The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It
Helen Scales (2021: Atlantic Monthly Press, 288pp.)
Scales, a marine biologist and a very busy nature writer, spends the opening chapters of this excellent book explaining the geology and topography of the underwater world. She presents the vertical journey by dropping a marble from a ship and describing the changes of light and life until it hits the bottom of a deep trench six hours later. She highlights a three-year study that photographed 347,000 animals in the Pacific, only one-fifth of which were assignable to known species and genera. She mentions the origins and legends of the abyss (from abyssus, “bottomless pit” in Latin) and its monsters.
The book goes on to describe the history of seafloor exploration from sampling lines through modern robots and submersibles. Then the author takes us to the seas, where she describes being on a research cruise where sperm whales breach around the ship while the scientists haul up samples from over 2,000 m (6,560 feet) down. She spends a chapter on introducing the sperm whale and its marvelous adaptations, how humans have studied it, and the bizarre bone-eating zombie worms that gather on sunken whale skeletons. On the same voyage, scientists dropped dead alligators to the seafloor and watched how the predators moved in.
We learn about Ernst Haeckel, whose 19th-century work on jellyfishes formed the basis of modern efforts to study the bewildering variety of undersea invertebrates. Scales includes the discovery of a whole new ecosystem, the geothermal vent community. The total of species living in vent communities worldwide is over 700 and climbing. The book includes other discoveries, like octopus nurseries and the Mariana snailfish (documented living 26,500 feet [8,080m] down).
Next, Scales considers what the oceans mean to us and what we’re doing to them. She explains the function of the oceans in sequestering carbon, the role of photosynthetic algae in generating oxygen, the pharmacological value of marine life, and other benefits. Then she explores the threats: overfishing (notably the rise and fall of the orange roughy population), the destructive trawling of seamount ecosystems, the rise in twilight-zone fishing, and pollution by everything from microplastics to nerve agents, and seabed mining. She argues the deep sea needs to be protected completely by something akin to the International Antarctic Treaty.
It’s a book with a lot of science on fascinating animals, plus thought-provoking arguments and even a couple of cryptozoological lines. “When Yeti crabs were discovered, it would have been poetic if they were found to eat marine snow.” (They don’t.) She writes that plesiosaurs were “extinct oceangoing reptiles that looked like Loch Ness monsters” instead of the other way around. I liked that. The copious source notes top off the book, serving as an excellent resource.
Author, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library, due out December 1 from Hangar 1 Publishing