The Brilliant Abyss
A ‘wonderful introduction’ to the deep sea by Helen Scales
It used to be thought that beyond about 1,600ft below the ocean’s surface, no life could survive at all, said Steven Poole in The Daily Telegraph. But the invention of “camera-equipped remote-control submarines” has given the lie to that notion: “the vasty deep” contains a staggering array of life, much of it startlingly weird.
In The Brilliant Abyss, marine biologist Helen Scales provides a “wonderful introduction” to this realm. We learn of dumbo octopuses, vampire squids, and worms that feed on the bones of sperm whales that have fallen to the ocean floor, and “which are known – of course – as ‘bone-eating zombie worms’”. We meet “cyborg snails that make their shells of iron” – to protect themselves against the crushing pressure – and Yeti crabs with furry claws that thrive around hydrothermal vents. Scales’s enthusiasm for her subject is matched by her gift for visual evocation: “Picture”, she commands, “a close relative of the woodlouse that hides under rocks or garden pots, but pale pink and the size of a rugby ball.”
As well as describing this “diverse underworld”, Scales examines the threats it faces, said Eleanor Parsons in the New Scientist. Deep-sea fishing is the best-known example: it has, she writes, a “fearsome capacity to vandalise our living planet”. But she also warns of a newer type of exploitation: mining the seabed for the rare metals used in many low-carbon technologies. Some argue that extracting these metals is necessary to make our economies greener, but Scales disagrees: the deep, she writes, is what “makes this planet habitable” – not least by acting as a vast repository for carbon – and we disrupt its ecosystems at our peril. Accessible, enjoyable and written with infectious passion, this book is a compelling guide to a fascinating and often overlooked part of our planet.
Bloomsbury Sigma 352pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99
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