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The Fragile Edge

"For those of us who can't visit the South Pacific, television documentary writer and producer Whitty gives us the next best thing. Her way with language — at times reminiscent of Lynne Cox's poetical Grayson — makes readers feel they are actually part of the coral reef atoll environment, both above and below the surface." — Library Journay

"Julia Whitty is emerging as one of the must-read voices about the wet three-quarters of the planet, what we're doing to it, and why it should matter to us. This book has some foreboding, but basically it's a marvelous love story of an affair with salt water and all its mysteries." — Bill Mckibben, author of Depp Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future

"Julia Whitty's new book is an extraordinary achievement. She allows the reader to view the world of the coral reef as a living, almost intelligent organism integral to human life. This important book makes clear the absolute urgency of saving the coral reefs of the world. It is a brilliantly written work that inspires us to do just that." — Ted Danson, film actor, ocean activist, bluevoice.org

About the Book

Only three hundred thirty coral atolls remain on the planet. Scarcer still are those people who have made it their life's work to illuminate the invisible intricacies of these amazing — and endangered — ecosystems.

Acclaimed journalist and producer Julia Whitty is one of those people, and in The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific, she shares everything she knows.

Whitty's experiences diving in the waters off Rangiroa, Tuvalu, and Mo'orea yield extraordinary insights into the mysterious beauty of the ocean world. Whether documenting the acrobatic leaps and bansheelike wailing of a school of spinner dolphins, risking nitrogen narcosis to better observe the stunning swarms of an army of gray reef sharks, unveiling the complex and hermaphroditic life cycles of coral species, or describing the increasingly large (and invariably human-caused) challenges these underwater realms face, Whitty is equal parts scientist and underwater shaman.

Whitty brings to life not only the goings-on beneath the ocean's surface, but also stories from the topside, painting lively portraits of those individuals whose fates are interwoven with that of the sea. From the ancient, seemingly fragile Tuvaluan woman who erupts into a joyous dance at a traditional wedding celebration (while wearing a Nike "Just Do It" T-shirt) to the jaded French dive master whose malaise can be lifted only by an enormous tiger shark he calls Belle, Whitty is as adept at crystallizing the quirks and mysteries of this planet's land dwellers as she is its aquatic ones.

About the Author

Julia Whitty is the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific. Her collection of short stories, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. It received wide acclaim from critics, who praised Whitty's fluid prose and sharp wit: "Whitty [shows] prodigious natural talents: a supple biodiversity of language and an empathy for people and animals that puts most other writers in the shade," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The Washington Post noted that "serious environmentalists are seldom noted for their sense of humor. This is not surprising, considering the serious mess we humans have got our planet into. Still, a little laughter is healing. Julia Whitty is one of those who can provide it."

Whitty has received an O. Henry Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and the Bernice Slote Award for Fiction. Her more than seventy nature documentaries have aired on National Geographic, Nature, the Discovery Channel, the Arts & Entertainment Channel, and with numerous broadcasters around the world. Also a prolific journalist, Whitty has written many feature articles for Mother Jones, including "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," "The Fate of the Ocean," "Accounting Coup," "Smuggling Hope," and "All the Disappearing Islands." Whitty's cover article for Harper's Magazine, "Shoals of Time," was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and she recently won a 2006 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for her Mother Jones cover story "The Fate of the Ocean." She lives in northern California.

A Conversation with Julia Whitty

Your descriptions of the underwater life you've encountered and observed are stunningly detailed. You mention in The Fragile Edge that you bring a dive slate into the water with you, presumably to "take notes" and record your impressions. Is it difficult to immerse yourself fully in the world of the sea while also trying to memorize what you're seeing, feeling, and hearing in order to write about it? How much time usually elapses between one of your underwater experiences and your writing about it?

Sometimes many years elapse between having an experience underwater and finding the right written piece to plug it into. Other times, an experience immediately finds its home. Some adventures I'm able to use over and over again in different ways, and I've come to see my collective memories as the equivalent of my stock footage library — in other words, a kind of deep resource that enriches whatever I'm working on.

You have produced more than seventy documentaries, and you incorporate some of your experiences filming underwater into The Fragile Edge. How does your relationship to the ocean (and the life it contains) change when you're filming it, as opposed to when you're writing about it?

When filming, I'm usually working with a shot list, trying to capture specific images or events. The work is targeted and sometimes unforgiving, in so much as if I don't get the shots, I can't cover that material in the film. Or if the shots are badly lit or out of focus, they're unusable. Writing is much more generous. Whatever happens is useful. Emptiness, nothingness, the opposite of expectation, even the unseen can be serendipitous.

The sea and its myriad inhabitants are brought to colorful life in The Fragile Edge — but so are the many people you meet on your travels. You capture their characters so vividly. While writing this book, was it difficult to balance the human element with the natural element? Do you keep in touch with Emily, Rolf, and the other individuals we come to know?

I like working with the balance between the human and the natural world. Part of the dynamic I play with continually is the notion that we are part of the natural world, not separate. In fact I try to use the same tools and same mindset in telling the human stories as the wildlife stories. And, of course, sometimes people are the wildest form of life in an environment. As for staying in touch, I never purposely lose contact with anyone I work with. Sometimes years go by between communications, but I'm always hopeful that the thread between us is available to follow again in the future.

Your sense of reverence for the magnificence of the earth's oceans and coral reefs reverberates so strongly throughout The Fragile Edge. But coupled with that reverence is a sense of urgency and the knowledge that these amazing worlds face increasingly large (and invariably human-caused) challenges to their survival. How can readers of this book help?

There are so many ways for people to help. First and foremost is our adult responsibility to understand the consequences of our own actions. This is where all relationships begin. Part of our obligation as citizens of this small planet is to educate ourselves about a sustainable future, not just for coral reefs but for all the natural world. Luckily, books, libraries, and the Internet make the job easy. We can, for instance, give money to organizations working to save wild places — always a good thing. But we can also make our lives gentle and compassionate on all levels, assuring that our footprints are light ones.

A topical take on the chicken-and-the-egg question: Did you discover Eastern philosophy and spirituality through diving, or did diving lead you to Eastern philosophy and spirituality?

The two emerged independently, and then merged in that unforeseen way that life sometimes allows. I enjoy finding connections between seemingly unconnected fields. Basically, though, it was impossible for me to spend time underwater and not use every bit of knowledge at my disposal to analyze what was happening to me there. Entering the realm of the sea is as strange and unpredictable as visiting another planet where few of our rules apply.

What made you decide to write this book?

My love for coral reefs and the underwater world in general was a strong motivator for writing this book. Most people have seen documentary films of the underwater world, but few have had the opportunity to explore deeper, through words and ideas. A book is a two-way street. As the author, I was able to unfold the mysteries of my experiences, which then hopefully enables readers to expand their understanding, and, maybe, their own experiences.

How did you initially become interested in coral reefs?

I worked on numerous documentaries in and around coral reefs, and my exposure to their beauties, dangers, challenges, and threats transformed my initial interest into an all-consuming one. Plus, the coral world is addictive — so sensually beautiful that much else pales in comparison. It's hard not to need another fix.

When you haven't been diving for a while, what do you miss most?

I miss the colors, the secrets, the thrills, the camaraderie of working with other people who work underwater. I miss the wildlife that is often naturally unafraid of us and perpetually engaged in fascinating pursuits. I miss the scale of a world so enormous and so interconnected that the topside world seems simple in comparison.

After readers finish The Fragile Edge, what do you hope they will be feeling?

I hope readers will be feeling that the mysteries of our world are great gifts — delicious and provocative enigmas that make our lives richer. I hope they might be inspired to explore further in whatever adventurous direction their interest leads them, whether in science, sport, or philosophy.

Julia Whitty On . . .

. . . Watching Surgeonfish Make Love, page 3

Stimulated by the onset of a waning moon in the South Pacific, the surgeonfish cluster, rise, bump, then drop back to the reef, disperse, circle, regroup, and rise again. A dozen times they practice, each round taking them higher into the water column, farther from the safety of the coral. The foreplay culminates in what scientists call spawning and what the French divers I'm with charmingly refer to as lovemaking — a pair of surgeonfish detaching from the crowd and exploding upward in an impossibly fast arc, then ejecting their sperm and eggs into the open water in a burst of milky smoke. Never breaking stride, the pair shoots back to the reef at speeds nearly unrecordable by the human eye. Other pairs follow. And others. At the apex of each upward burst, the ejaculated white puff-balls hang still, yet riotously mobilized as the chemistry of conception begins, sperm seeking eggs with only a moment for the microjourney to succeed before the gametes are caught up in the outflow of water from the pass, torn apart, and carried out to deep water.

. . . Experiencing Nitrogen Narcosis, page 114

On the outer edge of Tiputa Pass, the gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) spend the daytime hours schooling. On this shoot we are in search of the hordes rumored to live very deep. At about one hundred feet underwater, we find shoals of ten or twenty gray reef sharks drifting in close formation. At one hundred fifty feet, the shoals coalesce into squadrons. Below two hundred feet, they become curtains of sharks drifting slowly in the bottleneck of the deep pass.

Breathing compressed air at these depths, we are affected by nitrogen narcosis, known as rapture of the deep or the martini effect. Being narcked, as divers call it, feels euphoric, something akin to the effects of nitrous oxide. Yet, tempering the fun is our knowledge that all divers face a confusion threshold: a depth at which — in the jargon of diving — we will giddily hand our regulators to passing fish.

Descending past one hundred feet, we grow heavier by the moment, and jollier by the moment, a classically hazardous paradox because just as we are feeling invincible, we are, in fact, in grave danger. At depths where nitrogen narcosis develops, our compressed air is further compressed, meaning we breathe it more quickly-raising the danger of running out, even as we accelerate toward the point of no return in terms of decompression diving.

We are, however, in the words of pioneer diver Frederic Dumas, as merry as bubbles, and at one hundred sixty feet we begin to glimpse the humbling spectacle of the armies of gray reef sharks. Narcked or not, we have entered a primeval realm populated with legions of ancients, as if swimming with dinosaurs, or discovering Shiva, whose many heads, arms, and legs manifest as sinuously dangerous fish.

. . . Human Noise Pollution's Deadly Effects, page 50

Scientists are discovering that our growing soundprint in the seas is a source of new troubles for ocean residents. The sounds we make tend to be louder and more persistent than those made by nonhumans. The low frequency active sonar (LFA sonar) used by the military to detect submarines is the loudest sound ever put into the seas. Yet the U.S. Navy is planning to deploy LFA sonar across 80 percent of the world ocean. At an amplitude of two hundred forty decibels, it is loud enough to kill whales and dolphins and already causing mass strandings and deaths in areas where U.S. and/or NATO forces are conducting exercises.

Cetaceans die when LFA sonar is deployed, at least in part because they shoot to the surface in distress, causing nitrogen bubbles to form in their tissues — the same malady known to divers as decompression sickness or the bends. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently proved that sperm whales are capable of suffering the bends after analyzing the bones of sperm whales and finding them pitted with old lesions, indicating mild but chronic exposure to decompression sickness in the course of their deep-diving lives. Necropsies of beaked whales beached in the Canary Islands following LFA sonar exercises revealed the same acute form of the bends seen in human divers who ascend too fast to eliminate the excess nitrogen in their blood.

. . . A Colorful Local, page 116

Many years ago at the Hôtel Kia Ora there was a predawn wake-up call, as soft and undemanding as a caress. Half asleep, you could easily mistake it for the sound of wind-swept rain on your pandanus-thatched roof. But this sound had a rhythm that didn't match the wind, and that difference would eventually tug you from sleep no matter how firmly you were lodged there. The cause was an ancient Rangiroan named Toanui, toothless and smiling, wearing a battered baseball cap from New Zealand, with a grinning kiwi bird in the classic American Keep on trucking pose. Every morning Toanui swept the unpaved walkways with a largely debristled broom, pushing aside the night's litter of pink frangipani petals, iridescent insect carcasses, and cigarette butts. He took the coconuts that had fallen in the night and stacked them in little pyramids, offering to open them with his machete for any guests on their way to breakfast. Although he spoke only Tuamotuan, with a smattering of French, this didn't stop him from conversing at length with anyone who had the time to listen.

When I asked if he believed in Taputapua, the Polynesian shark deity, he told me a long story, complete with a more-or-less decipherable sign language, about his grandfather who, after death, manifested as Taputapua. Taking the form of a very large lemon shark, he swam all the way from Rangiroa to the neighboring atoll of Manihi to tell his son-in-law to be nicer to his wife. When I asked Toanui how he knew this, he said that he'd seen with his own eyes the large lemon shark swim through Tiputa Pass toward Manihi, and he'd heard how the same lemon shark appeared in Manihi's lagoon, menacing the son-in-law's va'a by bumping his ama (float).

. . . A Paradise Lost, page 148

When the first Polynesians arrived from the verdant, high islands to the south and east they found life on Tuvalu's atolls arduous. They became dependent on the simplest of foods: coconuts, the pigs they brought with them, the fish they could catch, and whatever threadbare crops of pulaka, a tarolike root, they could coax to life. When high winds and waves from tropical storms and cyclones submerged their low-lying islands, as they sometimes did, the people tied themselves to spindly coconut palms, hoping the wind might spare these fragile anchors.

Now a changing global climate promises bigger and more frequent storms in the Pacific, and more dangerous floods in the low-lying coral atolls. This is evident in the flooding caused by the King Tides, the seasonal high tides that sweep across the islands and sometimes bubble up from the soil as seawater springs. Once a scourge every February, the King Tides now occur erratically for nearly half the year, from November to March. Likewise, the big cyclones that tore through Tuvalu once or twice a decade now occur with frightening regularity. The 1990s produced seven of them, and the storm surges from these storms washed away the 125-acre motu of Tepuka Savalivili on the far side of Funafuti's lagoon.

Rolf points to an empty spot on the horizon. Right there, he says. It used to be right there.

We stare out the double doors of my room. Rolf describes how much fun he and Emily used to have on the motu years ago, when there was still a population of paalagi living in Funafuti. On weekends, these European residents and their South Pacific girlfriends would sail a catamaran out to Tepuka Savalivili with a picnic and beer, and spend the day snorkeling in the paradise that was their home.

Look, says Rolf, shrugging, it's no more.

Click here to view photos of Julia Whitty's World (PDF)


2007 Tour for Julia Whitty

Corte Madera, CA
Monday, May 7, 7 p.m.
Book Passage
51 Tamal Vista Blvd

Menlo Park, CA
Wednesday, May 9, 7:30 p.m.
1010 El Camino Real

Portland, OR
Thursday, May 10, 7:30 p.m.
Powell's Books
3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

Seattle, WA
Monday, May 14, 7:30 p.m.
Elliott Bay Book Company
101 South Main Street

Washington, D.C.
Thursday, May 17, 7 p.m.
Olssons (Courthouse Store)
2111 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22201

Sebastopol, CA
Tuesday, June 5, 7 p.m.
Copperfield's Books
139 Edman Way

San Francisco, CA
Tuesday, August 21, 2 and 7:30 p.m
California Academy of Sciences
875 Howard Street

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