Dividing the Ocean Sea [*]

By Lewis, Martin W. | The Geographical Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Dividing the Ocean Sea [*]


Lewis, Martin W., The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. The conventional view of global hydrography, which maps three or four oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and, sometimes, Arctic) did not emerge until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Previously, markedly different conceptions of sea space prevailed, conceptions that changed not only to reflect new discoveries but also in accordance with changing intellectual fashions. By examining the history of global hydrography and by entertaining novel schemes of oceanic division, one can see the world afresh and perhaps discover connections that are obscured by conventional geographical divisions. Keywords: cartography, history of geographical thought, oceans.

Global geography operates under a widespread assumption of naturalism. The continents and oceans that constitute the most basic divisions of the world are generally regarded--to the extent that they are considered at all--as nonproblematic features of the natural world, features that have been discovered rather than delimited by convention. A quick glance at a globe, however, reveals that the continental distinction between Asia and Europe is not discernable by physical criteria; closer investigation reveals that the differentiation of North and South America, the insistence that Australia forms a continent and not an island, and even, to some extent, the separation of Asia and North America are as much intellectual constructs as they are given features of the natural world (Lewis and Wigen 1997).

The conventional nature of oceanic divisions is perhaps more obvious than that of continents, for the simple reason that all of the world's oceans, unlike all of the continents, are interconnected by broad passageways. Yet atlases, almanacs, encyclopedias, and other standard sources of geographical information invariably present an assuringly exact depiction of each ocean's areal extent. In Goode's World Atlas, for example, we are informed that the Pacific covers 63,800,000 square miles, as if it were an unambiguously bounded body that one could simply measure (Goode 1990, 250). Where the Pacific ends and the Indian or Atlantic Ocean begins--a far from obvious matter--is rarely addressed in such sources. Yet different geographical reference works evidently employ different boundaries, for they disagree profoundly about how large the Pacific actually is. The World Almanac's Pacific, at a precise-sounding 64,186,300 square miles (Famighetti 1997, 593), is almost 400,000 square miles larger than that of Goode's , and that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with marginal seas included, is more than 5 million square miles larger still (Mero 1989, 25: 125).

At one level, such ambiguity is of little account. Adding or subtracting a few million square miles from or to the Pacific is hardly a pressing matter. Most geographers would probably contend that such numbers are merely vague approximations anyway, reflecting somewhat arbitrary divisions of the boundless sea. And despite the discrepancy regarding the size of the Pacific, global agreement on maritime divisions is actually striking. The same oceans and seas, given the same names (albeit often in translation) and bounded, more or less, at the same places, are recognized across most of the globe. Political considerations occasionally intrude at the level of nomenclature: Koreans insist that the body of water to their east is the "Eastern Sea" and not the Sea of Japan, and Indonesians Sometimes refer to the body of water to their West as the "Indonesian Ocean" rather than the Indian Ocean. Such disputes, however, are rare; in general, local names have yielded to global conventions. The resulting global concord i n geographical naming and bounding is tremendously useful, for it facilitates the exchange of information and aids the nascent movement to provide some form of international, governance for the marine world.

But although it is useful to divide the seas into relatively well demarcated and internationally recognized units, such a maneuver is problematic to the extent that it disguises the conventional nature of their construction. …

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