Soundings reviewed on Kete


Gem Wilder has reviewed Kennedy Warne’s memoir, Soundings: Diving for stories in the beckoning sea, on Kete:

‘That feeling you get when you read the most transporting and enlightening National Geographic article and immediately want to share it with everyone you come across is the exact feeling I had as I finished each of the essays in Soundings: Diving for stories in the beckoning sea. This collection is a gift to those of us who love the sea and feel it’s call, whether experienced divers and sailors like Warne himself, or those like me who hover at the shoreline in wonder.

This collection goes beyond the foreshore to distant waters, providing the opportunity to glimpse below the surface and see what Warne sees as he dives in places many can only dream of.  While many of us have an unexplainable adoration of the sea, not many of us have the opportunity or the desire to dive in ‘very cold, very rough shark-infested waters.’ Warne has had that opportunity and jumped at the chance.

His work as a founding editor of New Zealand Geographic and as an “underwater writer” for National Geographic has seen him diving in such places as the coasts of South Africa, in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Oman, Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the icy Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada, the Philippines, Tuvalu and more. His upbringing among a family of Marlin fishermen and boat-builders has given him an innate and confident knowledge of and respect for the sea and all its inhabitants, while his education, a Master of Science degree in Marine Zoology, means he has the scientific knowledge to understand the hows and whys of animals’ actions and needs.

Yet this collection isn’t purely science writing. It is interdisciplinary in the best way. At no stage does Warne ever view a scene or circumstance in a bubble. He always has his eye on the bigger picture. When writing about the controversial practice of hunting harp seal pups in St Lawrence, Warne zooms out to discuss the historical and economic impacts and manages to include climate change, animal rights, indigenous traditions and to land in a place without judgement.

‘Where I came to with the harp seal story was the thought that it is possible to balance needs and interests in the sea – seal welfare, island economy, cultural tradition. Never easy, but possible.’

The facts as he has seen and learned them are laid out for the reader to decide what they believe is right or not. The same balance of humanity’s place in a changing world is described when Warne writes of whale shark tourism in the Philippines. He calmly lays out the arguments for and against, backed up by scientific studies, and leaves the reader to ponder the issue.

This isn’t to say that Soundings lacks romanticism or emotion. These are present right from the first essay, where Warne speaks of his grandfather Marlin fishing with American novelist Zane Grey and recounts an idyllic childhood spent on the water. One can forgive moments of awe and grandeur in the essays because what is nature if not a place of absolute wonder and magic?

But Warne has no need for exaggeration when the sea provides so many moments of enchantment. It is this enchantment, this pull to the natural world and desire for connection within it, that Warne wants the reader to come away with.

Some of the best and most deeply interesting parts of these essays are when Warne delves into philosophical thoughts on culture and indigeneity. It is no surprise that someone who has spent decades travelling the world, engaging with the earth and its peoples and studying the relationships and traditions between different cultures and the lands they inhabit, would have developed such ideas about humankind. A fan of Pacific Scholar Epeli Hau’ofa, Warne recognises that a genuine and reciprocal relationship with land and sea, and a respect for nature, is the only way forward. In one of the closing essays of the book he writes:

‘The longer I spend in and on the ocean, the more the boundary blurs between land and sea, fish and birds, water and air.’