Strolling in the deep

Taken from the March 2021 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Ian Randall reviews The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed by Helen Scales

Strange and beautiful The yeti crab is just one of the weird deep-sea creatures in Helen Scales’ new book. (Courtesy: David shale/naturepl.comL)

At the bottom of the North Central Pacific Ocean, some 5000 m beneath the waves, lies a small, fist-sized black rock, with a knobbly surface texture, like a head of broccoli. It holds a secret at its heart – a single tooth, long ago shed by a shark swimming in the waters above. In the manner of a pearl forming around a piece of grit in an oyster, the tooth has become encapsulated by layers of waterborne minerals that settled out of the water around it. It took millions of years to reach its current size – but it shall grow no bigger.

A vast unmanned, electric submersible ploughs across the seabed like a bulldozer, heaving up our rock (among others) with its teeth, before sucking it up a hose to a ship waiting on the surface. These nodules are rich in metals like nickel, copper and cobalt – and industry has come to mine them. But the abyss is not empty, making this activity not without its victims. Our rock and its peers supported an abundance of life, from worms and starfish to crustaceans and ghost-like octopuses. As the mining machine lurches onwards, it leaves a trail of devastation in its wake – not to mention kicking up a lingering muddy cloud that chokes and smothers those survivors such as corals and sponges that are unable to flee and escape it.

Raising the alarm about this ecological vandalism against a realm about which we know precious little is the raison d’être of marine biologist Helen Scales’ beguiling new book The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed. With her light and engaging prose, Scales takes the reader on an introductory dive into the mysterious depths to reveal the myriad of life hidden within, from red and green bone-devouring worms that flourish whenever whales fall down to the abyss, to the world’s fishiest-smelling fish. There’s even a hunt for yetis – not of the elusive kind, but tiny, blind, pale crabs that survive living around deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seeps by farming bacteria to feast on. Like their abominable namesakes, however, they are very hairy.

As The Brilliant Abyss’ subtitle suggests, the work periodically segues into arresting tales from Scales’ career, from recovering experiments to determine what species of clams, worms and sea cucumbers colonize logs swept out to sea by floods and hurricanes, to weathering out high winds that suspended scientific activity during a research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fascinating titbits abound in Scales’ writing – including the revelation (to me, at least) that diving mammals such as whales and dolphins have evolved a special, “non-stick” form of the oxygen-carrying, haemoglobin-related protein myoglobin in their muscles. These each have a slightly negative electric charge that repels other myoglobin molecules, allowing the mammals to carry 10 times the protein that we do without the molecules clumping together and causing their bodies to go completely stiff.

Scales’ book also explores such fascinating cases as whether coronal mass ejections from the Sun could have contributed towards stranding numerous young male sperm whales in the North Sea in 2015; as well as explaining why some fish have scales that are blacker than the darkest material man has ever engineered – the multiwalled carbon nanotube, Vantablack, which is up to 99.965% absorbent. One thing that struck me while reading The Brilliant Abyss is that despite being an erstwhile student of geology and having learnt the names given to Earth’s past supercontinents, I don’t recall ever having given thought to the corresponding “superoceans” that surrounded them, such as Mirovia and Panthalassa. A shift of perspective is always fascinating.

It is perhaps in the final third of the book that Scales’ argument for the preservation of the deep from exploitation becomes most clear. She explores the medical potential of deep-sea organisms – such as sponges that harbour anti-cancer compounds – and weighs up the benefits and risks of farming the deep for food and mining it for its mineral resources, before calling for the reader to join her in campaigning for humanity to leave the deep free from excessive interference. It’s a compelling argument – although one that might perhaps have been more strongly seeded in the opening chapters of the work.

One mild disappointment of the book for me is that there are not more illustrations or pictures of the weird and wonderful creatures introduced in the text (at least in my preview copy). Scales’ descriptions may be beautifully written and highly evocative, yet a picture is, as the cliché goes, worth a thousand words. The exception is the gorgeous cover art of various deep-sea species by the artist Aaron Gregory, in a style that seems to evoke the illustrations of the German zoologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, whose work is discussed in the book.

This quibble aside, The Brilliant Abyss is a wonderfully written read that I would highly recommend – it’s the ideal plunge into the depths of Earth’s last great wilderness. 

  • 2021 Bloomsbury Sigma 352pp £316.99hb

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