Mysteries of the Deep

Amazing photos of animals living in the darkest, deepest ocean.

By Richard Ellis|Tuesday, April 24, 2007
RELATED TAGS: UNUSUAL ORGANISMS, OCEAN
Sure, you probably know that two-thirds of our planet is covered with water, but you might not know that 90 percent of this water is more than two miles deep, making the deep ocean the predominant habitat for life—and Water perhaps a better name for this world than Earth. In 1996, I wrote and illustrated a book about the little-known creatures of the abyss. At the time, so few decent photographs existed that I actually had to draw various fishes, squids, octopuses, jellyfishes,sharks, and whales. Now The Deep, a coffee-table-size book edited by French film director Claire Nouvian (University of Chicago Press, $45), makes my little volume all but obsolete.

Each of the 200-odd photographs in this book is in color. Bejeweled creatures—squid, comb jellies, octopuses, and tube worms—leap off the black pages in such a luminescent rainbow that you can’t help but realize that the “blackness” of the depths is a misnomer. In many cases, photographs of these organisms appear in this book for the first time anywhere.

One of the many creatures captured peerlessly for The Deep is the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the “vampire squid from hell.” Not exactly a squid and not exactly an octopus, this enigmatic entity has eight arms plus two wispy filaments like the ones squid use for hunting. A deepwater species that reaches just over a foot in length, it is a warm  sepia brown in color, with startling sky-blue eyes, which are proportionally the largest eyes of any animal for its size. It has the ability to wrap its arms over its head so that it effectively turns itself inside out; the reason for this behavior is a mystery. Vampyroteuthis is well represented here; we see its eyes, like huge blue sapphires in its velvety chestnut skin (page 134); the whole animal everted so it looks like a cactus. The animal that biologist Steven Haddock calls “the unofficial mascot of the deep” hangs like a blue-eyed, elephant-eared umbrella, a most appropriate escort for our photo voyage to the bottom of the sea.

A 20-inch glowing sucker octopus, whose fins resemble elephant ears.

Such intimate photographs are surely the book’s triumph. But an articulate and informative commentary accompanies them. The many short chapters have been written by the world’s foremost marine scientists.Cindy Lee Van Dover, the first woman to pilot an under water submersible, addresses exploration of the depths; Edie Widder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association introduces us tobioluminescence; Clyde Roper of the Smithsonian Institution writes about deep-sea “monsters” (mostly cephalopods, his specialty); Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii talks about “whale falls,” a recently discovered phenomenon in which whale carcasses that have sunk to the seafloor support entire ecosystems of hungry scavengers; and Daniel Desbruyères of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of theSea discusses what is probably the most wondrous aspect of life in the depths, the hydrothermal vents.

First discovered in 1977 by scientists aboard the research submersible Alvin at a depth of more than 8,000 feet at the Galápagos Rift (off the coast of Ecuador), hydrothermal vents are cracks in the seafloor at the juncture of tectonic plates. Similar vents were subsequently discovered along many other mid-ocean ridges. Through these vents, volcanic activity in Earth’s interior releases hot gases and dissolved minerals into the ocean and heats the water to temperatures of nearly 700 degrees Fahrenheit. In this pitch-black, superheated, sulfide-rich environment, previously unknown life-forms thrive not on oxygen, as do all other known forms of life, but on hydrogen sulfide, a substance that is poisonous to most living things. These life-forms include six-foot-long tube worms with red, feathery plumes but no mouth and no gut; football-size snow-white clams with blood-red innards;ghost-white crabs a foot long; and eyeless shrimp with light-detecting organs on their backs. They are nourished by symbiotic bacteria living inside them that are able to extract sulfides from the water and process them into a usable form. The vent creatures are as far from life as we previously understood it as life on another planet. The Deep’s views of the tube worms look as if they were taken on the planet Zargon.

Because this book is essentially a photo essay—or a series of essays with accompanying photographs—it would be nice to know who took the photos. There is a list of credits on the last page, but the type is small and the list poorly organized, as well as lacking in critical information. For instance, squid, octopuses, and jellyfish are soft-bodied creatures, and must be photographed alive, either in their natural habitat or in a tank. Fish, by contrast, are supported by a skeletal framework, so can be propped up and photographed when they aredead. We know, then, that all the invertebrates were alive when their pictures were taken, but we can’t be so sure about the fish. Did the scaly dragonfish on pages 138–139 just happen to pass by a submersible porthole or a robotic camera with its mouth agape, or was it caught and arranged on a tray?

At least there is no question about the colossal squid Mesonychoteuthis hamiltonii and the giant squid Architeuthis dux, shown here in terrifying detail. They are neither alive nor dead but computer generated. Although they are identified as such in tiny type on the credits page, a casual reader would assume that these are pictures of living creatures. It’s unfortunate that the editors chose to do this;the real photos of real squid are more than sufficient to demonstrate their variety and beauty, just as the surprising images of octopuses, fish, jellyfish, sharks, corals, and worms reveal a brilliant world hundreds of fathoms down.

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