A watery new perspective


The beginning of a new year seems like a fine time to be open to new perspectives.* It’s likely that in many of the areas where I try to improve my thinking, I would benefit from a new angle, a new insight, a new level of energy. Those new perspectives can be very difficult to come by, of course. But there are some areas where a fresh perspective is a simpler matter, and one of those I bring you today.

From past posts you know I love a good map.† Here’s a projection that focuses not on the land masses but on the oceans of our planet. It was originally drafted in 1942 by Athelstan Spilhaus. (His South African ancestry points me toward Dutch, which makes sense of his last name. Athelstan is not a name I had heard before, but turns out to be shared by the king of the Anglo-Saxons circa 924 CE.)

The map below comes from a le-cartographe.net, where you can explore in French. There’s also a write-up at mymodernmet in English.



If you’ve got a globe handy, you can look from one to the other to get your bearings. If you’re good with spatial orientation, you can picture those two red dots placed together, and that might also help. If, like me, you just enjoy being surprised by familiar things suddenly becoming confusing, then this should do the trick.

There are lots of things I like about this map besides the superficial mental shake-up. For one thing, it does visually what we could benefit from doing mentally, which is to spare a thought for the oceans as something other than just the negative space on the map. Oceanographers will tell you that we’ve expended a lot more resources studying outer space than we have studying the world’s oceans. Given the way things are going, better understanding of (followed by better behavior/policies toward) oceans is going to be important if we hope to continue to thrive on this planet.


We may know more now about the oceans than when these ships sailed, but not as much more as you’d think.


A second important point that the map makes abundantly clear is that when you choose something to focus on in constructing a flat map, you entirely abandon accuracy in other areas. The price we pay for being able to get a sense for the shape of the Pacific Ocean, say, is that Cape Cod is not now on the other side of the country from San Francisco Bay–it’s on the other side of the world. We might wave our hands to dismiss distortions caused by the Mercator projection (the one most of us are used to) by saying “water looks the same everywhere, so what does it matter?” My point is that our being used to certain distortions doesn’t make them less distorted.

Back to the superficial–I think it’s fun to try to figure out what’s going on without referring to a conventional map. That little protruding bit next to “Amérique du Nord” is Baja, California, right? So straight above it is Hawaii, I suppose. And there’s Japan all upside down! I guess I’ll soon see how well I know the coastlines of the world. My guess is, not very well. But that’s about to change.



*Perhaps the beginning of a new year is not a better time than any other to hanker for a new perspective, but it’s also not worse. Since this is the time of year we’re in, I say we just go with it.

†Typing “map” into the search bar at the blog will bring up a nice list to explore.


[Images: incobeta.com, le-cartographe.net, pinterest, Lisa Forsyth]


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