Scientific exploration is an enlargement of the work of the old navigators. They made precise observations, reasoned carefully and often took a lot of trouble to test their ideas, but they concentrated their attention on the more obvious things, especially those which would extend national frontiers and promised most gain. They were mainly interested in finding new land, and although they made careful notes on winds, currents and marine life, their approach was often severely practical, and even when they took scientists with them on their voyages of discovery, they were not always as helpful to them as they might have been.
Today increased knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Although they are one of the most valuable resources, we are still at the threshold of knowledge of what goes on in them, and the need for exploration of `inner space’ becomes more than a slogan. The most dramatic and far-reaching possibility is the prospect of increasing the world’s food supply by getting more fish at less cost. Those who make their livelihood by fishing, especially those who do it in a small way, have a useful working knowledge of the movements and of the shoaling and feeding habits of the fish on which they depend, but their knowledge is not very accessible or even systematic, and therefore not very teachable or readily improved. There seems to be a certain passivity or fatalism about fishing, and a very strong inclination to stick to what has worked and brought a good profit in the past; and it is difficult to persuade people that many of the fish they are not accustomed to eating are just as good as those they know. These are some of the problems facing fishery research, but there is also much still to be learnt about factors that control the distribution of fish, and enough about the oceans themselves and their interaction with the atmosphere to predict when and where suitable conditions are likely to be found. Fishermen do not expect complete explanations of movements and variations of fish populations, but any advance that a scientist can make is likely to allow them to improve their methods and use their gear more efficiently.
It seems an almost audacious claim that a scientist can do anything to help our efficient and long-experienced merchant seamen, and yet ships were designed with very little knowledge and understanding of the complex wave patterns through which they must be driven. It is only during the past five years or so that oceanography has shown how the irregular sea surface can be described accurately enough to allow the probabilities of different accelerations and stresses to be predicted, so that new developments can begin in research on the sea-keeping qualities of ships. We are getting to the stage when it will be just as important for high-powered ships to be routed to avoid heavy seas as much as possible as it was for sailing ships to be routed to avoid calms. Experiments have shown that ships can on an average save fourteen hours on each crossing of the North Atlantic if they use a route based on wave forecasts made before departure.