The Brilliant Deep: The Illustrated Story of the Man Who Set Out to Save the World’s Coral Reefs with Hammer and Glue
A picture-book biography of an improbable, ingenious idea that became a model for hands-on resistance to the destruction of nature.
By Maria Popova
“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning contribution to The Universe in Verse. She imagined a time before we severed ourselves from “Nature,” a time when there were “no tests to determine if the elephant grieves her calf or if the coral reef feels pain.”
The living reality of coral reefs animated another visionary poet a century and a half earlier: In his ode to “the world below the brine,” Walt Whitman celebrated corals as some of our planet’s most wondrous creatures. A living example of non-Euclidean geometry, corals have graced Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They are as remarkable in their evolutionary longevity as they are fragile in their dependence on the health of the world’s oceans, from which springs the health of Earth itself — a physical embodiment of naturalist and Whitman biographer John Muir’s poetic assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” But under the combinatorial assault of climate change, overfishing, and pollution, coral reefs have been dying at a heartbreaking rate in the century and a half between Muir and Whitman’s time and our own — how, we must wonder, could they not feel the pain of such brutal demise?
One man set out to heal this ecological heartbreak with an ingenious remedy involving hammer and glue.
Ken Nedimyer grew up near the Kennedy Space Center as the son of a NASA engineer in the golden age of space exploration. And yet he fell in love not with the stars but with the depths — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — after seeing a television program about the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.
This young love became a lifelong devotion.
Nedimyer’s story and immensely inspiring work come alive in The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs (public library) by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe — a lovely addition to the growing body of picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.
Like many scientific breakthroughs, Nedimyer’s radical marine remedy began with a stroke of luck.
Nedimyer had translated his childhood love of the oceans into a quiet life of farming live rocks — rocks covered with algae, sponges, mollusks, and other marine life, used as a handsome natural water purification system in saltwater aquariums. One day, he noticed that a colony of staghorn corals had spawned and migrated to his rocks from the nearby open waters of Florida.
It starts with one.
One night, after a full moon, the corals begin to spawn — releasing first one, then millions of tiny lives — until the waters swirl like a snow globe.
As Nedimyer and his daughter observed these lovely interlopers, they noticed that if they cut pieces of living coral off and attached them to other rocks — literally gluing them on — the coral from the original colony would grow on this new blank canvas for life. So they wondered what would happen if they grew a coral colony and tried attaching it to a dying reef.
Nedimyer decided to return to the reef where he had learned to dive as a child — a reef that had begun dying when he was still young. He took six small coral colonies from his farm, each no larger than an outstretched hand, and glued them onto the bleached and barren limestone.
Month after month, Nedimyer and his team dove to check on this hand-mended reef. Month by month, the coral colonies grew larger and larger.
Out of this heartening experiment the Coral Restoration Foundation was born — Nedimyer’s rugged and revolutionary effort to bring coral reefs back to life through a new kind of marine conservation driven by hammer, glue, and the hands of a swarm of volunteers.
They began farming coral by hanging small bits on special underwater trees, until the corals were large enough to be transplanted to dying reefs — an operation performed with tremendous care and precision by the volunteer divers as they find the perfect place for the graft, clear the surface of algae, smooth it with chipping hammers, dab a touch of epoxy — “just the size of a Hershey’s Kiss,” Messner writes — and attach the living coral colonies to the dead, hoping they would grow on their own.
And grow they did — since Nedimyer launched this improbable mission, he and his volunteers have planted tens of thousands of coral colonies that are now reproducing on their own. What began as one man’s labor of love in the Florida Keys — the locus of his childhood love of the ocean — has become a global model of hands-on resistance to the assault on nature.
Messner brings this cycle-of-life story — of a coral colony, of one man’s dream, of our ecological interdependence — full circle:
Tonight, the moon will be full and bright. The corals may spawn, and if one tiny life lands in just the right spot, another new colony will grow.
And then another.
It starts with one.
Complement The Brilliant Deep with the illustrated stories of other world-shifting visionaries — Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly — then revisit the lyrical 1937 essay with which marine biologist Rachel Carson invited the human imagination into the underwater world and ignited our aquatic empathy.
Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle Books; page photographs by Maria Popova
Published June 26, 2018