Ten questions with Kennedy Warne


Q1: You are known for writing about a range of outdoors and environmental subjects. Why did you choose the sea for this book?

In 2000, after writing a story about the marine life of South Africa, I became one of National Geographic’s underwater writers — writers who would pair with the magazine’s underwater photographers to report on life beneath the waves. I did the same thing for New Zealand Geographic. This was fascinating and satisfying work, not least because it connected with a personal and family history of the sea: my years studying marine zoology for a Master of Science degree and my grandfather’s life as a swordfisherman and boat builder. I felt that drawing together these experiences and connections in a book would be a worthwhile contribution to the literature of the sea, and also allow me to reflect on issues facing the oceans.

Q2: What do you want people to take from your book?

I write not to inform or entertain — though of course I want my writing to add to a reader’s knowledge and be an enjoyable experience. I write primarily to create an encounter: to engage the reader with the subject, by which I mean that I hope the reader will feel drawn to the sea in their imagination and affection. I am conscious that many readers won’t have the opportunity to experience the underwater world for themselves. I want to provide an intimate portrayal that makes the undersea world visceral for them. That world ‘visceral’ means to have an inward feeling for something, not just an intellectual appreciation. That’s the response I’m hoping for.

Q3: Your travels in this book are very wide-ranging. Is there any place you would like to go back to?

I am often asked this question, and I usually reply, ‘All of them.’ The truth is that geographic writing is so immersive that you tend to leave a piece of your heart in all the places you travel. Or maybe I’m just an incurable romantic. Even now, two decades after travelling to South Africa, say, or the Magdalen Islands, or the Okavango Delta, I can readily bring to mind the sensations of being in these places, the thrill of wildlife encounter, the shared adventure with those who love the undersea world. Each place shimmers in memory and beckons me to return.

Q4: What can people do on a personal level to rebuild their relationship with our oceans?

I think of the Omani businessman who said to me that his people had ‘lost the thirst for the sea that can only be quenched by going to the sea.’ His words echo the Jacques Cousteau line I use at the start of the book: ‘Il faut aller voir.’ We must go and see. The important thing is going. We must go to the sea, even if that means only going on it or near it, and not going under. The sea has its own authority and agency, its own healing stimulus and awesome power. In all relationships, time spent in the presence of the other creates a bond of attachment. So it is with the sea.

Q5: There are some big problems with the ocean environment covered in your book, but also some hopeful messages. Was there a particular project or place where you felt things were improving/gave you hope/inspired you?

I have had the opportunity to write several times about marine reserves, and these are always an inspiration. I never came away from time spent with Bill Ballantine, the ‘father of marine reserves’ in New Zealand, without feeling energised and activated towards marine protection. I think of the Neureuter family, who own the Noises Islands in the Hauraki Gulf, who are working to create a marine reserve around these islands. Their custodianship is an example to emulate. One of the places I return to most often is Maunganui Bay, in the Bay of Islands, where I have seen with my own eyes the transformation of the reefs from barren places to flourishing ecosystems through the decision to ban fishing.

Q6: What has been your most magical underwater experience?

See question three above! But if I really had to choose one, it would probably be the encounter with the humpback whale off the coast of South Africa. To have that mighty animal surface directly beneath me, then rise out of the sea an arm’s length away makes me think of the Mary Oliver line: ‘What can my life bring me that could exceed that brief moment?’

Q7: What are your favourite dive spots in Aotearoa New Zealand?

For its rugged underwater topography, warm water and dizzying variety of marine life, the Poor Knights Islands is justifiably one of the most popular scuba destinations in the country. I first visited the Poor Knights before it became a no-take marine reserve, and it was spectacular then, but even more so now. For a one-of-a-kind underwater experience it’s hard to go past Fiordland. The prodigious rainfall creates a freshwater layer that floats on the sea, blocking sunlight and allowing normally deep-water species to inhabit depths that divers can reach. The place I spend most time snorkelling is around Whangamumu Harbour, south of Cape Brett. There is always something new to see. On a recent visit my partner and I spent 10 minutes watching a male eagle ray courting a female. The amorous encounter was happening directly beneath us in three metres of water.

Q8: You talk about having your identity shaped by the sea. Have you always felt that way, or has it been a more recent process?

It is something that has developed over the past couple of decades. I started thinking about landscape and identity through reading about the profound relational attachment of Aboriginal people to ‘country,’ the word in English that best seems to express the kinship they feel for the places they inhabit. When I first encountered the writing of Tongan scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa, there it was again: the identification of people with place, in this case the Pacific Ocean itself. ‘We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth,’ Hau‘ofa wrote, echoing the words of Whanganui iwi: ‘I am the river, the river is me.’ Who wouldn’t want to experience that kind of connection?

Q9: One of your chapters is entitled ‘An ethic for the sea.’ When did you start thinking about the ethical dimension of humanity’s relationship with the sea?

Ten years ago I was invited to take part in a research workshop hosted by the University of California Santa Barbara called ‘Sea Change,’ in which several environmental historians and marine researchers gathered on the island of Santa Cruz to discuss ideas of environmental and social justice in relation to the sea. We were trying to imagine what a ‘blue ethic’ might entail. I have been trying to extend that thinking ever since, but for me the starting point is always Aldo Leopold’s magnificent articulation of his ‘land ethic’: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ That’s as good a foundation for a sea ethic as you can hope for.

Q10: What are some of your favourite nautical books?

Pre-eminent would be Moby-Dick, which I didn’t read until relatively late in life, but which electrified me with the power of its narrative and the beauty of its descriptions. I used a line from Moby-Dick for the epigraph of Soundings because it expresses the loveliness I feel about the sea. I envy Melville’s ability to distil his experiences of the sea into dramatic, unforgettable text. John Steinbeck is another whose sea writing is timeless. I love The Log from the Sea of Cortez not just for its insights into the maritime world of the Gulf of California but for its philosophical ruminations and humour. The same could be said of Jonathan Raban’s books Coasting and Passage to Juneau, both memorable accounts of excellent adventures. But no book fires my fisherman’s imagination more than Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. How many times have I dreamed of being towed out to sea by a great fish, tethered by a line to a leviathan. The Old Man and the Sea is a novella, and even shorter works are among my favourite evocations of the sea. I’m thinking of the short stories of Patricia Grace, particularly one entitled ‘Fishing.’ That story gave me the idea that you could let a place know you; you could let the sea know you by your attentiveness to its presence. This was a strikingly new idea to me, one which I have tried to explore in Soundings.