Total immersion: re-imagining the ocean

Two timely, urgent books offer different takes on the state of the seas. Boris Worm lauds both.

Neptune’s Laboratory: Fantasy, Fear, and Science at Sea Antony Adler Harvard University Press (2019)

Reef Life: An underwater memoir Callum Roberts Profile (2019)

On a calm day, the ocean can resemble a vast mirror. Peering over the side of a boat, we might see ourselves reflected; what lies beneath is hidden.

In Neptune’s Laboratory, environmental historian Antony Adler takes this observation as a leitmotif. The ocean, he writes, is “an ideal screen for human projections of fear and hope”. In his entertaining, readable history of marine science, the author shows how humanity’s fundamental ignorance about the sea has often fed fantastical ideas of it as saviour, battlefield, playground, storehouse, angry beast or hapless victim. Throughout, he reminds us, we have struggled to see Earth’s oceanic reaches for what they truly are: the face of our changing planet.

That recognition of a rapidly, irreversibly altering ocean permeates every page of Callum Roberts’s scientific memoir, Reef Life. He takes a deep dive into his own four-decade career as a marine ecologist, chronicling the splendour, complexity and vulnerability of coral reefs. Both books left me with a sense of urgency about the ocean’s perilous state, but also with renewed hope that we have reached a turning point in our collective relationship with it.

Through his eventful tale, Adler recounts how scientific inquiry into the ocean began in earnest less than 200 years ago, and how the findings of myriad individuals gradually coalesced into an interdisciplinary field: oceanography. Adler discusses many colourful personalities. For instance, the “Prince of Ocean Science” — Albert I of Monaco — funded the early expansion of oceanography in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And French under-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau popularized the ocean through film and television.

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