Exclusive Preview: “The Truth of the Islands” from Ocean Country

Posted by – April 10, 2015
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Excerpt

by Liz Cunningham

Ocean_Country_CoverAfter a nearly fatal sea-kayaking accident, Liz Cunningham embarked on an odyssey both to regain her health and to learn more about the beloved ocean that nearly killed her. Along her way, she discovered a monumental crisis: the rapidly-degrading state of the seas threatens all life as we know it. 

Below is an excerpt is from her upcoming memoir, Ocean Country, which will be available at bookstores everywhere on September 8, 2015.

We hope you enjoy this exclusive preview!  


The Truth of the Islands

“Liz?” the divemaster said, reading from a clipboard.

“Here!” I called out. It was the next morning. The roll call, both before and after the dive, was a safety precaution.

I loved mornings on a dive boat: the clank of gear being attached to aluminum tanks, the bursts of air as regulators were tested.The boat chugged out into the calm, turquoise waters of Grace Bay to a site called Boneyard. Oh, I loved that place! A week before, the water had been so crystal clear that when we could see the contours of the ocean floor from the boat. A Canadian woman leaned over, saw the clarity of the water, and crooned,“Oh! This is going to be good!”

She had the distinctive habit of climbing out of the water and, dripping wet on the ladder, shouting out “I just can’t get enough of it down there!” The guys on the boat couldn’t resist teasing her that she was talking about sex. But who could deny that there was a hefty dose of Eros in our relationship with the beauty below? We returned to it again and again, our longing for it never fully satisfied.

I sat on the upper deck and remembered this spot from the week before. It was a series of deep sand channels, densely populated with coral.The finger coral were shaped like protruding stubby thumbs, and the large staghorn coral like the antlers of a deer. Hence its name, Boneyard.

Each cluster of coral had between twenty and a hundred finger coral and staghorn coral colonies, densely packed together. It was sometimes hard to even see the coral, because the schools of yellow grunts were so thick.There were hundreds of parrotfish in all kinds of colors—maroon and turquoise with magenta and yellow and deep blue markings—as well as damselfish and hamlets and grouper and neon-yellow trumpetfish. Turtles. Spotted rays. Sharks. As we motored out, I remember thinking that the waters of Grace Bay and the Point were the most deeply alive place I had ever experienced.

The boat slowed. One of the divemasters used a long pole to moor on to a buoy. “Okay kiddo, get in the water,” the divemaster said as he spot-checked my gear. I put the heel of my hand to my mask to keep it in place and took one long step off the edge of the back of the boat and into that world I so deeply cherished.

I exhaled and sank softly into the water. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to just feel the water river along my body.

Jeez, it’s warm.

I looked at my dive computer: 82 degrees Fahrenheit. I turned horizontal as I sank and looked down at the site, about forty feet below.

Where am I?

It was almost unrecognizable.The sand channels were there, but hardly a sign of life. Everywhere the coral was white and brown, with green-brown algae growing over it.There were a few small clusters of fish and an occasional lone fish, looking out of place. The coral had bleached.

I paused at a bed of staghorn coral.The week before, it had been filled with so many juvenile parrotfish and blue chromis that the water appeared to be filled with the “snow” I had described to Lizzie. Tiny brown-and-white damselfish and bright-yellow conies had cautiously peered out from the shelter of the staghorn coral’s antler-like structure. Small multicolored fish had darted mischievously, sometimes chasing each other, or had nibbled on a piece of coral, nestled in the safety of its tight matrix.

Now it was barren and whitish-gray, save for one oval blue tang that nibbled on the algae overgrowth.The other divers and I searched fruitlessly for a spot that might not be so damaged.

As I moved my fins slowly through the water, it felt as if I swam through the ashen remnants of a bombed-out cathedral. Each spot I remembered being deeply alive and illuminated with life. The mosaic of color was gone, only a white-brown monotone structure remaining, covered with algae. What was once brilliant was now muted and withered; what had shimmered was now grayed out; iridescent, now bleak and barren.

How could this happen in less than a week’s time?

The devastation was unmistakable. We swam through a landscape of millions upon millions of near-microscopic animals, ailing and dead, unable to support the multitude of life forms they once did. I paused at a yard-wide knob of brain coral.The week before, small black-and-white gobies had sped across its Aztec-like patterns. Next to it had been some bright magenta sea fans. A large school of yellow-and-silvery-white schoolmaster fish had hovered there.

The schoolmasters were gone. The sea fans were tattered, with a blackish overgrowth. Almost all of the brain coral was covered with algae. A small portion of the coral’s zigzag structure was visible, but it was a dark brown and white.

A French physician watched as I took a photograph of the brain coral. He looked at me with moribund eyes and then slowly ran his index finger across his throat from ear to ear, mimicking the slice of a guillotine. I opened the palms of my hands as if to say,“I’m not sure.”

Before getting back on the boat, I keep looking down to the reef. I still couldn’t quite believe it. It was incomprehensible.

Excerpted from Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham. (c) 2015, North Atlantic Books.

Tags: Biography & Memoir Liz Cunningham Oceans & Oceanography

About the Author

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2007, Julia was delighted to find out that “professional book recommender” was a job. She has been working in marketing and publicity with independent Bay Area publishers ever since. She joined North Atlantic Books in 2014. She lives with her husband and two very nice cats in Oakland.