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Good Reads  Marine & Freshwater Biology  Marine Biology

The Brilliant Abyss True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed

Popular Science
By: Helen Scales(Author)
352 pages, 8 plates with colour photos; b/w illustrations
An unforgettable trip into the depths of the ocean, The Brilliant Abyss is a rousing rallying cry for the preservation of the deep sea.
The Brilliant Abyss
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  • The Brilliant Abyss ISBN: 9781472966889 Paperback Aug 2022 In stock
  • The Brilliant Abyss ISBN: 9781472966865 Hardback Mar 2021 In stock
Selected version: £11.99
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About this book

The deep sea is the last, vast wilderness on the planet. For centuries, myth-makers and storytellers have concocted imaginary monsters of the deep, and now scientists are looking there to find bizarre, unknown species, chemicals to make new medicines, and to gain a greater understanding of how this world of ours works. With an average depth of 12,000 feet and chasms that plunge much deeper, it forms a frontier for new discoveries.

The Brilliant Abyss tells the story of our relationship with the deep sea – how we imagine, explore and exploit it. It captures the golden age of discovery we are currently in and looks back at the history of how we got here, while also looking forward to the unfolding new environmental disasters that are taking place miles beneath the waves, far beyond the public gaze.

Throughout history, there have been two distinct groups of deep-sea explorers. Both have sought knowledge but with different and often conflicting ambitions in mind. Some people want to quench their curiosity; many more have been lured by the possibilities of commerce and profit. The tension between these two opposing sides is the theme that runs throughout the book, while readers are taken on a chronological journey through humanity's developing relationship with the deep sea. The Brilliant Abyss ends by looking forwards to humanity's advancing impacts on the deep, including mining and pollution and what we can do about them.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An unforgettable trip and a rallying cry
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 29 Mar 2021 Written for Hardback

    Marine biologist Helen Scales returns for her third book with popular science imprint Bloomsbury Sigma. After shells and fish, she now drags the reader down into the darkest depths of the deep sea. Both a beautifully written exploration of the ocean's otherworldly wonders and a searing exposé of the many threats they face, The Brilliant Abyss is Scales's most strident book to date.

    Sir David Attenborough has probably said it best: "No one will protect what they do not care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced". Both Scales and the publisher have taken that message to heart and the book is neatly designed. As with her previous book, illustrator Aaron John Gregory is involved again, this time providing two beautiful end plates and an eye-catching cover, while the colour plate section contains some outstanding photos. But at the heart of The Brilliant Abyss is Scales's captivating writing.

    First, consider the landscape. As she explains, the seabed, shaped by plate tectonics, is far from a featureless bathtub. Spreading centres create colossal mid-ocean ridges while subduction zones form deep-sea trenches of terrifying depths. The abyssal plain in between is studded with underwater volcanoes that form seamounts of great import to marine life. Wherever magma approaches the surface, percolating seawater becomes superheated, rising back to the surface laden with dissolved minerals and metals. They form hydrothermal vents: "the deep-sea equivalent of hot springs and geysers on land" (p. 97) that are home to unique fauna. Woven throughout is a history of scientific exploration, from the first oceanographic expeditions to today's robotic submersibles, and from pioneering deep-sea explorers to today's trench-diving billionaires.

    Otherworldly as the landscape is, the real stars of this realm are its fauna. Scales's knowledge and love of marine biology shine through here, as she populates the pages with a bewildering cast of creatures. Notable examples of bizarre deep-sea fishes are included, but she gives you so much more. Whale carcasses or whale falls become complete ecosystems, home to bone-eating Osedax worms with unusual sex lives. Large gelatinous members of the drifting plankton, such as colonial siphonophores and giant larvaceans, form previously underappreciated links in the food web. Hydrothermal vents are crowded with worms and furry Yeti crabs that domesticate symbiotic bacteria capable of chemosynthesis, the "dark alternative to photosynthesis" (p. 104). Meanwhile, one species of snail makes its shell out of iron! And then there are the corals. No, not the familiar tropical corals who "hog not only the sunlight but the limelight" (p. 129); the lesser-known cold-water corals that occur at great depths and grow even slower.

    And if the intrinsic value of biodiversity does not sway you, Scales is no stranger to discussing the deep's instrumental values. The capacity of seawater to absorb heat and carbon dioxide. The role of global oceanic currents in regulating our climate. Or the carbon pump provided by marine snow; the constant rain of dead plankton, fish poop, and other organic debris that descends into the depths. And what of the quest for new classes of biological compounds could form the pharmaceutical drugs and antibiotics of the future?

    Two-thirds through the book Scales switches gears. Now that she has your attention, it is time to highlight the many dangers the deep faces. Deep-sea fishing targets long-lived, slow-growing species such as orange roughy. Vulnerable seamounts with millennia-old corals are destroyed by trawlers in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, the promise of food for everyone is not being met. Vast catch volumes are being turned into fish meal for aquaculture and pet food, or questionable nutraceuticals such as omega-3-oil supplements. And where Daniel Pauly already gave me reason to be suspicious of the Marine Stewardship Council, Scales lays bare their dubious raison d'être: funded by royalties from sales of their eco-labelled fish, there is an imperative to keep certifying fisheries. She calls their scandalous certification of the "recovering" orange roughy population a "case of a dead cat bouncing, with a green-washed eco-label tied to its collar" (p. 204).

    Scales made me shudder with her stories of pollution, especially the persistent legacy of the large-scale dumping of chemical weapons. But the topic that concerns her most is the looming spectre of deep-sea mining. Though much is still on the drawing boards, mining licenses are being issued and exploratory missions are taking place. What for? The minerals and metals contained in seamounts, hydrothermal vents, and the polymetallic nodules littering the seabed, which take millions of years to form. As with fishing, "the slow pace of the deep is out of step with the timescale of impatient human demands" (p. 205). Here too, the position of the body that oversees protection of the seabed, the International Seabed Authority, is incredibly compromised. Next to issuing mining permits they unbelievably have already assigned areas to be exploited by their own mining company!

    Scales's focus on deep-sea mining is urgently needed. Scientists have been sounding alarm bells in the peer-reviewed literature regarding its impact, but this topic is still mostly hidden from the public at large. Her descriptions of the destructive practices and the size of the machines involved are chilling. To think that this will result in anything but the rapacious plundering of ecosystems we have seen on land seems highly unlikely in her eyes. Meanwhile, the mining PR-machine is already running at full tilt, and Scales deftly disarms their arguments as to why deep-sea mining is necessary. She agrees that the shift to renewable energy requires infrastructure that needs tremendous amounts of diverse metals. However, as a detour into the design of wind turbines shows, predicting which ones will be needed is difficult. And whether the seabed is the best place to get them is highly questionable.

    Scales tackles many of the same topics that Alex Rogers covered in The Deep. Her tone is more strident but no less knowledgeable and, as opposed to The Deep, her book does include endnotes with references. I recommend them both highly. Meanwhile, her call "to declare the entire realm off limits [to] extraction of any kind" (p. 286) meshes seamlessly with Deborah Rowan Wright's bold vision laid out in Future Sea.

    Whether you have enjoyed her previous books or are new to her brand of writing about marine biology, I urge you to read this book. Next to an unforgettable trip, she provides a rousing rallying cry for the preservation of the deep sea. The Brilliant Abyss is, true to its title, brilliant.
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Helen Scales is a marine biologist, diver, surfer, broadcaster and writer who's spent hundreds of hours underwater watching fish. A familiar voice for the oceans, she's pondered the mysteries of the deep sea with Robin Ince and Brian Cox on BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage and donated an imaginary tank of seahorses to The Museum of Curiosity. She's a regular writer for BBC Focus and BBC Wildlife magazines. Among her radio documentaries she's explored the dream of living underwater and followed the trail of endangered snails around the world and back again.

Helen's recent book, Spirals in Time, is a Guardian bestseller. It was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology book prize, picked as a book of the year by The Economist, Nature, The Times and the Guardian and was BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week.

Popular Science
By: Helen Scales(Author)
352 pages, 8 plates with colour photos; b/w illustrations
An unforgettable trip into the depths of the ocean, The Brilliant Abyss is a rousing rallying cry for the preservation of the deep sea.
Media reviews

"So comprehensive and insightful that it will be a long time before it's surpassed . It is hard to imagine a more timely or important book than The Brilliant Abyss. Carefully conceived and luminously written, it is certain to be a bestseller, which gives me hope that its urgent message might help save the world."
New Statesman

"Scales's approach is enthralling and richly expressed and highlights how closely our lives depend on the deep."

"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. The deep, she argues, is too vulnerable, and too crucial to the working of the planet to blindly ransack."
New York Times Book Review

"Accessible, enjoyable and written with infectious passion, this book is a compelling guide to a fascinating and often overlooked part of our planet."
The Week

"Fascinating. The Brilliant Abyss is a manifesto for change as much as it is a description of an ecological crisis. Its overall effect – to insist that what's already down there matters, even or especially when it is hidden from our view."
New Republic

"Helen Scales is one of those rare scientists who can capture the excitement of science. The Brilliant Abyss has a thrill on every page as she explores the deep and little known ocean. But this comes with a warning. Man's destruction is now reaching the remotest corners of the planet and our survival depends on stopping it."
– Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod

"Helen Scales' beautiful account reveals the astonishing complexity and importance of the creatures of the abyss, to the planet and to us."
– Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation and scientific advisor, BBC Blue Planet II

"If you read only one work of non-fiction this year, make it this – plunge into the abyss and experience its brilliance."
– Nicola Davies, author of Whale Boy

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