Date: 14th century
2 a : a refuse heap; especially : KITCHEN MIDDEN b : a small pile (as of seeds, bones, or leaves) gathered by a rodent (as a pack rat)

There's a lot of history to be told in middens, especially ones that accumulated over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And little lasts longer in a midden than the hard parts of many a sea creature. Consider this tray of appetizing midden-bound parts: the shells of mussels, oysters, clams, scallops, cowries (the world's first money!), conchs, coquinas, cockles, limpets, whelks, turbans, cone shells, not to mention the bones of fish, including shark's teeth, and the remains of sea-birds and yes, marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions) and, well, you get the idea.

Humans have been heaping up seafood remains probably since first order of oysters on the half. And once they got the taste for them innards (and recognizing a growing waste management problem with discarded shells), humans invented a whole lotta crazy uses for the shells themselves. Shells were used for weapons, armor, money, spiritual ceremonies, decoration, jewelry, toys, eating utensils, building materials and even foundations for their homes, to name a few.

moundkey.gif (18677 bytes)And that's where the middens come in. While searching through a midden may not seem like the most glamorous thing in the world, they do provide many clues to man's early relationship with the sea and its cultural and historical significance in their affairs. In searching through a shell midden, an archaeologist pays attention to the kinds of shells, where they were found and the fine details of their condition, often performing microscopic or chemical analysis. From these examinations, archaeologists can infer how people used the items, the value they placed on them, how they prepared them, where the collected them and sometimes, what the general climate was like in the locations where the shells were growing. Taking all these things together, archaeologists can piece together a pretty good picture of the every day life of these people.

One of the most outstanding middens in the world is not a waste pile, but a shell island. The Shell Indians, inhabitants of southwest Florida some 12,000 years ago, actually used shells to build their own island, known in modern times as Mound Key (shown above at left). The methods and materials used to construct this site are truly remarkable.

Here's a few paragraphs on the Shell Indians from the Conchologists of America web site:

Mound Key is an entirely artificial construction, built up from shallow sea bottom by the hands of men whose only building material was shell and marl. Like other shell middens, much of Mound Key is composed of discarded shells the Calusas used for tools, ornament and weapons, and the empty shells accumulating from the shelled mollusks they ate. But the Calusa mounds were of an intentional and purposeful construction in the beginning. Where shifting sand is moved about by every tide, a stable construction required some ingenuity. These industrious people constructed the first layer of an island or land mass by driving shells, usually whelks and conchs, siphonal canals down, into a sandy or muddy shallows. Next they carried in loads of clay-like marl which they then packed closely around these foundation shells. As the marl dried and settled, it hardened over time into a cement which held the entire structure together.

More marl and soil raised the level of the land, and as time passed, soil accumulated from the refuse, leaf litter and twigs that fell to the ground. Seawalls were constructed of whelk shells, siphonal canals driven in semi-horizontally, spires outward, with marl packed around them. Some mounds had altar-like platforms which were faced with large whelk shells, their spires forming a mosaic pattern. Smaller platforms and their approaches were paved with large clam shells, convex side up. Shells were used to build elaborate series of embankments, canals accessible by canoes, and water courts.

These water courts may have been stocked with fish. Archaeologists are finding evidence (tiny fish bones in quantity) that fish was a more important component of their protein diet than was formerly believed. In 1895, the first anthropologist to examine these structures, Frank Hamilton Cushing, watched a large school of fish pursued by sharks and porpoises, swim into these man-made shoals, where hundreds of pelicans, herons and cormorants and other predators were waiting. The fish were attacked from above, below and the sides. This sight led Cushing to the conclusion that men may once have driven fish into these traps and speared or netted them.

Abundant shell artifacts are found in the mound areas. Hundreds of Busycon whelk hammers and picks have been unearthed, as well as shell pendants, necklaces, scrapers, dippers, awls, fishing sinkers and weapons of all descriptions. Fishnet mesh was made of palm fiber using spacers of shell. Sometimes bone and shell were worked into a composite artifact, like fish hooks, or axes and hammers composed of whelk shells with wooden handles affixed by rawhide lashing. The Fighting Conchs, Strombus alatus and pugilis, and Melongena corona, the Kings Crown shells, also served as hammers and assorted tools. Bivalves such as the Mercenaria mercenaria, Quahog Clam, were used as anvils, choppers, knives, scrapers, and even weights for nets. The whelks too, Busycon contrarium, came in for such uses, as well as spinning tools, sinkers, anchors, cutting tools and beads. The columella of whelks of various sizes had many uses, as awls, Strombus gigas, the Queen Conch, and Cassis species, the Helmet Shells, were used as hammers to knock apart oyster clusters and pulverize shell or food. The Sunray Venus, Macrocallista nimbosa, as well as being one of the most delicious of clams, was used, as was the more plentiful and mundane Surf Clam, Spisula solidissima, as knives and scrapers. Perforated bivalves of all descriptions could be used as net weights and decoration. Those found as artifacts include Codakia orbicularis, Crassostrea virginica, Mercenaria campechiensis, Argopecten irradians, Noetia ponderosa and Dinocardium robustum vanhyningi. Busycon and Cypraea zebra, the Measled Cowry, were used as spoons, scoops, or dippers.

As a native-born Floridian, this account really strikes home. Many of the above-described shells I collected and/or ate (the animal, not the shell) as a kid!

Here in California, middens also abound. You have probably walked over a midden somewhere and not even realized it. After all, they just look like shell heaps. But the archaeological information they may contain makes them valuable sites nonetheless.

emeryshellsm.jpg (2266 bytes)One of the largest and earliest middens to be studied in California was located in Emeryville, California. The Emeryville midden image linked here aptly illustrates the sad history of these valuable treasures. Their ultimate fate is often obliteration through bulldozing. Many middens go completely unrecognized by virtue of the fact that people aren't aware of them or that they consider them to be waste piles anyway. Yet as we learn about the importance of these structures for understanding the early cultural history of the United States, their preservation, hopefully, will be better appreciated.

Notwithstanding its ultimate destruction, the shell midden at Emeryville provided many important insights into the early cultural history of California and continues to yield data. The most recent work offers evidence of prehistoric brain surgery, information on past climate fluctuations and analyses of local vertebrate ecology. You may find more information about that history from Nels. C. Nelson's Final Report on the Excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound, published in 1906, as transcribed by Jack M. Broughton at the University of California Archaeological Research Facility in Berkeley.

Here's a paragraph reproduced here:

Even though the present location of the long-since leveled mound now sadly serves, in part, as a toxic waste dump for a Sherwin-Williams paint factory, research on the Emeryville collections continues unabated. In ongoing analyses of the human remains from Emeryville, G. Richards (in press) has revealed an unprecedented case of prehistoric cranial surgery in North America. L. Ingram and B. Berry are currently investigating late Holocene climatic fluctuations from strontium isotope ratios obtained from Emeryville shell samples as well as radiocarbon reservoir effects from charcoal and shell samples. I recently conducted a stratigraphic analysis of the vertebrate materials collected from the site. That analysis documented that the inhabitants of Emeryville had substantial impacts on local vertebrate populations (Broughton 1995).

More than 100 years has elapsed since Nels. C. Nelson made his first careful excavations and descriptions of this midden. That researchers continue to gain new information from his observations is a testament to the scientific rigor with which he approached his work and a statement on the pace of scientific progress!

As you journey in California and elsewhere in the world, take a few moments to consider how the cultures you encounter might be identified by their solid waste. Day-by-day, humans generate tons of garbage that gets piled in landfills. As those landfills reach their capacity and as sites for new landfills dwindle, waste management officials are looking to the oceans for dumping solid waste. What might that reveal about present day humans 10,000 years from now?

For more information on early uses of ocean resources, check out these links:

Excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound, 1906, Nels. C. Nelson's Final Report

The Shell Indians of Southwest Florida

And if all this talk about shell middens has made you hungry, check out an oyster farm that lets you order farm-fresh oysters online:

J.J. Brenner Oyster Company, Olympia, WA

California's first oceanographers: The Chumash Indians

In studying past cultures and especially early California cultures, it strikes me how little we know about the science of these people. As we'll learn in our discussion of the Polynesians, these ocean-going cultures sure knew what they were doing when it came to the ocean. They were able to navigate using clouds and waves and sea birds and they knew when and where particular marine species could be found. In some areas, their knowledge of the sea surpasses our own, especially in their ability to observe a complex ocean landscape and interpret the underlying processes. For that reason, I've dubbed these early people as the first oceanographers. By all definitions of the word they qualify as oceanographers (and then some)!

chumashtomol.jpg (17420 bytes)The first California oceanographers can be found among the Chumash Indians. In fact, any of the California coastal tribes, including the Gabrielino who occupied areas between Pt. Conception and Dana Point, could claim this honor. But archaeological evidence of Chumash people predates any other culture, so they title belongs to them for the time being.

Now before I go any further, let me state emphatically that I am not an expert on indigenous people. My exposition here is intended to make you aware of the incredible skills these people possessed for oceangoing. There are currently many controversial issues surrounding the preservation and rights of their lands and culture and I support those discussions. If by some chance something here appears inaccurate or misleading, then by all means e-mail me. Indigenous cultures and their relationship with the sea is one of my favorite topics and I am happy to stand corrected on any account!

We start our story of the first oceanographers with some speculation as to how they got here. The traditional hypothesis is that early cultures walked across the Bering Sea land bridge and moved southwards soon after the last ice age (~10,000 years ago). However, new evidence gathered in the Channel Islands and elsewhere suggests that the first inhabitants may have arrived by boat.

Evidence for the nautical colonization of the Americas comes from Santa Rosa Island, known to the Chumash as Wimat. It was here that Chumash legend says that the world began. And in mid-1999, after re-evaluation of a buried female skeleton found on the island, it appears that Wimat indeed may be the original site of North America's first inhabitants. Based on radiocarbon dating techniques, the Arlington Woman, as she is known, appears to have lived at least 13,000 years ago. That makes her the oldest skeleton ever found in North America. It also means that she lived there during the end of the last ice age, which lasted from 125,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Although ice sheets did not extend along the coast of California, they did occur inland and to the North. Recognition of the age of the Arlington Woman casts doubts on a strictly terrestrial migration of people from Asia. The question is: how did people arrive in North America previous to the disappearance of the ice sheets?

A scholarly symposium held in Oregon in August 1998 provided intriguing evidence and speculation that people arrived in North America on boats from Asia. One scholar discusses the "terrestrial bias" implying that archaeologists and anthropologists have a prejudice towards land-based theories. But anyone who has lived any reasonable time on the coast realizes that coastal climates are moderate. And the presence of ice certainly wouldn't have dissuaded any people who were probably  accustomed to living in icy environments. So in my simple-minded estimation, what's the fuss? It seems like a perfectly reasonable hypothesis as long as there is evidence to support it.

However they arrived, the Chumash (and the Gabrielinos, or Tongva, to the south) were well-accomplished shipbuilders. Their boats, called tomols, measured upwards of 30 feet, held up to 12 people and were built from redwood planks sealed with natural substances including asphaltum, a naturally occurring tar found on California's rocky shores. Their tomols connected them with a vast partnership of tribes and sub-tribes that stretched across California. They brought trade, kinship and mutual respect for natural resources. The tomols connected the people with the sea and its animals. They provided a living, physically and spiritually.

In recent years, people have come to realize the importance of preserving this cultural maritime heritage. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, in cooperation with the Chumash Maritime Association, recently completed construction of a tomols, the first built in centuries. Much of the difficulty in building such boats lies not just in a lack of recent knowledge but a lack of materials. Many of the traditional components of such ships have been destroyed as estuaries and coastal environments were developed.

Roberta Reyes Cordero describes some of the materials required for building a tomol in a web essay published in News from Native California, Spring 1998:

We in California--the Chumash and Tongva--have had no less trouble obtaining materials and knowledge. Our ancestors were accustomed to gathering redwood drift logs from island and mainland beaches. Specialists cured, processed, and stored planks for use in building canoes. Pine was also used, but redwood was favored. Others were expert at gathering and processing plant fibers into the mile or so of cordage to be used along with yop (an epoxy-like mixture of asphaltum and pine pitch) to join the planks together. These three were the principal materials comprising the nail-less, peg-less tomol or ti'at, regarded by many cultural anthropologists as among the most advanced technological achievements of North America's indigenous peoples. Sharkskin for sanding, red ochre for staining, and abalone inlay for embellishment completed this work of high craftsmanship and art. [find complete article here]

The rich legacy and profound wisdom of California's first oceanographers is only beginning to be uncovered. Advances in marine archaeology, brought about by new technologies for observing the sea bottom, may hold promise for recovering some of this lost knowledge. Many of the oldest Chumash settlements, built before the end of the ice age, lie beneath the sea along our coast. As more people become aware of the importance of this cultural history, perhaps tomols may once again roam California's waters.

For more information on California's first oceanographers, check out these links:

Charting the Way Into the Americas
How humans might have come by sea, not land, to inhabit the New World
An scholoarly symposium in August 1998

Oakbrook Regional Park Chumash Interpretive Center (Thousand Oaks, CA)

The Chumash
A timeline of California's original seafarers
by Francis F. Steen, UCSB

California Tribes
by Paula Giese

Gabrielino Material Culture

Pearl Divers of Mesopotamia

rosettemop.jpg (5152 bytes)Our tales of ocean exploration now take us halfway across the world to early Mesopotamia, to a city known as Bismya or the Lost city of Adab. It was here that James Edward Banks, an archaeologist with the University of Chicago working among the ruins in 1912, discovered conch-shell lamps and mother-of-pearl inlays in ornamental rosette stones, such as the one shown here. The estimated age of these ruins: 6500 years.

Mother of pearl is a smooth, iridescent substance, formed on the inner shell of many molluscs. Pick up any abalone shell and look inside and you will see the glimmering kaleidoscope of rainbow colors that characterizes mother of pearl. Its translucent and shimmering quality make it highly prized for jewelry, decoration, art and other objects. Many a famous cowboy is reputed to have carried a pistol with a pearl-handled grip.

According to William Beebe, the first man to descend in a bathysphere, this discovery provides the earliest evidence of people diving beneath the sea. Mother of pearl shows up extensively in the sixth dynasty of Thebes in 3200 B.C. and pearls themselves make an appearance in China in approximately 2250 B.C., more than 4000 years ago. To gather mother of pearl and pearls in the quantities described by the archaeologists that uncovered these artifacts, Beebe reasons that people had to be diving.

Free-diving has a long history in the Near and Far East and spread across the world as people migrated into Southeast Asia, Oceania and the Americas. While I am not aware of any evidence for free diving among indigenous people in the Americas, it wouldn't surprise me if they did. The need for food and the desire for riches led people to explore any nook and cranny they could and the oceans not excepted. free-divers took whatever they could find, pearls, sponges, any shellfish, urchins, fishes and even sunken treasure.

pearldiversm.jpg (1346 bytes)The first recorded mention of divers comes from Homer in Book 16 of the Iliad. Describing the nimble Patroclus, who leaps from his chariot with a spear and a rock and doesn't miss a beat, his rival Hector shouts: "How nimble is he...Yea, perchance were he on the teeming sea, this man would sate many by diving for seafood...so lightly he dives from the chariot to the plains. Verily, there are divers even among the Trojans." One might assume from this passage that divers were not well respected!

Other writers, including Thucydides, Aristotle and Livy, mention divers employed for warfare, sponge-taking and treasure-finding, respectively. It is during these times, from 400 B.C. and later, that mention is made of diving chambers or, at least, upturned clay pots for providing air. Even Alexander the Great is purported to have spent time beneath the sea in some sort of chamber, conducting "marine investigations between campaigns in the east." (Beebe, 1934).

At least by the 16th century, and perhaps earlier, divers began to use various air bladders and helmets to provide protection and help them remain longer underwater. Hard-hat divers were commonplace by the turn of the 20th Century, but it wasn't until the invention of the aqualung by Jacques Cousteau and his friend Emile Gagnan in 1943 that free-diving as a commercial activity began to decline. Since that time free-diving has been transformed into a recreational activity and a sport, as we'll see below.

tsponge2.jpg (2110 bytes)Advances in diving technology extended a diver's range beneath the sea and further expanded the opportunities for profit. Commercial diving remains a serious and lucrative activity in many parts of the world, including those where diving first began. Today, commercial divers search for pearls, sponges, urchins, abalones, lobster, coral, sea snakes, tropical fishes and just about anything else you can take from the sea. An excellent photographic account of sponge divers and their deeply held religious beliefs can be found at John Stanmeyer's web page, Sponge Divers of Tarpon Springs, Florida.

But the new technologies haven't made diving any less of a risky business. Before the invention of the aqualung, the worst danger was the shark. Consider this personal account from a 38-year-old Japanese pearl diver, Iona Asai, working in the Torres Straight between Australia and New Guinea in 1937:

First time I went down I found one pearl shell and put it on the deck. Then I went down again the second time and found another pearl shell. The third time I dive and walked on the bottom. I was behind a little high place, the shark was on the other side. I never saw him and he never saw me. I saw a stone like a pearl shell on the north side, and when I turned I saw the shark six feet away from me. He opened his mouth, already I have no chance of escape from him. Then he came and bite me on the head. He felt it was too strong to swallow and put his teeth around my neck. Then he bite me and I felt his teeth go into my flesh. I put my hands around his head and squeeze his eyes until he let me go, and I make for the boat. The captain pulled me into the boat and I faint. They get some medicines from a school teacher. [from Broome Pearling History]

Although the type of shark wasn't mentioned, these waters are inhabited by reef sharks and great whites, which have been known to gnaw a few people in their time.

But the real dangers of modern-day commercial diving are not among the marine creatures. The deadly dangers exist in the technologies themselves.

As the human body descends beneath the sea, it is subject to increasing pressure, about one (1) atmosphere every 33 feet. To compensate for this pressure, the lungs must take in greater amounts of air. It is the pressure of air inside your body after all that balances the pressure of air outside your body. That's why we're not crushed by the weight of our own atmosphere (14.7 pounds every square inch of your body or about 95,500 pounds on the entire body). So as a diver goes deeper, breathing compressed air, he takes more air into his blood. As the diver ascends (rising), the water pressure becomes less and the air in his blood begins to expand (because there is less pressure on it). Normally, a diver rises at a rate that allows the your body to get rid of that extra air and everything is fine. However, if a diver rises too rapidly, then the air in his blood can form bubbles and that's where the trouble begins.

Air bubbles in your blood are not a good thing. They collect around the joints of the arms and legs and cause severe pain. In the worst cases, they cause blood vessels or your lungs to burst. This phenomenon, known as the bends or an air embolism, respectively, can cause paralysis, brain damage and death, if not recognized immediately and treated. Sometimes even that isn't enough.

The U.S. Navy has developed a set of guidelines, called decompression tables, that informs divers on the safe limits for staying underwater breathing compressed air. In developed countries, scuba diving training and an awareness of safe diving practices minimizes the dangers. Nonetheless, accidents still happen and divers require treatment in what is known as a decompression chamber. The Wrigley Institute of Marine Science at Two Harbors on Catalina Island maintains a decompression chamber for such accidents.

However, in non-industrialized countries, no such precautions or treatments exist. As scuba diving proliferates and the lure of greater monetary awards entice divers deeper for longer, the fatalities associated with scuba diving have risen dramatically. Three places in particular have drawn the interest of groups attempting to educate indigenous divers on safe diving practices: Thailand, the Philippines and Central America.

The tales of paralysis, loss of bodily functions, brain damage and death are horrific. While many divers realize that aching joints are symptomatic of a problem, some believe it's part of the job. Some seek spiritual or herbal cures rather than getting the treatment they need. Yet the efforts of organizations dedicated to assisting these people are beginning to pay off and deaths in some regions have declined.

I first learned of these grim stories from a student a couple years ago. She informed me that the Red Lobster restaurants were being criticized for buying lobster from local divers along the Mosquito coast (Costa de Mosquitoes) in Nicaragua. According to her report, the Red Lobster was exploiting these people (by offering them money for lobster) rather than insuring their safety.

The degree to which Red Lobster or any other seafood restaurant is to blame depends on where you think the responsibility lies. Does it rest with the fisherman who know they are being unsafe? Does it rest with the governments of the U.S. and Nicaragua who allow seafood to be exported and imported despite the dangers to those who catch it? Is the responsibility of the companies who distribute, sell, prepare and serve the seafood? Or is it our responsibility, as individuals, to be aware of the human and environmental ramifications of the resources we use?

However you feel, I would recommend that you take a few moments to check out the efforts that are underway to help these people. The information and images portrayed on the links below are highly educational.

As a final note to our little history of pearl diving (!), I would like to mention some of the ways that free-diving has gained popularity in modern times. The considerable improvements in masks, snorkels and fins, the required apparel of many a future oceanographer, has made it possible for just about anyone to explore and investigate the undersea world.

As much as that pleases me, there has been a negative side to increasing numbers of divers: more hunting. I abandoned my hunting and collecting activities a long time ago as I witnessed the annihilation of Florida's coral reefs in the late 60s and 70s. But I had other reasons as well: hunting distracts you from enjoying your surroundings and it attracts sharks. One of the results of increased spearfishing has been the elimination of large fishes. Some divers may argue with me but it's the big game that attracts most spearfisherman and those are the fish that get shot first. At least on a hook and line, the fish is given a fighting chance. It's also less likely that a fish who has lived long enough to grow to one-hundred-plus pounds will be caught. Personally, I miss seeing these fish when I dive and I'm sure other divers agree.

In this vein, I will mention that many places where hunting used to be acceptable are finding that they can attract more tourists over the long run by protecting their marine resources. Eco-tourism, as it has come to be known, increasingly brings dollars to regions to the world that once struggled to make a living. While this new tourism has its own drawbacks (waste disposal, resource limitation, etc), it appears to be a step in the right direction. Some eco-tourism vendors, like Aquatique in Bahrain, will even teach you how to pearl dive!

smfreediveryoram.jpg (1517 bytes)While free-diving in modern times has spawned snorkeling, spearfishing and eco-tourism, it has also given rise to another free-diving offshoot you should know about: free-diving competition. Free-diving competition involves several categories of breath-holding events. Some categories have strict rules on the amount of weight a free-diver may carry up and/or down and at least one category lets the free-diver perform the dive however they want. The "no-limits" category has produced the deepest free-dive by any human, a dive of 137 meters (449.47 feet) in June 1999. That's deep! While the French appear to be the leaders in promoting the sport, I predict that won't last. Men and women from all over the world are entering free-diving competitions. Check out the web pages I've listed below. I think you will enjoy them.

Finally, this sport of free-diving has stimulated one of my absolute favorite ocean-related movies, The Big Blue. This movie documents a free-diving competition between Jacques Mayol, a dolphin-loving Frenchman, and Enzo Maiorca, a man who hates to lose. It's on our Movie of the Week list and I hope all of you get a chance to see it. It will gives a sense of what it's like to totally connect with the sea, something like an experience I had while skin diving as a young teenager.

As a young boy in Florida, I would spend countless hours skin diving (snorkeling), checking out colorful creatures, occasionally hunting for lobster or shells or fish for my aquarium. I remember one day in particular when my mom let me skip school (I was in 10th or 11th grade) to go snorkeling at the marine science center in Riviera Beach. I was snorkeling beneath the pilings of a bridge. The pilings were always a great place to explore because there were rocks where fishes and other animals could hide. It was quite late in the afternoon and the sun was getting fairly low in the sky, creating needles of light through the translucent green water. There were a fair number of fish milling about and a school of barracuda; a kind of undersea twilight when the day fish make ready for bed and the night fish prepare to feast. I had been in the water long enough to have the shivers but not long enough to want to leave. And something came over me at that moment that I remember vividly to this day: a feeling of peace. The outside world didn't exist, only this inner one. In that brief instance,  I connected with the sea in a way that I had never before. My thoughts, my feelings, my sensations were as if I had discovered my true home. I felt safe, like I belonged. I was part of the sea. It felt right.

I have such a strong memories of that moment that I get goosebumps every time I think about it. Anyone who has spent any time skin diving or scuba diving or even surfing for recreation has some idea of the feelings of which I speak. Diving for pleasure is one of the most otherwordly experiences you can ever have. And as a result, more and more people are diving. Perhaps as in no other time, exploration of the sea has become a pastime of the masses. Whether a casual pursuit or a serious hobby, more people don masks and dip beneath the waves than ever before.

Hopefully, this lengthy narrative of the history of diving has given you some sense for its importance in human history and the history of oceanography. The threads we are starting to weave extend in many different directions and I've but mentioned a few. But I want to leave you with this one last thought question: How has diving in modern times added to the common themes of oceanography mentioned above? In other words, is diving still a strictly economic pursuit or perhaps has a new motivating factor for ocean research emerged? Think about it. I'll get back to you.

Bismaya or the Lost City of Adab by Edgar James Banks, 1912;
A fascinating account! better than Indiana Jones, if you can stand the wait for the pages to load

History of Diving: Free-diving

Broome Pearling History

Sponge Divers of Tarpon Springs, Florida

Luna Pearls, providing information on pearl diving; you may also buy Tahitian pearls online here

Spend an eco-vacation diving for pearls in Bahrain with Aquatique

Qatar, the Arabian peninsula, Bahrain's neighbor, with an equally rich maritime culture (see especially history and geography)

The Indigenous Fisherman Divers of Thailand Project: The Sea Gypsies

Sub Ocean Safety, educating non-industrialized nations in safe diving practice, especially in Central America

A program of assistance for the indigenous divers of the Philippines

AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea)

Interview with Jacques Mayol, a freediver who has a special relationship with dolphins

Umberto Pelizarri Home Page (in French, except the pictures)

Freediving Magzine

A page on Deborah Andollo, one of the few female freedivers

Lo´c Lefreme, who dove to 137 meters in June 1999 (pages in French)

Yoram Zekri, French-Belgian freediver, good photos

Gianluca Genoni, French freediver (pages in English available; click on British flag)

Pippin Productions, interesting info on freediving

National Association of Underwater Instructors, always putting safety first (my basic scuba certification, completed in 1972 with Norine Rouse)

Professional Association of Diving Instructors, traditionally, their emphasis has been on equipment

National Academy of Scuba Instructors, a new certifying agency, emphasis on instructor-centered teaching

Tales of the South Pacific

tipairua.gif (53952 bytes)Our tales of the South Pacific begin with the largest of the Pacific Islands, so big it earns the rank of continent. That would be none other than Australia. I start with Australia because it provides a convenient starting point for the web of migrations that occurred throughout the Pacific as the inexorable human urge to move onward propelled people across the planet.

According to information gleaned from the WWW, the earliest people in Australia date back at least 60,000 years. These dates are from recent studies and as more work is done in this area, it's entirely possible this date will be pushed back further. One thing I've discovered about archaeology and human anthropology is that hypotheses abound. As the world opens to collaboration among scientists, especially in China, I suspect some of our early history will be rewritten.

Be that as it may, there are two hypotheses put forth as to where the early people of Australia, known as Australian aborigines, or first people, came from. Some data suggests that they came from Asia-Indonesia. Other data suggests that they may have come from Africa. It is quite likely that both hypotheses are correct! People were moving all over the place in response to climate changes, food availability, tribal conflicts, religious beliefs, unemployment and just about any other reason humans move about, including the zest for exploration.

Wherever they came from, the first people of Australia certainly arrived by boat. Although Australia and New Guinea were by a land bridge during the Ice Age, there was still a bit of water to cover and undoubtedly crossed it. At the same time, it appears that  people from Southeast Asia, Indonesia and possibly Africa were colonizing many of the South Pacific Islands. Most of these islands occur in what is known as an island archipelago (or island arc) making island hopping quite a snap for anyone with a decent craft. You can learn more about island arcs in the lectures on plate tectonics.

According to Garrison's text, people colonized the Philippines and New Guinea at least 20,000 years ago, but in light of the Australian dates, these dates seem late (to my Indiana Jones way of thinking). Nevertheless, there was a veritable human tidal wave that spread across the Pacific, spreading to Hawaii in the north at about 400 A.D. (also earlier than Garrison's dates) and ending in New Zealand to the south at around 1000 A.D. As noted here and by other authors, the dates are subject to change.

According to Dennis Kawaharada at the University of Hawaii, evidence for the settlement of the Pacific Islands reveals the following patterns:

--Hunters and gatherers inhabited Australia and New Guinea by 50,000 years ago.

--Around 1600-1200 B.C., a cultural complex called Lapita (identified by a distinctive pottery and named after a site in New Caledonia) spread from New Guinea in Melanesia as far east as Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. Polynesian culture developed at the eastern edge of this region (i.e., in Samoa and Tonga).

--Around 300 B.C. or earlier, seafarers from Samoa and Tonga discovered and settled islands to the east of the Cook Islands, Tahiti-nui, Tuamotus, and Hiva (Marquesas Islands).

--Around 300 A.D. or earlier, voyagers from central or eastern Polynesia, possibly from Hiva, discovered and settled Easter Island.

--Around 400 A.D. or earlier, voyagers from the the Cook Islands, Tahiti-nui, and /or Hiva settled Hawai'i.

--Around 1000 A.D. or earlier, voyagers from the Society and/or the Cook Islands settled Aotearoa (New Zealand).

What is most remarkable about these migrations is the distances over which they were accomplished. The surface area represented by the geographical extent of these islands spans over 10 million square miles of ocean. The Pacific Island people did not hesitate to sail upon the great expanse of the open ocean, well out of sight of land. In contrast, the Vikings and Phoenicians, great sailors in their own right, were but coastal huggers.

Before I reveal the fascinating motivations and means by which these people accomplished these feats, let's first brush up on our geography of the region and make sure we have a good understanding of the people involved. Having some awareness of these places will serve our studies of plate tectonics, ocean currents and marine biology, when we tackle those topics later in the semester.

The Pacific Islands, known collectively as Oceania, are divided into three regions (not including Australia), based on geographic and cultural relationships. These regions include:

  1. Polynesia, in the central and South Pacific, encompassing Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa (American Samoa and Western Samoa) and the islands of French Polynesia, which includes Tahiti, the Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Austral Islands, Tuamotu Islands, and Gambier Islands. These people are the true Polynesians (obviously) and appear to have migrated from Indonesia or southeast Asia.
  2. Melanesia, in the southwest Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and south of the equator, comprised of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, New Calendonia, the Bismarck Archipelago, Fiji and the Admiralty Islands. These people appear to have migrated from Australia.
  3. Micronesia, in the west Pacific Ocean, north of the equator, being made up of the Caroline Islands (including Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia), Nauru, the Gilbert Islands (including Kiribati), the Northern Mariani Islands and the Marshall Islands. These people descend from both Australian and Polynesian ancestors and are my nominee for the greatest sailors to ever have lived.

Traditional opinions concerning the motivation of these people to spread across the Pacific cite the compelling ecological factors, such as resource limitation, competition and predation; and the compelling social factors, such as politics, intertribal strife and religious beliefs. However, a small number of scholars, including myself, believe in an equally compelling reason to move about: deliberate exploration. While this idea has generated considerable controversy (and is, indeed, simply dismissed by some scholars), I believe it merits close examination.

Whether it's an innate quality of human behavior or simple curiosity, the desire to know what's over the next horizon has deep roots in our culture. Take Dorothy, for instance. While she gave that lame excuse about protecting Toto, face it, that girl wanted to see what lived somewhere over the rainbow. Have you ever been on a hike on the beach, in the mountains or through the desert when you just felt that urge to keep going, to see what was over the next dune, beyond the next ridge or around the next pile of rocks? I suspect that many of us have felt that urge and it had nothing to do with any of the ecological or sociological factors listed above. Humans are curious, plain and simple, and if I had to bet my money, I would bet hat the Pacific Islanders were curious as well.

There appears to be some theoretical evidence for this idea. A report written by Geoffrey Irwin and summarized by Dennis Kawaharada, The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonization of the Pacific, suggests that Pacific Islanders could have taken advantage of seasonal wind patterns to go for a look around on the open ocean with a reasonable chance of getting back. Kawaharada writes:

...those who settled Polynesia may have used a deliberate strategy of exploration that allowed them to find islands without an inordinate risk to their lives and with a high rate of survival. (Other scholars have assumed that the exploration of the Pacific was full of danger and involved high casualties at sea.) This deliberate strategy of exploration... involved waiting for a reversal in wind direction and sailing in the direction that is normally upwind (i.e. eastward in the Pacific) for as far as it was safe to go given the supplies that were carried on the canoe. The return home (westward) would be made easy when the wind shifted back to its normal easterly direction [coming from the east, going west]. Irwin believes that this strategy is supported by the west to east settlement of the Pacific, from the islands of southeast Asia and Melanesia to Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, th e Society Islands, the Tuamotus, and Hiva (the Marquesas). Although no factual evidence would prove that this strategy of exploration was actually employed by Polynesian navigators, the strategy would have been obvious to anyone familiar with sailing. The tradition of 'imi fenua (Hawaiian: 'imi honua), or "searching for lands," reported from Hiva and other Polynesian islands, supports such a notion of deliberate exploration.

Such are the controversies surrounding the motivations of an apparently sane people to launch off in a canoe across the deep blue sea with little way of knowing whether they could get back. However, as we learn more about how these people navigated across the deep blue sea, we find that they weren't as helpless and some scholars make them out to be. (As a sea-going person, I would state that most of the fears of the ocean are the fantasies of those who have never been to sea!)

The ability of these people to find their way from one place to another across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean would knock the pants off any self-respecting oceanographer. Their knowledge of the sea, of the sky and of the stars surpasses the knowledge of any navigators who have ever sailed. That includes the Phoenicians, the Vikings and any sailor operating a vessel today. I state this unequivocally.

Here are a few of the skills required of an ocean-going navigator aboard a Pacific Islander canoe:

For Night Time Navigation:

For Day Time Navigation

For Finding Final Destination

For Predicting Weather

This particular list was derived from the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which was founded to discover and recover the heritage of Polynesian sailors. One of their primary contributions has been the construction of replicas of ancient canoes. These canoes have been used to demonstrate that Polynesian sailors could have crossed the open waters of the Pacific. In 1976, the Hokule'a successfully navigated from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. Since that time, five successful voyages have been made aboard this vessel. This fall (1999) the Hokule'a will attempt its most challenging expedition ever, a trip to Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. We will follow this voyage through our web site, both via a subscribable mailing list and in one of our Forums.

What makes this list so incredible is the sheer amount of knowledge and experience needed by the navigator. And even more staggering is the fact that none of it was written: no charts, no maps, no books, no lecture notes. Certainly more than one semester of oceanography was required. In a wonderful interview on the PBS web site, Wayfarers: A Pacific Odyssey, Nainoa Thompson, navigator of the Hokule'a, describes his experience learning and getting in touch with the knowledge and spirit for navigating the ocean. His most harrowing experience came at night under foggy seas. By lying in the front of the boat and letting his mind relax, he was somehow able to ascertain the position of the moon. When the skies cleared, he was dead on target. His commitment of mind, body and soul is well worth reading.

stick2.gif (15707 bytes)Training to be a sailor began at an early age and one of the tools used by the Micronesian sailors was a bamboo device called the mattang or stick chart (although it is in no way a chart). The Micronesian sailors were well known for their ability to cross the open ocean and their system of training reflects that ability. The Marshallese sailors were particularly skilled and Robin Herbst describes some of the techniques used to train young Marshall sailors: "Physical artifacts are used as mnemonic devices for...teaching the principles of swell refraction and intersection, and are used by the islanders as crucial navigational tools. The "sticks" that form the chart are the midribs of coconut leaves curved around a central point to model how swells from opposite directions refract around an island and intersect in nodes." [see Uncommon Directions by Robin Herbst]

We will learn about swell refraction and intersection when we study waves, but a web site maintained by Stephen Thomas and Ward Goodenough at the University of Pennsylvania, Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific, provides wonderful insights into how these principles were taught.

Here's a GIF animation that provides a great example. If you don't see anything at first, try hitting the refresh or reload button.

fig9anim.gif (17542 bytes)To visualize the location of islands, Marshallese sailors relied on mental images. One such image envisions a triggerfish (a tropical fish you might have seen, unfortunately, in a pet store). The angular body of the triggerfish serves as a template for a chart: the head and tail fin represent east and west, respectively, and the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) fins represent either north or south (depending on how you flip the fish; make a diamond with popsickle sticks and convince yourself). The center from head to tail represents the backbone of the fish.

Any ship heading can be visualized using the "triggerfish." The head could represent the starting point and the tail could represent the destination. The backbone would then represent the course that a navigator would keep to go from Point A (head) to Point B (tail). If you use your own popsickle-stick triggerfish, it won't take long for you to realize that any set of islands or ocean landmarks (like favorite fishing grounds, killer point breaks, great diving reefs and nude beaches) can be navigated using the triggerfish. For added complexity, triggerfish could be overlapped or put end to end. In this way, long voyages over great distances could be easily achieved.

I want to describe one more method used by traditional navigators because it blends oceanography, meteorology and astronomy and gets us thinking a bit about how these disciplines interact.

Here's another wonderful GIF animation borrowed from the UPENN site:

fig12anim.gif (46202 bytes)Whether you realized it or not, in most calendars, which may be divided into twelve or thirteen months, each month is represented by a star. A new month begins when that particular star reaches an angle of about 45 degrees above the horizon (90 degrees is straight up). The web site explains this angle as the tilt of your head "where one feels a roll of skin forming at the back of your neck." A fist is also a good way to measure star angles. An adult fist represents about 10 degrees. Stack one fist on top of the other for multiple tens of degrees.

Associated with each new star (translate: new month) are particular weather patterns. Months in which "fighting stars" appear might bring stormy weather. A fighting star is any star that makes its first appearance in the month (meaning the first time it is seen at all in the sky for that month) just at dawn. Single fighting stars apparently coincide with stormy weather at the end of the next new moon that sets in the west; double or more fighting stars "bring" stormy weather at the end of the moon's cycle for that month.

While this may first seem like hocus pocus, you should realize that the cycle of appearance of monthly and fighting stars coincide with bad or good weather months. The stars are used merely to let a navigator know which month he is in. If you think about weather patterns where you live and the kinds of weather you associate with certain months (in California, summer is dry, winter is wet, that kind of thing), then you get the idea. Just like the ancients, we associate certain climates with particular times of the year. The patterns of the stars and the moon were just their form of calendar.

As we proceed in our studies of oceanography, you might think about some other clues that wayfarers (traditional navigators) used to figure out where they were. The proximity of land might be recognized by the appearance of floating debris, the direction from which sea birds fly, the kinds of sea life, even the color of the water. What other clues might the ocean provide?

In my travels of the South Pacific aboard Calypso, the bluest water I ever encountered was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Tahiti and New Zealand. It was a kind of cobalt blue that practically hurt your eyes to look at it. We had stopped for a little swim and as we dove beneath the surface, a sudden shout came from the ship. I recognized rather quickly that the crew had spotted a shark. My colleague had just taken a deep dive and I remember thinking how grateful I was that he was below me because the shark would likely go for him first. (Okay, I admit it, I was scared sh$*less!). Fortunately, we all made it safely to the boat. Nonetheless, it provides a good example of how water color and the rapid response of hungry sharks indicates that you are in the middle of nowhere as far as the ocean is concerned. I wonder if the navigators were ever thrown overboard to determine position if the crew thought they were lost?

Finally, in keeping with this thematic approach to history, consider this question: how do the migratory achievements of Pacific Islanders relate to human desire for interstellar migration?

At least one author, Dr. Ben Finney, has mustered the courage to speculate on this question. He writes:

The exploration of the sea and the discovery and settlement of new lands is the phase of humanity's spread over earth that is most evocative of our future expansion into space. The Polynesian discovery and settlement of the far-flung islands of the mid-Pacific provides...for the adventure of exploring the unknown to establish colonies on worlds never before occupied or even visited [that] makes this oceanic migration relevant to the one about to unfold in space. Furthermore, the development of new technology was as crucial to expansion into the Pacific as it will be for settling space. Just as we are now striving to develop the means to spread human communities into space, so did the Polynesians disperse far and wide through an alien environment through developing large sailing canoes, precise methods of navigation, and a portable agricultural system to ensure survival on the fertile but biotically-impoverished islands they found. [see One Species, or a Million? by Dr. Ben Finney]

Perhaps we have more to learn from these ancient sailors than we even know.

Here are a few of the links (and one quote on primate-human parallels) I encountered while researching this subject.

Australian Aboriginal People, evidence for links to Egypt

Aborigines: The World's Oldest Inhabitants?

The Settlement of Polynesia: Part One

Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyysey from PBS

Polynesian Voyaging Society

Polynesian Cultural Center

Tonga Online, where the millenium starts

Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific: A Search for Pattern
Simply the best explanation of traditional navigation

The Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Pacific Islands Internet Resources

Maori Culture Net

Herb Kane's Home Page, da kine Hawaiian paintings

Unofficial Easter Island Home Page

Admiral Zheng's Fleet

zhengship.jpg (18429 bytes)Our history of oceanography would not be complete without reference to the contributions that the Chinese have made to ocean exploration. While not as well-known as some of their other scientific and technological contributions, the Chinese own the distinction of assembling the largest fleet to ever sail on the ocean.

Early Chinese maritime history is sketchy (or just not well known) but one of their first contributions was the invention of the magnetic compass. The first definitive reports that the Chinese were aware of magnetism date to 240 B.C. although some scholars have pointed out that houses built in the Shang dynasty (1766?-1123? B.C.) are aligned with magnetic north, indicating a possible earlier application of magnetism.

Here's a blurb from Time magazine's Most Important Events of the Millennium page:

IT WAS LITTLE MORE than a magnet floating in a bowl of water, but without the nautical compass the millennium's great voyages of discovery could never have occurred. First used in feng shui (the Taoist system of environmental design), compasses appeared in China in the 4th century B.C. Lodestone pointers were replaced by flat slivers of iron, and then by needles, which arrived in the 6th century A.D. But the first account of seagoing compasses doesn't come until 1117, from Zhu Yu's P'ingchow Table Talk: "In dark weather, sailors look at the south-pointing needle." The compass reached Europe around 1190, almost certainly from China. (Its powers were so little understood that captains forbade their crews to eat onions, which were thought to destroy magnetism.) For Mediterranean sailors, used to long periods when overcast skies made navigation difficult, the device meant liberation. By the 15th century, they were ready to venture be- yond familiar seas.

The most definitive reference to a compass appears to be a book by Shen Kua (A.D. 1030-94) who describes "rubbing a lodestone against a needle" and "floating it on water" which causes the needle to point south." His writings also indicate an awareness of magnetic deviation, the difference between the primary direction (south for the southern hemisphere, north for the northern hemisphere) and the true direction.

The first bona fide mention of a maritime compass used for navigation comes shortly after Kua's account in a book written near 1125 A.D. Although European writings indicate an awareness of the compass in 1190 (in a French poem), it really wasn't until the 15th century, some four hundred years later, that Europeans fully grasped all the principles of navigating by magnetic compass. These early compasses really involved nothing more than floating a magnetized needle in a bowl of water and getting a navigational fix, but it worked!

Chinese maritime activities appear to have gained their footing near the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Artifacts, particularly ceramics, and archaeological evidence, primarily shipwrecks, indicate the presence of strong maritime ties throughout Southeast Asia. A map of the Chinese coastal trade routes reveals extensive commerce up and down the eastern coast of China, extending as far north as Korean and Japan and south to Australia.

Shipbuilding in the southern Fujian province was well established by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.). The Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Wan Shengzi, created one of the greatest seaports of its time, the Gangtan seaport. Emperor Wan was noted for his open-door trade policies with foreign nations. His efforts to promote trade were considered his greatest achievement and a monument was built at the harbor to honor him.

Other great seaports, possibly established as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 A.D.), include the ports of Quanzhou, Ningbo and Fuzhou. Marco Polo described Quanzhou as:

"a great resort of ships and merchandise...for one spice ship that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere to pick up pepper for export to Christendom, Zaiton [as it was then known] is visited by a hundred. For you must know that it is one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise."

And the great traveler Ibn Abdullah lavishes praise for the quality of ceramics found in these ports:

"No big cities elsewhere in the world can match this one in the splendour of the markets. But the biggest of the markets is the ceramics shops. Merchants ship porcelain from the city to different provinces in China as well as to India and Yemen...The Chinese ship porcelain ware to India and other countries and to my homeland Morocco. These ceramics are indeed the best in the world." [see Chinese Maritime History at the Western Australian Maritime Museum]

But the real peak in Chinese maritime prowess is symbolized in the extraordinary tale of one man: Admiral Zheng He (pronounced jung huh).

During his 28 year naval career, Admiral Zheng visited 37 countries, traveled around the tip of Africa into the Atlantic Ocean and commanded a single fleet whose numbers surpassed the combined fleets of all Europe. Between 1405 and 1433, at least 317 ships and 37,000 men were under his command. The flagship of the fleet was a nine-masted vessel measuring 440 feet, nearly 1.5 times the length of a football fields. Traveling with him was Sanbao who created a set of 24 maps praised for their accuracy. Zheng's journeys also stimulated a number of important maritime inventions, including central rudders, watertight compartments and various new types of sails. Perhaps more importantly, his voyages demonstrated the power of the Chinese civilization and yielded many important liasons between China and other nations.

What makes Zheng's career even more remarkable is his rags-to-riches life story. Born as Ma He in 1371 to poor Muslim parents in Southwest China, he was captured as a young boy by the Chinese Army and castrated, as many prisoners of that time were so treated. Nonetheless, he dedicated himself to his studies, learning several languages and philosophy. At the age of ten, he was hired by a prince, who overthrew the emperor and rewarded Zheng He with command of the fleet.

Admiral Zheng died in 1433 at the age of 60 on a return voyage from Africa. While his achievements are little known in the West (who give perhaps undue praise to Christopher Columbus), there are at least six images of Admiral Zheng preserved in temples.

Soon after the Admiral's death, political changes in China diminished the importance of the Navy. It has not been the same since.

Modern Chinese efforts to improve their Navy and their oceanographic capability are beginning to show promise. Increasing interaction with scientists in the western world, particularly with regard to environmental issues in the South China Sea and the Yangtze River, should pave the way for a new era of maritime enthusiasm in the largest nation on Earth.

More detailed information on Chinese maritime history and the voyages of Admiral Zheng He can be found at the following web sites:

China's Gifts to the West, University of Pennsylvania

Western Australia Maritime Museum

Zheng He: The World's First Navigator

home>courses>college courses>esc130 home page>course syllabus>tales part 1