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Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis

Author takes readers on a transformative journey into the deep

By Caley Moore

Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis
By Alanna Mitchell
(McClelland & Stewart) $32.99

Half of our oxygen — “every second breath,” as Alanna Mitchell describes it comes to us courtesy of plankton, the tiny creatures at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. Our fate hinges on their fate, a dependence few of us land dwellers have fully grasped. While climate change has vaulted to public consciousness, little attention has yet been paid to how the carbon overload will affect the ocean, whose waters form 99 percent of the world’s living space. As Mitchell chronicles in her latest book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, the implications are huge.   

“As goes the ocean, so goes life,” she writes. And by various measurements — oxygen, acidity, fecundity — the ocean is struggling. Travelling from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to a Tanzanian shellfish farm and talking to scientists at the leading edge of marine research, Mitchell reads the ocean’s vital signs. All point to an impending crisis — a threshold beyond which life as we know it ends and a new system takes hold.

That’s the bad news, and it’s staggering. But Sea Sick allows for glimmers of good. One of the book’s most memorable scenes is Mitchell’s eyewitness account of the mysterious breeding habits of the planet’s corals, who release their spawn en masse in an annual free-for-all minutely timed to the rhythms of the moon. Floating in the “electric waters” with a team of research divers, she marvels at the “exquisite hope” in the age-old rite.

As in her last book, Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World's Environmental Hotspots, Mitchell makes science personal, conveying abstract concepts through simple but striking imagery. “Like the blood in your body, the ocean waters are constantly on the move,” she writes. “You have no blood that is only of the brain or only of the thumb. There is no sea water that is only of the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. There is only one ocean and it is a single system chemically, physically and biologically.” And even a system as vast as the ocean has limits.

Sea Sick is a transformative journey to the deeps for the reader as much as the author. One hopes a collective epiphany is in the offing.


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