PART ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY, part high-seas drama, part mythology, ecology, and cultural history, this is a crowded book that chronicles the author’s meanderings from Baja California to Newfoundland, the Galápagos, and back to Baja again. The exploration is not only across the surface; Whitty takes us high up in the air where terns mate, and down three thousand feet where gulper eels nibble on whale carcasses that have, after a long, slow-motion descent, collapsed at last against the ocean floor.
The challenge with such a wide-ranging book, of course, is coherence: how to make it something other than a cobbled-together conglomeration of one woman’s adventures. What, after all, do pulverized guano, the Ekman spiral, deep-sea vents, storm petrel burrows, and ancient ocean rivers have to do with one another? The answer, according to Whitty, is everything. And it’s those myriad connections among seemingly disparate life forms, ideas, hopes, and history that this book explores in lively, lyrical style.
Primary among those connections is Rasa, which refers not just to the island where the author lived for a short stint in the ’80s as a field researcher, but also to a mythical, underground river, a Hindu version of the River Styx that turns out to have some semblance to what modern-day oceanographers call the thermohaline circulation, the crucial, life-giving “vascular system of our planet.”
Throughout, Whitty also tracks what flies overhead or scuttles underfoot. “Terns slideslip,” a whale fin “scythes out of the water,” and when 95 percent of the world’s Heermann’s gulls, with their bright red bills, arrive to breed on Rasa, it is “as if a quarter million cheerful votives were perpetually lit against the island’s glare.” Accompanied by an iceberg’s incessant groan, a seal’s pursuit of capelin off the Newfoundland coast is thrilling drama. She delivers, in other words, a highly animated world.
Ultimately, what holds the book together is Whitty’s sensibility and sentence making, her continuous probing of ocean depths and the ways biology, mythology, ecology, and history are so inexorably interwoven. She not only conveys the long-range shifts in ecosystems, reshufflings of inhabitants and resources, but also illustrates them with details about barnacle penises and bivalves so delicate “they simply disintegrate when touched.”
But this is a book, finally, that goes beyond the felicities of description and into the seriousness of warnings about habitat plunder and species decline. Though Whitty may keep herself from becoming a shrill alarmist by repeating the Buddhist refrain “everything arises, everything falls away,” her weaving of science and poetry accumulates until we cannot help but ask how we are to live in the face of such deterioration. Wisely, she has no clear answer, and her concern, of course, isn’t new. What is new here is the brush-up-against-it intimacy with what’s fast disappearing and how that might affect us all. This work is a compelling reminder that for eons the countless creatures of the world have managed to live together in some messily delicate agreements. It’s from that awareness, Whitty suggests, that we might begin to consider that the sea is, in fact, more our home than most of us dreamed possible and to treat it as such.