The best books on being a coral reef scientist

Peter F. Sale Author Of Coral Reefs: Majestic Realms Under the Sea
By Peter F. Sale

Who am I?

Peter Sale has managed to spend an entire career exploring coral reefs, perhaps the most fascinating ecosystem on this planet.  From 1964 when he commenced a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, through faculty positions in Australia, the USA, and Canada, and with a final stint with the United Nations University, he has been able to explore the wonders of coral reef systems in many places around the world.  His life has been rewarding, because of the new science he did, the students and colleagues he worked with, and the sheer joy he experienced diving on reefs. His many technical writings include the 1991 book, The Ecology of Fishes on Coral Reefs, which became a classic among reef researchers, students, and some sport divers.


I wrote...

Coral Reefs: Majestic Realms Under the Sea

By Peter F. Sale,

Book cover of Coral Reefs: Majestic Realms Under the Sea

What is my book about?

Coral reefs are disappearing from this planet. After nearly two decades of speaking out and writing about how we were erasing coral reefs, it finally dawned on me. Telling people the bad news, again and again, and again, was not causing people to rise up to stop our mistreatment. Reefs were not important to most people, because most people do not know them! 

In Coral Reefs, I take the time to tell some of the amazing stories that make coral reefs the fascinating places they are -- miraculous, unexpected, transitory, very old yet quite young, and peopled by a rich cast of residents whose lives continually amaze, amuse, and seduce the person who understands. I then talk about why reefs matter, and about what we need to do to keep them with us. This book celebrates reefs and the scientists who have learned about them, while also exploring wider questions like our relationship to the rest of the biosphere and what we must do to combat climate change.

The books I picked & why

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A Life Underwater

By Charlie Veron,

Book cover of A Life Underwater

Why this book?

Dr. John E.N. Veron, called Charlie by everyone who knows him, is an Australian coral reef scientist. He is also the person who single-handedly sorted out the names of the corals in the 1980s by emphasizing the study of corals in their natural habitats on reefs. Prior taxonomy, based on dried, cleaned bits of skeletons, had resulted in much confusion given the considerable plasticity of the form of corals growing in different reef habitats. This book is Charlie’s account of his life as a marine scientist, from his earliest exploring of rocky shores near Sydney to his numerous expeditions to reefs around the world over the course of his career. 

His love of the natural world, his curiosity and willingness to take risks, and his dogged determination in solving scientific puzzles stand out. So too do his humor, his down-to-earth Australian-ness, and his loving respect for corals, for reefs, and for the biosphere of which they are a part.


Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease

By Drew Harvell,

Book cover of Ocean Outbreak: Confronting the Rising Tide of Marine Disease

Why this book?

Dr. C. Drew Harvell is an American marine biologist who has worked extensively on the diseases of corals and other marine organisms. She starts this book with an urgent e-mail in December 2013 – sea stars were dying in Monterey, California, and Drew dropped everything to race off to find out what she could.  That is not an exaggeration. In recent years, her life has been like that. While the book deals with serious diseases having huge consequences for various marine organisms, it also reveals the way in which marine biologists can be immersed in their work yet love every minute and find ways to marvel at the mystery that is life on this planet. 

An outstanding teacher as well as researcher, Drew’s ability to captivate, then skillfully mentor students, comes through loud and clear. She captivates us too, making the subject of marine diseases (of organisms most of us scarcely think of) important, disturbing, worthy of our concern.  Along the way, she inspires confidence and hope for the future.


Words of the Lagoon: Fishing and Marine Lore in the Palau District of Micronesia

By R.E. Johannes,

Book cover of Words of the Lagoon: Fishing and Marine Lore in the Palau District of Micronesia

Why this book?

There has been growing recognition that our scientific understanding of environmental matters can be enhanced if we would only listen to the wisdom of indigenous peoples. This recognition only occasionally leads to a serious effort by environmental scientists to learn from indigenous peoples. Dr. Robert Johannes was a tropical fisheries biologist who, in the mid-1970s, was well ahead of his time when he took time out of a busy academic career to spend a couple of years on tiny, remote islands in Palau, Micronesia to learn from elders how to catch fish. This book is a non-technical account of what he learned. It reveals the considerable depth of knowledge on fishes, their habits, and effective ways to catch them that Micronesian natives possessed, and it also reveals the humility and humanity of its author. 

After this experience, Johannes devoted the rest of his career to ensuring that traditional knowledge was sought out and valued by those who attempted to manage coral reef fisheries. It is a wonderful example of a reef scientist who thought outside the box.


Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir

By Callum Roberts,

Book cover of Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir

Why this book?

Dr. Callum Roberts is a British marine biologist who has worked primarily in marine conservation. Like many British coral reef scientists, he got his start in the Red Sea rather than the Caribbean or the Pacific. The cultures of the middle east can make reef research there just a little bit different than elsewhere. This book is his memoir of a wonderful life exploring coral reefs that began, surprisingly, in the wilds of Scotland and took shape once he began his undergraduate studies in 1980. By then our impacts on coral reefs were becoming quite stark and this book does not shrink from the bad news. But it also captures his sheer joy in exploring coral reefs, his good humor and creativity as he grows from young student to research leader, and his concern to do what he can to keep coral reefs with us.


Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink

By Irus Braverman,

Book cover of Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink

Why this book?

Not a book written by a coral reef biologist, this is a book by a non-scientist about how coral reef scientists cope with the knowledge that our degradation of reef ecosystems around the world is close to terminal. Our impacts on reefs, through climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, pollution, and many other forms of local disrespect have been going on ever since reef research really took off in the early 1960s, following the invention of SCUBA by Jacques Cousteau. Irus Braverman learned to dive in 1989 when she lived in Israel; the first reefs she saw were in the Red Sea. She loved diving, but it was only much later, 2015, when she began to wonder about what was happening to reefs, and how that might affect the scientists who have devoted their lives to exploring these captivating places. 

A series of interviews and some travel to reefs provided the information from which she has woven an accurate account of the special challenges of being a coral reef scientist in the 21st century. She presents the story of reefs through the eyes of scientists wrestling daily with a crisis, yet somehow, collectively, maintaining some hope that we and reefs will be able to scrape through.


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