Book club: ‘Coral Whisperers’ by Irus Braverman

A fascinating insight into the plight of those fighting to save coral reefs in our rapidly changing world.

A scuba diver tends to an open water coral nursery, one of many potential solutions to helping save coral reefs

In her 2018 book ‘Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink’ environmental lawyer Irus Braverman explores the complex issues facing corals today, through the eyes of those who know them best. After carrying out over 100 interviews with coral scientists, lawmakers, conservationists and other enthusiasts, Braverman pulls back the curtains surrounding coral research to reveal what is really going on during one of the most critical points in environmental history. Not only does this expose the rarely seen emotional side of coral science, but also deep divisions among a community of researchers with wildly varying views on how to fix things. Ultimately this fantastic book is an examination of the shared existential crisis of coral scientists as they oscillate between despair and hope.

What makes ‘Coral Whisperers’ such a compelling read is the unique way the author, who is not an expert in her own right, uses conversations with coral experts to paint a comprehensive picture of the issues corals face. However, rather than just sharing the transcripts from her many interviews with researchers and conservationists, she instead refers back to them whilst telling a compelling narrative that explores all the angles of the coral crisis.

As a result the reader gets a glimpse into many different issues that cause the death of corals, such as rising temperatures, ocean acidification, disease, overfishing, pollution and a lack of legal protection. As well as the attempts to fix these problems, such as coral nurseries, artificial selection, genetic modification and mitigating climate change. All of which is explained in an easy to understand way, without ignoring the complex and normally confusing scientific principles that underpin them.

A coral researcher tends to coral fragments during a laboratory experiment into thermal tolerance

Another result of talking to so many experts, each with their own unique experiences and viewpoints, is that it has allowed Braverman to uncover a surprising amount of conflict between coral scientists. It turns out that there are many different and heated opinions on what the community should be doing to help save corals, which in turn exposes a significant divide in both the age and gender of those working in the field. This is highlighted in six in-depth interviews with some of the most knowledgeable players in the world of corals, including Peter Sale, Ove Hugh-Guldberg, Ken Nedimyer and the late Ruth Gates, who each have their own interpretations on what is needed to save corals.

The conflict within the world of coral research and conservation also highlights a much deeply rooted issue, which Braverman describes as a swinging pendulum between hope and despair. Through this metaphor we can see how the strong emotional connections between scientists and the creatures they are trying to save, causes them to be trapped in a cycle of environmental catastrophe and optimism for the future. This is of course a problem experienced by more and more people every day, which provides this science focused story with a much needed human connection and makes for some compelling reading.

A shoal of fish swim through a field of bleached coral after heatwaves in 2016

Overall ‘Coral Whisperers’ provides a fresh and in-depth take on coral science and conservation. The greatest praise I can give it is that if anybody really wants to know what is going on with corals today, I would recommend this book.

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This review is the ninth in our new Marine Madness Book Club! At the beginning of every month we will be releasing a new review of an ocean inspired book and encouraging you to let us know what you think in the comments and via social media. To find out more visit the Book Club page here.

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