Review: Mysteries of the Deep

Amazing photos of animals living in the darkest, deepest ocean

By Richard Ellis|Tuesday, April 24, 2007
(Click here too see a full gallery of photos from The Deep.) /~/media/import/images/1/4/2/deep-200

Sure, you probably know that two-thirds of our planet is coveredwith water, but you might not know that 90 percent of this water ismore than two miles deep, making the deep ocean the predominant habitatfor life—and Water perhaps a better name for this world than Earth. In1996, I wrote and illustrated a book about the little-known creaturesof the abyss. At the time, so few decent photographs existed that Iactually had to draw various fishes, squids, octopuses, jellyfishes,sharks, and whales. Now The Deep, a coffee-table-size book edited byFrench 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. Bejeweledcreatures—squid, comb jellies, octopuses, and tube worms—leap off theblack pages in such a luminescent rainbow that you can’t help butrealize that the “blackness” of the depths is a misnomer. In manycases, photographs of these organisms appear in this book for the firsttime anywhere.

One of the many creatures captured peerlessly for The Deep is theVampyroteuthis infernalis, the “vampire squid from hell.” Not exactly asquid and not exactly an octopus, this enigmatic entity has eight armsplus two wispy filaments like the ones squid use for hunting. Adeepwater species that reaches just over a foot in length, it is a warmsepia brown in color, with startling sky-blue eyes, which areproportionally the largest eyes of any animal for its size. It has theability to wrap its arms over its head so that it effectively turnsitself inside out; the reason for this behavior is a mystery.Vampyroteuthis is well represented here; we see its eyes, like hugeblue sapphires in its velvety chestnut skin (page 134); the wholeanimal everted so it looks like a cactus (page 129); and on page 12,the animal that biologist Steven Haddock calls “the unofficial mascotof the deep” hangs like a blue-eyed, elephant-eared umbrella, a mostappropriate 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 anarticulate and informative commentary accompanies them. The many shortchapters have been written by the world’s foremost marine scientists.Cindy Lee Van Dover, the first woman to pilot an underwatersubmersible, addresses exploration of the depths; Edie Widder of theOcean Research and Conservation Association introduces us tobioluminescence; Clyde Roper of the Smithsonian Institution writesabout deep-sea “monsters” (mostly cephalopods, his specialty); CraigSmith of the University of Hawaii talks about “whale falls,” a recentlydiscovered phenomenon in which whale carcasses that have sunk to theseafloor support entire ecosystems of hungry scavengers; and DanielDesbruyères of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of theSea discusses what is probably the most wondrous aspect of life in thedepths, the hydrothermal vents.

First discovered in 1977 by scientists aboard the researchsubmersible Alvin at a depth of more than 8,000 feet at the GalápagosRift (off the coast of Ecuador), hydrothermal vents are cracks in theseafloor at the juncture of tectonic plates. Similar vents weresubsequently discovered along many other midocean ridges. Through thesevents, volcanic activity in Earth’s interior releases hot gases anddissolved minerals into the ocean and heats the water to temperaturesof nearly 700 degrees Fahrenheit. In this pitch-black, superheated,sulfide-rich environment, previously unknown life-forms thrive not onoxygen, as do all other known forms of life, but on hydrogen sulfide, asubstance that is poisonous to most living things. These life-formsinclude six-foot-long tube worms with red, feathery plumes but no mouthand no gut; football-size snow-white clams with blood-red innards;ghost-white crabs a foot long; and eyeless shrimp with light-detectingorgans on their backs. They are nourished by symbiotic bacteria livinginside them that are able to extract sulfides from the water andprocess them into a usable form. The vent creatures are as far fromlife as we previously understood it as life on another planet. TheDeep’s views of the tube worms look as if they were taken on the planetZargon.

Because this book is essentially a photo essay—or a series of essayswith accompanying photographs—it would be nice to know who took thephotos. There is a list of credits on the last page, but the type issmall and the list poorly organized, as well as lacking in criticalinformation. For instance, squid, octopuses, and jellyfish aresoft-bodied creatures, and must be photographed alive, either in theirnatural habitat or in a tank. Fish, by contrast, are supported by askeletal framework, so can be propped up and photographed when they aredead. We know, then, that all the invertebrates were alive when theirpictures were taken, but we can’t be so sure about the fish. Did thescaly dragonfish on pages 138–139 just happen to pass by a submersibleporthole or a robotic camera with its mouth agape, or was it caught andarranged on a tray?

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

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