The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty (Houghton Mifflin)

In a world where any of us can go anywhere for the price of a plane ticket, there is one frontier that is for the most part unexplored and uninhabited by human beings. It is a place filled with blazing colors, and sounds that seem to come from our deepest dreams, and intricate social structures. Only a handful of people have ever ventured to it--one of them, fortunately for those who love to read, is Julia Whitty, who has been to the depths of the Pacific Ocean and describes what she found there in words so vivid that no photographs are necessary.

The world of water is a world without our language and one that exists largely outside of our senses, Whitty explains. Underwater, humans have no words. "We smell nothing underwater (although the sea is filled with scents), taste only the metallic tang of compressed air, see poorly, and are reduced to nondirectional hearing; in effect we're disabled." What people experience in the depths of the sea "tends to be felt, rather than accurately remembered."

The coral reefs of the South Pacific atolls provide the aquatic communities that Whitty shows her readers. The water is filled with dusky damselfish, "small strangely pugnacious gray fish," who serve as guardians of the coral by aggressively protecting their gardens of algae that grow upon the reefs. Tiny fish minister to larger ones in "cleaning stations," eating fragments of food found between predatory teeth or debriding the flesh of wounded fish, who wait in queues for the cleaner's attentions. Human divers who approach the cleaners "quietly, holding out some battered part" can also receive their services, which Whitty describes as "nibbles as tender as kisses." Plants that measure the tiniest fraction of an inch, glistening with bioluminescence, illuminate the fish that eat them and turn waves into "incandescent waterfalls of radiance."

This is a world where a moray eel can become a diver's familiar escort, where baby reef sharks are so appealing that people who know better are tempted beyond their strength to cuddle them like infants, and where the song of a distant humpback whale, Whitty says, is "less a sound than an itchy vibration in my bones and teeth." While "humans live by light," the ocean world is one that is ruled by sound, emitting a perpetual low hum that scientists believe could be the sound of storm energy that is converted to seismic waves, becoming "the conversation between the sea and the sky."