The Brilliant Abyss
True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed
Review by Petra Kerhove
Bone-eating zombie worms, headless chicken monsters and yeti crabs: This could be the start of a bad horror film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even though they look like they might have escaped the world of H. P. Lovecraft or Jules Verne, all these creatures actually exist and they live deep in the ocean. These animals, amongst others, keep astounding scientists all over the world and make them constantly reassess life on this planet. We know so much about life on land, and even about life in the sky, but below the first few meters of the ocean’s surface, life is unknown territory.
Helen Scales is a marine biologist, writer and broadcaster. She is also a cold water-surfer, scuba diver and trained freediver. In this book she expresses her passion for sea life and she gives us an insight into the largely undiscovered world of the deep sea.
The first part of the book is a description of the unbelievably resilient, inventive and downright unusual creatures of the deep. She mentions animals newly discovered by scientists, and she describes how they manage to live in inhospitable habitats like hydrothermal vents, where the oxygen levels are extremely low and temperature and toxin levels are extremely high. The animals in the deep need to adapt, which causes genetic mutations, changes in reproductive cycles and unusual diets. This is where we are introduced to creatures like Xenoturbella, a type of worm that looks like a discarded sock, Peinaleopolynoe elvisi, the Elvis worm, because it seems to wear a sequined suit, and Chaetopterus pugaporcinus, also known as the flying buttocks, because well … I think it speaks for itself.
The habitats these creatures live in are just as fascinating as the wildlife we find there: the deep-sea seamounts, the trenches in the hadal zone (the deepest region in the sea), and the hydrothermal vents. All these different habitats support different creatures with their own specialist survival skills.
After the first chapters, the tone of the book becomes more serious as Scales outlines the importance of the deep sea. Why do we need to preserve the deep? What can we learn from life in the deep sea? And: how will the destruction of life on the seabed affect us on earth?
Scientists are learning more and more each day about the genetic make-up and life-cycles of various animals that live in the abyss and deep-sea trenches, and the results of this research could potentially help in the development of new medicines and medical treatments.
The sea also plays a very important role in climate control. The deep sea holds on to billions of tonnes of CO2 through particles of biological debris, called marine snow, sinking to the bottom. Also, some deep sea animals migrate to the surface where they feed at night and then return for the day, potentially moving massive amounts of CO2 to the deep.
Of course, there are several threats to life on the seabed, like overfishing and deep-sea trawling, but imminent deep-sea mining could be one of the most destructive practices. Fossil fuels are being depleted and we need more sustainable energy, so companies will try to extract mineral deposits from the seabed for use as an energy source instead. However, in the process, many habitats will be destroyed and animals will suffer or become extinct, even with the most careful mining techniques. It is unknown if the CO2 deposits will be disturbed in the process of mining. There could be substantial climate effects if they are.
The last part of the book describes how to preserve this vast ecosystem. Scales tells us to do even the smallest things to help: recycle, fly less and demand better laws from our local officials. Because if we don’t, life in the deep could be affected even more by pollution, extinction and disappearing habitats.
For me, this book was an eye-opener. Even for someone with a life-long curiosity and passion for wildlife, I was unaware of these extremely fascinating, alien creatures. Their life cycles are so unusual, their shapes incomprehensible and the environments they live in so hostile, you cannot help but be in awe.
I was also unprepared to learn of the scale of utter destruction the deep sea is facing through trawling and deep-sea mining. It genuinely seems that because we cannot see the deep, we almost forget that it is there. We need to do all we can to preserve this fascinating world that is still teaching us so much every day.
The writing style of the book makes this complicated and scientific topic easier to understand. Scales doesn’t overuse scientific words and where she does, she explains what they mean.
After reading this book, my lifelong interest in the underwater world has turned into a passion for the deep. It is just amazing that in a world where we know so much, there is one habitat left where one can just simply marvel at the unknown. Or as Scales says herself in the epilogue:
The deep sea will never run out of things for us to dream about. Places will remain unseen and unvisited, fleeting moments will be missed and nimble creatures, whose existence nobody can guess, will keep slipping out of sight. We need to do all we can to keep it that way. (p. 294)
And isn’t that a wonder worth saving?
Follow the Author on Twitter: @helenscales
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