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Deep Blue Home

J U L I A  W H I T T Y


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Read an excerpt in The Paris Review

Read an excerpt in Harper's

Best of Nonfiction Washington Post, finalist Orion Book Award, Commonwealth Club Book Award, Northern California Book Award 

A penetrating exploration of the ocean as single vast current, a watery force connected to the earth’s climate control and so to the eventual fate of the human race. Whitty’s thirty-year career as a documentary filmmaker and diver has given her sustained access to the scientists dedicated to the study of an astonishing range of ocean life, from the physiology of “extremophile” life forms to the strategies of nesting seabirds to the ecology of “whale falls” (what happens upon the death of a behemoth). No stranger to extreme adventure, Whitty travels the oceanside and underwater world from the Sea of Cortez to Newfoundland to Antarctica. In the Galapagos, in one of the book’s most haunting encounters, she realizes: “I am about to learn the answer to my long-standing question about what would happen to a person in the water if a whale sounded directly alongside—would she, like a person afloat beside a sinking ship, be dragged under too?” This book provides extraordinary armchair entree to gripping adventure, cutting-edge science, and an intimate understanding of our deep blue home.

JULIA WHITTY'S "DEEP BLUE HOME" IS A DREAM OF A BOOK, vivid yet languorous, rich in detail, richer still in emotional impact. By anchoring her wide-ranging meditation to personal memories of a decades-distant season of ornithological research in the Gulf of California, Whitty distills the oceanic vastness into something bright, enticing and just manageable enough to be captured in a bottle. She also crystallizes the particular frustration of scientists who, while striving to understand the complex webs of marine life, have watched them torn asunder faster than they can be catalogued, let alone conserved. "Deep Blue Home" can be trancelike. Whitty, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, unspools scores of vignettes of life in remote biological research camps and on film shoots throughout the world's oceans, and intersperses these with allegorical references to Hindu mythology and some of the finest scientific descriptions of sea life and ocean dynamics that this former oceanographer has ever read. But the surprise is that an author who is still young can narrate from firsthand observation the passage of the ocean from vast and inexhaustible to something still wonderful but diminished, like a penned bison or an ailing King Lear. Thomas Hayden, Washington Post

JULIA WHITTY HAS A WAY OF OBSERVING NATURE THAT IS NOT SELF-REVERENTIAL. She writes with humor, reverence, true curiosity and an unfettered imagination. She is not afraid to be disoriented or in a state of permanent awe. "Deep Blue Home" begins with a season of field work on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California. With two biologists, both women, she studied leatherback sea turtles and Heermann's gulls. In spite of their isolation, "our generation of scientists," she writes, is "shaped by the inescapable responsibility of studying wild animals in wild settings forever diminished by our kind." In the absence of men, the three "abandon grooming routines." Whitty's thinking about her fieldwork in Baja is informed by various readings from Hindu and Buddhist texts. In Sanskrit, she writes "rasa refers to a cosmic dance performed by the dairymaids …around the still center of Krishna." In the Upanishads, "rasa" refers to "the essence or flavor of something with great emotional effect, something existing beyond the senses." Whitty's work also takes her to Newfoundland, where she observes migratory birds and humpback whales. She thinks about the Vikings and the Inuit. The word "rasa" follows her there, with new meanings—from the Rig Veda, it refers to the name of a "mythical river flowing around the world, uniting the land, the sea, and the air." To the ancient Greeks, the word means "a uniting, circulating life force." Whitty travels with words, refining her ideas, observing the natural world—"the carefree life of a sea tramp …in migration much of the time with only a few dollars in my pocket and only a vague notion of how I'll get home again." Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

AS A DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER and diver for three decades, Julia Whitty has plumbed the Earth’s oceans from the Sea of Cortez to Newfoundland to Antarctica. Breathtakingly learned and lyrical, her new account, Deep Blue Home, offers oceanic revelations, from the ancient lineage of leatherback turtles (“inhabitant of the deep blue home for at least 110 million years”) to the sexual secrets of barnacles (“not only are barnacles hermaphrodites, with two sets of genitalia, they are also in possession of the longest penis in relation to body size of any animal on Earth, up to eight times their body length”) to the single coursing current of the deep ocean river and its critical role in our collective fate. Don George, National Geographic Traveler

PART ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY, PART HIGH-SEAS DRAMA, part mythology, ecology, and cultural history, this is a crowded book that chronicles the author’s meanderings from Baja California to Newfoundland, the Galápagos, and back to Baja again. The exploration is not only across the surface; Whitty takes us high up in the air where terns mate, and down three thousand feet where gulper eels nibble on whale carcasses that have, after a long, slow-motion descent, collapsed at last against the ocean floor. Ultimately, what holds the book together is Whitty’s sensibility and sentence making, her continuous probing of ocean depths and the ways biology, mythology, ecology, and history are so inexorably interwoven. She not only conveys the long-range shifts in ecosystems, reshufflings of inhabitants and resources, but also illustrates them with details about barnacle penises and bivalves so delicate “they simply disintegrate when touched.” But this is a book, finally, that goes beyond the felicities of description and into the seriousness of warnings about habitat plunder and species decline. Though Whitty may keep herself from becoming a shrill alarmist by repeating the Buddhist refrain “everything arises, everything falls away,” her weaving of science and poetry accumulates until we cannot help but ask how we are to live in the face of such deterioration. Wisely, she has no clear answer, and her concern, of course, isn’t new. What is new here is the brush-up-against-it intimacy with what’s fast disappearing and how that might affect us all. This work is a compelling reminder that for eons the countless creatures of the world have managed to live together in some messily delicate agreements. It’s from that awareness, Whitty suggests, that we might begin to consider that the sea is, in fact, more our home than most of us dreamed possible and to treat it as such. Barbara Hurd, Orion Magazine

IN DEEP BLUE HOME WHITTY SHOWS OFF HER STORYTELLING PROWESS. The book begins on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California, where she spent a field season, studying royal terns, along with researcher Enriqueta Velarde, then a graduate student completing her dissertation on the breeding colony of Heerman’s gulls. Young, unattached, intellectually voracious, and personally adventurous, Whitty is open to the wealth of biodiversity and human experience the island offers. Originally brought to the island for bird research, she packed her snorkel, too, and so spends time under the sea as well. Her filmmaker’s eye catches everything from the tiniest plankton to fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals. After introducing her passion for nature and open water,Whitty travels the globe, from the frigid waters of Newfoundland, watching icebergs float south to melt, in 1984, to the Galapagos, where she films whales in 1987, then to the Hydrate Ridge, 50 miles off Oregon’s coast, to look for extremophiles, in 2006. These organisms of the chemical soup known as a “cold seep” are too far from sunlight to rely on photosynthesis; they live instead by chemosynthesis in a frigid environment of methane and hydrogen sulfide. The depiction of this underwater life is fascinating—inhabited as it is by both mammals with familiar characteristics and otherworldly organisms, such as moon jellies—and Whitty makes it all the more so by explaining the science of this hidden world. As she immerses the reader in this world of water, Whitty details the biological basics, and historical and literary backgrounds of the species she observes. Christine Heinrichs, Earth Island Journal

It’s rare that a book about the biology of the ocean reads like poetry, but author Julia Whitty’s second book on oceans combines cutting-edge science with her own personal oceanic encounters to paint a picture of the ocean and its underwater creatures that will give readers a truly intimate look inside—and deeper appreciation of—our vast oceans. Whitty begins her journey in 1980 on Isla Rasa, a secluded island that’s so small it’s difficult to locate on a map, but also just happens to be home to hundreds of nesting seabirds in the Gulf of California. There as an undergraduate, Whitty accompanies two scientists to study the breeding ecology of some of the island’s inhabitants, such as the Heerman’s gulls and elegant terns. Whitty’s descriptions of her life on Isla Rasa are colored with frequent literary references to John Steinbeck and the mythical gods and goddesses of the sea. But despite the ocean’s magnificence, all is not well in our deep blue home, explains Whitty, whose vibrant prose injects life into an issue that is too often overlooked by us land-bound humans. Today our oceans face many challenges simultaneously, such as overfishing practices, which have transformed commercial fishing from what was once a glorious business to one muddled in disgrace. These destructive practices, coupled with global warming and current events like the Gulf oil spill, are slowly taking their toll on the ocean’s environment, their evidence scattered across the ocean’s depths in the form of bleached coral, ailing marine mammals and warmer water temperatures. And though it is unclear how much more the ocean can handle, what Whitty makes crystal clear throughout the book is that whatever happens to the ocean inevitably happens to us—so we better start paying attention, and fast. “Humans are a terrestrial species biased toward attributing the forces we see around us to familiar forces on land,” she writes. “But the more we look, the more we learn that everything arises from the sea and everything falls away to the sea, and the deep blue home is home to every one of us, whether we are beings of the water, air, rock, ice, or soil.” Jessica A. Knoblauch, Mother Nature Network 

Mingling mythology with science, Whitty pulls readers into the watery depths of the oceans, home to the birds, whales, and other mysterious creatures that have been her lifetime passion. She writes of Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California in Mexico during the short springtime breeding season, when the island mushrooms into a jittery cloud visible for miles; off the coast of Newfoundland, she encounters the annual migration of the icebergs, a spectacle as grand as the exodus of wildebeest through the Serengeti, and a leatherback sea turtle with flippers the size of oars, and a head like a draft horse's, wearing a jellyfish mane. Whitty's biology is colored by the gods of rock and the goddesses of seawater, such as Rasa, the Hindu mythical river flowing around the world, and the Elivágar, from the Viking creation story. This luminous prose is disturbed by accompanying reports of human-induced damage of oceanic ecosystems, where market economics relentlessly drives commercially desirable species towards extinction like a modern plague, exemplified by the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, which caused a trophic cascade transforming all aspects of the ecosystem from crab to zooplankton to phytoplankton to nitrates. Publishers Weekly