The Wonders That Live at the Very Bottom of the Sea

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Two new books, Edith Widder’s “Below the Edge of Darkness” and Helen Scales’s “The Brilliant Abyss,” explore the darkest reaches and all that glows there.

By Robert Moor

In the deep sea, it is always night and it is always snowing. A shower of so-called marine snow — made up of pale flecks of dead flesh, plants, sand, soot, dust and excreta — sifts down from the world above. When it strikes the seafloor, or when it is disturbed, it will sometimes light up, a phenomenon known, wonderfully, as “snow shine.” Vampire squids, umbrella-shaped beings with skin the color of persimmons, float around collecting this luminous substance into tiny snowballs, which they calmly eat. They are not alone in this habit. Most deep-sea creatures eat snow, or they eat the snow eaters.

Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that the deep seas were mostly devoid of life. For centuries, fishermen hauled in deep-sea trawling nets filled with slime, not knowing that these were carcasses. Some animals, adapted to the pressure of the deep, are so delicate that in lighter waters a mere wave of your hand could reduce them to shreds. The myth of the dead deep sea, known as the Abyssus Theory, was disproved by a series of dredging and trawling expeditions in the 19th century, including a German scientific expedition in 1898 that pulled up the first known vampire squid. But the misconception nevertheless lingered. In 1977, a geologist piloting a submersible near the mouth of a hydrothermal vent, and finding it swarming with creatures, asked the research crew up above, “Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be like a desert?”

The naturalist William Beebe — the man who coined the phrase “marine snow” — famously made a series of early submersible expeditions, ultimately reaching a depth of a half-mile. He returned in a state of astonishment, carrying “the memory of living scenes in a world as strange as that of Mars.” In fact, it was far stranger. (Mars, being a largely dead planet, is by comparison dead boring.) Down there, many creatures are translucent; others are Vantablack. Some are delicate; others have shells of actual iron. Pale violet octopuses — which normally prefer solitude — gather for warmth in cuddle puddles numbering in the hundreds. Sperm-shaped creatures called giant larvaceans live within a self-constructed cloud of mucous many feet wide, equipped with gorgeously vaulted, wing-shaped chambers designed to filter out food. (Forget Calatrava; not even Calvino could imagine a house as mind-bendingly lovely as these giant gobs of goo.)

And nearly all of them — the fish, the squids, the shrimp — glow.

I know all this because, on a recent trip to Fire Island, I read a pair of new books about the deep sea. Lying on the hot sand, I plunged my head into the chilly darkness of an alien world. It was thrilling, and — for a variety of reasons — more than a little terrifying.

The first (and most gripping) book I read was “Below the Edge of Darkness,” by an oceanographer named Edith Widder. The title is derived from the suboceanic border of the Twilight Zone, where light is dim, and the Midnight Zone, where light is nil. (“I could never again use the word black with any conviction,” wrote Beebe, after reaching the edge of the Midnight Zone.) But darkness — in the optical, not maudlin, sense — is also the organizing theme of Widder’s memoir.

A tomboy who dreamed of “swashbuckling” adventures, Widder broke her back climbing a tree around age 9. (She blames the frilly Sunday school dress her parents made her wear that day). In college, she decided to undergo surgery to repair her spine, but the operation went awry; for reasons unknown, her blood began clotting spontaneously, and she awoke “flipping around like a fish on a dock while hemorrhaging nearly everywhere.” She had to be resuscitated three times; at one point, she felt her mind leave her body. When she awoke again, blood had seeped into her eyeballs, and she was almost fully blind. During a long and painful convalescence, her sight gradually returned, and, with it, a newfound appreciation for the magic of light. “My obsession with bioluminescence grew out of my brush with blindness,” she writes. In truth, her path was somewhat less narratively satisfying; she originally set out to become a neurobiologist. But what began as a short stint in a lab studying bioluminescent dinoflagellates — a way to pass time and earn cash while her husband finished his degree — led to a career change and a lifelong fascination.

She grew to believe the phenomenon of “living light” is “the most important thing happening in the ocean.” And since the deep sea makes up more than 95 percent of the earth’s habitable space, in a sense, that also makes it the most important thing happening on the planet.

All kinds of creatures luminesce in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. Light is used as a lure, a weapon, a warning, a deception, a beacon and a sexual turn-on. Individual bacteria probably evolved to glow because it minimizes the radiation from UV light, which can damage DNA; en masse, their glow helps attract predators. (Bacteria, unlike fish, want to end up in a gut.) Anglerfish grow light bulbs that dangle from their foreheads, which they use as bait. When threatened, sea cucumbers will shuck a glowing layer of skin, creating spectral apparitions of themselves as a decoy. Some species spray their attackers with a burst of glittering light — fire-breathing shrimp, fire-shooting squids, shining tubeshoulder fish. In the higher reaches of the deep sea, where there is nowhere to hide, many fish have evolved to emit blue light, a trait known as counterillumination. The most numerous vertebrate on earth, the bristlemouth fish, uses this trick to blend into the sea itself.

‘Comparisons are often made between the deep sea and the cosmos. One obvious difference between the two is that the abyss below teems with life.’

Widder originally used submersibles to reach the twilight zone. A few mishaps with leaky valves nearly killed her. (At a certain depth, a terrifying feedback loop sets in: The water streaming in makes the vessel heavier, which means the vessel sinks deeper, which means more water pressure, which means more water streams in, ad infinitum, until the vessel either implodes or the diver drowns.) She began experiencing suffocation nightmares; once she awoke to find herself clawing at the bottom of the bunk above her, convinced it was a coffin lid. “Lousy sleep. Keep having dreams of entrapment and drowning,” she stoically wrote in her diary. Understandably, she shifted some of her attention to developing cameras (“new technological eyes,” she calls them) and lures, which could dive in her stead.

Perhaps her most successful co-invention was a glowing synthetic jellyfish known as the “E-jelly.” Using this lifelike bait, she managed to capture the first video of a giant squid in its natural habitat (which she deems “the holy grail” of her field of research). Her description of these excursions, and the resulting discoveries, provides a thrilling blend of hard science and high adventure.

Widder’s voice is in turns jaunty, precise and nerdily quippy. She occasionally resorts to cliché (“At that depth, the tiniest leak could create a high-pressure jet that would cut through my flesh like a hot knife through butter”), and her jokes don’t always land. But often the prose glints. In one of my favorite passages in the book, she describes the mating rituals of the anglerfish, those toothy monsters with the dangling headlamps:

“The male anglerfish is much smaller than his female counterpart. He lacks a lure and has no teeth for consuming prey. For many anglerfish species, the male’s only hope for continued existence is as a gigolo. In the unimaginably immense black void of the deep sea, he must somehow locate a potential mate, either visually or by smell, and upon finding her, seal the relationship with an eternal kiss by latching on to her flank, where his flesh fuses with hers. Her bloodstream then grows into his body, providing him with sustenance, in return for which he provides sperm upon demand. This lifetime commitment may sound romantic, but it’s not all hearts, flowers and pillow talk. He’s a bloodsucker and a sperm bag, and she’s ugly and weighs half a million times more than he does.”

Where Widder unfortunately falls short is in the final pages of the book, where she briefly addresses environmental threats to the ocean. She hews to the old and, increasingly, outdated maxim that alarmism will cause the public to shut down rather than perk up. Given the pending cascade of catastrophes that climate change threatens to inflict on the oceans (perhaps nowhere more so than on the deep sea, which studies show will warm faster than the surface), her cheery contention that a combination of optimism, exploration and education will solve the ocean’s problems rings hollow.

Thankfully, another new book more than makes up for this shortfall. “The Brilliant Abyss,” Helen Scales’s sweeping survey of the seafloor, is brave enough to risk a darker and, in some ways, more satisfying tone.

The deep sea that Scales portrays is a largely unseen realm that is continually being plundered, often by people who have little notion of what they are destroying. Between the two writers, Scales is the more graceful storyteller, but Widder has (by far) the more compelling story to tell. Indeed, Scales’s conceit — of traveling aboard a research vessel for a couple of weeks in the Gulf of Mexico — feels a bit thin, and not just by comparison to Widder’s heroics. She never physically ventures into the abyss, as Widder did, and as a fellow science writer, James Nestor, did in his excellent 2014 book, “Deep.” (In one nape-tingling chapter, he describes traveling to a depth of 2,500 feet in “a homemade, unlicensed submarine” cobbled together by a New Jersey eccentric.) But for its shortcomings, “The Brilliant Abyss” has many virtues. Scales’s great gift is for transmuting our awe at the wonders of the deep sea into a kind of quiet rage that they could soon be no more.

In one of the book’s most appalling chapters, she describes the sad fate of the orange roughy, a remarkably slow-growing, deep-dwelling fish. Formerly known as the slimehead, the species was rebranded in the 1970s to better appeal to consumers. Demand spiked, and a “gold rush mentality” ensued. Trawl nets were dragged along the seafloor, hauling up not just roughies, but also the wreckage of coral reefs — “millennia-old, animal-grown forests” — which were tossed overboard as bycatch. Predictably, the fish population quickly collapsed, and they — and the ecosystems that were razed to catch them — have yet to return to their former vigor.

Scales excoriates not just the killers of the orange roughy, but the entire industry. Globally, she writes, deep-sea trawlers pull in profits of just $60 million a year, and yet they receive subsidies of $152 million. “If it costs so much, provides so little food, and reaps such huge ecological damage, the glaring question is, why trawl for fish in the deep at all?” Scales asks. Some have begun calling for a global ban on deep-sea trawling. Scales goes a step further. Looking into the future, where the mining of rare earth metals and the dumping of carbon in the deep sea promise to become lucrative (if destructive) industries, she urges us to err on the side of preservation: no deep-sea mining, fishing, oil drilling or extraction of any kind. The deep, she argues, is too vulnerable, and too crucial to the working of the planet to blindly ransack. (Among other things, the ocean acts as an enormous carbon sequestration device, one we are determinedly, if inadvertently, breaking.)

She concludes: “If industrialists and powerful states have their way, and the deep is opened up to them, then it raises the ironic and dismal prospect that the deep sea will become empty and lifeless, just as people once thought it was.”

Comparisons are often made between the deep sea and the cosmos. One obvious difference between the two is that the abyss below teems with life. Another is that, unlike the stars, the twinkling lights of the deep sea are hidden from view. “As soon as you stop thinking about it, the deep can so easily vanish out of mind,” Scales warns. She and Widder have worked hard to bring the abyss to light. It is our duty, as clumsy land-bound dwellers of a water planet, to look, and to remember.

Robert Moor is the author of “On Trails: An Exploration.”

BELOW THE EDGE OF DARKNESS A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea, By Edith Widder | 353 pp. Random House. $28.

THE BRILLIANT ABYSS Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It, By Helen Scales | 288 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $27.

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