The Scuttlefish

Love the Ocean. Wish you were here.

Category: Literature

The Cocovore’s Fallacy. How a German Escapist’s Coconut Utopia Went to Hell in a Handbasket.


“Man, how noble in reason…” – Hamlet. Photo courtesy of Christian Kracht, author of Imperium.

Did you ever read the book The Beach? The story of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century German nudist and ideologist August Engelhardt reads like a heinously nightmarish, psilocybin-riddled version of Alex Garland’s novel.

In the late 19th century, in the wake of the popularly published works of Darwin and Thoreau, many German youths were looking to get back into nature, a movement known as Lebensreform (Life Reform).

Some actually did. Unfortunately, in 1902, Alex Garland’s prophecy was not yet at the disposal of the young Engelhardt, a nudist and proponent of Lebensreform left Europe for the South Pacific island of Kabakon (now Papua New Guinea) with a library of books and an even more simplified idealogical approach: He was going to live on nothing but coconuts.

Engelhardt’s theory was that coconuts–how god-like they sit atop their skyward perch, how infinite in faculty–were a magical substance of divine provenance bearing all the sustenance a man needs; and if apes live on raw fruit, why shouldn’t we?

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A Happy 180th Birthday to Mark Twain, And a Video Tribute to the Late, Great Pioneer of Western Surf Prose.

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Screenshot from the 1909 Edison film below.

Mark Twain was not merely the greatest American humorist, novelist and social critic to grace the globe; he may well have been western prose’s first surf writer, evidenced by his eloquent description of his failed attempt at ‘surf-bathing’ while visiting the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1872 (excerpt from Roughing It):

I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.

This Edison film of a later-years Mr. Clemens and (supposedly) his daughters Clara and Susy was taken in 1909 outside ‘Stormfield’, the American humorist, novelist and social critic’s home in Redding, Connecticut, one year before he passed. Notice Twain’s ever stern and steady delivery of some wry quip which makes his daughter chuckle wholesomely over tea on the patio:

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William Finnegan: Surf for Love, Not for Gold

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THE New England missionaries who began arriving in Hawaii in 1820 were horrified to find, as they sailed in, people surfing. “Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle,” wrote Hiram Bingham, the missionaries’ leader. This devastating display of half-nude “barbarism” — really, it was the ancient practice of he’e nalu, which was rich in traditional religious meaning — clearly had to be stamped out. Twenty-seven years later, with Hawaiian culture being destroyed by changes that the missionaries helped set in motion, Bingham wrote with satisfaction of the “decline and discontinuance of the surfboard.”

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Some Whales That Dodged Harpoons in the Days of Herman Melville Are Still Alive and Well Today

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It may be unlikely, but it’s quite possible that some of these mammoths crossed beneath the feet of American novelist Herman Melville while he was aboard a whaling ship in the 1840s, unwittingly researching his forthcoming tome.

Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are baleen whales that can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh just as much in tons. Their heads, over a third the size of its body, are built to smash through ice–up to a foot-and-a-half thick–on their way to the surface.

They’re also the longest-living mammals on earth (the oldest ever to be aged was 211), and a few who are still alive today were plying the Pacific around the same time Herman Melville was stumbling around the deck of a Yankee whaling ship and penning his classic tale of the elusive white whale.

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The Unlikely Harmony Between Killer Whales and Whalers in 19th Century Australia and Other Wonders of Cetacean-Human Relations, Explored in Two New Books


The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, 2014.

Killer whales are xenophobic dupes. Bottlenose dolphins are rapists. We’ve come to accept these highly intellectual social constructs in other mammals, but can we come to understand that if other mammalian societies have such organized complexities, that perhaps they have implications for humankind, too? These are the questions posed by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, authors of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, and Carl Safina in his latest book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell–two lifelong cetacean researchers–explores the very divergent cultural constructs of orca (killer whales–dolphins, actually) and sperm whales.

Read an excerpt from The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins below:

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Christie’s to Auction Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Medals on October 8th


Above: Shackleton’s Royal Geographic Society Silver Medal (1904) and a photo of the young, strapping explorer. Image: Christie’s South Kensington.

Throughout his brief life and career, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who, enchanted by literature but bored with school, left formal education behind to join the Merchant Marine at the age of 16.

He wouldn’t set sail on his first exploratory expedition until July of 1901, when he was selected to join Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition, the first British voyage into the Antarctic for 60 years.

Shackleton was sent home by Scott, with whom he was reported to have ill rapport (Scott only sighted that Shackleton was ill). Still, Shackleton wanted to continue his exploratory endeavors, and four years later set sail on what is generally accepted to be his most successful campaign, aboard the Nimrod.

Shackleton went on to earn over 40 medals and awards throughout his career, and on October 8th, 15 of them will be put up for auction by Christie’s in South Kensington, England.

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Last Man Off: Author and Shipwreck Survivor Matt Lewis Discusses Disaster, Survival and Regret in the Southern Ocean

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Above: Likely the last (recoverable) photo taken of the Sudur Havid. All of Mr. Lewis’ photos from the voyage lie beneath the South Atlantic, somewhere to the west-northwest of South Georgia Island.

In April of 1998, a 23-year-old marine biologist named Matt Lewis boarded the Sudur Havid, a commercial fishing vessel headed for the Southern Ocean in search of Patagonian toothfish (better known for its more common market name, “Chilean sea bass”). He was to be a scientific observer, documenting the vessel’s catch. It was his first job out of school.

The vessel was to spend several months at sea between the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, great conveyor belts of wind and current, named in reference to the almost constant 40-60-knot winds and 40-60-foot seas that occur within those southern latitudes. It was an adventurous gig – the kind of thing a young, freshly lettered bachelor is supposed to get himself into.

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“With my mum and sister in Somerset before the trip, 1997. I know: bad hair, dreadful beard, but I was young.” Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.

Two months into the excursion, the Sudur Havid was off South Georgia Island in a heavy storm, possibly overloaded, but continuing to fish, per usual, when the ship’s factory (where the fish are processed and frozen) began to take on water. The inboard pumps, which were used to drain the factory, became clogged, and stopped working. Slowly, the ship began to list, and the reality that she would have no chance of making port set in amongst the crew. South Georgia Island was 170 miles away–too far for helivac–and South Africa and South America were both well over 1,000 miles away.

Now it was a nightmare.

The ship, which Lewis, junior amongst the crew, had assumed was prepared for such an emergency, was carrying unserviced life rafts and no survival suits. The water over the rail was as good as freezing, about 32.5° fahrenheit (~0.25° celsius)–a temperature at which even a healthy human body can last no more than 45 minutes.

“When you’re in trouble, you pull together, fight together, try to laugh and keep your spirits up. But there’s only so much you can do when the water is so cold.”

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“I Blamed Joseph Conrad.” How Reading Joseph Conrad Lured a Harvard Professor to the High Seas


“Misery loves blame,” writes Harvard History professor Maya Jasanoff, for The New York Times, “so I blamed Joseph Conrad, whose fiction brought me here.” Image: Corbis Images

Literary works about the sea can’t help but conjure romanticism in their readers, and other significant realities–terror, for one, but seasickness and sheer boredom, especially, are all very real parts of the equation as well. You’d like to think there’s always something happening aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean–and there is–but most often it is a cyclical list of mind-numbingly monotonous tasks you’d encounter keeping house, too, like scrubbing decks (that’s floors, landlubbers) and washing dishes.

Such was the case for Professor Jasanoff, who first set out to retrace a historical trade route aboard a bunker-oil-chugging containership, but that included “the comforts of a queen-size bed, round-the-clock hot water and a mass of steel as big as the Empire State Building between me and the sick-making swell.” Reading deeper into Conrad, she felt she’d missed the point. She would have to go by sail.

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