Book Reviews

The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific by Julia Whitty

Houghton Mifflin, USA

Like the ocean she writes about, which teems with life, Julia Whitty’s The Fragile Edge teems with information about the wet three quarters of the planet, about which we know little, and shows us why the environmental degradation there matters. 

Taking the reader with her as she goes scuba diving and snorkeling in the South Pacific, Whitty describes the awesome (literally) creatures she encounters in prose that is as luminous as some of those creatures themselves. The setting is three particular areas of the South Pacific—Rangiroa, Funafuti, and Mo’orea—but her concerns are for all the oceans of the world, for the problems exist and cause problems for land dwellers everywhere.

Each voyage into the deep also takes the reader on a journey into other cultures.  Whitty gives us legends from Polynesia and India; musings on Jainism, Buddhism, the I Ching, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata; snippets of Japanese tanka poetry; and discussions of the value of different yogic practices for scuba diving, among others.

The first chapter ("Rangiroa") focuses on the underwater world; the second ("Funafuti"), on the people who live on the coral atolls; the third ("Mo’orea"), on the immediate effects of modernization and globalization in these remote places.

Whitty has the rare ability to set forth the science clearly (of how certain whales navigate, for instance) and then make the picture vivid with a telling metaphor: "[T]he whales apparently listen for the return echoes to guide them—as if we could yodel our way between a peak in the Sierra Nevada and one in the Rockies, blindfolded." She is also unsparing in skewering certain "insensitive characters" with metaphors: "The princess herself wore a gigantic emerald pendant that at first glance looked like a pet bat perched on her bosom." The alliteration here also is deft as it is elsewhere—"the daily deluge," the "seashells, sea urchin spines, the spicules of sponges," "soothe these savage spirits"—but not obtrusive.

Why should we who live on the great landmasses care about atolls and dying coral?
Whitty, who has also written and produced documentaries for PBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, says it best: "Coral reefs are powerful arbiters of life both in the sea and on the land. The oceans they help stock are the chemical engine driving the planet, refreshing the air we breathe, making the rain that feeds the rivers and lakes, which water the crops upon which we depend. This water world, and its most fertile and fragile edge, the coral reefs, are the continuing cradle of life on earth."

Everything is hitched to everything else, and no man is an island.

Reviewed by Joanne Sandstrom