A big book for a big subject: the sea. But “guide” isn’t the mot juste. “Encyclopaedia” is better, because the book covers all aspects of oceanography and marine life, drawing on physics, chemistry and biology to describe everything inorganic from waves and icebergs to whirlpools and underwater volcanoes, everything organic from a beautiful flower like beach morning-glory, Ipomoea imperati, to a grotesque fish like the Pacific blackdragon, Idiacanthus antrostomus. The flower is on the shore, the fish is in the abyss, but both of them descend from a single ancestor.
And that ancestor may have evolved in the sea. It certainly moved there before it gave rise to flowers and fish. This big subject is also a very important one: the sea is central to the evolution and continued existence of life on earth. Only the sun matters as much, but some marine life could potentially survive the disappearance of the sun:
Hydrothermal vents are similar to hot springs on land. Located near ocean ridges and rifts, at an average depth of 2,100m (7,000ft), they spew out mineral-rich, superheated seawater. Some have tall chimneys, formed from dissolved minerals that precipitate when the hot vent water meets cold, deep-ocean water. The mix of heat and chemicals supports animal communities around the vents – the first life known to exist entirely without the energy of sunlight. (pg. 188, “The Open Ocean and Ocean Floor”)
The deep ocean is a fascinating and little-known place: much nearer than the other side of the earth, but much harder to get to. Like climbing mountains, plumbing the abyss is difficult and dangerous. It’s interesting that both endeavours have been dominated by a particular group of human being: both the highest and lowest points on the planet were first reached by white males. Fabien Cousteau, who introduces this book, continues the tradition. He’s the grandson of Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), who popularized diving and marine biology for millions of people. Jacques saw huge advances in marine technology and science and his son and grandson have seen more. But the discoveries are still coming: as Fabien points out, it’s estimated that “over 90 per cent of the world’s biodiversity resides in its oceans”.
Some of that biodiversity left the water for the land and evolved new forms. Some of those new forms went back to the water, like the ceteceans and sea-snakes. Like human beings, they’re descended from fish, the most varied of all vertebrate groups. But some marine life never left its cradle. Where else can you find the beauty and strangeness of groups like the jellyfish? Radial symmetry is a marine speciality and when H.P. Lovecraft was inventing his aliens, he looked to under-space as much as outer:
But to give it a name at this stage was mere folly. It looked like a radiate, but was clearly something more. It was partly vegetable, but had three-fourths of the essentials of animal structure. That it was marine in origin, its symmetrical contour and certain other attributes clearly indicated; yet one could not be exact as to the limit of its later adaptations. The wings, after all, held a persistent suggestion of the aerial. How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake; and the wild tales of cosmic hill things from outside told by a folklorist colleague in Miskatonic’s English department. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)
Lovecraft would have enjoyed Ocean as much as Jacques Cousteau. It closes with a detailed “Atlas of the Oceans”, with maps of the ocean floor all around the world. Before that, you can learn how the Corryvreckan whirlpool nearly killed George Orwell in 1947, where to find manganese nodules, why so many deep-sea creatures are red and what the narwhale’s horn really is. You can also feast your eyes on photography that records everything from microscopic plankton to swirling hurricanes hundreds of kilometres across. Big subject, big book. Beautiful subject and beautiful book too.
Living by a river is good, but living by the sea is better. This means that the ideal might be Innsmouth:
The harbour, long clogged with sand, was enclosed by an ancient stone breakwater; on which I could begin to discern the minute forms of a few seated fishermen, and at whose end were what looked like the foundations of a bygone lighthouse. A sandy tongue had formed inside this barrier and upon it I saw a few decrepit cabins, moored dories, and scattered lobster-pots. The only deep water seemed to be where the river poured out past the belfried structure and turned southward to join the ocean at the breakwater’s end. (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, 1936)
Lovecraft would certainly have liked Collins Complete Guide to British Coastal Wildlife, a solid photographic guide to the flora and fauna of the British coast. There are some very Lovecraftian species here, both floral and faunal. Among the plants there’s sea-holly, Eryngium maritimum, a blue-grey shingle-dweller with gothically spiky and veined leaves. It has its own specialized parasite, Orobanche minor ssp. maritima, “an exclusively coastal sub-species” of common broomrape (pg. 94). Among the Lovecraftian animals there are the cephalopods (octopuses and squids), echinoderms (sea-urchins and starfish) and cnidarians (jellyfish and sea-anemones), but also the greater and lesser weever, Trachinus draco and Echiichthys vipera, which are “notorious fish, capable of inflicting a painful sting to a bather’s foot” (pg. 278).
Arion ater is included here because it’s “particularly common on coastal cliffs, paths and dunes” (pg. 239). The land snails that accompany it have charm, like the looping snail, Truncatella subcylindrica, and the wrinkled snail, Candidula intersecta, but they don’t have the beauty and variety of marine shell-dwellers, from the limpets, scallops and cockles to the wentletraps, cowries and whelks. And the violet snail, Jacintha jacintha, which rides the open ocean on a “‘float’ of mucus-trapped bubbles” as it feeds on the by-the-wind sailor, Velella velella. Layfolk would say that Velella and its relative Physalia physalis, the Portuguese man-o’-war, are jellyfish, but they’re actually “pelagic hydroids”. And Physalia is a colony of animals, not a single animal.
After the cnidaria come the annelids, or segmented worms, which can be beautiful or repulsive, mundane or surreal, free-living or sessile. For example, the scaleworms are “unusual-looking polychaete worms whose dorsal surface is mostly or entirely covered with overlapping scales” (pg. 129). They’re reminiscent of the sea-slugs, though less strange and more subdued. But segmented worms gave rise to the wild variety of the crustaceans, including crabs, sea-slaters, lobsters and even barnacles, one species of which is a parasite: Sacculina carcini forms a “branching network” (pg. 178) within the body of a crab, particularly the green shore crab, Carcinus maenas. You would never guess that it was a barnacle and you might not guess that an infected crab was infected, because the yellow “reproductive structure” of the barnacle looks as though it belongs to the crab itself.
And there’s a bluntness to names like wrack, kelp and the various weeds – bean-weed, bead-weed, wire-weed – that go well with the rough, tough life these plants lead. That’s why rainbow wrack, Cystoseria tamariscifolia, sounds so odd. But it lives up to its name: it’s “bushy and iridescent blue-green underwater” (pg. 36).
Seaweeds are at the beginning of the book; birds, fish and mammals are at the end. After the strangeness, surreality and beauty of some of the plants and invertebrates, the higher animals can seem almost mundane. Evolution hasn’t found as many spinal solutions as non-spinal, because the invertebrates have been around much longer. Among the vertebrates, it’s been working longest on the fish, so the variety of shapes is greatest there: rays and flounders, lampreys and eels, sea-horses and pipe-fish, the giant sun-fish and the largest animal native to Britain, the basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus. Some of the names seem ancient and long-evolved too: saithe, pogge, goldsinny, weever, dab, goby, blenny, shanny and brill. The last-named, Scophthalmus rhombus, is a flatfish with a typically ugly head. As the book notes: “In their early stages, they resemble conventional species. But during their development the head shape distorts so that, although they lie and swim on their sides, both eyes are on top” (pg. 257).
The rays aren’t distorted like that: they lie on their bellies, not on their sides, so their eyes don’t look distorted. Evolution has taken two different routes to the same ecological niche, the sea-floor. Camouflage is useful there, so both rays and flatfish have beautiful patterns: specklings, mottlings and spots. Other fish are colourful, but British fish can’t match the rainbow variety of fish in the tropics. Nor can British birds. The kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, is a rare exception and it “favours fresh waters”, except in winter (pg. 328). Truly coastal birds can be hard to tell apart: the knot, Calidris canutus, and the Sanderling, Calidris alba, are not as distinctive as their common names. Nor are the whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, and the curlew, Numenius arquata. Both have long down-curved beaks and streaked, “grey-brown plumage” (pg. 342). But the whimbrel is smaller and rarer.
The gulls and terns can also be hard to tell apart, as can the skuas that prey on and parasitize them. “Skua”, which comes from Old Norse skúfr, is a good name for a gangster-like bird. I prefer “gull” in what is probably its original form, the Welsh gŵylan. The French mouette, for small gulls, and goéland, for large ones, are also good, and some French bird-names are used in English: avocet, plover and guillemot, for example. “Plover” is from Latin pluvia, “rain”, but the reference is “unexplained”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reference of “ruff” might seem to be obvious: the male ruff, Philomachus pugnax, has a ruff of feathers in the breeding season, like a kind of gladiatorial costume: its scientific name literally means “the pugnacious lover-of-fighting”. But the female of this species is called a reeve, so perhaps ruffs have nothing to do with ruffs: the feminine form, “apparently made … by a vowel change (cf. fox vixen) suggests that [ruff] is an older word and separate” (OED).
This book uses “ruff” for both sexes: it doesn’t have space to chase etymology and give more than brief details of the hundreds of species it covers. The final species are the mammals and the final mammals are the ones that have returned to the sea: whales, dolphins and seals. After them comes a brief section on “The Strandline”:
A beach marks the zone where land meets sea. It is also where detached and floating matter is washed up and deposited by the tides, typically in well-defined lines. During periods of spring tides, debris is pushed to the top of the shore. But with approaching neap tides, tide extremes diminish and the high-tide mark drops; the result is a series of different strandlines on the shore. The strandline is a great place for the marine naturalist to explore and find unexpected delights washed up from the depths. But it is also home to a range of specialised animals that exploit the rich supply of organic matter created by decomposing seaweeds and marine creatures. (pg. 368)
Those specialised animals – sand-hoppers, kelp-flies and so on – have been covered earlier in the book, so this section covers things like skeletons, skulls, fossils and egg-cases – the “sea wash balls” laid by whelks and the “mermaid’s purses” laid by rays. Then there are “sea-beans”, tree-seeds that may have “drifted across the Atlantic from the Caribbean or Central America”. At first glance, seaweeds also seem to make a come-back in this section. Not so: a bryozoan branches like a plant but is “actually a colonial animal that lives just offshore attached to shells and stones”. Bryzoans are often washed ashore after storms. One of the commonest is hornwrack, Flustra foliacea, of which “fresh specimens smell like lemon” (pg. 254). When I first noticed that for myself, I thought I was having an olfactory hallucination. That’s the sea for you: always changing, always surprising. This book captures its complexity in 384 well-designed pages full of eye- and brain-candy.