Mysteries to Behold in the Dark Down Deep: Seadevils and Species Unknown http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/science/22deep.html
When, more than 70 years ago, William Beebe became the first scientist to descend into the abyss, he described a world of twinkling lights, silvery eels, throbbing jellyfish, living strings as “lovely as the finest lace” and lanky monsters with needlelike teeth.
“It was stranger than any imagination could have conceived,” he wrote in “Half Mile Down” (Harcourt Brace, 1934). “I would focus on some one creature and just as its outlines began to be distinct on my retina, some brilliant, animated comet or constellation would rush across the small arc of my submarine heaven and every sense would be distracted, and my eyes would involuntarily shift to this new wonder.”
Beebe sketched some of the creatures, because no camera of the day was able to withstand the rigors of the deep and record the nuances of this cornucopia of astonishments.
Colleagues reacted coolly. Some accused Beebe of exaggeration. One reviewer suggested that his heavy breathing had fogged the window of the submarine vessel, distorting the undersea views.
Today, the revolution in lights, cameras, electronics and digital photography is revealing a world that is even stranger than the one that Beebe struggled to describe.
The images arrayed here come from “The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss” (University of Chicago Press, 2007), by Claire Nouvian, a French journalist and film director. In its preface, Ms. Nouvian writes of an epiphany that began her undersea journey.
“It was as though a veil had been lifted,” she says, “revealing unexpected points of view, vaster and more promising.”
The photographs she has selected celebrate that sense of the unexpected. Bizarre species from as far down as four and half miles are shown in remarkable detail, their tentacles lashing, eyes bulging, lights flashing. The eerie translucence of many of the gelatinous creatures seems to defy common sense. They seem to be living water.
On page after page, it is as if aliens had descended from another world to amaze and delight. A small octopus looks like a child’s squeeze toy. A seadevil looks like something out of a bad dream. A Ping-Pong tree sponge rivals artwork that might be seen in an upscale gallery.
Interspersed among 220 color photographs are essays by some of the world’s top experts on deep-sea life that reflect on what lies beneath. For example, Laurence Madin of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution notes the violence that air and gravity do to creatures without internal or external skeletons when they are pulled up to the deck of a ship, obliterating their varieties of form and function.
“This unattractive jello-like mass,” he writes, “is the unfair land version of amazing and delicate creatures that can display their true beauty only in their natural watery environment.” The photographs in the book right that wrong, and not just for jellyfish.
One shows a dense colony of brittle stars, their arms intertwined and overlapping, their masses in the distance merging with the blackness of the seabed, alive, inhabiting a place once thought to be a lifeless desert.
Craig M. Young of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology writes in the book that the diversity of life in the abyss “may exceed that of the Amazon Rain Forest and the Great Barrier Reef combined.”
Beebe, who ran the tropical research department at the New York Zoological Society, surely had intimations of what lay beyond the oceanic door he had opened. “The Deep” brings much of that dark landscape to light, even while noting that a vast majority of the planet’s largest habitat remains unexamined, awaiting a new generation of explorers.
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