books environment

Book review: The Blue Wonder, by Frauke Bagusche

This is a book that’s taken me considerably longer to finish than most, mainly because on every other page I had to put the book down and do a Google image search for something. Giant isopods, which are like deep-sea woodlice the size of puppies? Yes, I’ll be needing to see what those look like. Ditto the carnivorous Ping Pong Tree Sponge, and the Pufferfish sand sculptures.

As the name suggests, this is a book that brings the weird and the wonderful to centre stage, from whales to the plankton they feed on, and all scales in between. Chapters are loosely themed around the deep sea, or coral reefs, but the book’s tone is more like following an enthusiastic guide on a dive, pointing out and explaining the world beneath the surface.

Appropriately enough, Frauke Bagusche is an experienced dive guide, mainly working in the Maldives. She is also an advocate for the oceans, and “a marine biologist, heart and soul”. She writes with passion and curiosity, and this is a book full of beauty and majesty, as well as the sex and death and occasionally horror that comes with any honest observation of nature.

The book covers the big names we expect from a tour of the ocean, the sharks and the tropical reefs. It also draws attention to the small and overlooked, the ugly and the unloved. There are facts that are often left out of the nature documentaries, such as prostitution among penguins, or the way some fish change gender throughout their lives, sometimes in response to shortages of males or females. If Finding Nemo reflected the actual biology of Clown Fish, Bagusche writes, “it would get an R-18 rating from the censors”.

Some things have simply gone unnoticed. Because diving apparatus is noisy, it has taken scientists a long time to appreciate the sounds that fish make. Fish “grunt, croak, roar, click and hiss”, and they are most active in the morning and evening, meaning there is a dawn chorus under the sea.

These phenomena are vividly described and sometimes illustrated with photos – though my Google image search history suggests there is room for more. The science of these creatures and where they fit in the marine ecosystem is explained in very accessible terms. I took the book with me on holiday to the coast and read sections of it to the kids. We found a little jellyfish bumping around in a rockpool, and we looked them up.

Most children learn that jellyfish sting and should be avoided – and that’s it. The book helped us to see a more rounded picture and gain a deeper appreciation, and that’s so important in a world where the oceans are consistently abused. Like the BBC’s Blue Planet documentaries, The Blue Wonder introduces environmental messages in sideways, showing how climate change, plastic and overfishing threaten the very things that the book celebrates. “With this book I would like to awaken in you the love I have for the sea”, writes Bagusche at the outset, and through that love for the sea, the desire to protect it.

  • The Blue Wonder is available from Earthbound Books UK and US.
  • Pairs well with The Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols, about human connection with water.
  • For reading all the way to the end, here’s a picture of a Ping Pong Tree Sponge:

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