Great white whales. Schools of fish so thick they slowed boats. Sea monsters that could swallow a sailor whole. The last one may still be the stuff of lore, but scientists are using a curious series of census tools to gather evidence of an ocean that, as recently as decades ago, fairly teemed with marine life, far bigger and more plentiful that what's found in today's oceans.
Alone, the shipping logs and menus, woodcuts and photos, don't amount to much. But as a whole, the hundreds of thousands of documents being amassed for the Census of Marine Life project are proving uncomfortably telling.
And some of the documentation is just cool. A Sicilian text from 1153 mentions North Atlantic islanders who capture marine life so large they can build homes from the bones.
For years, scientists have been tolling the warning bell about sea life in general. One report marks 2050 as the end of sea fish. Whether that proves drastic or accurate has yet to be seen, but an understanding of the past may well be our best guide to the future.
"The History of Marine Animal Populations project gives a head start of decades and even centuries in anticipating trends -- both good and bad," says Jesse Ausube, director of the census project. "Forecasting and backcasting are two sides of the same coin."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.