What is it like to be a marine scientist and conservationist in the time of the climate emergency and the increase in species becoming extinct? How do you keep going? Spring Tides is a well written combination of natural history and memoir that helps answer this question. “My energy comes from looking down into clear water through glossy kelp, studded with blue-rayed limpets, striped with iridescent blue; from swimming on my back at night making glowing wings of phosphorescence; from diving down into the magnetic blue beyond the reef; from drifting at speed past a carnival of coral in the company of mirrored jacks; from learning from a laughing fisherwoman how to find clams with my toes in the soft sand between the seagrass on a remote Indian Ocean shore”.
Fiona Gell left her childhood home on the Isle of Man to travel the world working on marine conservation projects, before returning to do the same work where she grew up. Spring Tides is a useful primer for lay readers on the impact of climate change on our seas and sealife. Her love for marine environments is infectious, and makes you want to get out onto the beach or dive “under water to get out of the rain” (as Trevor Norton had it in his wonderful book about diving, rightly subtitled “a love affair with the sea”). Spring Tides appealed to me in the same way that The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson did, combining nature writing and memoir.
I liked reading about a woman scientist doing cutting edge work around the world, and also her candid accounts of dealing with family life alongside her work in recent years. Gell explains that engaging with conservation successfully is complex. I found her account of securing a Marine Nature Reserve compelling. It is a story of doing the hard work of listening, advocating, and compromising. She shows how a previous unsuccessful attempt in the Calf of Man area, which had failed to engage successfully with the concerns of local people who earnt their livings from the sea, had left scars: “It had become an example of how the most well-intentioned conservation plans can go awry and had left rifts between people. I wanted to use what I’d learnt about marine protected areas to make protecting the sea possible again”.
Gell also gives a glimpse of Manx culture, and is clear about the impact of the sea on everyday life. I am very envious of anyone who gets to go to the beach almost every day, as she does. And as Olaf Falafel’s endearing new book Blobfish reminds us, we can help clean it up while we are there.