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The Sea's Enthrall: Memoirs of an Oceanographer


A memoir of the life of an oceanographer beginning with the author's childhood memories of the sea, following through a diverse education, research appointments and the award of the Japan Prize.
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A memoir of the life of an oceanographer beginning with the author's childhood memories of the sea, following through a diverse education, research appointments and the award of the Japan Prize.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781425114138
  • Publisher: Trafford Publishing
  • Publication date: 1/24/2007
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.49 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr. Parsons is an internationally acclaimed oceanographer and recipient of the prestigious Japan Prize (second only to the Nobel). In the Spring of 2005 he was honoured again with the inauguration of the Timothy R. Parsons Medal for Oceanography.

His life's work has been an attempt to link the various disciplines of oceanography together to provide a holistic view of how the oceans work. His textbooks remain some of the leading resources for trainee oceanographers.

This book of memoirs, however, offers a more gentle introduction to Dr. Parsons' world, leading the reader through the dreams of childhood in the latter days of Empire and war-torn England, the awkwardness of young adulthood in the New World, and the continued aspirations of the later years researching in the Orient. It has something for everyone, not just oceanographers, and provides inspiration to others who love this planet!
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The Sea's Enthrall

Memoirs of an Oceanographer
By Tim Parsons

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2006 Timothy Parsons
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4251-1413-8

Chapter One

The Beginning: Life in Ceylon

An old woman squatted beside her bowls of peppers and onions, spread out on the pavement. The strong, spicy smells of the meal she was cooking on her tin can stove wafted upwards into the noonday heat. Mangy dogs sniffed around the curbs, searching for scraps in the litter and dirt. A naked child played in the puddles left by the last night's rain, his brown skin glistening as he splashed himself and shouted with laughter. Bright red flowers in overhanging trees added their brilliant splashes of color to the patterns of clothing. The crowds crisscrossed the chaotic traffic, ignoring the whistles of agitated policemen. This was Colombo, Ceylon, where I was to spend the first few years of my life, a far cry from the northern countries where I would grow and find my way to a life focused on the sea.

All Saints' Day, November 1, was not a festival in Ceylon, "the teardrop of India," but for my parents in 1932, my birth in the Fraser Nursing Home, Colombo, was a modest cause for celebration. That same year, President Roosevelt was voted Man of the Year by the American people, and Joseph Stalin allowed ten million Ukrainians to starve to death through his policy of farm collectivization. The Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, and a famous musician, John Philip Sousa, whose marching music I was to play later in school, died. Another famous musician, Glen Gould, was born in Canada.

My parents were British, and I had arrived in a colonial empire on which it was said that the sun never set. Within ten years, all that would change, as the forces of Japan swept down the entire coast of Pacific Asia in an unparalleled challenge to western colonialism The winds of change were starting to blow around the world, and as I spread my first wings, I would soon be caught up in both domestic and national events over which I had no personal control.

My first home, however, was this tropical island of less than 26,000 square miles. During its long history, it had been subject to almost continual invasions from various kings of southern India. The Arabs traded with the Singhalese in spices, particularly cinnamon, but their trade was interrupted by the arrival of the Portuguese, in 1505. In 1665, their place was taken, in turn, by the Dutch, who did much to develop a western infrastructure in the country, as well as establishing some law and order in the coastal regions; in the interior, the ruling monarch, known as the King of Kandy, remained supreme. The Dutch surrendered to the British in 1796, and the country was more or less unified under British rule until 1948, when Ceylon was granted independence under a democratic form of government.

The world that I entered was one of a ruling elite who engaged in cricket, horse racing, parties, and commerce, particularly the tea trade, which had supplanted spices in importance. The people of Ceylon were peaceful Buddhists, with some Hindus in the north. One of my earliest memories was the festival of Buddha's Tooth, which was said to have been plucked from the ashes of Lord Buddha's cremation, in 583 BC, by an attending monk. The festival was celebrated as an annual event and I well remember the many colorfully adorned elephants in the parade.

Another personal memory I have of those early days was Mother's explicit instruction regarding playing on the beach: "Timothy, if ever you see the tide go a long way out, you are to run immediately to higher ground."

Normally, the tides are very small in Ceylon, since it is close to the equator. I would probably have forgotten these instructions if it had not been that we moved to Cornwall, England, a few years later. There are very big tides on the Cornish coast and if anyone so much as mentioned that the tide was going out, I disappeared up the cliffs. It became a bit of a family joke but the interesting question is - what was the origin of my mother's instruction? The coastal areas of Ceylon were damaged by the tidal waves (tsunamis) spawned by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. In 1935, this was still well within the living memory of persons in Ceylon and must have been an occasional topic of conversation and concern for young mothers.

We lived first in a small bungalow, which is now the Cricket Club Restaurant, on a quiet street lined with palm trees. Here, I was to stay for four years with my parents and my older brother, Christopher, born in 1929. My father, Ernest Gordon Courtier Parsons, was a chartered accountant working for Ford, Rhodes, and Thornton. He was a tall man, and I would watch him as he left for work each morning, wearing his topee hat and cool white clothing, stark and crisp in the glare of the tropical sun. He and Mother, whom he had married in 1928, were part of the very British social scene and belonged to clubs, such as Prince's. We would go there sometimes and watch him win a skittles tournament. My mother, a trim, good-looking woman with an English rose complexion, would wear a cool, flowing dress, with a shawl and a wide brimmed hat for protection from the sun as she sat in a wicker chair, sipping a gin and tonic brought by club servants.

Our house, too, was full of servants, which was customary for the British "raj" who found the heat of Colombo, at 5°N of the equator, unconducive to housework. We had a gardener, an ayah (or nanny), a cook, a houseboy, and a chauffeur. My most memorable contacts were with the ayah and the chauffeur. The ayah was in charge of both my brother and me for most of the day. There may have been more than one ayah during my four years in Ceylon, but the one that I remember was the one who pinched—it was her form of controlling small boys, and much more discrete than a slap on the bottom. She wore white and blue saris and had bangles on her arms. When she was angry and about to pinch me, the bangles would clatter, a sound that I have continued to associate with discomfort.

The chauffeur was a small Singhalese man with a large family. He was always immaculately dressed, and his job seemed to give him status among the other servants. He was forever either polishing or driving our car, which was a Clyno.

Clynos were made in England, and in the 1930s the company was the third largest car manufacturer after Austin and Morris. As a small boy, I particularly remember this car because it had two horns; one was electrical and the other was a large rubber bulb attached to a trumpet. The chauffeur would sound both of them as we drove down the road, and the bullock carts would scatter in every direction. It gave me an infantile feeling of power to ride in Father's car! The front windshield was louvered and opened outwards, allowing a breeze to flow through to the passengers, which was pleasant in spite of the dust.

My father did not drive the car because he had had one leg amputated some years before, following a traffic accident between his motorbike and a bullock cart. This amputation would eventually lead to his death, when his artificial limb caused an abrasion of his leg and he developed blood poisoning. One shot of penicillin would probably have saved him, but that was still to be discovered. He succumbed to septicemia in December of 1935, and so I have no memories of him, save for those I mentioned earlier. When my father died, a storm cloud gathered over us.

Mother was destitute; what could she sell to raise a little money? My father had not accumulated any significant financial reserves for his young family. There were now three of us to feed, clothe, and return to England. Suddenly, we were much like refugees, having to leave everything we had behind. Mother often told me later that she did not cry as they lowered Father into the ground at the Anglican cemetery in Colombo—she said that it would have been a sign of weakness. So I came to admire her strength, of which she would need a lot more in the months ahead. Later in life, when I lost two of my own children, I had no such strength of character.

At the funeral, a Mr. and Mrs. Grieg, whom my mother knew only slightly, invited us to spend a weekend with them. They had a mountain retreat some sixty miles from Colombo, at Nueara Eliya. My mother thought that it was very kind of these brief acquaintances to make such an offer. She was suffering from deep depression after the sadness of the funeral and the realization of the bleak prospect of her penniless state. For these generous people to step forward seemed nothing less than a signal from her guardian angel that she was not forgotten.

The next day, we all bundled into the Griegs' car and headed into the country for a couple of days. The road to the mountains passed through the slums of Colombo, rice paddies, and rubber plantations, until the car started to climb into the cooler climate of the mountains. Then, like a new life, the road opened up into gorgeous shades of jungle-green, interspersed with purple and white bougainvillea blossoms, and the occasional colorful flash of a tropical bird. I remember being unhappy that night at the Griegs' house, more, I think, from the strange surroundings than from grief, as I really did not understand that Father was no longer around. This was nothing, however, to the shock that my mother was to receive on our departure the following day. Mrs. Grieg came into the bedroom and gave my mother a note.

"Here is your bill for your two nights' stay," she said. "We would like you to settle it before leaving."

Of course, I was not party to this request, or how Mother dealt with it at the time. When she told me about it later, I could understand the bewilderment and hurt that she had felt, being treated so cruelly by people she had thought of as angels.

During the next month, Mother sold the furniture, the car, and everything else she could dispose of, in order to buy three of the least expensive berths on the next Bibby Liner destined for England. She received no help from her husband's family, and this neglect of my mother and the two of us was to continue for the rest of our lives in England. Why should our paternal grandparents be saddled with the possible expense of bringing up two of their son's children? They showed no interest in us, nor did my father's two brothers. My paternal grandmother did write a letter to my mother saying she was sorry the way things had turned out, but it was of no financial assistance to have only her sympathy.

This was the stiff-upper-lip culture into which I was born; a nightmare legacy from the Victorian era so aptly described by Charles Dickens. No help for the poor. It was our bad luck, of course, and the welfare state was a few decades away. Our only recourse was to go back to my mother's father, the Reverend Frank Hawker Kingdon, who was living in a vicarage in Bridgerule, Devon, England. On January 8, 1936, our destination lay across the Arabian Sea, Suez, the Mediterranean, the Bay of Biscay, to Plymouth, England.

I have few recollections of the voyage home, except for the gully-gully man in Port Said. This Egyptian conjurer came on board in his flowing white robes and entertained us on deck. He produced a variety of animals from his clothes, from inside my shirt, and from all sorts of other impossible places. I remember laughing a lot at his superb acts, which others still practice on passengers in the Suez Canal, today.

We arrived in Plymouth about three weeks after leaving Ceylon and followed what seemed like a multitude of passengers who were put ashore in a tender, there being no docks for large liners in that port. Grandfather met the boat in his little brown Austin 7, which spluttered and backfired for fifty miles at a top speed of 30mph, as we traveled across Devon to the village of Bridgerule, which lay on the border between Devon and Cornwall. This was the first time I had met my maternal grandfather. I remember his dark suit and clerical collar. He greeted us with a big smile and gave us all a hug; this I remember particularly because of his prickly chin, where, earlier in the day, he had missed a line of stubble with his open razor.

Bridgerule was where my brother and I were to spend some of our boyhood years, in a family that included our grandfather as an important influence on our lives. My mother never married again. She told me that all she really had to live for now was the bringing up of her two boys. I am sure that my whole life would have been different with a stepfather, and I am actually very grateful to my mother for her decision.

Chapter Two

As a Boy in England

Ah! happy years! once more who would not be a boy? (Lord Byron [1788-1824] "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage")

Grandfather was a small, energetic man, who provided most of his own food out of his vicarage vegetable garden. He spent a lot of his time walking around his parish, visiting the elderly and confined. The parish was the village of Bridgerule and the church was St. Bridget's. It was a mixture of Saxon and Norman architecture and it had a fine tower, used in olden days as a community defense for villagers when attacked by marauding Vikings. The people of his parish were, at one time, either Saxon or Celtic. My grandfather's name in Celtic, cyning + don, meant "king of a low hill," or "chief of the hillock." The Kingdon family can be traced back to at least 1475, when Roger Kingdon was buried at St. Hugh's Church in Quethiock, Cornwall, where there is a large brass plaque attesting to him and his family. Through many generations, the Kingdon family had always supplied a large number of clergymen to the Church of England. Grandfather's father and two of his brothers were also priests in the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Anglican communion.

Anglo-Catholics originated about thirty years before my grandfather was born, in 1860. They represented a new affirmation of Anglicanism, which became known as the Oxford Movement because it was started by some clergymen at Oxford University. It was primarily the work of John Henry Newman, who wanted to see a revival of certain Roman Catholic doctrines within the Anglican Church, as a way of revitalizing this Protestant religion. In particular, John Henry taught the apostolic succession and the integrity of the prayer book. The "apostolic succession" meant that since the time of St. Peter, only those persons ordained by the apostles and their successors had a right to teach the scriptures. This, naturally, heightened tensions amongst the Evangelists (e.g. Methodists, Baptists, and Wesleyians), who then became known, in Oxford Movement terminology, as "dissenters." Oxford Movement churches were not without their antagonists. Grandfather was always on guard against a group called Kensitites, founded by John Kensit (1853-1902). This group believed in a more personal interpretation of Christianity and were known to damage the interior of ritualistic churches. Several times, as Vicar of St. Bridget's, my grandfather would say, "I heard in the village that the Kensitites were around. I must go up and see that the church doors are locked."

Grandfather started his professional life as a teataster in London, but became involved in the Oxford Movement when his father found enough money to educate him as a clergyman. He saw Anglicanism as a compromise between Catholicism and Evangelicalism. Roman Catholicism itself was not acceptable to him because the Oxford Movement did not believe in the infallibility of the Pope. However, he strongly supported the beautification of churches, vestments, incense, and the many other rituals of the Catholic Church. A Public Worship Regulation Act, in 1874, aimed at putting down "ritualism" in the Anglican Church, was ignored by my grandfather and others of his persuasion. Within the Anglican Church, this resulted in a division into what became known as the "high" and "low" church Anglicans, but the Oxford Movement was not only concerned with ritual; its members were also concerned with everyday problems of living. This was shown in their founding of the Christian Social Union, in 1889.


Excerpted from The Sea's Enthrall by Tim Parsons Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Parsons. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


I. The Beginning: Life in Ceylon Early childhood–death of Father–leaving Ceylon....................3
II. As a Boy in England Growing up in Devon–my Anglo-Catholic grandfather– prepschool....................9
III. Boarding School Years Attending Christ's Hospital–learning to learn–the War in England....................27
IV. Canada: The University Student Years Emigration–farm life in Ontario–academicstudies–agriculture and medicine....................42
V. Learning to Swim Going to sea in an oceanographic vessel–analysis of seawater–mesocosms....................58
VI. Sailing in International Waters Working for UNESCO, Paris–travels in India and Africa–other scientists....................66
VII. Captain of My Own Boat Trans-Pacific studies of the ocean–salmon enhancement on a lake....................79
VIII. Free to Chart an Independent Course....................98
1. Getting things shipshape Transferring to university research–writing a textbook....................98
2. Saving the oceans Research on ocean pollution–studies in China–Aswan dam....................103
3. Sailing against the current Fisheries research–the difficulties of making academic change....................118
4. How to train a new crew Working with graduate students....................134
5. Helping others to navigate More textbooks–environmental consulting–Chile–England....................138
6. The Northwest Passage Oceanographic studies in the Arctic Ocean....................153
7. Gumboot oceanography Estuarine and intertidal studies on our coast....................159
IX. Life in Home Port Family life–role of religion....................164
X. The Japan Prize....................175
1. The origin of the Prize Establishment of the Japan Prize, in 1982....................175
2. The award Purpose of the award....................177
3. The personal side of our visit to Japan Award ceremony and a visit to Kyoto....................179
XI. A Refit for the Future Early retirement and the next 30-year plan....................185
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