The best coral reef books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about coral reefs and why they recommend each book.

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Coral Empire

By Ann Elias,

Book cover of Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity

Ann Elias demonstrates how visual media – photography, film, art, and museum displays – re-cast coral reefs in the early 20th century from dangers to navigation into fantastical but familiar and inviting spectacles. Coral Empire reveals photographers, artists, and scientific explorers as they rendered the undersea modern yet colonial. Using technology, indigenous knowledge, and their own visions, they presented the oceans as wild, untouched spaces full of resources that invited exploitation, conquest, and tourism. Desire-fueled uses of the undersea obscured the destructive nature of human activities on coral reefs, now abundantly apparent, while the power of the visual for imagining and knowing the undersea remains.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated with the ocean starting when I was a kid growing up on the Great Lakes. While I sailed and swam in Lake Erie’s freshwater, I dreamed of and read about oceans. My career as a historian and writer has been dedicated to exploring the human relationship with the ocean, especially the underwater realm so often left out of maritime history and literature. My greatest joy is that other historians have joined my quest. The books I’ve selected include some I used as sources in writing ocean history and others by historians who are themselves plumbing the ocean’s depths. 


I wrote...

Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans

By Helen M. Rozwadowski,

Book cover of Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans

What is my book about?

Much of human experience can be distilled to saltwater: tears, sweat, and an enduring connection to the sea. Vast Expanses weaves a cultural, environmental, and geopolitical history of that relationship, a journey of tides and titanic forces reaching around the globe and across geological and evolutionary time.

Our deepening knowledge of the ocean has animated and strengthened connections between people and the world’s seas. To understand this history we must address questions of how, by whom, and why knowledge of the ocean was created and used—and how we create and use this knowledge today. Only then can we can forge a healthier relationship with our future sea.

The Fragile Edge

By Julia Whitty,

Book cover of The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific

The relationship between ourselves and the sea is commonly constrained by beaches and tides. But Julia Whitty, deep-sea diver, and filmmaker opens the mind to the richness of deep waters through the scientific and soulful journeys she poetically shares in this book. Her time spent working in the South Pacific allows an expansion of our own experiences of the wild world. The delicate relationships of life’s many forms, from whales and sharks to rays and coral, contained within Earth’s liquid artistry, offers an opportunity to enrich our understanding of connections we seldom perceive but which, once acknowledged, expand the perception of life’s wealth.

Who am I?

I am a geologist who studies the origin and evolution of continents, which has required traveling the world to conduct fieldwork. Most of that experience has focused on Greenland and the wilderness fringe that bounds the inland ice cap. For weeks at a time, I and two colleagues, John Korstgård and Kai Sørensen, camp in some of the world’s greatest wilderness landscapes. Over years of such research, I have come to treasure the exquisite emotional power fieldwork in wilderness settings provides. It is the most direct way to begin the journey of understanding the place of humanity in the unfolding progress of cosmic evolution and was the impetus for my recent book.


I wrote...

A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice

By William E. Glassley,

Book cover of A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice

What is my book about?

Conducting research in Greenland requires living in the wilderness for weeks at a time. The isolation from the rest of the world gifts the researcher with such deep experiences of nature that they transform how one sees existence. In this book, I describe the emotional experiences that were the incessant background to the scientific enterprise we undertook. Expedition after expedition laid bare the power of the natural world when it is free of the superficial human impacts mankind invariably imposes on a place.

The book is an homage to wild places, the emotional truths they convey, and the importance of preserving what is left of them.

A Life Underwater

By Charlie Veron,

Book cover of A Life Underwater

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…


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.

Words of the Lagoon

By R.E. Johannes,

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

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…


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.

Reef Life

By Callum Roberts,

Book cover of Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir

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.


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.

Spineless

By Juli Berwald,

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

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.


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 Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs

By Charles Darwin, Thomas George Bonney,

Book cover of The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs

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.   


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. 

Science Comics

By Mairghread Scott, Jacob Chabot (illustrator),

Book cover of Science Comics: Robots and Drones: Past, Present, and Future

These educational comics are perfect for kids who devour non-fiction books and graphic novels! I especially liked this book because it touches on drones as well as typical robots. I read this book when I was doing research for my own book, T-Bone the Drone, and found it extremely helpful in seeing how another author explained robotics in a kid-friendly way.

Who am I?

My kid side loves robots and the possibilities they bring! My author side enjoys exploring what makes a reader “care” for a character that’s human, animal, and machine alike. And my parent side is ever interested in childhood with technology – the bad AND the good. Childhood today is very different from the childhood I experienced, but that doesn’t mean my experience was better, more correct, or even healthier. It’s just different! Kids today will remember their childhoods just as fondly as I remember mine. I aim to celebrate kids today and not to demonize the reality of their tech-infused world. I believe this list does just that!


I wrote...

Doll-E 1.0

By Shanda McCloskey,

Book cover of Doll-E 1.0

What is my book about?

Charlotte's world is fully charged! With her dog at her side, she's always tinkering, coding, clicking, and downloading. She's got a knack for anything technological--especially gadgets that her parents don't know how to fix! Then, she receives a new toy that is quite a puzzle: a doll! What's she supposed to do with that? Once she discovers the doll's hidden battery pack, things start to get interesting...while her faithful canine sidekick wonders if he'll be overshadowed by the new and improved Doll-E 1.0! With a little ingenuity and an open mind, everyone can be friends in this endearing, modern tribute to the creative spirit of play.

The Sound of the Sea

By Cynthia Barnett,

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

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.


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. 

Ocean Outbreak

By Drew Harvell,

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

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…


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.

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