Trevor Norton is one of those lucky men who picked up an enthusiasm when he was a boy, nurtured it through his schooling, and kept at it through a happy lifetime of academic involvement within it. In _Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea_ (Da Capo), he lets us in on why he has spent as much of his life as he could under the water, and whether you want to join him there or not, he does make a convincing case for a life passionately and usefully spent. After all, how many other experts on kelp do you know who may have changed the tactics of a war? In 1982, when British troops were dispatched to the Falklands because Argentina had invaded them, Norton was called up by an official from the Ministry of Defense: "'Are you the seaweed chappie?' said a man with a pound of plums in his mouth. 'Just a wee enquiry. I've been led to believe there are exceptionally large seaweeds off the coast of the erm... Falkland Islands.'" Norton confirms this, and explains that stems of the kelp might tangle the propellers of landing craft, but that there would be less of it in sheltered coves and inlets. "Really, by Jove, is that so?" came the reply, and so perhaps kelp and Norton's advice determined the landing places. It's one of countless odd and amusing stories, dished out with plenty of fascinating marine biology, in a thoroughly readable and enchanting book.
Norton had been an unruly child, "but as I learned more about living things, I became too busy to be bad." And he used his fascination for the sea to power his academic efforts (he is now Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Liverpool). The many chapters here cover Norton's underwater life all over the world, and convey his fascination with the creatures he sees. Barnacle mating, for instance, is extraordinary: "The bold, bisexual barnacle has a prick up its sleeve; its enormous penis is three or four times taller than the shell. Out it leaps, thin and arching, and dips into an adjacent barnacle as neat as a nib into a surprised inkwell." The creatures are amazing, and so are the odd people who come into Norton's life, or historical figures who inspired him. Pages here are devoted to Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist of Cannery Row and John Steinbeck's pal. Norton describes Liverpool in the sixties, but explains, "People have often asked me what it was like to be there. If only I'd known it was going to become 'Liverpool in the sixties' I'd have paid more attention." It was where he met his wife (who has done the charming illustrations for this book): "She was obviously bright and I would like to say that I was first attracted by her intellect, but in the age of miniskirts there was so much to admire that I got distracted."
Norton realizes his own good luck in timing. "Yesterday's expedition is today's excursion and tomorrow's package tour." He has been able to see pristine reefs and to write about them, but then faces the dilemma that since complex reef ecology is damaged by human visits, to celebrate the beauty of a specific reef is to "expose it to the dangers of excessive admiration." The coral reef state park in Florida, for instance, gets thousands of visitors a day, as well as damage by pollution and careless boat usage. It isn't the only instance Norton describes of the encroachment of the modern world into the oceans. Overfishing has changed the oceans forever, with much bigger nets, spotter planes to locate schools of fish, and sonar mounted on the nets to guide the skipper in enclosing his prey. "Fish have as much chance of evading a net as a tree has of dodging the ax." Especially distressing is his description of ruin within the waters of the Philippines by such fishing techniques as dynamiting and poisoning by bleach and cyanide. This is far too lively and cheery a book, however, to be overcome by such reflections. Norton is a witty writer with a fund of good stories to tell and a delight in the surprises of the human and the marine world, a delight that any reader will enjoy.