Current and recent books of the seas and their creatures explore species that have prevailed for millions of years –broadbill swordfish, sharks, eels, horseshoe crabs – with amazing adaptations and evolutionary advantages; and the human toll on our watery world. The writers we are highlighting are great researchers — you won’t find a lot of fluff here — and passionate about the urgency of taking steps now to protect the rivers and oceans of life everywhere. This is beach reading without the beach. You can end your summer by thinking about the ways you can contribute to conserving the oceans and their living abundance for generations to come.
BLUE HOPE: Exploring and Caring for Earth’s Magnificent Ocean, Sylvia A. Earle (National Geographic Books, color photos, hardcover available September 2014). Sylvia Earle – known as “Her Deepness” for the amount of time she has spent in 60 years of ocean dives – has authored what may be her most passionate book yet on the riches of the oceans and why we have to care for the biodiversity that is now threatened worldwide. Earle has “… logged more than 7,000 hours underwater and has set a record for solo diving in 1,000-meter depth.” Earle writes: “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the ocean, no matter where on Earth you live.” See the Green News Update story on the mission that Sylvia Earle is advancing with other partners for Hope Spots, places of marine diversity that must be conserved.
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, Hampton Sides (Doubleday) 451 pp. An expedition outfitted by the wealthy publisher of the New York Herald—who fantasized a great newspaper series emanating from this1879 voyage — the USS Jeannette was decked out with fancy Victorian technology but preposterous ideas of how to navigate pack ice in a wooden ship. The ship became imprisoned near Wrangel Island in ice pack for 21 months, then was crushed by ice floes when the weather and water finally warmed. The story of Lieut. George Washington DeLong and his crew may not be as storied as that of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, but every bit as terrifying.
Review in the Washington Post
Telling Our Way to the Sea: a Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez, by a trio of writers: Aaron Hirsh and his wife, Veronica Volny, both biologists, and Graham Burnett, a science historian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 394 pp. Hirsh uses his field class with students at the Vermilion Sea Institute in Baja’s tiny fishing village of Bahía de los Ángeles to weave a singular tale of the confounding creatures and amazing complexity of marine life: a sea cucumber expels its internal organs through its anus and has the ability to regenerate its organs from stems cells in the body cavity; the group’s travels in two pangas (small skiffs about 20 feet in length) lead to an encounter with fin whales (they can weigh up to 260,000 pounds!) that explode water and mist just below their bow.
Along with their amazing discoveries, the field team also figures out what is missing – upheavals of both evolution and environmental change – mostly resulting from human intervention and development. Review in the Seattle Times
Hirsh offers a beautiful essay in the New York Times (The Pop! of the wild)
The Extreme Life of the Sea, Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (Princeton University Press, 2014). Illus with black-and-white diagrams, drawings and photographs and 16 full-color photographs. A father-son duo (dad a marine biologist; son a novelist and science writer) investigate the lengthy and diverse development of life in the seas – from microbial soup to viruses, from the Pompeii worm, Alvinella pompejana, that lives in nearly boiling hot thermal vents, to creatures of icy seas–the book packs a huge amount of readable information in its 240 pages. My favorite extreme mammal: “the vaquita, or “little cow”, Phocoena sinus, which is the smallest cetacean — just five feet long. Read the Guardian review
You might also enjoy watching this amusing video, which shares a little about the fastest fish in the sea:
The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the 20th Century, D. Graham Burnett (University of Chicago). They were once thought of only as fat –sperm whale oil lit New England lamps and made plenty of people wealthy– and fertilizer, and as grotesque creatures. Today they are sometime-playthings at corporate-owned attractions and the huge “canary in the mine” that cautions of disastrous ocean conditions. Burnett’s book is based on a decade of research on 20th century cetacean science, some of which contributed to misunderstandings and counterproductive efforts to protect them. This is not light reading – one of its chapters is 196 pages in length. For those who want to know how scientists, committees, nations and finally the whaling moratorium of 1982 have impacted cetaceans, this is the book to own. Guardian review
If You Want to See a Whale, Julie Fogliano. Illustrated Erin E. Stead(for kids 4-8, Roaring Brook) The Washington Post calls it “hypnotic text with translucent, light-filled illustrations that invite young readers to climb aboard, row diligently…” and learn patience. Sounds like a trip we all should take. Mini review
Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator, Richard Ellis (University of Chicago Press 296 pp) Author of more than 20 books, Ellis is smitten with his newest subject. He calls the swordfish “one of the most spectacularly beautiful animals on earth; one of the largest and fastest, as well as the most heavily armed of all the fishes…[and] one of the most powerful hunters.” It’s no accident that its scientific name Xiphias gladius means “gladiator.” With a powerful saber-like bill that allows it to slash prey, a circulatory system that gives it the ability to dive thousands of feet below, and adaptability to live in tropical and cold waters, the broadbill swordfish seems to have the evolutionary advantage. Special organs next to its eyes heat the eyes and brain and improve their vision to hunt. The swordfish – alone in its family Xiphiidae — even takes on tuna and some sharks. The largest ever recorded? Over 50 years ago, a female was reeled in off the coast of Chile, weighing some 1182 pounds. This book is illustrated with Ellis’s own drawings and paintings. Goodreads review
Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish, James Prosek (Harper) 287 pp.. Avail in hardcover and paper.
The first Thanksgiving [in the New World] was not a turkey dinner and trimmings in spite all the lore. As author James Prosek writes in a Thanksgiving Day essay for The New York Times, eel was served at the dinner given to the Pilgrims by the Patuxet the day after they made peace with Massasoit, leader of the region. Eel were plentiful, long-lived and nutritious – and they are today except for the plentiful part. Read the essay
Most of us are familiar with the genus Anguilla as something smoked sitting atop a nice bed of white rice in our favorite Japanese eatery. There’s so much more to learn – it’s actually fascinating – and Prosek is here to show us through his writing and his paintings. If you are unaware, the eel’s life cycle is catadromy: it spawns in saltwater and migrates to fresh water, becoming a world traveler in pursuit of both. “As adults, some eels will live for a hundred years in a tiny pond while waiting for a storm to come and wash them back out to sea. In the process they may grow until they have ‘heads on ’em like a full-grown Labrador dog,’ as one Maori puts it to Prosek.” Prosek’s travel in search of science and lore takes him from New York’s Catskills Mountains to traditional Maori eeling grounds. New York Times review and book excerpt
Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks, Juliet Eilperin (Pantheon) 295 pp. Now in paperback. In 400 million years of evolutionary history, sharks have proved to be survivors (remember the dinosaurs, woolly mammoth and saber tooth tiger?). Now their fate is much more problematic, owing to what Washington Post writer Juliet Eilperin calls the insatiable demand for their fins: “…[S]hark fin soup’s amazing secret… is one of the greatest scams of all time, an emblem of status whose most essential ingredient adds nothing of material value.” From 1996 to 2003, the yearly catch was 73 million sharks; now Hawaii has banned shark fishing (along with the Maldives and Palau) but the emptying of the oceans goes on. Eilperin includes historical-cultural text in her book—the Aztecs revered sharks, the Chinese have been eating shark flesh since the 12th century. Kudos too for her firsthand research: she has swum with whale sharks, black tips, lemon sharks and even great whites (as a new mother). Who could be a better reporter-advocate for the ocean’s top predator? Read the book review and Radio interview
Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Left Behind, Richard Fortey (Alfred A. Knopf) 332 pp illus. The “old timers” is what we might call them, the species that have survived multiple mass extinctions. Fortey calls them “messengers from deep geological time.” If you live on the East Coast, chances are you’ve bumped into a horseshoe crab carcass or two that has floated off a Delaware beach. Terribly imperiled and probably destined for extinction by the actions of our species, this keystone species lays eggs that are an invaluable food supply for migrating turtles and shorebirds; its blood (it’s blue ) is used for human medical tests. Now retired from the Natural History Museum, London, Fortey has deep writing credentials and the natural curiosity to follow a lot of different survivors (lungfish, musk oxen, sponges, jelly fish) along the way. He’s mad as hell that the human species is hastening the end of many of these things he loves. “There’s no meteorite this time… just us, prospering at the expense of other species.” Fortey video segments and New York Times review
Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg (Penguin Press, 266 pp). Did you miss this acclaimed book in 2011? Greenberg looks at how cod, salmon, tuna and sea bass are being driven to extinction by commercial overfishing and consumer demand. First, read his beautiful essay— a paean to bluefin tuna — in the New York Times Magazine and listen to his radio interview with Terry Gross.
Book review in Audubon
Greenberg’s new book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood (Penguin 306 pp) uses three species to demonstrate “our nation’s broken relationship with its own ocean”– the Louisiana brown shrimp, the Eastern oyster and sockeye salmon. For those of us in the Chesapeake Bay estuary (that’s 6 states and 64,000 square miles), we’re already keenly aware of the severe damage to the oyster population – those supreme filter feeders that once, in huge numbers, were able to filter and clean the entire Chesapeake Bay in just 24 hours. Greenberg looks at the damage done to the New York marshes where oysters once thrived and efforts to bring back those areas. He urges: “[B]uild a bridge back from the plate back to the estuary. This requires us to not just to eat local seafood. It requires the establishment of a working relationship with salt marshes, oyster beds, the natural flow of water from river to sea, and the integrity of the ocean floor.” Americans now guzzle shrimp as though it is a birthright: most of it comes from cheap Thai fish farms (another book, not Greenberg’s, looks at the linkagebetween shrimp production and slavery in Thailand!) So, with 94,000 miles of coast in the U.S.and 3.5 million miles of rivers, why are we importing nearly all (91%) of our seafood? You cannot avoid this book – it’s a must read. Review in the Boston Globe
World without Fish: Mark Kurlansky’s meticulously researched books (Cod, Salt) have a shelf-mate that outlines how we are destroying ocean life – and, no surprise, how it will impact the whole planet. The illustrated book (Workman, 2011) — with a graphic novel by Frank Stockton interposed in its pages – is intended for a young audience too, but Kurlansky’s powerful message is important for all ages. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch chart on what to eat (or not) is included. Q&A with Kurlansky in the New York Times.
For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking (Barton Seaver) Chef-of-the year (Esquire 2009), former National Geographic fellow-in-residence and conservationist, Seaver has committed this book and his culinary oeuvre to making sustainable choices about what’s for dinner from the ocean domains. For Cod and Country (Sterling 2011) features recipes we can all use. Review in The Atlantic
Extended radio interview with Seaver (WAMU-FM)
Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, Wallace J. Nichols. (Little, Brown) 333 pp. This book, says Washington Post reviewer Nicola Walker, “ is a fascinating study of the emotional, behavioral, psychological and physical connections that keep humans so enchanted with water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers, even swimming pools and the contents of our bathtubs in a study that is both highly readable and rooted in real research.” If you’re like me, the sight and sound, and the feel of water, including salt spray and the marine smells emanating from a sandy beach, touch deeply our core. Nichols look at the neuroscience of our brains on water! Nichols web site contains multiple reviews