Monday, May 3, 2010

Saved By The Sea: review of David Helvarg's new book

There are many books available that delve into the complexities of the oceans or detail the many facts and figures to document the threats faced by the oceans and the marine life within. But there are few that make a personal one-to-one connection. David Helvarg's new book, Saved By The Sea, is a fascinating look at a man's life and how the thread of the ocean is woven throughout.

David Helvarg, founder and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a Washington D.C.-based ocean conservation organization, is a journalist, diver, television producer, war-time correspondent, and even a private investigator. And so his perspective on the oceans and how it developed, is different from, say, that of a marine biologist or scientific researcher. This book is full of personal experiences that emphasize to the reader that mankind is connected to the sea, whether man knows it or not.

First and foremost, Saved By The Sea is an autobiography. Helvarg starts from his childhood in New York City in the early 50's and moves from there - to Florida, San Diego, San Francisco, Hawaii, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Alaska, Antarctic, Fiji, Belize, and many more locales - whether to reside, travel on vacation adventures, or work on assignment. And through this eclectic existence there is an aquatic arc that begins with New England's waterways, fueled by TV's Sea Hunt, author Rachel Carson, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and then Helvarg's own experiences as a young adult and working journalist, where he saw man's connection to the sea and how man was threatening the planet's greatest body of life.

"I came to appreciate the close connections between issues of war, development, population, poverty, and natural resource management, including management of the greater part of our blue world that's salt water."

The human condition is part exhilaration and part personal tragedy, and Helvarg reminds us of this with his relationship with Nancy Ledansky, an ardent adventurer who was his close companion for over ten years but who was lost to cancer. At this point in the book, I sensed a shift in Helvarg's life direction from someone who had seen many of the sea's wonders firsthand and then reported on the many adverse changes taking place, to someone who was now dedicating himself to activist change through the establishment of the Blue Frontier Campaign.

Many of us hope that with age comes a measure of wisdom - the end result of life's many ups and downs - and I could feel it at the close of Helvarg's book (perhaps I was searching for it, as he and I are the same age). Cynicism can be the evil cousin of wisdom but Helvarg keeps the spark alive as recounts the excitement of a dive at Anacapa Island in California:

"I am cold, wet, salty, and grinning like a fool. At moments like this, enveloped by the wonder of the everlasting sea, it's hard, despite the best available science, not to be optimistic."

But Helvarg does not escape from the hard truth: mankind has left his mark on the sea. And while there appears to be a growing ecological awareness, Helvarg leaves us with a question as to whether that rise will meet the ocean's decline in time.

"I'm not sure it will be enough to turn the tide. All I know for certain is that if we don't try, we lose. And this salty blue world of ours is too heart-achingly beautiful, scary, and sacred to lose. If you don't believe me, join the space program, travel out into the cosmos, and look back from the heavens. It's not God's green earth - it's God's blue marble."

While Saved By The Sea details many of the issues threatening the health of the oceans, it departs from many other ocean conservation books by retaining a very personal narrative - a man in love with life and in love with the sea. David Helvarg's impassioned writing gives us insight into what a life with a cause is all about.

Saved By The Sea will be available in leading bookstores on May 11.

No comments: