Joe Cocker's lament at Woodstock might well be echoed by the horde of bizarre creatures inhabiting the world's ocean depths. Their forms are alien - in fact, at least one may be the Earthly version of the film's off-world predator. Their habitat is cold and dark, yet there is more opportunity to flourish, and perhaps more species reflecting that condition, than the surface we're familiar with now contains. Many live on the remains of life drifting down from the surface or shallow layers. Others seek out prey in a number of zones in the water column. For there are but two things inhabiting this stygian realm - animals and minerals. Life is spent "looking for something to eat or somebody to love". In this spectacular album of photographs, accompanied by informative essays by oceanic researchers, we are given a first clear view into an unknown zone of life's largest arena.
Although quite possibly the zone where life began billions of years ago, the deep sea has long been hidden. Sunlight fades quickly, and perceptible colours shift from blue to red, then disappear. In the deeps, red is the dominant biological colour because nothing can see it. Reflecting this, the photographs are dominated by scarlet-hued creatures who only wish to be seen by potential mates. Others are almost perfectly transparent, a survival trait in a locale where having too much brain, heart or eyes can be fatally visible. Shapes vary across species with infinite ingenuity, but no few of these creatures can modify their profile either on demand or as part of their normal life cycle. With survival always a challenge, both predators and prey must be able to adapt effectively. From our viewpoint, seeing these animals in fully-illuminated conditions, they seem to stand out vividly. Nouvian and the researchers point out why we need to reconsider the images to what life is like in the chilling depths. Depths where the pressure is the equivalent of a cow standing on your thumbnail. And Joe Cocker's plaint might need revising in the face of mating habits of the black seadevil. The male attaches himself to his mate's body and is slowly absorbed into her flesh when she's utilised all his sperm to fertilise her eggs.
In her Preface, Nouvian opens by relating her astonishment at seeing a film of creatures found deep in the Monterey Canyon off the California coast. "These animals aren't real!" she exclaimed - probably in chorus with the other viewers. As you turn the pages, you can hardly blame her: an octopus with "rabbit" ears, a sponge resembling the Brussels "Atomium", and a host of species that have never seen the sun - a condition we were all assured in school wasn't possible. There were hints - the 19th Century exploration ship HMS Challenger brought up evidence of deep life, as had many a fishing net. Relocating deep-sea creatures to the surface is a hazardous undertaking - for them. Those transparent bodies are fragile, shattering or dissolving shape when they emerge. William Beebe descended into the Western Atlantic in a steel ball, but it's the introduction of the Remote Observing Vehicles that have brought information from the deep for us to see. Look quickly, because the bottom of the sea isn't immune to the effect of shifts in climate we're generating.
It is the greatest area on the planet where life exists. We would do well to begin to understand it. This book is an outstanding introduction to this unknown part of our world. Take it up and learn about forms of life seen only in dreams and visions - until now. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]