The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

The beach at Perranporth, England, at low and high tide. Photos courtesy of Jonathan White

Jonathan White grew up in Malibu. He learned to surf on a ten-foot longboard at Surfrider Beach, and to swim, fish, dive and sail along the local coast. That early love of the ocean would shape the direction of his life. White recently returned to Malibu for the first time in years to discuss his newest book, “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” as part of the City of Malibu’s Library Speaker Series.

“I always had a tide chart in my pocket growing up,” White said, explaining that his love for the ocean never left him. After college, he built a small boat, but gave it up. He was planning to go back to graduate school on the Pacific Northwest where he now lives, when he fell in love with the Crusader, an old wooden halibut schooner.

“It was painted orange and leaked 150 gallons a day. It was perfect,” he said.

He bought the 65-foot schooner and opened his own school on board, the Resource Institute, where he offered workshops, seminars and classes on everything from ecology to music. His first book, “Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity,” grew out of the experience. However, while White depended on the tides as an integral element of sailing, he said he never really thought deeply about the phenomenon until he encountered the full force of the tide first-hand. 

“We ran aground in Alaska during a gale,” he said. “It was the top of a high tide going out 16 feet.” He recounted putting his 12 passengers on shore with a rifle to protect against grizzly bears, while he and a crew member worked to free the boat. As the tide went out, the Crusader went over, mired in deep mud. When the tide came back in, the boat filled with water.

“We were stuck, with seven months-worth of provisions filling with water,” White said. “Spaghetti, rice, linens, shoes, books from the library—300 of them, were floating in the water. 

“’Between Pacific Tides’ was one of the books; Ram Dass’ ‘Can I Help?’ another. “No, he couldn’t,” White quipped.

A Coast Guard vessel, responding to the Crusader’s distress call, came and dropped off pumps, but the crew had other emergency calls to answer and couldn’t stay to help. A fishing boat, which also heard the distress call, carried the passengers to safety. White and one crew member remained behind, working for 12 hours to re-float the boat and get the flooded engine working again. Three days later, Crusader sailed on its next session of classes.

“I got the tide out of the Crusader but I couldn’t get it out of my head,” White said. He described the pull of the tides as, “Interesting, multilayered, poetic.” Research turned into articles, articles became a book.

“I committed to the book seven years ago,” White said. In the course of researching and writing the book he married, had a child, moved to Orca Island and traveled to some of the most remote and unusual places on earth, visiting tidal bores and learning about both the science and the cultural and spiritual significance of the tide. 

Some of his adventures have taken him from the San Blas Islands off the Coast of Panama, where sea level rise is erasing a culture, to the Bay of Fundy in Canada, the site of the Earth’s highest tides. 

In Greenland, he experienced tides that drop beneath the ice covering the bay. His Inuit guide accompanied him into a strange, potentially deadly intertidal zone beneath the ice. In China, he visited the longest tidal bore in the world, a 25-foot wave of water known as the “silver dragon” that races nearly 80 miles up the Qiantang River.

“The Chinese developed a tide chart 200 years before the first in the west,” White said, 

explaining that while ancient coastal peoples around the world developed a practical knowledge of tides, and Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity helped the west develop a rudimentary scientific understanding of tidal forces, there are still elements that are not fully understood. 

“It took 300 years to understand and we still don’t understand it all,” White said. 

White explained that spring tides—the highest and lowest tides—occur when the moon is full or new and its gravitational pull is the strongest. King tides, the highest tides of the year, coincide not only with the full or new moon, but with perigee, when the sun’s gravitational pull on the earth is greatest.

The gravitational pull that powers the tide is also influenced not only by the eccentric, or not entirely round orbits of the sun and moon, but also by the resonance of the ocean basins, which behave like the sound chambers of musical instruments, dulling or magnifying the intensity of the tide, creating a kind of elemental music that helps drive one of the greatest powers on earth

“The tide has no beginning and no end,” White said. “It’s a long, low wave that travels at 450 mph around the world, in a 12-hour cycle, crest to crest. For the ancients, the tide was a divine power.” 


For more information on White, and his new book, “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” can be found at


Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

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