Books About Below The Deepest Most Of Us Will Ever Go

Chloe Niclas

Thanks to Robert Moor for these reviews:

The Wonders That Live at the Very Bottom of the Sea

Two new books, Edith Widder’s “Below the Edge of Darkness” and Helen Scales’s “The Brilliant Abyss,” explore the darkest reaches and all that glows there.

In the deep sea, it is always night and it is always snowing. A shower of so-called marine snow — made up of pale flecks of dead flesh, plants, sand, soot, dust and excreta — sifts down from the world above. When it strikes the seafloor, or when it is disturbed, it will sometimes light up, a phenomenon known, wonderfully, as “snow shine.” Vampire squids, umbrella-shaped beings with skin the color of persimmons, float around collecting this luminous substance into tiny snowballs, which they calmly eat. They are not alone in this habit. Most deep-sea creatures eat snow, or they eat the snow eaters.

Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that the deep seas were mostly devoid of life. For centuries, fishermen hauled in deep-sea trawling nets filled with slime, not knowing that these were carcasses. Some animals, adapted to the pressure of the deep, are so delicate that in lighter waters a mere wave of your hand could reduce them to shreds. The myth of the dead deep sea, known as the Abyssus Theory, was disproved by a series of dredging and trawling expeditions in the 19th century, including a German scientific expedition in 1898 that pulled up the first known vampire squid. But the misconception nevertheless lingered. In 1977, a geologist piloting a submersible near the mouth of a hydrothermal vent, and finding it swarming with creatures, asked the research crew up above, “Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be like a desert?”

The naturalist William Beebe — the man who coined the phrase “marine snow” — famously made a series of early submersible expeditions, ultimately reaching a depth of a half-mile. He returned in a state of astonishment, carrying “the memory of living scenes in a world as strange as that of Mars.” In fact, it was far stranger. (Mars, being a largely dead planet, is by comparison dead boring.) Down there, many creatures are translucent; others are Vantablack. Some are delicate; others have shells of actual iron. Pale violet octopuses — which normally prefer solitude — gather for warmth in cuddle puddles numbering in the hundreds. Sperm-shaped creatures called giant larvaceans live within a self-constructed cloud of mucous many feet wide, equipped with gorgeously vaulted, wing-shaped chambers designed to filter out food. (Forget Calatrava; not even Calvino could imagine a house as mind-bendingly lovely as these giant gobs of goo.)

And nearly all of them — the fish, the squids, the shrimp — glow.

I know all this because, on a recent trip to Fire Island, I read a pair of new books about the deep sea. Lying on the hot sand, I plunged my head into the chilly darkness of an alien world. It was thrilling, and — for a variety of reasons — more than a little terrifying…

Read the whole review here.

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