Deep Blue Home
Deep Blue HomeJulia Whitty
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $24
I was once told that good journalism is not just a matter of eloquently rendering facts on paper, and that the most important starting point is not a list of the sharpest questions. The best journalists start with their noses, their taste buds, their skin: they use their entire being to capture a place in time that lifts off the page through sensory detail, transforming a story into a living picture worth more than its weight in words.
Julia Whitty's Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean does exactly that. Whitty, a former documentary filmmaker, has successfully parlayed her sense for the sounds and sights that make for good film footage into literary nonfiction as an environment correspondent for Mother Jones and as a book writer. (She is also the author of The Fragile Edge, which won the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing in 2008.) Deep Blue Home is Whitty's laudable attempt at nothing less than a natural history of the entire ocean.
Her tale is part ecological survey, part travelogue, and part personal plea for earth's beleaguered seas, and she relies on a combination of her own journey and the relationships that make up the oceanic web of life to lead her reader through interludes with the living and nonliving alike: overwintering migratory birds, coral polyps, bioluminescent plankton, leatherback turtles, charging bull sperm whales, deep sea vents, and even the bountiful 100-year-long oceanic buffet that is a dead and descending whale carcass.
Deep Blue Home is told in three parts. The first describes a single summer in 1980 spent working as a field scientist's research assistant on Mexico's Isla Rasa, a tiny bird colony in the Gulf of California, where life, land, and ocean have co-evolved over millennia. The second part opens four years later, as Whitty begins to establish her career as a filmmaker chasing whales off the coast of Newfoundland near the Grand Banks.
From there, the narrative breaks from Whitty's adventures and begins to follow the path of the nonhuman. The natural progression of food chains, geochemical cycles, and ocean-atmosphere physics leads the reader to the Galápagos, back to the Grand Banks, and over to Cape Cod, with a pit stop in the research submersible Alvin, gathering mud samples in the deepest Pacific along the way, looking for, among other things, new and undocumented forms of life.
Whereas parts one and two are approximately equal in length, part three is a mere 15 pages and is set back in Baja California, this time wholly on dry land and mostly on the backs of burros and crouching in caves, contemplating prehistoric artwork depicting creatures of the land and sea cavorting side by side: symbolic, in Whitty's view, of how detached we have become from the recognition that all life is intertwined. It's Whitty's final entreaty to consider a more harmonious, less exploitative, coexistence with our friends from the deep.
Threading together a narrative about a system that is as vast and complex as the entire ocean is about as straightforward as sitting down to tell a story about all of your friends and everyone they know. Whitty wisely chooses to set the entirety of her story in the present tense, affording herself the ability to weave in relevant historical detail as well as telescope the reader into the future, providing key bits of information about the effectiveness (or not) of national and international laws passed to protect the creatures whose lives she details.
The problem with all of this jumping about is that it often leads to the disorienting sensation of being on vacation in a foreign place without any sort of an itinerary: there are delightfully indulgent days spent lingering in unexpected places, and others tinged with anxiety stemming from the unsettling notion that you have no idea where you're going.
The greatest thrills come when Whitty settles into a single place and allows you to drink in its otherness in detail rendered so sharply and judiciously you wonder how her field notebook could have possibly captured so many senses at once. In her world, the terns and gulls of Isla Rasa -- including those that have not yet hatched from their eggs -- moan, grunt, pip, hiss, and peep in a multispecies language, as if "all the tongues you hear on the New York City subway were not just those of humans but also those of our relatives -- gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans...a loud, loquacious, repetitive, insistent, hurried, harried, and vital discourse."
If that is not a picture, I'm not sure what is.