Author Susan Casey shares tall tales from her book on big waves at Birch Aquarium
By Pat Sherman
Bestselling author Susan Casey enthralled a sold-out crowd at the Birch Aquarium on Nov. 17, recounting years of harrowing research that went into her new book, “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.”
Casey, who has written for Esquire and Sports Illustrated, and is current editor-in-chief of O, The Oprah Magazine, followed American big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and others to some of the planet’s most treacherous surfing destinations, from the deceivingly deadly Teahupo’o, off the coast of Tahiti, to Ghost Tree, at Pebble Beach.
“What is more beautiful and more terrifying than the most extreme parts of the ocean?” said Casey, who also authored 2005’s “The Devil’s Teeth,” in which she explores the habits of great white sharks. “We seem to think that we control nature, and I think this is kind of nature setting us straight.”
Out of all the waves she studied at close range, Casey said her favorite is “Jaws,” a deep-water reef break off the coast of Maui, where waves are said to reach heights of 120 feet.
“To me what’s extremely interesting are the people who are willing to take that kind of risk out of sheer obsession and passion,” Casey said. “I found that all the waves kind of have personalities and were as much characters as the people that I was writing about.”
Before writing her book, Casey pored through 400 years worth of shipping logs at British insurer Lloyd’s of London to gain insight into the mystery of the world’s disappearing tankers.
“These very large ships were being taken out at an astonishing clip by what they perceived to be really extreme and abnormal rogue waves,” she said. “They were getting taken out so fast that they weren’t even sending mayday calls.”
However, not all the disappearances could be attributed to waves, Casey discovered. “My favorite story was a Greek ship that went down because it was carrying 2,000 sheep. The sheep got restless and all went to one side of the ship and capsized it.”
Casey’s research actually began in La Jolla, where she first interviewed Scripps’ professor of Oceanography, Dr. Ken Melville.
“It is really fitting for me to be at Scripps, because this is where I basically started this book in 2006,” she said. (Scripps Institution of Oceanography operates the Coastal Data and Information Program, an advanced system that monitors wave activity around the country.)
Though Casey found unanimity rare among the scientists she interviewed, one constant she discovered was their heightened concern for climate change and its effect on the ocean.
“The most surprising thing I learned was how much climate change is affecting waves, and the likelihood that we’re heading for a stormier future,” Casey said. “We see the oceans rising; we see that there’s more energy in the system, more restless water.
“I don’t hope that people read my book and come away scared of the ocean,” she said, “but I do feel as though we have to live in a way that we become more creative, more harmonious and more humble with the ocean.”
Birch Aquarium member Sue Heleniak, who read the book in advance, said she felt Casey made a strong connection with the big-wave surfers profiled in her book.
“She was very honest in her portrayal of these guys,” Heleniak said. “When they had a bad day, they had a bad day, just like any other human being.”
For information about upcoming book readings and lectures at Birch Aquarium, visit aquarium.ucsd.edu or call (858) 534-3474.
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