New World Library, 2015
Pbk, 292 pp
Reviewed by Marian McCain
Despite the fact that not only politicians but large sections of the public have eyes closed and fingers in ears when it comes to environmental issues, it would be hard to know nothing about climate change, air pollution or the loss of rainforest, even if you tried not to let your thoughts dwell there. What we are doing to the world’s seas and oceans is every bit as bad, but since most of us see only the surface of the sea—which looks the same as always except where the floating plastic gathers—and millions never glimpse the sea at all, it is easy to remain in ignorance.
We do so at our peril. But for David Helvarg, who loves the ocean and loves to swim and surf and dive and really interact with the water—and who is also a trained journalist with deep passions and an enquiring mind—there is no way to ignore the tragedy that is happening in that vast, salty realm and to all who live there, from the tiniest krill to the largest whale. And no way to shirk the task of telling the world about it.
In this, his fifth sea-themed book, Helvarg weaves the story of two tragedies: his own personal one—losing the woman he loves to an early death from cancer—and his first-hand experience of the ongoing, ever-deepening tragedy of what humans are doing to the ocean. I was not born for peaceful times or calm waters, he says. Neither have I seen many. We’re living in an age of global markets and mass extinctions; the birth of celebrity Web sites, YouTube and Twitter; and the death of sharks, sea turtles, and others of our planetary brethren who were already ancient when the first small mammals left their dirt-filled burrows.
He takes us all around the globe to chronicle what is happening beneath the waves. We dive deep with him to explore the havoc wreaked on coral reefs. We listen to the locals: fishermen who have lost their livelihood to the bottom-scouring commercial trawlers that destroy the seabed ecosystems and kill millions of creatures that should never have been in their nets to begin with. We listen to conservationists, marine biologists, scientists, activists and many others and gradually we build up a picture of what is really going on down there. It is not good news.
I found this book interesting, exciting, alarming and saddening, all at the same time. It was fun to share in this author’s adventures, such as the hair-raising sailing expedition down the Baja Peninsula. But also very painful to read about the destruction of the underwater environment. And so very sobering to read anecdotes like the one from a dive trip where he explains to a travel agent the cascade of events that lead to coral bleaching and she replies: “Really? I thought they were supposed to be white like that.”
Mind you, he does what authors who are primarily journalists often do, which is to describe incidents in a very lively way and in the present tense but in random chronological order, rather like a fish darting from one bit of coral to another. But although I found this chronological skittering about somewhat disconcerting, I noticed that each time he settled on a scene and began to describe it, the pictures he was creating would come colourfully alive for me. Having had my own experience of swimming, with mask and snorkel, amongst the wonderland that is the Great Barrier Reef, I found myself not only delighting in the descriptions of healthy reef life but also in tears from having to read about the inexorable destruction and the disruption of natural systems that humankind has caused—and is still causing—in these irreplaceable places.
As well as cataloguing and describing in stark detail the catastrophic effects we’ve had on the oceans—including the loss of a terrifying ninety percent of the world’s fish—Helvarg, who went to New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, also describes what can happen to us and our habitations when we erroneously imagine we can control the power of tides and storms and build a city on what Nature designated as a wetland.
There is some good news, though. In the final chapter he tells us that: From the little things divers, sailors, surfers, scientists, fishermen, youth activists and artists do every day to protect our seas a new blue movement is emerging, one whose mission is nothing less than the restoration and stewardship of the greater part of our salty blue planet.
May this new blue movement grow fast and flood the shorelines of our consciousness. That’s one tsunami that will be timely and most welcome.