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Malibu native Jonathan White shares knowledge of tides

Malibu native Jonathan White, author of “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” is pictured surfing a wave in Indonesia. Photo Submitted
Barbara Burke, Freelance Reporter
7:45 am PDT May 23, 2017

“In a strange way, I feel like a salmon swimming upstream to reach its birthplace,” said Jonathan White, author of “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” as he shared tales of his worldwide adventures with the audience at the Malibu Library Speaker Series event on Wednesday, May 17. 

White’s insatiable curiosity about how tides work, how they vary, their uncontrollable powers, and why they are so dynamic began during his Malibu childhood. 

“I grew up in Malibu in Cross Creek Canyon and watched the cars go down Pacific Coast Highway in the Summer of Love in 1967. I learned how to surf at the Pier and I learned to sail,” he said. “I think I could make my way to Malibu blind, sensing the hot air, the moist air and the special light here. It is good to be home where I was born.” 

White’s curiosity has since taken him all around the world. 

He has spent time in Panama with the Kuna Yala Indians, who believe that tides relate to spiritual visitors from another dimension who are checking on their islands. He hunted under feet of ice for blue mussels during low tide with an Inuit elder in the Artic. His travels have sent him to China’s Qiantang River, home to the world’s largest tidal bore, to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, to Venice where efforts are made to build gates to protect against strong tides, and to the coast of British Columbia, where he now lives.    

For years, White has sailed the Inside Passage between Puget Sound and southeast Alaska. In the 1990s, he captained a 1930s halibut schooner, Crusader, and ran a nonprofit which featured speakers from all walks of life discussing topics related to the oceans and tides, and music, literature and art relating to oceans. 

White was always well aware of – and always curious about - the whitewater extremes caused by tidal activity. However, it was after he, his crew and customers on his schooner were stranded by a 14-foot tide on a mud flat near Sitka, Alaska, that he developed an urge to find out more about how tides work and how they vary across the world. 

“I thought I’d find my answer in a book or two,” he said, “but the more I read, the more complex and mysterious and poetic the subject became. I set out to follow the tides around the world, taking some element of tides and going to where each of those elements was strongest. I was interested in both the scientific and cultural aspects of tides.” 

White noted that for 99 percent of history, mankind had no idea of how tides work. Much still remains a mystery. He started at the beginning, discussing mankind’s first efforts to understand tides. As ancient cultures developed, man wondered about the moon’s force on tides. White noted that the first tide chart was in approximately 1,000 A.D. and is etched in stone. “That was 200 years before the London Bridge,” he noted. 

His book – a wonderful weaving of folk lore and myths, science, and explanations of experiences that he and others have had, notes “Tides are not mentioned in the Bible, but Moses was likely well-armed with local knowledge when he led the Children of Israel out of Egypt in the fifteenth century BCE. Having grown up near the Red Sea ... he would have been aware of the 14-day cycles of spring and neap tides. He would have known that during the lowest spring tides, a sandy shoal was exposed that stretched all the way across the Red Sea.”  

Moses knew that.  

Pharaoh did not. 

Moses most likely planned the great exodus to coincide perfectly with one of these low spring tides, knowing those he led could make it across, but Pharaoh’s chariots could not, White noted. 

White’s book notes that in the same century, Leonardo da Vinci was convinced that tides were caused by the breathing of a large creature, and he set out to calculate the size of its lungs. 

“Two hundred years after Leonardo, Isaac Newton found the greatest lungs of all — if there was to be only one pair — in the body of the moon,” the book states.

That rhythm of tides can be somewhat analogized to musical rhythms, White said.  

“The basins of the oceans are variant and how they resonate – how they react to the vibrations and forces of the tides – varies with each basin and even within basins,” White explained. “There are relationships between the sun, moon, even with winds and they all can affect tides.”

One of the basins White has spent time studying is the Bay of Fundy, which he said is “a highly resonant basin, as compared with the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico where tides are low.” 

“But it is much more complicated,” White explained. “The ocean basins on Earth are all different in sizes, shapes, and respond to different forces such as gravity. The shape of a basin and even the salinity of the water within can affect the tides. 

“Tides don’t have a beginning or an end. There are so many anomalies relating to tides that ‘anomalies’ is almost an oxymoron in this context. We do know that the Pacific – the largest basin by far – resonates highly with the sun in addition to resonating with the moon. Whereas, the Atlantic resonates with the moon more and is a very different system than the Pacific.”

White’s book provides a thorough explanation of how tides have affected cultures throughout time. It also shows how little we know, and what we need to learn.

“This was fascinating and included lots of wandering and pondering,” event attendee Stacy Leib said. “The resonance concept and the gravitational relationships were well explained.”