Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Earth and sea exchange rings

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, oceanography, coral reefs, atolls

I've never seen living coral outside an aquarium. I suppose it's a lack I ought to make up, while it is still possible. If her book is any guide, Julia Whitty lives to dive, and her books and documentary productions simply provide the means to keep doing so. The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific is her paean to a few atolls she loves, a lyric introduction to their natural history, a window into the lives of their human residents, and a warning of how rapidly we are losing them.

I marvel at the author's writing style. The forty chapters about three favorite atolls, lyrics to their charm, the ocean's power, and their denizens' amazing diversity, segue cleanly between observation and education (of the reader).

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to determine that the atolls are not a favored place for the self-indulgent, for those who like their air conditioned and their windows screened...or shut. At a place like Rangiroa one pays US$500 daily for hot days, warm and sticky nights, and sort-of effectual mosquito netting when there is breeze enough to stand to use it. You may as well dive, and by that I mean SCUBA, so you can get deeper than the warm-to-sweltering surface layer, particularly in the lagoon. And you'll pay plenty for the boat ride out and back.

There is plenty to see underwater, and there are books and films galore about it all. I found myself most charmed the human stories and the natural history lessons. People are described mainly by what they are doing and saying: minds revealed by actions. There is a bit of authorial wonder and immersion in a scene here or there, but more about what this fish, that shrimp, or those polyps over there are doing, why and how they do it, and what this or that person does when the author has to be ashore.

How one woman urges her amphibious youngsters to swim over to whales in a lagoon (knowing they can't swim that far) while fishing with a hand line for her dinner. How a large fish visits dozens of "cleaning stations" daily, relaxing under the ministrations of one kind of parasite-removal specialist after another, almost forgetting to eat. The sight of fish patiently waiting in line for a cleaner shrimp...except the big one that comes by and jumps ahead in line. The moray eel, as big as the author, or bigger, that like to follow her around the lagoon like a puppy, though she (the eel) is probably the elder.

Though the beauty, wonder, and awe of reefs, and atolls in particular, fill the book, the warnings increase, page by page, of losses and destruction. Whether the warming of tropical oceans over the past few decades is related to our use of CO2 or not, it is clear that present-day reefs are being stressed by temperatures greater than they can bear, and few are capable of adapting quickly enough.

The insults known to be our fault are the use of dredging, poison and explosions to fish both for food and for aquarium specimens; reefs buried in silt offshore of new agriculture in areas where it'll have to be abandoned soon, to meager profits, but too late for the reef to recover; nutrient-driven blooms that kill coral and stimulate algal mats in their place; a measured rise in sea level that has already reduced the habitable part of atoll-bound Tuvalu by a quarter, and is increasing...and no nation has agreed to take the residents as refugees should the atolls vanish beneath the waves, as they are likely to do while half the people alive now are still living.

The book is not a polemic, but it contains one, with good justification. I suppose it's time to learn to dive. Good diving spots are vanishing about as fast as the years in my expected longevity.

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