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Malama I Ka Moana

By Stuart Coleman // May 12, 2010 // Originally published on

A premier ocean journalist pens a love story.

Hawaii’s great waterman, Duke Kahanamoku, used to tell locals and visitors alike, “Never turn your back on the ocean.” He said this as a warning about water safety, but it also had to do with respect and environmental stewardship. Malama i ke kai. Take care of the ocean, and it will take care of us. But modern culture has turned its back on the ocean and its endangered creatures, and we are now beginning to suffer the consequences.

Ever since the publication of his wave-making book Blue Frontier in 2001, David Helvarg has become the premier chronicler of America’s complex relationship with our oceans and coasts, our last frontier. He writes that our tempestuous love affair with the sea has gradually become abusive, with constant assaults from over-fishing, water pollution, climate change, oil spills and destruction of our wetlands.

In his new book, Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish (St. Martin’s Press, ’10), Helvarg adds a new and moving dimension to his work by exploring his own personal relationships with the ocean and the three main women in his life: mother, girlfriend and sister. As he describes the declining health of the seas, he also writes about the illnesses that would take away those closest to him. Like a modern day Job, his life is beset with tragic losses and difficulties. But he finds joy and meaning in his personal struggle to save the ocean.

A jack of all trades, Helvarg describes his evolution as a political activist, war reporter, private investigator, environmental journalist and ocean activist. Throughout the memoir, he weaves together intriguing stories from his adventurous life: his dark family history and bizarre career changes; exotic travels to the melting poles and deep dives in the tropics; romantic love affairs and heartbreaking losses; and close encounters with death and destruction, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Helvarg grew up on the East Coast with his mother and sister, not far from the ocean. His mother was politically active, and he came of age during the modern environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s. After snorkeling during a trip to Key West as a teenager, he became a lifelong diver and avid student of marine life. He studied journalism in college and took part in student demonstrations. But after his mom died of lung cancer, he became a war reporter in Ireland and then Central America, where war “proved to be an effective antidote to depression after my parents’ deaths.”

After burning out on war reporting, Helvarg moved to San Diego and found peace living by the sea. Working part-time as a private investigator, he spent much of his time bodysurfing and diving. He eventually met a fellow ocean-lover named Nancy, and they became inseparable. Living in San Francisco, the pair spent all their money flying to remote places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where they dove and experienced one of the few remaining pristine coral reefs. Helvarg’s descriptions of diving in these undersea habitats are breath-taking, but it’s heart-breaking to learn that most of the world’s reefs are in rapid decline.

The most moving part of this memoir comes when Nancy develops breast cancer. Although the two had separated, she clearly remains the love of his life, and he stands by her side during the last months of her life. Like Hawaii’s Rell Sunn, she finds healing in the ocean until the very end. Before her death, Rell wondered if the prevalence of cancer in our age was a direct result of our pollution of the land and sea. Years later, Helvarg’s sister dies of cancer as well, leaving behind two sons.

Devastated by their premature deaths, Helvarg writes about finding some comfort in the ocean’s warm embrace. As the writer Isak Dinesen once wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

In the end, Helvarg’s Saved By the Sea is about survival. That’s why the author continues his crusade to write and educate people about the declining health of our oceans. “After a time of pain and uncertainty, I determined to fight for the one love that that still might (or might not) be saved, the one I will always return to, whether for wave-gliding fun or as light gray ash. In seeking to protect our mother ocean, I will also assure myself continued risk and adventure, a larger social purpose for living, and perhaps even the occasional moment of transcendence, something any one of us might aspire to by taking the plunge.” Helvarg’s final question to the reader seems to be: Will you turn your back on the ocean, or take the plunge to help save it?

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