Michelle Elvy reviews Soundings for Landfall


Michelle Elvy has reviewed Kennedy Warne’s memoir, Soundings: Diving for stories in the beckoning sea, in Landfall

‘In this book, Kennedy Warne engages the reader with stories both above and below the surface, taking us through highlights from his experiences as a writer for National Geographic and New Zealand Geographic. These reminiscences move around the globe, from the middle of the Indian Ocean to the Agulhas Current; from the Philippines to the Gulf of Arabia to the Okavango Delta (his only freshwater assignment). And in Aotearoa New Zealand, from Fiordland to the Bay of Islands. 

He begins in the Bay of Islands, with his most memoir-like chapter. “A Life Aquatic” starts with him untethering a chain from a pōhutukawa root in Russell to set out in his dinghy with his 92-year-old father. They climb aboard Marline, their launch moored off the pebble beach. As they depart Warne scans the shore: “All this I have known from childhood, and most of it my father has known from his childhood. He was born here.” They fish and reminisce, and Warne mentions notable shoreline sites and historically significant changes. In this way, he situates New Zealand as the place where he connected to his specific locality and the world. Warne writes of being inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s imperative — “Il faut aller voir”: “One must go and see”. He takes us back to what he felt when he first put his head underwater in the Hauraki Gulf. 

Warne’s life has been a succession of first-hand looks at the world, and he has brought those into view for others through his articles. These chapters are filled with rich descriptions that can only come from close-up views and literal immersion. We follow him and his curiosity around the world as he explores its diversity, from giants to tiny creatures. We hear about the communal sharing of knowledge among sperm whales — notably possessing “the largest brain of any animal that has ever lived”; we also learn that “from their battering-ram heads they emit the loudest sounds ever recorded in nature”. We witness a male seahorse carrying eggs in its pouch. 

In fact, the small creatures often carry the largest impact (for him, for our world). Of the kelp forests near False Bay off Cape Town, he writes: “I finned through a jungle of sea bamboo, a type of kelp with trunks as thick as baseball bats, smooth as velvet and honey-coloured as varnished kauri.” And then, in the same underwater world: “Among the hottentots, red romans and other kelp forest fish I saw shysharks, their skin an elegant dapple of chocolate and fawn . . . I found a shyshark’s egg case, delightfully known as a mermaid’s purse, attached to a kept front. It was the colour and shape of a large ravioli.” He describes red bait as “fat maroon sea squirts the size of chimney pots and thick as an old boot” and tells us he came to think of them “as the wineskins of the sea—ancient, leathery bladders with spouts”. And in the Knysna Estuary near Cape Town — the “most important estuary in South Africa for biodiversity” — he writes:

I wasn’t expecting to find much in this world of silt and throwaways, but the place was a revelation. In the estuary’s sheltered waters, many organisms grow large and luxuriant. Sponges form fat cushions, road-paint yellow and soapy to the touch. Tubeworms in pastel shades of salmon and white make graceful sweeps of the water with their plankton-catching feather-duster crowns.’

Read the full review here.