By Dan Shapley
By Dan Shapley News Editor As an author and documentary film maker, Julia Whitty is tough as a hammerhead shark, having tackled such subjects as the human-induced mass extinction she describes sweeping across the Earth in this month's cover story in Mother Jones magazine. Though her new book about the remote South Pacific coral atolls, "The Fragile Edge," published today by Houghton Mifflin, isn't without a sharp edge, it is as inviting as a tropical lagoon. The book weaves elements of travelogue, spiritual guide and personal history with science, conservation and, of course, vivid descriptions of scuba diving. The writing is so luscious, this book is beach reading no matter how far from the ocean the reader sits, as the author's concerns about the fate of coral reefs inch up only slowly, like the lapping waves of an incoming tide. She doesn't tell you that the low-lying coral atolls featured in the book will be submerged by rising seas until you've befriended some of the islanders (and fish-hunting packs of semi-domesticated dogs) that call it home. In the same way, she uses the eye of a videographer to thoroughly immerse the reader in the otherworldly color and character of the coral reefs before she mentions the threats these hotbeds of life face. Regrettably, the list is long -- from coastal development, and pesticide and fertilizer runoff, to the overfishing of the reef nurseries for exotic Asian food markets and neighborhood U.S. pet stores. The overriding threat is none other than global warming, as both the temperature increase and acidification of water from carbon dioxide is leading to the death of the fragile coral environments. In "The Fragile Edge," Whitty describes the process of volcanic creation and erosion that, over millions of years, leads to the formation of coral atolls, which today "mark the place where the inner earth was once connected through the umbilicus of a magma tube to the outer earth." Compared to the vastness of that expanse of time, humans are changing the reef environment in a blink of an eye. Despite the myriad threats, and the many reefs that have already been lost, Whitty sees hope particularly in the sudden spike of concern about global warming. "I firmly, firmly believe that the time is really here and really now for every one of us to take responsibility for our footprint. We do this within the bounds of our own financial and physical restrictions," Whitty told The Daily Green in an interview last week. "I've been talking about this for 25 years and now suddenly people are paying attention," she said. "We have the combined focus turning this way." And there's good news for people inspired by her vivid writing. Despite the sometimes unflattering portrait of American tourists she paints in her book, Whitty said, ecotourism holds great promise. "I think there is a way to be responsible tourists," she said. "There is some really good responsible ecotourism that is being done. But it does need to be regulated." For those inclined to stay home, Whitty's book is a vacation experience to another world. Here's how she describes the experience of diving in the vicinity of powerful rip tides called mascaret
: "Those of us who come to Rangiroa dive its edges, where the noise of the rip tide rumbles beneath the brighter soundtrack of the sea, the snapping, clicking, rasping, buzzing, squealing, and grunting of fish, shrimp, clams and corals at work. For these creatures, the waxing and waning of the mascaret
is an external force akin to a combined circulatory and respiratory system -- an enormous set of oceanic lungs inhaling and exhaling four times a day, pausing briefly at slacktide."