Caught by the River

The Book That Changed Me

17th March 2016

Alec Connon discusses what inspired him to write about the plight of our marine life in his first novel, ‘The Activist’, out tomorrow via Ringwood Publishing.


It was reading Peter Heller’s Whale Warriors that I came across the following paragraph:

The World Wildlife Fund recently announced that the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of extinction. All of the world’s fish. Right now, half of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying. Bottom trawlers scour an area twice the size of the United States every year. 7 million tons of thriving ocean life is tossed as bycatch annually. Hundreds of thousands of sea mammals – seals, dolphins, sea lions – are slaughtered and dumped; 100,000 albatross are killed.

I had never before given much thought to the oceans. Like almost everyone else I knew, I slopped tuna on my sandwiches and devoured cod with my chips without ever pausing to consider what the impacts of my diet might be having on that most arcane of worlds, the great blue oceans that dominate and define so much of our planet.

Upon my reading of Whale Warriors, however, that all changed.

First, I was inspired to learn more. I read books by former NOAA chief scientist, Dr. Sylvia Earle, and marine scientists Dr. Calum Roberts and Dr. Carl Safina. What I read was horrifying: 90% of all large predatory fish are already gone from our oceans, dolphin populations continue to be decimated by tuna fishing operations, for any kilo of shrimp or prawn that I had ever eaten an average of ten kilos of other sea life had been caught, killed and tossed back into the ocean.

All of this kept bringing me back to another line that I had read in Whale Warriors: “If the oceans are dying in our time and we kill them, which is what we are doing, we shall have committed a crime so heinous we shall not ever be redeemed.”

Agreeing with this sentiment, I was moved to stop eating seafood. Something that meant I was mocked by my own family for refusing to eat what was our family’s traditional starter with Christmas lunch: prawn cocktail.

But even then I felt compelled to do more.

Fearful of becoming a pious twit, however, I remained uncertain of how to tackle the issue. Even around friends I raised the topic only sparingly – and usually only if I was being invited to dinner. For a while I took to carrying a marker pen in my pocket and writing things such as “Did you know that 90% of all the large predatory fish are already gone from the oceans?” on bathroom walls.

But somehow I still felt as if that wasn’t going to be enough to solve this problem.

Eventually, I concluded, there was one other thing I could do: I could write about it. It was after all only as a result of someone else picking up a pen that I had changed my own behaviour. And thus, it was with concern for the oceans in mind that I started to write my first novel, The Activist.

The first drafts were awful. Preachy and transparent, I was writing very much like a pious twit. Fortunately though, I had some friends who were good enough to tell me as much. Three years of refining and redrafting followed, until I had eventually managed to hide my initial righteous indignation behind a compelling narrative arc.

While their stories were very much still there, the oceans and overfishing were no longer at the forefront of the novel, character and story were. And that was the key: any novel that fails to put character and story front and centre is always going to be doomed.

Of course, given the scale of the problems facing our oceans – the millions of pounds of seafood that are still caught illegally every year, the ignorance of most to the extent of the problem and the general malaise in government when it comes to finding solutions – I am aware that trying to solve the crises facing our oceans by writing a novel, even a novel with a compelling story and character, is somewhat akin to trying to end war by penning a catchy sonnet.

But, then again, as Dr. Sylvia Earle has put it, perhaps the greatest threat to our oceans isn’t long lines or bottom trawlers, but our collective ignorance. With knowing comes caring, argues Earle, and with caring comes hope.

And that is my ultimate hope with The Activist: that it might leave its readers not only a little entertained and amused, but also little less ignorant of the plight of our oceans and thus a little more likely to care.

And, if that is the case, well, I, like Peter Heller before me, will have done the job that I set out to do.

Alec Connon is a 30-year-old author, photographer and scuba diver. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Common Dreams and over a dozen other magazines and media outlets. You can connect with Alec through his website.