Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
15 Dec 2020
Written for Hardback
This book is a glorious example of what a coffee-table book should be. But this book is more than that; it is not simply a case of two underwater photographers showcasing a stunning portfolio of images but is different in that its underlying motive has a conservation agenda and is written by two people who are skilled marine biologists who have worked in both research and conservation. This background and agenda are reflected in the text and the choice of images and the informative captions to the images.
A good example of the difference in approach taken by these conservation photographers is the final chapter in the book which is on conservation. For example, on page 187 is an image of a branching coral, glistening a ghostly white, geometric and abstract at the same time. It is easy for people who buy a book like this as a little treat to themselves or as a souvenir of a visit to the Seychelles to skip over the conservation chapter as that can be perceived as the bad news chapter. But images like this draw you into reading the caption. The eerie and ghostly white coral is what is left when the zooxanthellae, the alga which photosynthesizes and provides nutrition has left its coral host, leaving the host to starve to death. The whitened coral is somewhat akin to the bones of the dead from a coral bleaching event. Sometimes a good image and just enough accompanying detail are enough to drive home a compelling message.
Given the years of experience and deep skills of the two authors, I would have liked more text in the book. But perhaps its conservation agenda is better relayed to a wider audience through the vehicle of a beautiful book with well-positioned morsels of information baited with beautiful images that tell stories; some disturbing, some inspiring, some about the complex web of life. For example in the chapter on ‘fishes’, the introductory text reminds us that fish like other invertebrates have developed social mechanisms which have analogues with other vertebrate animals such as birds and mammals. Different species of fish have different reproductive strategies, in the anthias, a type of small fish (in the family Serranidae), the males maintain harems. One of the images in the chapter shows one of these brightly coloured anthias. The captions inform us that at dusk the male performs a courtship dance to attract females to its harem. That is not all, the anthias are also serial hermaphrodites (so are other fishes like the wrasses); that is, they are able to change sex. There are other books that provide fascinating insights into the behaviour of fish and other marine life, a good example being the Pisces Guide to Watching Fishes
by Roberta Wilson and James Q. Wilson. But books like that are for the committed naturalist. Books like this help to convert the casual tourist who has been snorkelling, into an amateur naturalist.
The book is a large, square format (310 mm × 310 mm), 224 pages in length, with a hard cover and dust jacket, and screams ‘souvenir’ or ‘gift’. Certainly, if you are looking for that gift for someone with an interest in marine life, you cannot go wrong with this book as there is insightful content as well. The introductory chapter is followed by chapters on ecosystems, turtles, fishes, invertebrates, marine protected areas and conservation. The introductory chapter has a useful map which shows the major islands, of the 115 islands which make up the Seychelles with a land area of 455 square kilometres but encompassing an Exclusive Economic Zone of 1.37 million square kilometres. Although it is not designed as a text-centric book, each chapter has a decent enough amount of text to convey useful introductory information specific to the Seychelles. Much of the information on the natural history of the subjects is also useful generic information to anyone with an interest in marine life. The page layout uses a few format rules from full-page images with or without thick white borders around images, to double spreads. The double-page spreads in a book of this size make it feel like you are seeing it for real. The double-page spreads are especially good with panoramic images showing shoals of fish with mixed species. If you wonder how an image was taken, at the end of the book is a thumbnail gallery of the images with technical details of the camera, lens, housing, strobes, etc.
The chapter on Marine Protected Areas uses simple but well-written text with images to explain threats and mitigation measures which are being taken by scientists. There are images showing the fieldwork being done by scientists and to explain how activities such as coral restoration are undertaken. Using a coffee-table format allows an audience that would normally not be reading the more specialist publications to understand the issues and the hard work that goes into implementing conservation strategies underpinned by objective science. As I said at the beginning, it is a beautiful book but more than just another coffee-table book. I hope that it achieves the intended aims of the authors to educate people on the need to hold on to the precious biodiversity in these islands in the Western Indian Ocean. The Seychelles are more than sun, sand and sea for package tourists.