Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Prayer for 2024 courtesy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 I publish this poem every year. Whatever your faith or views, this poem has sentiments everyone can embrace.

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

An Amazing Novel of Octopuses, Intelligence, and Humanity

 Ray Nayler

The Mountain in the Sea

MCD (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux), 2022. 452pp.

Nayler, an author of acclaimed short fiction, delivers a first novel that’s original, superbly written, and profound, showing extensive research and a fearless approach to the largest of themes – consciousness, sentience, and life. 

We’re in a world set just far enough in the future for the creation of Evrim, the world’s first and only sentient android (such creations were immediately outlawed). The world has been reshaped by wars but remains functional, with greater roles for international authorities (governmental and corporate) plus a powerful cyber empire based in Tibet. Transport is largely AI-driven, and advanced drones and other gadgets are ubiquitous. Nayler chillingly depicts life on an AI-driven fishing vessel where the crew are slaves, never setting foot ashore and unable to communicate. On one such ship, fisherman Eiko learns from his Vietnamese friend Son the legend of a shapeshifting sea monster at the Con Dao Archipelago. This is where Dr. Ha Nyguen has just been hired to investigate what may be a sentient octopus species. Nayler's characters talk through the factors that have kept octopi from having a civilization: short lives, no parent-child bond, and lack of symbolic communication. The author repeatedly and effectively shows how hard it may be for humans to understand the thinking of any alien species, as theory after theory goes bust.

With Ha on the remote atoll are only Evrim and Altantseteg, the enigmatic guard who commands an array of automated defenses. Also in the cast are Ha’s long distance friend Kamran, the cybergenius Rustem, the DIANIMA corporation’s scientist Arnkatia Minervudotter-Chan, and a mysterious woman hidden by an AI facemask who ruthlessly manipulates people for DIANIMA’s benefit. Nayler introduces the “point five,” an AI companion (it and a human together make one point five) sophisticated enough to have discussions and arguments, and pass almost any Turing test, and we’re not always sure who is actually human.  One of Nayler’s fascinating explorations concerns what tips the scale to sentience: why Evrim is an autonomous intelligent being and other constructs, cyber or physical, are not. What, he asks, is the ultimate Turing test?

The octopuses are not what you’d expect. They are trying to understand us, as Ha and Evrim try to understand them. There are echoes here of other interesting works: Star Trek TNG (although the gap between android and human is greater than Data showed us), Alien, and the film A Cold Night’s Death are a few. The various stories collide, literally, at a point where we find out what’s really happening on the island, who’s in charge, and key characters’ real motivations, all of which come as revelations.   

This isn’t a novel you can read casually. Nayler’s prose is inventive and highly effective without ever becoming flowery. Every paragraph is there for a reason, and the reader needs to pay attention. The technical and philosophical details are well thought out and often provocative. Excerpts from the books of Drs. Nyguen and Minervudotter-Chan give essential insights into the characters’ thinking as well as their world. The result is a masterpiece of suspenseful and thoughtful storytelling.

My last thought is that Nayler needs to keep tight control when this book is optioned for a film. A studio’s first instinct will be to make it a monster movie, which is like making Moby Dick an Ahab-vs-whale contest while ignoring the many layers that make the tale profound and unique. I wish him luck.

 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Review: Darren Naish Gives us the Best Book on Marine Reptiles

 Ancient SeaReptiles: Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, and More

by Darren Naish

‎ Smithsonian Books,  2023.  192 pages

My go-to book on marine reptiles used to be Richard Ellis’s Sea Dragons: Predators of the Prehistoric Oceans (2003), which is highly readable but long since obsolete thanks to a raft of new fossils and analytical techniques. Ancient Sea Reptiles, which reflects the latest information in text and diagrams while remaining readable, is my new one.

An excellent Introduction sets up our voyage into the Mesozoic. Dr. Naish explains land masses, climate, temperatures (until recently no one was sure whether marine reptiles braved cold seas), and a capsule history of discoveries by naturalists and paleontologists.  The first ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, and plesiosaurs came out of Europe in 18th and 19th centuries. Speaking of Europe, Naish zaps the myth Many Anning was ever obscure or forgotten, even if she didn’t always get proper credit. More discoveries came out of North America, although Edward Drinker Cope in 1869 delayed proper study of his stunning Elasmosaurus by mistaking the neck for the tail and putting the skull on the wrong end. More mosasaurs and plesiosaurs also came out of North America, supplemented in modern times by marine reptile finds all over the world: from Australia, Morocco, China, and many other places.

Diving into evolution, Naish straightens out the convoluted mess of theories, family trees, and cladograms. These lead to the predominant modern hypothesis, that all the marine reptiles form a superclade descended from a common ancestor. That ancestor may resemble Womengosaurus, 255 million years old. The evolution within the clade was complex. With nearly 200 million years of changing conditions and evolutionary pressures, bodies responded in all kinds of different ways. Not only did the same body plans appear (and reappear) from different reptilian lineages, but similar body plans were shared among creatures as different as ichthyosaurs, cetaceans, and fishes.

Each of the major groups gets a chapter, but the “and More” in the title is very important. Most readers will have at least a general idea of the three largest groups, even if their relationships are very complex.  Naish shows us in Chapter 4 the marine reptiles were much more diverse than is generally known, not to mention weirder.   Mesosaurs, a bit crocodilian to our eyes, prowled the shallows and ventured on land. Placodonts looked like bony, husky, broad-bodied marine lizards. The platyochelids looked like bizarre turtles with shells of heavy scales: I was remined of a swimming waffle iron. Nothosaurs had long, shallow skulls, a bit alligatorish. Then there’s Tanystropheus, with a neck as long as the body and tail put together. It appears to have been an amphibious shoreline ambusher that picked off fish in the shallows. There are many more groups. Above the Mesozoic oceans soared pterosaurs and, eventually, seabirds. There were sea snakes, too, some with tiny hind limbs.

The ichthyosaurs looked the most like modern fishers or cetaceans. They were around more than 100 million years from the 1-meter (m) types of the early Triassic to the amazing shastosaurs, which reached 21 m and probably longer. They split into many groups and evolved countless variations. The Suevoleviathan had unusually large front fins and a gigantic tuna-like tail. Some had enormous eyes indicating they, like some modern cetaceans, didn’t let the need for oxygen keep them from diving deep to hunt fish and squid.

The plesiosaurs might be the most famous group of all. They are classically described as looking like “a snake threaded through the body of a turtle.” Naish notes the media stars are the elasmosaurs, with their extremely long necks, but necks and skulls came in all lengths and thicknesses. (He also notes they did NOT produce the alleged Loch Ness monster.)  For 130 million years, the plesiosaurs evolved, differentiated, and even produced the pliosaurids, which had massive heads and short (sometimes almost absent) necks. There was also the giant Liopleurodon, once estimated at 25 m but really well under half that (still a giant!)  Kronosaurus was another large and relatively famous species (among the types resurrected, with gills in the novels of Max Hawthorne), and up to 11 m long. Leptocleidids were smaller types inhabiting estuaries and lakes, filling niches many modern seals occupy: indeed, some look considerably like four-flippered seals.

Naish spends some time on the interesting and still disputed topic of just how these creatures swam. Were they underwater flyers, like penguins? Rowers? It now looks more complex, with precisely synchronized fore and hind paddle movements for top efficiency.

The thalattosuchians were the ocean-going crocodylomorphs, though unrelated to modern crocodiles. The teleosaurids came first, starting with predators of the shallows and moving into the oceans, while the later-developing metriorhynchids were pure ocean-going animals with smooth skins.

The mosasaurs were unique in being, literally, huge seagoing lizards. Naish says they can be thought of as “whale-lizards,” albeit scaly-skinned, driven by their shark-like tails. While the discovery of a soft-shelled egg 29cm long, which made headlines in 2020, led to speculations mosasaurs laid eggs, the evidence is strong that they bore live young (exactly what laid that egg is still a mystery). One branch, the tylosaurines, produced giants 14 meters long. Here again underwater flight has been suggested, at least for the long-limbed and deep-chested Plioplatecarpus. In this case, too, the idea has been largely dismissed. Mosasaurus itself might have grown as long as 18 m, although the Jurassic Park films make it the size of a small U-boat. 

Finally, we have the sea turtles. On group, the protostegids, which may not have been turtles at all, is extinct. This is unfortunate, since it produced the spectacular Archelon, from North America, 4.6 m long and with a sharp parrot-like beak and a cover of skin and/or scales over a full ribcage, unlike modern turtles where ribs and carapace are fused.  The others are the hard-shelled turtles, relatives of those still with us today, and the leatherbacks, which swam pretty much unconcernedly through the K-Pg event and everything since. The only real enemies of the jellyfish-loving adults, decimating their ranks today, are plastic bags.

The illustrations are superb throughout. The book offers a plethora of photographed fossils, artwork, and line drawings which connect us to the creatures being discussed and to the technical topics like the importance of salt glands. The diagrams of evolutionary relationships are equally helpful.  

It’s not a perfect book.   While Naish gives many sources in text, there are no footnotes, endnotes, or other citations and only a token bibliography. This Smithsonian series doesn’t have citations in general, and Nasih himself doesn’t consider them critical for a popular book, but I’m a fan of them: I love the way books by people like Ellis and Susan Casey (and, for that matter, me) give us many pages of things to look up as curiosity dictates. Finally, the book just ends. There are two lines on the future of the oceans at the end of the turtle chapter, and it just stops. Naish had more material he could not incorporate, but even a short summary of this broad topic we’ve just covered would make it feel more complete. 

The marine reptiles, then, were a group of astonishing numbers, variations, and sizes. Naish has given us the best guide in print to these creatures and their world. An exciting aspect, threaded throughout the book, is that discoveries, theories, and analysis of these animals is progressing faster than ever before. Naish may have to revise this superb book in ten years or so.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:
Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Following the work of Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill, geologist, science writer, skeptic, and reporter on cryptozoology, natural phenomena, and paranormal claims, is a very important resource for those of us who follow those topics.  She has been on several platforms which either proved unsatisfactory or became so, so she is consolidating.  

Her Substack will go away and everything will be on her website at Sharon A. Hill - Strange Claims Adjuster ( She also posts on Mastodon.

This includes her old Spooky Geology site and her Modern Cryptozoology blog. 

Good luck, Sharon!

Sharon A. Hill

Independent researcher, Geologist, author, and science communicator with 25+ years of research and writing about anomalous natural phenomena, paranormal beliefs in society, paranormal popular culture, pseudoscience, science and society, cryptozoology, Forteana, and geologic topics.

Author of Scientifical Americans (McFarland, 2017)

Thursday, December 07, 2023

The most puzzling of "Sea Serpents"

In the age of hard science and amazing tools, is there any room for the romantic possibility of large and truly strange creatures roaming the oceans of the world? The age of monsters is long past, but there remains a most peculiar eyewitness account from December 7, 1907 by two British men of science, Michael J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo.  In 1905, these witnesses observed a "sea monster" which still hasn't been definitively explained.
The men were both experienced naturalists, Fellows of the Zoological Society of London.   Their account of "a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions" is recorded in the Society's Proceedings and Nicoll's 1908 book Three Voyages of A Naturalist.

On December 7, 1905, at 10:15 AM, Nicoll and Meade-Waldo were on a research cruise aboard the yacht Valhalla.  They were 15 miles east of the mouth of Brazil's Parahiba River when Nicoll turned to his companion and asked, "Is that the fin of a great fish?" 
The fin was cruising past them about 90 meters away.  Meade-Waldo described it as "dark seaweed-brown, somewhat crinkled at the edge."  The visible part was roughly rectangular, about 1.8 m long and 60 cm high. 
As Meade-Waldo watched through  “powerful” binoculars, a head on a long neck rose in front of the frill.  He described the neck as "about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from seven to eight feet was out of the water; head and neck were all about the same thickness ... The head had a very turtle-like appearance, as also the eye.  It moved its head and neck from side to side in a peculiar manner: the color of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below - almost white, I think."
Nicoll noted, "Below the water we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature."  They kept the creature in sight for several minutes before the Valhalla drew away from the beast.  The yacht was traveling under sail and could not come about.  At 2:00 AM on December 8th, however, three crewmembers saw what appeared to be the same animal, almost entirely submerged. 
In a letter to author Rupert T. Gould, author of The Case for the Sea Serpent, Meade-Waldo remarked, "I shall never forget poor Nicoll's face of amazement when we looked at each other after we had passed out of sight of it ... " Nicoll marveled, “This creature was an example, I consider, of what has been so often reported, for want of a better name, as the ‘great sea-serpent.’”
What did these gentlemen see?  For the sake of inquiry and fun, let's assume they got the description right.  If the animal did have this "extraordinary" appearance, and thus could not be simply ascribed to a known creature, and we let in the possibility of an unknown one, then what might we theorize?
Meade-Waldo offered no theory.  Nicoll, while admitting it is "impossible to be certain," suggested they had seen an unknown species of mammal, adding, "…the general appearance of the creature, especially the soft, almost rubber-like fin, gave one this impression."  The witnesses did not notice any diagnostic features such as hair, pectoral fins, gills, or nostrils.
The late zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, in his exhaustive tome In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggested this sighting involved a huge eel or eel-shaped fish swimming with its head and forebody out of the water.  For reasons no one understands, the largest known species of eel, the conger, does swim this way on occasion.  Interestingly, the conger also has been observed to undulate on its side at the water’s surface, producing an appearance that looks little like an eel and a lot like a serpentine monster, albeit a small one.  Congers are known to reach about nine feet in length.
Another candidate for the sighting might be a reptile.  Nicoll's sketch certainly bears some resemblance to a plesiosaur, a Mesozoic-era tetrapod suggested as a solution for sea serpent sightings as early as 1833.  
Plesiosaurs keep turning up in connection to sea serpents because they were one of the few marine species of any type in the fossil record to have long necks.  American humorist Will Cuppy once remarked on plesiosaurs, “They might have a had a useful career as sea serpents, but they were before their time. There was nobody to scare except fish, and that was hardly worth while.”  Indeed, the plesiosaur fossil record stops with that of their land-based cousins, the dinosaurs. 
There is another problem in connecting these animals to the 1905 description.  In addition to the absence of relevant fossils dated within the last sixty million years, no plesiosaur is known to have possessed a dorsal fin.  There was no need for a dorsal fin for stability on the turtle-like bodies of these animals.  A plesiosaur with a fin or frill unsupported by bones and thus unlikely to fossilize, presumably for threat or sexual display, is not impossible, but this is pure speculation As a non-expert on these creatures, I can only refer to my favorite source, Darren Naish's book, which, shows no hint of a dorsal on any relevant species.
Nicoll's idea of a mammal poses problems as well.  No known mammal, living or extinct, fits the description given by the two naturalists.  Some cryptozoologists believe sea monster reports are attributable to archaeocetes: prehistoric snakelike whales, such as those in the genus Basilosaurus.  It's conceivable this group could have evolved a long-necked form but not only did the basilosaurs, according to fossils, vanish millions of years ago, but the known whales were actually evolving in the opposite direction, resulting in the neckless or almost neckless modern cetaceans.  One other mammalian possibility is a huge elongated seal.  This seems equally difficult to support, given that no known seal, living or extinct, has either a truly long neck (although the necks of pinnipeds are startlingly long when extended) or anything resembling a dorsal fin.
The original eyewitness drawing by Nicoll (out of copyright)

Meade-Waldo was aware of the famous sea monster report made in 1848 by the crew of the frigate HMS Daedalus.  He thought his own creature "might easily be the same."  The Daedalus witnesses described an animal resembling "a large snake or eel" with a visible length estimated at sixty feet. To me, though, a squid or whale seems most likely.
Eels come up in relation to this sighting because Maurice Burton and others have written of conger eels (known maximum size 3 meters) showing peculiar behaviors. One is undulating on their sides on the surface (which, if you make the eel big enough, is an impressive "sea serpent:" the other is rushing about with head and forebody lifted out of the water, which makes no sense but must look really cool and can include the tip of the dorsal fin. 
There are a few reports specifically describing giant eels.  A German vessel, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, observed such a creature in its entirety off England in 1912.  The Kaiserin's Captain Ruser described it as over six meters long and half a meter thick. Four Irish fisherman claimed to have caught a six-meter eel in 1915.  In 1947, the officers of the Grace liner Santa Clara reported their ship ran over a brown eel-like creature estimated at nearly 20 meters.   In 1971, English fisherman Stephen Smith was in the area of the 1912 sighting when he allegedly encountered an eel 6-7 meters long, with the head of a conger eel but “four times the size.”  He told author Paul Harrison, “I have fished all over the world, but never have I seen something like this.”  Smith suggested it was “…a form of hybrid eel, but at twenty feet? There must be a more rational explanation, but I’m damned if I know what it is!”
The first “non-monster” hypothesis offered came from Richard Ellis, a prominent writer on marine life.  Ellis suggested in 1994 that a giant squid swimming with its tentacles foremost, with one tentacle or arm held above the surface, could present an unusual appearance which, combined with a reasonable degree of observer error, might account for the details reported in this case.
Squid can swim tentacles-first, and often do so when approaching prey.  For one to have presented the appearance described, though, it must have acted in a totally unnatural fashion.  The squid would have to swim on its side to keep one fin above the water while pointlessly holding up a single limb and swimming forward for several minutes.  Even assuming it is physically possible for a squid to act this way, it seems impossible to come up with a reason why it might do so.  This explanation also requires that Meade-Waldo, at least, made a major mistake, since he recorded seeing a large body under water “behind the frill.” (Nicoll did not see this or did not remark on it.)
Dr. Naish has suggested the witnesses saw a large pinniped, perhaps a sea elephant, lying on its side, head slightly above the water, "finning:" waving one fin for cooling.  That's known behavior. It's the most plausible known-species idea, and may be current, but it not being an exact fit makes me keep the file open. (Sheer romanticism, of course, is another reason.) 
While the idea of a large seagoing animal remaining unidentified to this day may seem surprising, it’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility. Recently identified whales have already been mentioned.  The five-meter-plus megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios), while discovered quite a while back (1976), is still a good example because this huge, slow-moving, blimplike filter-feeder was not just unknown as a living species, but completely unknown in every respect.  There were no fossil indications, no sighting reports, and no local folklore about such a strange creature among Pacific islanders.   The species just appeared. The newest of the beaked whales was known only by Japanese fishermen's reports until it stranded in Alaska in June 2016. We still don't know the identity of the species called the Cross Seamount beaked whale, even though records of its vocalizing show it prefers shallower water than any other beaked whale. 
The whole sea serpent business is hopelessly buried in hype and hoax, but there are a handful of reports that still make a few scientists wonder.  If the Valhalla report is ever satisfactorily explained, I'm willing to give up the whole topic.  But all we know for now is that, on this date in 1905, two well-qualified witnesses described a large unknown marine animal for which no convincing explanation has been presented.   
Ellis, Richard. 1998. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: Lyons Press.
Ellis, Richard. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Knopf.
Gould, Rupert T. 1930. The Case for the Sea Serpent. London: Philip Allan.
Harrison, Paul. 2001. Sea Serpents and Lake Monsters of the British Isles. London: Robert Hale.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. 1968. In the Wake of the Sea Serpents. New York: Hill and Wang.
McCullough JLK, et. al. 2023. "Geographic distribution of the Cross Seamount beaked whale based on acoustic detections," Marine Mammal Science, 1–20.
Meade-Waldo, E.G.B., and Nicoll, Michael J., 1906. "Description of an Unknown Animal Seen at Sea off the Coast of Brazil," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, p.719.
Molloy, R. 1915. “A Queer Tale of Flanagan and the Eel off Dalkey Sound,” publication title unknown, August 28. Available at
Naish, Darren. 2023. Ancient Sea Reptiles: Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, and More. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.
Naish, Darren. 2016. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus,
Nicoll, Michael J. 1908. Three Voyages of a Naturalist. London: Witherby and Co.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:
Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Saturday, December 02, 2023

Book Review: Susan Casey Takes us to the Deeps in The Underworld

The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Oceans 

Doubleday: 2023, 352pp.

Susan Casey's new book is her best work: her best writing, her most fascinating topic, and the best blending of her personal adventures and the larger picture of the natural world and the people who explore it.  To be honest, I’ve also never been as envious of the adventures she undertakes or manages, by excellent networking, to get invitations to.

Casey’s Chapter 1 is a trip to Sweden to see the original Carta Marina, the famous 16
th-century illustrated map showing an incredible variety of monstrous creatures. Most, she notes, were based on fact, albeit with enormous degrees of exaggeration. This is her starting point to explore the history of deep ocean observation, the competing theories, and the slow advance of technology through the Challenger expedition. She chronicles the work of pioneering explorer William Beebe, the development of the bathyscaphe, and Trieste’s descent to the Challenger Deep (I never knew William Beebe and Theodore Roosevelt once drew submersible designs on a napkin!) 

The author threads information and stories on geology, hydrothermal vents, seaquakes, and life of every kind, from whales to bacteria, all through her narrative. She sails on the RV Atlantis with the famed ROV Jason, doing shifts as a data logger while the ROV sends back stunning images, and tours the world’s most famous submersible, Alvin. She includes many tales of disaster and near-disaster for the aquanauts. Everyone she meets reminds her that this is an environment that, while bearing life in unprecedented variety, is as hospitable to humans as deep space.

Casey introduces us to the legends of marine exploration, Don Walsh and Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle, along with a dozen or so lesser-known people who deserve to share the spotlight.  (Walsh just died at 92, literally while I was reading this book.)

The real highlight for the reader is Casey’s own experience as a submersible passenger.  I’m not sure ocean life can be described more evocatively than Casey does it on her two dives. The first is a test dive of the Neptune to a thousand meters off the Bahamas. Neptune was one of the submersibles supporting creator/funder Victor Vescovo’s Five Deeps effort (diving to the deepest point in each ocean, doing science along the way).  She is fascinated by the luminescent jellies... “a blazing purple ring with flowing white tentacles…a gold crown that throbbed like a heart...a child’s drawing of the sun.” When they turn off all lights, “It was as though we were in the center of a meteor shower, streaks and bursts and aureoles of light bejeweling the darkness to the far edges of our vision…”  For someone whose breakthrough book was about great white sharks, Casey clearly appreciates amazing life of all kinds. She even gets to drive a little. “You’re doing great,” the pilot says. “I think you’re going backwards, though.” 

Casey later gets to do a much deeper dive, to Kamaʻehuakanaloa Seamount (aka Lōʻihi) in the Hawaiian Islands on a trip with Vescovo himself to free a stuck lander. Five thousand meters down, Casey tries hard to describe the sensations of being embraced, enthralled, and awed by the scenery. “You don’t glimpse the mystery, you enter it.” Vescovo, among many other accomplishments, mentions filming a snailfish at 6,890m, then a record for finding a living fish. (The record as of this writing is a snailfish at 8,336 m.)

Casey does a great job of describing shipboard and submersible conditions and the work needed to launch, operate, and recover submersibles, ROVs, and fixed-site landers.  Much of this hardware is aimed at hydrothermal vents, whose 1977 discovery shocked everyone: It was, Casey writes, “A Star Wars bar ecosystem bar scene ecosystem that flouted all of our rules.”

She does almost as well with descriptions of the undersea environment and underlying science. If she can get a little cutesy (morphing mantle rock… “throws off heat, hydrogen, and methane in a kind of planetary hissy fit”), the complex grandeur of the topic demands the reader let her get away with it.

Casey includes detours to other fascinating topics, including more museums and the search for the world’s most valuable treasure ship, the San Jose’, finally located but “reburied” under intense legal disputes. She explores the fraught question of mining the deep sea for manganese nodules and does not have much trouble making the case that, however greenwashed such projects may be, they are a terrible idea.

For my fellow fans of unrecognized species, Casey covers William Beebe’s claims of seeing spectacular deep-sea fish that, she notes, no one has observed since.  To be charitable to Beebe, the vivid way Casey describes the self-illuminating life seen on her submersible dives, it's easy to imagine Beebe, squinting through a thick quartz window with inadequate illumination, thinking multiple animals or chained invertebrates were part of a large, illuminated fish. In interviewing Don Walsh, she does not mention his Challenger Deep sighting of a fish at almost 11 kilometers down. (Walsh had still maintained in talking to Bill Streever for his 2109 book In Oceans Deep that it may have been a fish and not a holothurian.)  Casey discusses numerous deep invertebrates discovered, many still undescribed, by ROV and submersibles.

In discussing giant squid, she includes encounters like the spectacular Pauline squid v. whale report from 1875 (which, allowing for some overestimated dimensions, could be true) and the racing trimaran Geronimo's 2003 encounter with a 10m squid that wrapped its arms around the rudder.  Casey is relatively conservative in describing the sizes of the giant and colossal squids, so it was interesting to read on page 187, “…researchers have found larger beaks from what they describe as a super-colossal colossal squid.” Her source is a 2015 article in Deep Sea News by Dr. Douglas Long, who refers to extra-large beaks found in sperm whales' stomachs. I’ll have to poke into that a bit more.  

She closes with a discussion of the future of deep-sea exploration, centered around an Explorers Club dinner that includes all the luminaries of that world. The dangers to the deep are huge: the possibilities of exploration and discovery are endless.

There are nits to pick. The USS Indianapolis was a cruiser, not a battleship. And it's odd wording when  she says, referring to underwater explorers, “I’d come to think of them as the ‘aquanauts,’" – a term in use for many decades.

There are 29 pages of page notes, four of references, and two of resources, so kudos to Casey for documentation. There’s also a very good collection of photographs, most in color, although Casey isn’t the only one to note that photography doesn’t do justice to how spectacular the depicted creatures and features look in person.

The Underworld also makes a good companion to Helen Scales' The Brilliant Abyss, with Scales providing more science and Casey conveying more the sense of wonder. Casey has turned in a five-star tour of the deep that all us landlubbers should have on our reading lists.  


 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!