Life on the Rocks

Coral reefs are a microcosm of our planet: extraordinarily diverse, deeply interconnected, and full of wonders. When they’re thriving, these fairy gardens hidden beneath the ocean’s surface burst with color and life. They sustain bountiful ecosystems and protect vulnerable coasts. Corals themselves are evolutionary marvels that build elaborate limestone formations from their collective skeletons, broker symbiotic relationships with algae, and manufacture their own fluorescent sunblock. But corals across the planet are in the middle of an unprecedented die-off, beset by warming oceans, pollution, damage by humans, and a devastating pandemic. My latest book tells the story about the urgent fight to save coral reefs, and why it matters to us all.

Juli Berwald fell in love with coral reefs as a marine biology student, entranced by their beauty and complexity. Alarmed by their peril, she traveled the world to discover how to prevent their loss. She met scientists and activists operating in emergency mode, doing everything they can think of to prevent coral reefs from disappearing forever. She was so amazed by the ingenuity of these last-ditch efforts that she joined in rescue missions, unexpected partnerships, and risky experiments, and helped rebuild reefs with rebar and zip ties.

Life on the Rocks is an inspiring, lucid, meditative ode to the reefs and the undaunted scientists working to save them against almost impossible odds. As she also attempts to help her daughter in her struggle with mental illness, Berwald explores what it means to keep fighting a battle whose outcome is uncertain. She contemplates the inevitable grief of climate change and the beauty of small victories.

Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs was honored as a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.


“Ocean scientist Berwald blends memoir and science writing in this colorful look at the state of coral reefs ... making for moving dual story lines about health, healing, and hope. Nature-minded readers will find much to enjoy.”

Publishers Weekly

“An energetic investigation of the plight of coral reefs … with sharply drawn profiles and lucid renderings of ocean life.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Juli Berwald’s spirited reporting on our global environmental crisis carries her to destinations as far afield as the Makassar Strait, Punta Cana, and the inner life of her own family. A work of deep commitment, insight, and bravery.”

—Nathaniel Rich, author of Second Nature and Losing Earth

“A courageous and passionate look at the exquisite symbiotic world of coral—and of the human spirit. In entwining deeply personal stories of love and loss and hope on the reefs and in her own family, Berwald offers insight that could not be more relevant to our lives.”

—Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Bird Way and The Genius of Birds

“Everyone who cares about the health of our planet should read these riveting, vivid, and information-packed pages. I recommend this book to ocean-loving humans everywhere.”

—Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus

“A personal and poetic dive into the watery wonders of coral.”

—James Nestor, author of Breath and Deep

“Part science, part memoir, Life on the Rocks is a compelling exploration of the decline of coral reefs and the solutions underway to save them—woven with a mother’s search to cure her own child’s illness. It is a saga of oceans and family, a story of grief and hope, and a call for bold action to save the seas and ourselves. Juli Berwald will have you rooting for her brave daughter and the tenacious corals of the world.”

—Cynthia Barnett, award-winning author of The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

“Juli Berwald takes readers on a worldwide tour to meet some of the Earth’s most fascinating animals, as beautiful as flowers and as vital to us as a mother to a child. A superb tour guide, Berwald is equally that a scientist, who sees the inner beauty of coral, as well as dire poverty for the world if that beauty is lost. Yet she is optimistic about gardens flourishing again and shows us how that can happen.”

—Jack E. Davis is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea and The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird

“A blast to read, full of fascinating stories, facts, and humor, and is an inspiring portrait of an underwater world that is integral to our global ecology.”


“The journalist and scientist’s deep dive into these underwater ecosystems reveals their mesmerizing complexity as well as the perils they face today.”

New York Times

“A globe-trotting adventure to fight for the future of coral reefs.”


“[A] beautiful, rigorous, and ultimately hopeful book.”

Daily Beast

“Dazzling. . . . Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs.”


“Highly readable.”

Scientific American


Library Journal

“[A]n excellent study of efforts to save the reefs. . . .Solidly researched, sharply observed, and compassionately rendered, the parallel struggles in Life on the Rocks make for science writing that is illuminating on several levels.” 

Booklist (starred review)


The story of coral is one that is both urgent and inspiring. The tropical reefs are the first major ecosystem that is existentially threatened by climate change. Corals live perilously close to their thermal limit, and the ocean is expected to continue to warm regardless of what we do to curb our carbon emissions.

And yet, what I discovered on the ground in coastal communities around the world is hope that, in some places, the coral will survive. It’s not only scientists and NGOs who are working to keep the reefs alive. It’s businesses stepping in with innovation and funding where the governments have failed to act. But in order for the reefs to exist in the future, it will also take scaling up the best of the ideas that out there. And that’s where the biggest question mark lies.

I helped build a new reef on a bombed out bed of coral rubble in Sulawesi and seen endangered species of coral spawn in the Dominican Republic. I saw corals that are refugees from a terrifying disease spreading throughout the Caribbean. I talked to scientists, aquarists, and business people who care deeply about corals and know what’s at risk for them in the future. When Covid hit, I hunkered down in Austin to write up all I discovered.

But just as with Spineless, my personal life invaded on the science. The struggle of coral intersected with a growing struggle in my own home: that of my daughter's fight for her mental health. As she worked to find tools to confront the challenges she faced, I saw echoes of the challenges for coral beneath the waves: ones that are largely invisible and have no easy answers. With hard work a kind of restoration is possible, but nothing is ever the same as it was before.