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Studying the world’s coral reefs, he finds dazzling beauty and serious science

A diver joins multitudes of fish swimming over a Gorgonian sea fan in a coral reef in Egypt’s Ras Mohammed National Park, a Red Sea marine reserve off the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, in September 2018. (Emily Irving-Swift/AFP via Getty Images)

An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that author Callum Roberts went diving in the Red Sea as student with oxygen tanks. Roberts’s tanks contained compressed air. The text has been corrected.

‘There are moments in life when everything changes,” Callum Roberts writes in his new book, “Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir.” For him, that moment came in Saudi Arabia in 1982. Callum was not yet a marine biologist, award-winning author or professor. He was a British student who had never been abroad. His task was to help map unknown reefs in the Red Sea.

He had assembled his first wet suit from pieces: “a bag of cut-outs, a roll of rubber tape for the seams and a tin of glue.” On his first dive there, burdened with heavy tanks of compressed air and a weighted belt, Roberts waddled into rough water. “The breakers,” he recalls, were “chest high.” The searing desert sun had warmed the sea to boiling. He clamped his teeth down on his snorkel and set his sights on the waves, looking for a gap to dive into. But his timing was off.

The waves quickly tossed him onto his back. Sharp corals tore at his skin. Spluttering seawater and bleeding from his scrapes, Roberts surged forward in another attempt to pierce the veil of water.

It was not a graceful entry, but he entered another world just the same. As he descended, colors changed. Warm colors faded. Blues became deeper. He could just make out the reef below him. There, he saw an explosion of color and life. These were not the fish of his textbooks. The intensity of the colors could not be replicated — blazing oranges, piercing blues, dazzling reds. He was quickly overwhelmed by the roiling rush of bodies. Fish of all sizes and types moved in and out of corals in choreographed chaos.

It was the first of countless dives during a long career but one that stays indelibly imprinted on his mind, and now upon the minds of his readers. Roberts’s memoir is a rich and loving ode to the sea, to coral reefs and to science itself.

Roberts is writing to us from a time before — before smartphones, before GPS, before it was commonplace for common people to visit coral reefs. This was a time when an aspiring marine biologist might receive an urgent fax to explore an unknown part of the world. As Roberts chronicles his ocean travels across time, he not only describes with great beauty the reefs he visited and studied, he also lets readers see his evolution as a scientist.

From that first bewildering dive, he had to be trained to observe and record and analyze what came before his eyes. He had to learn to think critically and ask the right questions. When his work began in the 1980s, established scientists knew little about coral reefs and were grappling with basic questions. Are the reefs robust places or fragile ones? How do so many species peacefully coexist? He had many questions himself.

To find answers, he had to study this new world in novel ways. Even the most basic steps — learning the Latin names of local fish species — posed a challenge. He writes that the tongue-twisting names “seem to have been devised as an ichthyological test of sobriety.”

After several seasons in the Red Sea, his studies took him further afield — Qatar, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, the Caribbean, Australia, Maldives, Palmyra. Dive after dive, he gathered data and recorded his observations. Over time, his knowledge grew: “Reefs come and go, each a rhapsody to life, like stepping from gallery to gallery in a museum of masterpieces. The confusion of fish slowly takes shape into repeated patterns, just as mosaic forms from individual fragments. Each species has characteristic preferences, living only in particular places. Some like the turbulent reef platform, others the sultry lagoon, or the current-flushed outer edge or shadowed slopes deep down. I can now begin to predict where to find them, wresting a semblance of order from the apparent chaos.”

He frequently tells us that science requires patience and that strides in knowledge are incremental and slow. There’s an honesty to this. He admits that even in places of great splendor, there is repetition and banality. He writes: “Science is not really what I expected. Those eureka moments that are the staple of schoolbooks and encyclopaedias are rare and must be hard won.”

Oh, he knows he’s lucky to be doing what he’s doing. He even acknowledges: “There are some jobs that you shouldn’t discuss much with friends: spy, assassin, sewer cleaner perhaps. I have discovered that coral reef scientist is among them. It is a lifestyle that most people associate with exotic beach holidays, so they find it impossible to take seriously the idea that there is any work involved.”

And yet, as we travel with Roberts, we do see that he and his colleagues suffer for their science. The food is bad. The living conditions are primitive. Roberts frequently finds himself “exfoliated” by rough corals or stinging animals. There is sunburn, salty skin, bleached hair, infections, dehydration and the odd shattered eardrum to contend with. Gear fails. Wet suits leak. Flashlight batteries conk out in the middle of night dives. Stuff happens.

You don’t have to appreciate his science or his suffering to appreciate Roberts, though. When he describes life below, you are truly swept away. Even if you are a landlubber — even if you’ve never dipped your toe in an ocean — Roberts’s rich language will call to you. You will feel a yearning to follow him, to leave the burning sun, to step into the coolness of the water, to feel the tugging of the currents.

An Underwater Memoir

By Callum Roberts

366 pp. $28.95