The best books to help you understand the amazing world of coral reefs

Sandy Sheehy Author Of Imperiled Reef: The Fascinating, Fragile Life of a Caribbean Wonder
By Sandy Sheehy

Who am I?

For more than four decades, Sandy Sheehy has been diving tropical coral reefs from the Caribbean to Australia. Starting when she was around five sitting in her pediatric dentist’s office where she noticed an aquarium stocked with colorful fish, her fascination with the underwater world has grown. Becoming a freelance journalist allowed her to call on experts and activists around the world to help her satisfy her curiosity and share what she learned.   


I wrote...

Imperiled Reef: The Fascinating, Fragile Life of a Caribbean Wonder

By Sandy Sheehy,

Book cover of Imperiled Reef: The Fascinating, Fragile Life of a Caribbean Wonder

What is my book about?

This book brings alive the richly diverse world of an underwater paradise: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Stretching 625 miles through the Caribbean Sea along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, this reef is the earth’s second-largest coral structure. Imperiled Reef searches out the breathtaking intricacies of this endangered ecological treasure and describes the restorative efforts of international organizations, individual philanthropists, and local communities in a highly readable form. 

The books I picked & why

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The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

By Cynthia Barnett,

Book cover of The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

Why this book?

In clear, evocative prose, Barnett describes the world of seashells and humans’ relationship to them. Her book was laced with “Who knew?” moments for me. For example, until recently people considered seashells a kind of rock, giving little thought to the creatures that built and inhabited them. Barnett explains the threat that rising carbon dioxide levels present to the formation and very existence of shells, but she never carps; and although she interjects some of her own experiences—and sense of wonder—she never lapses into making this book about her, rather than her subject.

The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

By Cynthia Barnett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sound of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Seashells have been the most coveted and collected of nature's creations for thousands of years. They were money before coins, jewellery before gems, art before canvas.

In The Sound of the Sea, Cynthia Barnett blends cultural history and environmental science to trace our long love affair with seashells and the hidden lives of the mollusks that make them. From the mysterious glow of giant clams to the surprising origin of Shell Oil as a family business importing exotic shells, the book is filled with unforgettable stories. As it explores the perfect symmetry of a Chambered Nautilus, the pink-glossed lip of…


The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs

By Charles Darwin, Thomas George Bonney,

Book cover of The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs

Why this book?

That’s right: that Charles Darwin, the author of The Origin of the Species. Seventeen years before that ground-shaking book, he wrote what marine scientists tell me remains the definitive work on the structure of coral reefs. Forget the famous Punch caricature of the gray-haired man trailing a long beard and a chimpanzee and think of the youthful naturalist daring crashing waves to vault to the edge of a South Pacific fringe reef. In places his accounts read like True Adventures for Boys.   

The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs

By Charles Darwin, Thomas George Bonney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

By Sy Montgomery,

Book cover of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

Why this book?

Granted, Montgomery anthropomorphizes throughout this book, attributing all sorts of cognition and emotion to these fascinating cephalopods; but this book is so charming, partly because she captures her own awe so well, that I put aside my skepticism and enjoyed The Soul of an Octopus for what it unquestionably is: a great read.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

By Sy Montgomery,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Soul of an Octopus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus does for the creature what Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk did for raptors' New Statesman
'Charming and moving...with extraordinary scientific research' Guardian
'An engaging work of natural science... There is clearly something about the octopus's weird beauty that fires the imaginations of explorers, scientists, writers' Daily Mail

In 2011 Sy Montgomery wrote a feature for Orion magazine entitled 'Deep Intellect' about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death. It went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since…

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

By Juli Berwald,

Book cover of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Why this book?

As much memoir as natural history, Spineless is an artful example of intertwining the two. Berwald makes the evolution and environmental adaptation of jellyfish fascinating; but what struck me most was her candid, even courageous, description of her route to becoming a scientist and the way in which serious, focused exploration of the natural world can guide and stabilize one’s personal life. The book has one of the most arrestingly beautiful covers I’ve ever seen.

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

By Juli Berwald,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Spineless as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures From the Census of Marine Life

By Nancy Knowlton,

Book cover of Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures From the Census of Marine Life

Why this book?

Unlike the books I’ve recommended above, Citizens of the Sea is packed with gorgeous four-color photographs by some of the world’s top underwater photographers. The close-ups are downright amazing. National Geographic made a brilliant call in having Nancy Knowlton write the text. Not only is she a renowned coral reef biologist and the former Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian National Museum for Natural History, she also writes so lucidly and engagingly that even her articles for peer-reviewed journals make engrossing reading. 

Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures From the Census of Marine Life

By Nancy Knowlton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Citizens of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The astonishing diversity of ocean life will wow you in this riveting book, perfect for all ages, by marine scientist Nancy Knowlton. Citizens of the Sea reveals the most intriguing organisms in the ocean, captured in action by skilled underwater photographers from National Geographic and the Census of Marine Life. As you read lively vignettes about sea creatures' names, defenses, migration, mating habits, and more, you'll be amazed at wonders like; The almost inconceivable number of creatures in the marine world. From the bounty of microbes in one drop of seawater, we can calculate that there are more individuals in…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in coral reefs, jellyfish, and the ocean?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about coral reefs, jellyfish, and the ocean.

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