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The Coast of Coral by Arthur C. Clarke

The Coast of Coral (original 1956; edition 1956)

by Arthur C. Clarke, Mike Wilson (Photographer)

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Title:The Coast of Coral
Authors:Arthur C. Clarke
Other authors:Mike Wilson (Photographer)
Info:Frederick Muller, Hardback, 1956. 8vo. 206 pp. Illustrated with 64 colour and black-and-white photographs by Mike Wilson and Arthur Clarke. First published, 1956.
Collections:Arthur C. Clarke, Your library

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The Coast of Coral by Arthur C. Clarke (1956)



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Arthur C. Clarke

The Coast of Coral

Frederick Muller, Hardback, 1956.

8vo. 206 pp. Illustrated with 64 colour and black-and-white photographs by Mike Wilson and Arthur Clarke.

First published, 1956.


1. The Road to the Reef
2. White Water
3. Death of a Spearman
4. Entering the Cops
5. How to Call on an Octopus
6. In the Wet
7. Out to the Reef
8. Heron Island
9. The Stone Jungle
10. Rendezvous with Sharks
11. Devil on the Reef
12. The Wolf Pack
13. "Spike"
14. North to the Sun
15. Through the Torres Strait
16. Drifting for Shell
17. Pearls and Politics
18. Of Perilous Seas
19. A Chapter of Accidents
20. The Turtle Hunt
21. Aladdin's Cave
22. The Last Dive
23. A Walk in the Dark
24. The Reef is Waiting
25. Postscript – For Photographers Only


This is Arthur Clarke’s first underwater book. Among so many things that happened to him during the 1950s, he fell in love with the sea: skin- and scuba-diving became an indispensable part of his life for the next 40 years or so. This was the only way, he discovered, to experience weightlessness without going into space. After some preliminary diving in the Caribbean, Arthur and Mike went for the mecca of all divers, the Great Barrier Reef. This book was the result of the six months they spent there at the very end of 1954 and in the first half of 1955.

Most of Arthur’s adventures under and above water, or indeed on land, happened around Heron Island near Gladstone (Queensland) and Thursday Island (“T.I.”) in the Torres Strait, that is the south and north end of the Reef, respectively, but he and Mike also visited Sydney, Canberra and a host of smaller towns along the Australian coast. They met all sorts of fish and people, from sharks and barracuda to pearl divers and “motorised gypsies”. Though sometimes they did deplorable things underwater – Arthur’s idea of “calling on an octopus”, for example, was to spear the poor creature and give it to the anglers of the island for bait in order to “do my bit to cement relations between those fishermen who go underwater and their more effete brethren who stay on top” – Mike and Arthur were against “indiscriminate piscicide” and usually killed only as much fish as they and their friends could eat. Most of their shooting, as witness the magnificent photographs in this book, was done with a camera.

The writing is the usual Clarkian mystery. I have never been able to figure out how Arthur achieves so much with so little. In no more than a few pages of simple, concise and extremely readable prose, he mixes just the right amounts of description, action and reflection. He can give a vivid, palpable, visceral sense of a place in just a few lines. The phrase “sense of wonder” has become an awful cliché, but no other will do. When Arthur goes “fossicking” (a lovely bit of Australian English!) through the Reef at low tide (“The Stone Jungle”), when he lands in the wilderness around Cape York, Australia’s north tip, or when he simply dives among the strange shapes of the Reef, you feel as if you’re visiting another planet. Evocative and poetic writing doesn’t get better than that. Here is an example from the beginning of Chapter 11:

It is a strange and wonderful sensation to be twenty or thirty feet down when the sun manages at last to break through a heavy blanket of cloud. At one moment you are floating in a sombre blue mist, able to see only a few feet even if the water is at its clearest. You will feel depressed and a little apprehensive, for out of that closely encompassing blueness anything may appear without a moment’s warning. The slopes of broken coral beneath you will be drab and colourless, the whole submarine landscape drenched in a twilight and autumnal gloom.

Then the clouds part and the sun bursts forth. Though you can see neither sun nor cloud, at once everything around you is transformed. The coral hills and pinnacles become radiant with life; the constellations of tiny fish glitter as they turn in the sunlight whose slanting rays you can now see driving into the depths. Your horizon expands as if a fog had suddenly lifted, the dreary, monochrome gloom that had hemmed you in and oppressed you with its hidden menace now become a wide, enchanted vista glowing with soft colours, so lovely that any thoughts of lurking danger vanish at once.

Passages like this, if a little shorter, occur constantly in Arthur’s fiction. But they are seldom noticed by the Hard Sci-Fi Brigade. They occur even more frequently in his non-fiction writings on space exploration or global communications, not to mention underwater adventures. But these are hardly read by anyone!

I am amazed to see, as I occasionally do, claims that Arthur’s writing is humourless. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, the Clarkian wit is all pervasive. You may not like Arthur’s sense of humour, and in this case you would be happy to know you are probably in the majority, but his writing is suffused with it all the same. It is subtle, wry and versatile humour, biting but not bitter, sometimes gloriously flippant and sometimes poignantly serious. I positively adore all of its guises, but I’m afraid it’s hard to give examples out of the context. I will nevertheless try with the chapter “Entering the Cops”, which is really a short story. It opens like this:

We’ve got the cameras, we’ve got the Aqualungs, and we’ve got Sydney Harbour,” said Mike one evening. “There’s just one thing we need to make a good underwater picture.”
“And what’s that?” I asked.
“A pretty girl. Look at Lotte Hass – ”
“She’s the star of half of the pictures Hans sells to the magazines. Why shouldn’t we try to get into the act?”
“Doubtless you have someone in mind,” I said resignedly.

Lotte Hass was the pretty second wife of the great Austrian underwater pioneer and explorer Hans Hass (1919–2013), and it’s quite true that she proved to be an extremely photogenic creature. One Margaret duly appeared in order to improve the commercial potential of the photographs taken by Arthur and Mike, but the cops also appeared at the same inopportune moment. It was an unfortunate coincidence indeed. As it turned out, Mike had just visited out of sympathy an old friend who was now in jail for some shooting practice using policemen for targets. Arthur concludes the chapter with a characteristic wryness:

We tried to explain the situation to Margaret, but I don’t know if she really believed our story. For that was the last we ever saw of her and the end of our attempt to provide some competition to Lotte Hass. At least, the end of that particular attempt, for from time to time Mike still goes down to the sea with a pretty girl and an underwater camera. I am still, however, waiting to see any photographic results.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard this book merely as an escapist adventure. No doubt this is its chief purpose, but a writer as personal as Arthur Clarke couldn’t help including more than that. In chapter 11, when he and Mike meet one “Devil on the Reef”, a “splendid apparition” that possessed “the whimsical grotesqueness of an amusing gargoyle”, in short a manta ray, he reflects how wrong it is to call this magnificent beast “hideous”. From this misguided aversion, it is just one step away to the ridiculous legends of the old days that mantas “would wrap their great wings around a man and crush him to death”. We now know, as Arthur and Mike knew first-hand, that mantas are docile and friendly creatures that can cause trouble only by getting accidentally entangled in anchor lines or diving hoses. He concludes the chapter with a horrible story and a lesson in humanity with far-reaching implications – too far-reaching for many readers, alas.

Fishermen sometimes amuse themselves by spearing mantas and letting the terrified great beasts tow their boats – often for miles – until they are exhausted. Why quite decent men will perpetrate on sea creatures atrocities which they would instantly condemn if inflicted upon land animals (has anyone ever harpooned a horse to make it tow their car?) is a question which is not hard to answer. Fish live in an alien element and many of them have outlandish shapes, therefore we feel none of the sympathy, none of the kinship, for them which often links us to the creatures of the land. Few of us ever overcome the reaction that classes anything strange as automatically dangerous.

Let us hope that we will not always retain this primitive behaviour, and will ultimately learn to base our judgment on something more than mere appearance. For one day, when the frontiers of space are down, we may meet creatures that are much more hideous than the manta – and much more intelligent than Man.

It is no wonder that Arthur should speak of falling frontiers of space in pre-Sputnik times, but his land example is not altogether accurate. Harpooning your horse would probably not have the towing effect that is desired, otherwise I fear it would have become common a long time ago. And, after all, is merciless flogging so very different than gentle harpooning? Nevertheless, Arthur’s main point remains valid. Human beings are woefully deficient in reverence for other life forms but their own. This unfortunate trait, which even includes many mammals, is still more pronounced in regard to reptiles or insects. Most of them are completely harmless, but try to explain this to an ignorant and hysterical member of Homo sapiens.

Arthur argues along similar lines about stonefish and even sharks. The former may be another case, like the manta, of hideous exterior that has given rise to a bad reputation which is hardly justified by the facts. It’s a good example how sometimes the most venomous animals are not the most deadly. Stonefish stings are dangerous and do cause painful illness, including death if left untreated, but even though there are more of them today than Arthur heard about in the mid-1950s, they are still far from being a major contribution to the body count of the world ocean.

As for sharks, they simply “materialised; that’s the only word for it – you may see a shark leaving but never arriving”, but they proved to be much shyer and less dangerous than their macabre notoriety may suggest. Arthur provides the startling statistics that only about two people were killed by sharks around the whole Australian coast for a year: the same number of casualties occurred on the road every day in the state of New South Wells alone. Though modern statistics suggest that the Australian sharks may cause twice more deaths (four a year), your chance of being attacked by a shark off the Australian coast, let along being knocked off by it, remain infinitesimal. By a tragic coincidence, on 17 January 1955 one John Willis, aged 13, was killed by a shark at Balmoral Beach near Sydney, precisely the same place where Arthur had met his first Australian sharks a few weeks before. He continued to meet them on the Reef, some specimens up to ten feet long, but there were no “hair-raising scrapes” as the misleading covers of old paperbacks tell you. Perhaps he was lucky, perhaps it is true, as he argues, that a man underwater is much safer than a swimmer on the surface. Fascinatingly, Arthur reports that both he and other divers never felt fear at their close encounters with sharks for purely aesthetic reasons:

There is something about the sheer beauty and grace of large sharks which, when you are watching them in action, suppresses thoughts of personal danger.

Occasionally, Arthur touches on thorny social issues. On Thursday Island, where the population was “one of the most mixed and colourful for any place of its size in the world”, he reflects on racial tensions and reaches the conclusion that there are less of them than in the Old South of the US. One hopes this part is dated in a positive way. He is amused when he sees an “all-black clientele at a bar being served by a white lady who was obviously a respectable member of the community and not a refugee from a Somerset Maugham story.” (Charming that!) He even mentions the missionaries briefly, praising them for improving the health of the natives and reducing the tribal warfare, but also suggesting that there is “a debit side to the account” under the form of imposed social customs the natives would have been much better without. He pays at least two handsome tributes to the indigenous population of Australia:

Now the aborigines are intelligent and practical people, only slightly more superstitious than the average white. (Anyone inclined to doubt this can look at the horoscope page of his Sunday newspaper.)

The popular fallacy still persists – even in Australia, where people ought to know better – that the aborigines are a primitive, backward race, incapable of higher education. The fact is that they are no intellectually retarded members of the human family, and an aboriginal baby brought up in a white environment would be just as likely – or unlikely – to become a philosopher or a professor of mathematics as his fair-skinned companions.

Arthur wasn’t just talking, in this case writing, through his hat. Twenty years later, in his novel Imperial Earth (1976), he made the protagonist black, possibly from an Aborigine descent, and argued strongly against racial prejudice. Nor is this the only possible influence that his diving passions had on his fiction. The hard and risky life of the pearl divers groping for shells in semi-darkness at least a hundred feet below the surface, as memorably described in Chapters 15 to 17, must have provided, at least partially, the inspiration for “Hate” (1961), one of Arthur’s finest short stories.[1] For the record, Chapter 23 has nothing to do with the story of the same name from Reach for Tomorrow (1956). This “walk in the dark” is through the “stone jungle” at night. It is pure poetry in prose, if you excuse the alliteration.

I am aware that readers less enamoured of Arthur Clarke may find this book tedious. It may well be that their objective assessment is correct. But I neither pretend to be objective nor apologise for my subjectivity. For my part, this book was a slow and hard read but only because I made so. And I made it so because I didn’t want it to end. I don’t know about casual Clarke readers or confirmed diving enthusiasts, but I do claim serious students of Arthur have no excuse to leave his underwater volumes unread. This one is an excellent place to start.

[1] When it was first published in magazine (If, November 1961), the editor changed the title to the dreadfully pedestrian “At the End of the Orbit”. For the first publication in one of his collections, Tales of Ten Worlds (1962), Arthur reverted to his original title: “more punch”, as he explained succinctly in The Collected Stories (2000). ( )
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743435079, Paperback)

The world-famous science and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke spent two adventurous years exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the mightiest coral formation in the world. Illustrated with rare underwater photographs by Mike Wilson, here is a unique look into a region of mystery, of boundless beauty and danger-one of the most intriguing frontiers on our planet. - First trade paperback edition - New introduction by Arthur C. Clarke - The first in a trilogy of real-life underwater adventures, as experienced by the world-renowned author. The remaining volumes-The Reefs of Taprobane and The Treasure of the Great Reef-will also be reissued by ibooks. - Over 2,000,000 Arthur C. Clarke novels and science books in print worldwide. - 16 pages of stunning black-and-white photographs by Mike Wilson!

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:53 -0400)

World-famous science and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and photographer Mike Wilson spent two adventurous years exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the mightiest coral formation in the world. Presented here are "the adventures an mishaps, successes and failures" of that underwater expedition, as recorded by Clarke himself.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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