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February 2012 Issue
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Cook’s Classroom

The entrance to Milford Sound looking much like it would have when Cook sailed past. Photo: Mark Banham
The outdoors makes the best classroom, just ask Captain James Cook

Most people know Captain James Cook as the historically significant navigator, explorer and the man who, for better or worse, brought New Zealand under the wing of the British Empire. But as a sixteen-year-old, he was a bored kid working in a small-town shop, dreamily staring out the window towards the sea, wishing for adventure.

The story goes that after just over a year behind the till, he cracked and took up an apprenticeship aboard a local trading ship, delivering coal up and down the east coast of England. It wasn’t exactly glamorous, but it was a start.

In the 18th century, going to sea gave you a steady job, an education – and a chance to progress upward through Britain’s notoriously rigid class structure. In those days the sea was seen as a measuring stick by which young men were judged – if you could keep your head above water, so to speak, then you were obviously made of the right stuff.

But the question is: was going to sea just a test; a way of sorting the potential nobility from the riff-raff, or did a few years bobbing around on the briny actually help to create people like Cook? Was the outdoor environment in which he served his apprenticeship, in fact, the perfect venue to turn an enquiring and adventurous young mind into a great thinker?

The ocean just seems to have an innate way of piquing people’s natural curiosity. Anyone who’s spent a bit of time around the sea will have noticed patterns emerging from what, at first glance, appears to be chaos – and the more you learn the more patterns you notice.

It’s almost impossible not to notice that the individual waves are fairly evenly spaced and that the sets of large waves also come in regular intervals. If you’re a little curious you’ll follow up those observations with some reading and learn, among other things, that wave heights come in a roughly bell-shaped distribution with most around the average – but some ‘outliers’ which are much bigger or smaller. So on a day with a one-metre swell running you will definitely get two-metre waves, just only once every thousand waves or so.

Likewise anyone who’s dragged a heavily loaded kayak above the waterline will have noticed the tides rising and falling about twice a day – typically being furthest out when it’s time to drag the boat back into the water (whatever time of day that may happen to be), and reaching its highest point (just above where you left a crucial piece of gear). Again, if you do a little research, you’ll learn that the tides follow the lunar cycle and that they run in and out at a somewhat predictable rate gaining or loosing about a twelfth of their height in the first hour, two twelfths in the second hour, three twelfths in the third and fourth, then two in the fifth and one in the sixth before repeating in the opposite direction.

This cycle of observation, contemplation, research and experimentation that seems like the natural outcome of spending time around the ocean is more or less what’s known as ‘the scientific method’. It’s something that as a teenager, my science teacher drilled into my reluctant cranium through chalk, talk and threat of detention while I stared wistfully out the window at the right-handers peeling off the local point break.

Today there’s a growing body of research that suggests the ‘distraction’ of going and playing in the ocean may well have been as important – if not more so – than his lessons (I think I may have suggested an idea along those lines to him at the time… and as I recall it did land me in detention).

Researchers have discovered that exposure to natural environments improve children’s learning by increasing their awareness, reasoning and observational skills. Other studies have demonstrated that kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature. Still more have found that playing outdoors fosters language and collaborative skills. It appears that the scientific consensus is that classrooms and manufactured playgrounds are not the educational utopia we once thought.

Back in Cook’s day, learning, adventure and the sea went hand in hand – and not just during his apprenticeship. Cook’s first voyage was to observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun, his second was to learn what lay within the blank spot on the map known only as terra australis incognita (the unknown land to the south) and his third, final and fatal voyage was a search for the Northwest Passage.

Cook’s example is not an isolated case: Charles Darwin’s thinking on evolution and natural selection was heavily influenced by his 1831 voyage on the HMS Beagle, William Bligh’s 1791 expedition on the HMS Providence was basically a botanical field trip and George Nares’ 1871 Challenger Expedition discovered 4700 new species and laid the foundations for the discipline of oceanography.

Knowing what we know today, it makes you wonder if the connection between science, adventure and the sea isn’t entirely a coincidence.