'The ocean as ecosystem, and as a giant organism'

| 30th October 2018
Corraline algae
The Oyster Thief author admits writing an underwater odyssey is as much an art as a science.

I chose the name Coralline also because coralline algae can be considered symbolic of the human effect on the ocean — tens of thousands of tons of these precious calcified structures are dredged out of the oceans every year.

The idea of an underwater world came to me on 1 January 2015. It was a freezing cold morning and I wished I could escape into tropical waters. 

With a cup of tea in my hand, I started inventing. I developed the setting, characters, and perspective in my recent novel The Oyster Thief by relying on both my imagination and science. Here I set out some key aspects of that creative process. 

Over the course of snorkeling, diving, and swimming with sharks, I’ve been fortunate to see lots of marine animals in their natural environments.

Researching the ocean

In addition to relying on my firsthand experiences, I read books and hundreds of articles relating to the ocean. I honed in specifically on algae, animals, and plot-specific topics like oil spills. 

Researching the ocean is not like researching things on land, I quickly realised. Of the millions of species thought to live in the ocean, the majority are unknown to us. Even those that we know of, we don’t know well — for instance, we don’t know the lifespans or social habits of whale sharks. 

Our knowledge about the ocean is also biased toward life close to shore, because it’s more accessible. If we take algae as an example, what this means is that the algae we know best - including some of those mentioned in The Oyster Thief - grow in fairly shallow waters. 

I sought to create cultural uses for algae that were in keeping with our knowledge of them.

Imagining algae

Buttonweed, dulse, pepper dulse, ulva, and undaria are eaten in certain parts of the world, so I figured they could also be eaten by merpeople. Devil’s apron is a sugar kelp, so I imagined it as a dessert.

Desmarestia is an acid kelp known to be poisonous, so I retained it as a poison. Sea oak has a wide variety of medicinal uses on land, so I treated it as a remedial algae.

And, just as there are plants on land without any specific uses, there are algae in The Oyster Thief without any specific uses — like the oyster thief itself. 

As for light, bioluminescence is common in the ocean. The compound luciferin, found in many marine organisms, including bacteria, generates light in the presence of oxygen. 

I decided on the Atlantic Ocean as the setting for The Oyster Thief because it’s the second-largest ocean in the world and is the ocean geographically closest to me. I made the decision lightly, but it meant a hefty extra layer of research — I had to ensure that every animal and algae mentioned in The Oyster Thief can be found in the Atlantic.

Marine onomastics

During my readings about the ocean, I kept a running list of any words I liked that I could use as names. I decided that the names of most oceanic characters should relate to the ocean, though some could also relate to the universe. 

There are two protagonists in the story, Coralline and Izar. I selected the name Coralline because coralline algae play a disproportionately important role in marine ecology, cementing coral reefs together. In addition to being rosy and beautiful, their strata are strong and powerful.

I chose the name Coralline also because coralline algae can be considered symbolic of the human effect on the ocean — tens of thousands of tons of these precious calcified structures are dredged out of the oceans every year. Crushed to form a powder, they are used as agricultural fertilizer.

The name Izar, meanwhile, refers to a binary star. To the naked eye, it appears to be a single point of light, but it is actually two different stars close to one another (about two hundred light-years away from us and five hundred times brighter than the sun).

Coral bleaching 

Over the course of writing The Oyster Thief, I started to think of the ocean as not just a giant ecosystem, but a giant organism. We hurt this organism constantly, sometimes without knowing it.

For instance, we lather on chemical sunscreen when we snorkel above reefs, but the chemicals in the sunscreen kill reefs. (Solution: Use mineral sunscreen instead of chemical.)

Due to a multitude of factors, from chemical sunscreen and coral reef dynamite blasts to - most importantly - climate change and the resulting warming waters and ocean acidification, coral reefs are bleaching around the world. 

Life throughout the oceans is threatened by human activity. 

Rampant levels of fishing are resulting in the collapse of fish populations and the endangerment of species. (Solution: Let’s eat more sustainably.) Trash and plastic pollution is creating immense, swirling garbage patches. (Solution: Let’s reduce plastic use, recycle more, and be mindful of our waste.)

Oil pollution 

Oil pollution is another danger. The Oyster Thief portrays a single-site spill, but such spills account for only a small portion of the total oil pollution in the ocean. Other sources of oil include ships and runoff from land. (Solution: Let’s invest more in renewable energy.)

A new area of danger has opened recently. When I started The Oyster Thief, I construed the idea of underwater mining as fictional; it is now fact. Companies are starting to dredge the depths of the ocean for diamonds. (Solution: Let’s not go there.)

Overall, let’s not treat the world under the waves as Ocean Dominion does, as a set of resources to plunder.

Oceans have been there always, and they will be there always, but their health has come to depend on us. We can choose to steward their depths even though we cannot peer into them.

This Author

Sonia Faruqi is the author of The Oyster Thiefan underwater fantasy novel for adults and young adults. The book has been endorsed by Jodi Picoult, bestselling author of My Sister’s Keeper, and Dr. Sylvia Earle, the world’s foremost ocean scientist. 


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