Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

By Jonathan White

“‘It’s flooding,’ Lukasi, the elder, said.

It was a quiet beach, and to my eye there was no indication whether the tide was flooding or ebbing.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘Fuzz,’ he answered…

‘What fuzz?’

‘When the tide is flooding, it picks up dust and pollen and insect larvae from the beach that sits on top of the water like a blanket. It doesn’t happen when the tide is dropping.’”

In his Introduction, author Jonathan White relays this conversation that happened on a hunting excursion he took with an Inuit elder from the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, Canada.

Birds feeding at low tide

Tidal flats at Dungeness. Photo by Liz Johnson.

For those of us in Maine, Tides begins close to home: in the Bay of Fundy. Even if we haven’t been to Johnson’s Mills, a large tidal flat in Shepody Bay, New Brunswick, we can envision the miles of tidal mudflats. We even may have been caught by an outgoing tide and had to drag our kayaks through the same kind of oozing mud. This region, home of some of the world’s largest tides, provides a unique ecosystem ruled by the the ebb and flow of the sea: the endemic mud shrimp that live in the bay and some 700,000 semi-palmated sandpipers that land each August after flying 900 miles non-stop from the Arctic and are dependent on the mud shrimp as a food source. As the tidal cycle is crucial to the mud shrimps' life cycle, in turn it governs the migratory path of hundreds of thousands of sea birds.

White travels around the globe to places with tidal anomalies. From Le Mont Saint Michel in France, where the tide comes in at "the speed of galloping horses", to the tidal bore on China's Qiantang River, to watching maverick surfers ride some of the planet's biggest waves, White's stories are interspersed with local lore and scientific reference.

Le Mont St. Michel. Image by Gwenaële Moignic from Pixabay.

Tides is part science, part history, part mystery. From the earliest times, understanding tides and their relationship to the moon and sun has subsumed humankind. White's eloquent explanations carry us along, as if with the tide.

Whatever our understanding, we are likely facing a future of higher tides. The book concludes musing about rising global sea level:

“…many of us are watching the tide lap at our door, wondering how high it will get and how soon.”

Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, Jonathan White, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, 2017, 335 pages, photos and illustrations, $18.95, ISBN-13 978-1-59534-851-7 paperback.

Posted in Books and Writing, Environment.