Let’s face it: Most people aren’t reading Dostoyevsky at the beach.
Amid the bright sunshine and lapping waves, it’s easier to page through a grocery-store romance novel than focus on a dense book that is unconnected to your surroundings. But here’s a thought: Let the sea inspire you to learn more about it.
With that in mind, here are seven marine-themed page-turners recommended by Conservation International staff who work on ocean issues around the globe.
1. “The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea,” by Philip Hoare
A beautifully written account of man’s interactions with whales over time. It includes a fascinating and passionate description of the biology and remarkable abilities that make whales so special, as well as the history of the whaling industry, with quotes from “Moby Dick” scattered throughout.
— Keith Lawrence, senior director of CI’s seascapes program
2. “An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake,” by Tom Horton
When you grow up in Baltimore, you eat steamed blue crabs in the summertime. It’s just what you do. But despite all the crab feasts, with parents and aunts and uncles arguing over the best way to pick a crab, people rarely think about where these crabs come from and who caught them.
This book, by longtime Baltimore Sun writer Tom Horton, illuminates one of the many towns on the Chesapeake Bay that depends on fishing for its livelihood. He offers a glimpse of this unique community that lives and dies on the bounty the bay provides. The community has changed since the book was published 20 years ago, but that doesn’t take away from the beauty and charm Horton conveys on the page — especially regarding the Smith Island eight-layer chocolate cake.
— Kevin Connor, CI senior media relations manager
3. “The Old Man and the Sea,” by Ernest Hemingway
A short but completely mesmerizing read. Hemingway invites the reader to witness a fisherman’s intimate relationship with the sea in a way that few of us would imagine, let alone experience. As you sit on the beach and read this, you won’t be able to help gazing beyond the waves and thinking not only about the biological complexity of the ocean, but also the psychological complexity of humans.
— Johanna Polsenberg, director of the Ocean Health Index
4. “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction,” by David Quammen
Although not strictly an “ocean” book, this is a highly readable book that provides insight gleaned from islands about evolution and ecology — insight we should heed as human activities continue to carve up the world’s natural areas into ever-smaller “islands.”
— Scott Henderson, vice president of CI’s Americas field division marine program
5. “Sailing In The Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging,” by Ben R. Finney
This book tells the story of Hawaiians and Polynesians struggling to revive ocean voyaging, and how their experiences help them to resolve contemporary problems with renewed pride and courage. The book is especially poignant for me as I witness the journey of the Hōkūle’a, a Polynesian voyaging canoe that is currently on a worldwide voyage spreading the message of Mālama Honua (“caring for our island Earth”).
— Kehau Springer, coastal community capacity development advisor for CI Hawai‘i
6. “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” by Paul Greenberg
This book on fisheries, markets and consumption provides good case studies on both challenges and solutions. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to use their purchasing power to make more responsible choices.
— Jack Kittinger, director of CI Hawai‘i
7. “A Pattern of Islands,” by Arthur Grimble
A 1930s account of Kiribati at the time of colonization, only recently back in print. A great description of “ocean people” and culture.
— Greg Stone, executive vice president of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans
Even if your summer plans don’t include the beach — or if it’s not summer where you are — these picks will help you better understand the world’s largest biome.
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.