Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Cover image courtesy of North Atlantic Books

Book Review: Ocean Country

A life-threatening accident sets journalist Liz Cunningham on a life-changing journey.

Authored by

by Cynthia C. Scott

Article body copy

Nearly two decades ago, political journalist Liz Cunningham almost drowned off the coast of California when a wave toppled her kayak and knocked her unconscious. She revived and pulled herself to safety, but the accident left her with chronic injuries and a phobia of the ocean. To recuperate and help conquer her fear of the sea, Cunningham spent time scuba diving in the Turks and Caicos Islands. While there, Cunningham discovered that bleaching and overfishing threatened the islands’ coral reefs. Instead of despairing, she decided to use her writing skills to become an advocate for the ocean. First, however, she needed to educate herself about the global impacts of climate change, development, and pollution. She began with a trip around the world to meet and interview people who were fighting these threats. Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas is an account of Cunningham’s emotional and spiritual journey from helplessness to empowerment as she confronted the crises facing our oceans.

Ocean Country is equal parts memoir and call to action. Cunningham takes readers to diverse locales including the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, California, and the Mediterranean, and some of her stories are alarming. Plastic debris, for example, has increased dramatically off the California coast, killing thousands of sea turtles, marine mammals, and birds. And 76 percent of fisheries worldwide are unsustainable. Yet not all the news is bad. Although Cunningham interviews scientists and conservationists who provide a larger, quantitative perspective on these issues, she also gives a voice to fishermen, fishmongers, chefs, and others who are working to rebuild fish stocks, repair damaged ecosystems, and form sustainable local economies.

Readers looking for the objective tone of peer-reviewed studies might wince at some of Cunningham’s musings on the metaphysical connection between humans and the sea. But for those who want more than statistics, it is a deeply engaging and well-written book about the enormous environmental costs heaped on our oceans. Cunningham links everyday actions to their broader impacts and explains how simple changes, such as eating sustainable seafood or volunteering at marine mammal rescue centers, can make a difference. The book’s greatest strength, however, is the passion with which Cunningham writes about her beloved ocean, its inhabitants, and the people who rely on it. These stories reveal what’s really at stake in the fight to protect our seas.

Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas
By Liz Cunningham
344 pp. North Atlantic Books