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Nature Oceans & Seas

Message in a Bottle

Ocean Dispatches from a Seabird Biologist

by (author) Holly Hogan

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Jun 2023
Oceans & Seas, Birds, Environmental Science
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2023
    List Price

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From the heart of the Labrador Current to the furthest reaches of our global oceans, Message in a Bottle conjures an exquisite diversity of marine life and warns of a central threat to its survival: ocean plastic.

The dovekie is a stocky seabird the size of a child’s heart that spends its winters on the coast of Newfoundland, thriving in one of the toughest climates on Earth. The polar bear is an apex predator, designed to persevere in the Arctic's extreme conditions. The North Atlantic right whale outweighs the humpback by more than twenty tons and feeds on enormous quantities of tiny plankton in northeastern waters before migrating south for the winter.

In Message in a Bottle, wildlife biologist and writer Holly Hogan brings to life the wonder of these creatures and many other birds, fish and marine mammals she has encountered in her thirty years of ocean travel. On these voyages, Hogan has noticed a troubling pattern: the constant presence of plastic, in the form of adrift fishing gear ("ghost gear"), garbage and micro-plastics that create an invisible but pervasive smog in our oceans and threaten even the most seemingly resilient forms of sea life.

Bringing together nature, science and adventure writing, Hogan shines a light on our plastic-addicted lifestyle, offering an eyewitness account of its devastating effects on the marine environment—and highlighting international efforts to combat it. With lyrical prose and a reverential eye for the majesty and fragility of our natural world, Message in a Bottle is a clarion call to protect global oceans and the life they sustain, including our own.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction

Contributor Notes

HOLLY HOGAN is a writer and wildlife biologist with a focus on seabirds. During her more than thirty years as a scientist, she has spent about a thousand days at sea conducting avian and marine mammal surverys and providing educational programming with expedition teams. Her work has taken her to the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, and every latitude in between. She has been interviewed for CBC Radio, appears in a National Film Board series called Ocean School and provided expertise on seabirds and the impact of marine plastic for the award-winning documentary Hell or Clean Water (2021). Holly is a mother of three and lives in St. John's, Newfoundland, with her husband, Michael, and an assortment of cats and dogs, depending on the day.

Excerpt: Message in a Bottle: Ocean Dispatches from a Seabird Biologist (by (author) Holly Hogan)

Chapter 1: Throwaway Living

The ocean is slow to reveal its secrets. Its endless horizons and seemingly bottomless depths suggest an infinite capacity to hold. And to withhold. Plastic has been one of its well-kept secrets, mostly hidden below the surface and out of sight. I have spent much of my life living and working in Newfoundland, a remote place with half a million people and 12 million seabirds, give or take. Outnumbered 24:1, it was easy to take the natural abundance for granted. In more recent years I have sailed to the Arctic, the Antarctic and every latitude in between. I’ve been carried and pulled off course by the currents that wrap around the globe and observed the influence that they have. The oxygen and nutrients they circulate, the life they support—each current individual and unique, but also completely dependent on and interconnected with all the others.

I started to conduct ship-based seabird surveys regularly in 2014 for the Canadian Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada. The surveys are part of a larger program that monitors seabird populations and distribution over time. When the surveys are taken together, over all seasons and many years, patterns of distribution emerge, showing where seabirds are found at different times of the year and any changes in these patterns that may occur, particularly in response to climate change. Where possible, behavioural data are also collected—feeding, caring for young, resting, migrating—to reveal not only where the birds are but why they are there. Seabirds at the surface can be directly linked to the ocean temperature, chemistry and marine life below the surface; they are a handy indicator of what might be going on in the ocean’s depths.

I was spending several months a year at sea aboard Canadian, American and European research vessels. Much of the time was spent far offshore, primarily to account for seabird distributions at sea throughout the year, but I also recorded everything else that came into the ship’s path, including whales, seals, turtles—and garbage. I was surprised by the floating plastic debris I saw. There were days when I recorded more garbage than seabirds, hundreds of kilometres off the coast. Sometimes they were together—an Arctic tern sitting on a lost buoy, a fulmar picking at bright-pink plastic in a mat of floating kelp. Still, it was not the quantity that alarmed me so much as the unlikely locations. What was a plastic Javex bottle doing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? A shadow of apprehension was slowly engulfing me.

On Valentine’s Day in 2017 I was doing seabird surveys on an American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship off the coast of New York City. Loving tributes were scattered across the water: Love You Forever. Be Mine! With My Whole Heart. Messages on Mylar balloons with elaborate ribbon trains, scattered with the wind and arriving, deflated, on the ocean surface. Near one of these balloons, a subtle disturbance caught my eye. It was a loggerhead turtle, making slow but determined progress toward the balloon.

Sea turtles include jellyfish in their diets. A deflated balloon with a ribbon tail is a dead ringer for a jellyfish. There were three possible outcomes here: The turtle could be outpaced by the wind and surface current that was carrying the balloon along the surface. It could catch up with the balloon, eat it and subsequently choke. Or it could get tangled in the ribbon and drown. The ship kept steaming on its course and I don’t know what happened in the end. But my encounter with this turtle and the plastic buffet surrounding it deepened my understanding of just how lethal our carelessly discarded plastic can be to the marine life that encounters it. The diaper that had been eaten by a polar bear did not affect me in the same way, perhaps because the bear appeared to be unscathed by the encounter. The idea that plasticizers and other plastic toxins might have leached into its bloodstream was an unknown threat to me then. My awareness started at the ocean’s surface before going deeper.

By 2017, I had spent a good deal of time at sea. Still, my experiences to that point were mostly in the Labrador Current and Arctic Ocean—marine waters that did not immediately suggest the global crisis, largely because of the small populations that inhabit the adjacent coastlines and the nature of the currents that move waterbodies around that region. But it had become clear that plastic was finding its way to the most remote regions on earth. The world’s oceans—and the human garbage we have dumped in them—are all interconnected by the currents that move water around the globe. There is really only one ocean, and what happens to it in one region affects all others.

All the marine life I was seeing—seabirds, whales, seals and turtles—is designed for a life spent at sea. Even for these animals, the ocean is a challenging environment to survive in. Some of the threats arise from the naturally occurring vagaries of life in a harsh and unpredictable environment, including changes in food availability from one year to the next, poor weather conditions at a critical time—particularly during the breeding season—and predation. Young, inexperienced animals are at greater risk of all sources of natural mortality, but if they make it out of this naive and fraught period, most are long-lived. There is lots of variation, but for the most part seabirds live at least twenty years, with a breeding window of about fifteen years. For a population to remain stable, two adults just need to replace themselves over their lifetime. And though the odds are stacked against survival of the young, the longevity of the adults means that it generally works out.

But if you overlay these naturally occurring challenges with manmade ones, marine life can get into serious trouble. Oil spills. Collision with ships and oil platforms. Climate change’s effect on ocean temperatures and the resulting change in prey availability and distribution. Entanglement in fishing gear. Entanglement in plastic garbage. Marine toxins. Ingestion of plastics. Seabirds face additional challenges. On breeding colonies, you can add habitat degradation and destruction. Even light pollution can pose problems. Some seabirds are attracted to light for various adaptive reasons, and artificial light, both on land and at sea, can lead them dangerously astray. Some of these challenges have been around for decades; someare just emerging. And each is exerting pressures in different ways. Plastic has been around for decades, but the explosion in its use, particularly its single use, has brought about a modern crisis.

Until I immersed myself in research, I knew very little about the devastating impact the accumulating plastic from our day-to-day lives was having on marine animals. I had seen marine wildlife in close association with marine plastic many times. But it wasn’t until 2017, when I saw the balloon-as-love-letter-with-whimsical-ribbon in a potentially lethal collision with a hungry turtle, that I was startled into awareness of the much larger issue at play.

Editorial Reviews


"Plastic never dies, and most of the damage it does occurs out of sight, in animals and ecosystems humans rarely see. Hogan, a professional guide, takes us into these hidden realms with the eyes of a scientist in love with her subject, and in prose that skirts the edge of poetry." —John Vaillant

“Holly Hogan’s Message in A Bottle is deeply intelligent, rich with scientific detail, and informed by a lifetime spent witnessing the vast and staggering beauty of nature and the devastation caused by plastic. In prose as transparent and polished as sea glass, Hogan shows how we humans have left an indelible scar on the marine world, and the loss of biodiversity that accrues in our wake. And she shows us a better way to live. If you are going to read one book about the climate crisis, read this one. It is tremendously beautiful and sad and hopeful.” —Lisa Moore
“This book is essential reading. Not only does Holly Hogan brilliantly detail our current ecological crisis from a seabird’s eye view, she also eloquently implores us to set our hearts and minds to finding innovative solutions to preserve our beautiful planet. Read this book and then tell everyone you know to do the same.” —Ami McKay
Message in a Bottle: Up close + gorgeous wonderful marine life, up close + ugly plastics choking it. Kill the oceans + we die! But there's hope...” —Margaret Atwood on Twitter

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