'Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Oceans'

A beautiful coral reef. Volodymyr Goinyk/Shutterstock

It’s rare that a book about the biology of the ocean reads like poetry, but author Julia Whitty’s second book on oceans, "Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Oceans" (HMH, $24), combines cutting-edge science with her own personal oceanic encounters to paint a picture of the ocean and its underwater creatures that will give readers a truly intimate look inside — and deeper appreciation of — our vast oceans.

Whitty begins her journey in 1980 on Isla Rasa, a secluded island that’s so small it’s difficult to locate on a map, but also just happens to be home to hundreds of nesting seabirds in the Gulf of California. There as an undergraduate, Whitty accompanies two scientists to study the breeding ecology of some of the island’s inhabitants, such as the Heerman’s gulls and elegant terns. Whitty’s descriptions of her life on Isla Rasa are colored with frequent literary references to John Steinbeck and the mythical gods and goddesses of the sea.

Take, for example, the following passage, found in the beginning of her story: “Within nature’s time frame and according to the slow clock of the deep blue home, my idyll on Rasa happened less than yesterday — though the elapsed time between then and now marks a cusp between eras in the Gulf of California, between a relatively pristine Edenic period and our present Underworld period, when the souls of so many species are crossing the waters to extinction.”

During her research and exploration of the underwater rivers of the world, Whitty comes across many fascinating creatures, such as the leatherback sea turtle, one of which she describes as having “flippers the size of oars” and a “head like a draft horse’s, wearing a jellyfish mane.”

But despite the ocean’s magnificence, all is not well in our deep blue home, explains Whitty, whose vibrant prose injects life into an issue that is too often overlooked by us land-bound humans. Today our oceans face many challenges simultaneously, such as overfishing practices, which have transformed commercial fishing from what was once a glorious business to one muddled in disgrace. Modern industrialized fishing, Whitty writes, has become “so efficient that it is now supremely inefficient” due to inventions such as longlining, a commercial fishing technique that uses baited hooks attached at intervals that inadvertently catch mountains of useless “bycatch” like sea turtles, seabirds and millions of sharks annually.

These destructive practices, coupled with global warming and current events like the Gulf oil spill, are slowly taking their toll on the ocean’s environment, their evidence scattered across the ocean’s depths in the form of bleached coral, ailing marine mammals and warmer water temperatures. And though it is unclear how much more the ocean can handle, what Whitty makes crystal clear throughout the book is that whatever happens to the ocean inevitably happens to us — so we better start paying attention, and fast.

“Humans are a terrestrial species biased toward attributing the forces we see around us to familiar forces on land,” she writes. “But the more we look, the more we learn that everything arises from the sea and everything falls away to the sea, and the deep blue home is home to every one of us, whether we are beings of the water, air, rock, ice, or soil.”