The Deep End

| | The Fanfin Seadevil is found at nearly 9,000 feet below; photo by David Shale|

In her introduction to The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, Claire Nouvian says she was inspired to create the book after seeing a film of deep-sea creatures made by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute: "As crazy as it might seem, I had fallen in love at first sight. Like an adolescent surprised by the power of love . . . " (and so on). But if Nouvian seems overemotional initially, it becomes easier to understand her fervor once you brush aside the intro and skip to the meat: the photos.

Most of the book is composed of giant (frequently larger-than-life-size) photographs of deep-sea creatures: the gelatinous Pandea rubra, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a police strobe light; the seed-like larvae of the Spantagoid heart urchin, whose appendages stretch at near-perfect right angles; glass octopi like living x-rays, frilled sharks, furry lobsters. In all, nearly 200 creatures, some of which have never been photographed before, many of which are unknown species, all of which seem unreal, incomprehensible even.

Nouvian divides the organisms roughly in half—"Life at the Bottom" is one cluster, "Life in the Water Column" another—and intersperses the photos with short essays written by marine biologists from around the world. These pieces cover everything from the history of deep-sea exploration to the truth about sea monsters to the science behind bioluminescence ("without any doubt the most widely used mode of communication on the planet") and, thankfully, are both excellently written and spare. They provide background without ever detracting from the point—the creatures themselves.

Although the deep sea constitutes the single largest habitat on Earth, we understand very little of what exists there. Only 5 percent of the ocean's floor, for instance, has been mapped in any degree of detail. Over the past 25 years, meanwhile, a new creature has been noted nearly every other week. Nevertheless, as Nouvian is quick to point out, that most uncharted of territories is also the least protected. Because we cannot see it, because we're unaware of what is there, she argues, we cannot understand or care about the irreparable damage we are causing. When tropical reefs disappear, it's easy to see the effects our boats, trash and pollution have and to act accordingly. When deep-sea reefs disappear, only a handful of specialized scientists realize what that means.

Early on, Nouvian includes a telling quote by deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard (of Titanic-discovery fame): "At a time when most think of outer space as the final frontier, we must remember that a great deal of unfinished business remains here on Earth." The Deep highlights just how accurate that outlook is.--Abby Seiff