By Ed Meek
Helen Scales is a self-described nerd who studies the ocean as an enthusiast as well as a scientist.
The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean and the Looming Threat that Imperils It by Helen Scales. Atlantic Monthly Press, 271 pages. $23.99.
In The Brilliant Abyss, the erudite Helen Scales explains why the ocean is so important and valuable an asset to our planet and to our survival. The marine biologist reminds us that “seven tenths of the surface [of earth] is covered with what we see as blue ocean.” Because of advances in technology, including deep sea submersibles, we are now able to explore the ocean in ways that weren’t possible until recently. She informs us that “On average, the oceans are around 12,500 feet deep.” But many areas in the ocean plunge anywhere from 10,000 feet below the surface to a range of 36,000 feet! There are mountain ranges, caverns, canyons and immense plains populated by life-forms scientists are still discovering. This is a dark world inhabited by bioluminescent jellyfish, glowing worms, vampire squids, sponges, corals, snails, giant isopods, pink sea cucumbers, and thorny tinsel fish. Over 26,000 species have been catalogued so far. Scales tells us that “more than 95% of the earth’s biosphere … is made up of the deep sea.”
Scales is a self-described nerd who studies the ocean as an enthusiast as well as a scientist. She travels around the world and dives with and without scuba gear to bring back stories about encounters with a six-foot-long male Napoleon wrasse in the South Pacific, whose mating ritual she was observing. One of the interesting facts about the wrasse is that he might have been born a female. With their aqua blue scales, full lips, and long eyelashes, wrasses are beautiful creatures. They are also tasty and are in danger of being wiped out. Scales wants us to consider the value of these sea creatures. Although we have established laws to protect land animals and birds, there are many life forms in the ocean that we are not even aware of and they need to be defended. Scales wants to change that by proselytizing for their existence.
She begins with sperm whales, who are amazingly able to swim on the surface and dive as deep as 6000 feet for food. Like the buffalo, which once covered the plains in the American West, hundreds of thousands of sperm whales once ruled the oceans. They were, of course, like Moby Dick back in the 19th century, hunted for their oil and spermaceti for lamps and candles. Scales makes a case for appreciating them in the same way we treasure elephants and polar bears.
Scales’s argument is that “the ocean brings into balance earth’s interactions with the sun” because it absorbs heat and carbon. Ocean warming is “incontrovertible proof that human emissions of heat-trapping gasses are driving the climate crises.” Warmer oceans create more severe hurricanes and contribute to melting the ice at the Poles. Warming seas may also be altering the temperature of the Gulf Stream, which has traditionally brought mild weather to many northern climes, including England, Ireland, and Prince Edward Island.
There are other reasons to protect the oceans. They are a resource for drugs that have been used to fight cancer and infections. They are also a source of rare earth minerals, such as the cobalt used in batteries, but Scales cautions us to be very wary of exploiting the ocean. She’d rather see us use the ocean as a site for the generation of renewable energy from wind turbines. Unfortunately, wind turbines are not an easy sell, as the decade-long delays with Cape Wind show.
Meanwhile, the fishing industry worldwide is guilty of overfishing. Consider what has happened locally. Restaurants on Cape Cod have to import cod from Iceland. Wild Atlantic Salmon, once a staple, is only available from fish farms. Even lobster served on the Cape often comes from Maine. Scales goes into detail about the struggle of the Orange Roughy, which is being fished out because of excessive trawling off the coast of New Zealand. Judging by how badly we are treating the oceans — the UN’s Unesco recently castigated Australia for letting the Great Coral Reef decay — conserving our environment remains a major challenge.
Part of protecting the oceans involves fighting climate change. Scales joins activists around the world in demanding that the way the world does business has to change: “In order to avoid the most catastrophic forecasts of the climate crises, radical changes need to take place in the way global economies operate.” The first order of business: leave the oil and gas in the ground. We must turn to other sources of energy, the sooner the better. The Deep Abyss indicates that the oceans will be instrumental in helping us with that necessary task. And, if we do it the right way, Scales suggests that we will also be able to preserve the oceans as sanctuaries filled with wonder and beauty.
Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).