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Book Reviews:
Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer

Book Reviews

Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer
by Kathleen Crane. Westview Press, 2003. ISBN 0 8133 4004 7, Hardcover, $27.50.

Meghan F. Cronin

As scientists, we learn to write in passive voice, to parse out subjectivity, defend ideas with citations, figures, and tables, and under no circumstance use the word “I.” It is no wonder that the popular media portrays scientists as myopic half-humans, devoid of common sense. Enter Kathy Crane and her autobiography Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Oceanographer, published in February. If you think Tibet is exotic, try pictures from places 2,500 meters below the ocean surface.

Crane’s life story takes the reader on exhilarating deep-sea Alvin dives, international expeditions in the Arctic, and the search for the Titanic. Her tales include battles between scientific empires at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and run-ins with the FBI and latter-day KGB. Here is a vibrant woman, an explorer, teacher and mother, who traverses between disparate worlds with an uncanny sense of balance.

A graduate of Scripps, Crane has done her share of refereed journal articles, proposals and a lion’s share of field work. A graduate student in Fred Spiess’ Deep-Tow group, Crane was one of the first to locate thermal signals of deep-sea vents. After a postdoctoral position at WHOI with Bob Ballard, she went to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and then took a teaching position at Hunter College in New York City. In 1980, her research shifted toward the Arctic, and in 1989 she joined the U.S. Navy’s Naval Research Laboratory. However, being a woman, she was not allowed onboard U.S. Navy submarines. Instead, with Office of Naval Research (ONR) and National Scientific Foundation funding, she collaborated with Swedish, Norwegian, Canadian, Russian, French and German scientists, whose countries all provided facilities for women on their Arctic fleets. While the book does not read like a feminist tract, the memoir clearly aims in part to question the rules that forced her to do research on foreign vessels.

Through accounts of her multifaceted career, Crane examines the variety of motivations for being a scientist. Exploration and challenge are certainly bread and butter for this woman who was short-listed as a space shuttle astronaut. However, the search for beauty and expression is also a strong driving force in her career. Although she made a brief turn towards the arts entering into film school, ultimately her need for financial stability brought her back to science. With a characteristic sense of balance (hence the title Sea Legs), she manages to combine her artistic and scientific pursuits — producing scientific documentary films, writing a memoir and searching for the pristine beauty of uncharted territory. And after the discoveries came the inevitable responsibility of stewardship. With funding from ONR and the World Wildlife Fund, Crane collaborated with Russian scientists and others to produce in 1999 the Arctic Environmental Atlas detailing heavy metal, organochlorine and radionuclide contamination in the Arctic and the sources of those contaminants. She is now program manager in the Arctic Research Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Besides describing Crane’s personal motivations for pursuing a science career, Sea Legs also illustrates the varied societal motivations for supporting science. Fieldwork is not cheap. Shiptime typically runs $20,000 to $50,000 per day. Why do taxpayers support these ventures? It is Crane’s premise that the Cold War provided the deep pockets for science and that Sputnik opened the door for young girls to study mathematics and science. The government called her generation out to action to defend the country against possible Russian technological superiority. As a result, adventurous women such as Crane were spurred into fields previously dominated by men. Societal fear is a powerful motivation for opening tax coffers. ONR’s primary purpose in funding oceanography was to hide submarines. Although much of ONR research is in the open literature, a sizable amount is classified. Crane also describes work funded by other deep pockets, including Hollywood (up the road from Scripps), foreign governments, an oil magnate who was interested in searching for both the Titanic and the “lost city” of Atlantis and nongovernmental organizations (such as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Geographic Society). Candid discussions from the trenches about the expectations and pressures that each of these funding sources place upon scientists are important for maintaining overall integrity and credibility in the sciences — and Crane supplies this.

Her book is a good read with many fun tales. My favorite is the story of sailing on the ice breaker YMER with the King of Sweden. “The Swedes had requested that I bring a ball gown, for dinner with the king, and the Norwegian team had requested that I bring my toughest winter boots, for days we would spend on the ice,” Crane writes. Descriptions of her first cruises are classic graduate student stories. How many of us have been in the pressure cooker with a crazy chief scientist? But in this case, the chief scientist in fact did have a mental breakdown and was met by an ambulance at the next port stop.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Jacques Cousteau inspired a generation of oceanographers. During the 1980s and 1990s, Bob Ballard captured the imagination of the world with his discovery of the Titanic, a discovery that was made in truth through the efforts of a large team of competitors and colleagues (including Crane). Ocean sciences will do well by having another colorful voice to articulate the wonders of the scientific world to the public that supports their endeavors.

Cronin is an oceanographer at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography. E-mail:

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