The Coast of Coral

Bookshelf: The Coast of Coral

The Coast of Coral – Arthur C. Clarke

The Coast of Coral
The Coast of Coral

I was a huge Arthur C. Clarke fan for many years (still am, I suppose), beginning at the age of about ten and reaching my peak during my university years. He’s a science fiction writer, the kind whose work – when read years later – actually foreshadows developments that are currently just beyond the reach of our technological capabilites, but quite feasible.

He also had a great love for the ocean, and this book is an account of a few months he and his buddy Mike Wilson spent diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia during the early 1950s. The Aqualung had just been invented and their diving locations were remote, so they did a lot of skin and free diving to conserve their air supply.

The book is partly a travelogue, and partly a description of memorable encounters he had with sea life. It’s clear that the diving adventures Clarke describes heavily inspired Dolphin Island. Wilson took photographs, some of which are reproduced in grainy black and white in the book. There’s a hilarious one of a diver with his cylinder mounted upside down (by current standards) and the hose from his second stage snaking down the side of his body to his bottom.

In his foreword, Clarke mentions that he now reads the sections of the book in which he describes (and advocates) walking out on the exposed reef at low tide with some embarrassment. Coral is sensitive, and shouldn’t be touched. The book is also laced with accounts of spear fishing, a sport I think is ridiculous and distasteful. Disturbingly, they capture a turtle, harrass her extensively (sit on her back for photos) and then try to drag her (alive) out to their boat so they can eat turtle steak for dinner. Fortunately the difficulties they encounter in trying to get her offshore cause them to think better of their plan and release her. But a lot of the thinking is very dated and somewhat repugnant to modern sensibilities.

I was surprised by how funny Clarke’s writing style is – his sense of humour is not something that comes through in his science fiction writings. He speaks of having to “de-louse” one’s vocabulary after having spent any length of time in Australia, and dubs the word “bloody” as The Great Australian Adjective. His argument for turning down an exotic meal cooked by the inhabitants of one of the islands they visit is that he would be very distressed and disappointed were he to develop a taste for the rare meats on offer, and then be unable to obtain them when he returns to London or New York. I informed Tony of this excuse, and expect to hear it next time I cook broccoli.

In all, the book paints a fascinating picture of the Great Barrier Reef prior to it becoming the tourist attraction it is today. The reef’s vast extent is very apparent, and Clarke’s enjoyment of the underwater world is palpable and inspiring. I look forward to diving there one day.

You can order the book here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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