Except for when I lived in Hawaii, I have spent most of my life within a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Like many folks, I take it for granted. My father did not; he spent several of his early years on ice patrol with the Coast Guard in the North Atlantic. Even in his later years he would often go down to the ocean to watch and listen to the surf.

Last year my sister gave me an autographed copy of the book Atlantic by Simon Winchester. A gifted writer and world traveler, Winchester captures the history of the Atlantic Ocean in one book. The reader learns about the Atlantic’s geological formation, explorers, scientists, entrepreneurs, merchants, poets, painters, and pollution.

Here are 10 things I learned from Winchester that intrigued me.

  1. The earliest known human settlement on the ocean is at Pinnacle Point on the tip of Cape Horn, South Africa. Archeologists believe this cave settlement is about 165,000 years old. Evidence has been found that these humans settled there because of the fish and mollusks they found in the Atlantic Ocean.
  2. Yes, the Vikings were the first known explorers who island-hopped their way across the North Atlantic and built the first verified North American settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland in 1000 AD.
  3. Waters flow into the Atlantic from such faraway places as the Alps, mountains in Zambia, and even from Triple Divide Peak in northern Montana. (The Gulf of Mexico is considered part of the Atlantic Ocean.)
  4. The Gulf Stream was first recognized by explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 and later used by ship captains to aid their travels. It was good old Ben Franklin in 1785 that first helped map the Gulf Stream in an effort to help British sea captains, who were taking two weeks longer than American captains to cross the Atlantic. American skippers had been using the Gulf Stream for years because surface speeds of the Stream were about five miles per hour. In keeping with British distain for America at the time, they ignored Franklin’s advice for years.
  5. How dangerous was it to be a fisherman? In the early 1800’s fishing ships would head out many miles off shore. Then fishermen would launch their small boats from the large ship and go miles away and wouldn’t return to the large ship until their boats were filled with fish. They would often get lost in the fog or swamped by surprise storms. The small village of Gloucester, Massachusetts alone lost 3,800 fishermen from 1830 to 1900.
  6. Impressionism was born in France in 1872 when Monet named this painting of Le Havre harbor Impression, soleil levant because it was just his impression “of sunrise” there.
  7. Mail shipments between England and America started in the 1680s. Firm schedules emerged in the late 1700s, especially under postmaster Ben Franklin. At that time it took between 35 and 40 days for mail to get to England and 50 days to come back (Winds in the North Atlantic blow mostly eastward toward England along with the Gulf Stream.) By the time steamships emerged in the mid 1800s the speed from America improved to 14 days.
  8. In the late 1850s, since telegraph wires had already connected parts of Canada with locations throughout the United States and the same in England, entrepreneurs working with the U.S. and British governments developed undersea cable. This is a fascinating story by itself that I won’t retell here, but a viable cable was finally laid that worked in 1866. Morse code messages could then be transmitted instantly.
  9. Cargo shipping has exploded over the years. The largest container ship today is the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller, which holds 18,000 containers and if these containers were lined up would extend from New York to Baltimore! On any given day there are about five million containers on all of the oceans and seas. And, depending on which sources you believe, between 2,000 and 10,000 containers fall into the waters every year. One ship off France recently lost 500. As you may have read, the planes and ships searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have discovered such containers floating like icebergs in the Indian Ocean. Imagine how much container trash sits on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean!
  10. Do you know how many planes fly over the Atlantic now? In 2006 there were 475,000 flights a year and that has now grown to over 500,000. This means there are about 1,400 flights a day. No worries, fortunately there is international cooperation on which “lanes” these flights use so as to avoid mid-air collisions.

Sadly, Winchester also teaches the reader about how mankind is slowly, but steadily, damaging the Atlantic. From years of dumping nuclear waste, ship and air pollution, and overfishing many fish to extinction, we’re slowly killing the hand that feeds us.

I will never take for granted the Atlantic Ocean again. How about you?