In her brilliant study of the relatively little-known lives of jellyfish, Spineless, science writer Juli Berwald traveled the world to explore the intimate connections between the health of our oceans and the ways that these luminescent creatures adapt to rapidly changing marine conditions. Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs now does for coral reefs what Spineless did for jellyfish: offers a love letter to their resplendent beauty, issues a warning about their dire future and holds out cautious hope that they can flourish once again.
Berwald first entered the fairyland of the coral reef when she was contemplating a career in marine biology and snorkeling in the Red Sea. “It was love at first sight,” she writes, “for my part anyway. I’m pretty confident the corals felt nothing more than the waft of a current rolling off my flapping fins as I struggled to control my movements.” The beauty and intricate ecology of that reef stayed with her, and a decade later—as a science writer rather than a marine biologist—Berwald took a cruise to the Bahamas in hopes of seeing the splendor of a coral reef again. To her chagrin, she only found “broken and displaced piles of rubble.”
In her quest to find out what is killing the world’s coral reefs and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the damage, Berwald met with scientists in Florida, California and Bali, among other destinations. In Florida, for example, she learned that stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is eating up to 2 inches of coral tissue per day. Other factors contributing to the loss of coral reefs include “overfishing, sedimentation from coastal erosion, ship anchors leaving scars, pollution from pesticide runoff and untreated sewage, unrelenting oil spills, and ever larger hurricanes.” The world’s great coral reefs, she learned, may cease to exist by 2050.
Despite such a dire prognosis, Berwald also learned that the public and private sectors are developing strategies—such as growing coral in nurseries and placing coral larvae on substrates designed to give them a head start—for restoring coral reefs. Along the way, she intersperses fiercely tender stories of her daughter’s struggle to receive treatment for her mental illness with these discoveries about coral reefs, offering thoughtful reflections about what can and can’t be known about the problems we face.
Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs. As Berwald immerses readers in a glimmering undersea world, she also encourages them to discover ways they can support efforts to preserve the reefs, which play a key role in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of our oceans.