Book Reviews, Nature & Wellbeing

Book review: The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales

A golden era of deep-sea discovery is underway. Revolutionary studies in the deep are rewriting the very notion of life on Earth and the rules of what is possible. In the process, the abyss is being revealed as perhaps the most amazing part of our planet, with a topography even more varied and extreme than its Earthbound counterpart. Teeming with unsuspected life, an extraordinary interconnected ecosystem deep below the waves has a huge effect on our daily lives, influencing climate and weather systems, with the potential for much more – good or bad depending on how it is exploited.

Currently the fantastic creatures that live in the deep – many of them incandescent in a world without light – and its formations capture and trap vast quantities of carbon that would otherwise poison our atmosphere; and novel bacteria as yet undiscovered hold the promise of potent new medicines. Yet the deep also holds huge mineral riches lusted after by many nations and corporations; mining them could ultimately devastate the planet, compounded by the deepening impacts of ubiquitous pollutants and rampant overfishing.

Eloquently and passionately, Helen Scales brings to life the majesty and mystery of an alien realm that nonetheless sustains us, while urgently making clear the price we could pay if it is further disrupted. The Brilliant Abyss is at once a revelation and a clarion call to preserve this vast unseen world.

My review

I love stuffing my brain full of fascinating and mindblowing facts about the natural world. And this book is a feast of information about the deep sea. Geography lessons on how it formed and the lay of the underwater land including the deep trenches and abyssal plains. Followed by a deep dive into the array of mysterious wildlife that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable places in the world.

One of the things I love about the natural world is that there is always more to learn and discover, especially in the oceans. There were so many things in this book I didn’t even know I didn’t know. So every page was a new discovery, another bizarre alien species that seems like it couldn’t be real. And these discoveries are being made all the time. The deep sea is the final frontier on our planet.

The first half or so of the book is an exploration of the deep abyss and the second half looks at the many challenges that threaten this magical underwater world.

The second half I did find a bit more challenging as it shifted away from the creatures of the deep to look at all the threats facing them. Including, of course, plastic pollution, climate change and overfishing, but also an area that was new to me (to my horror) deep sea mining.

I think it’s important to raise awareness of these issues but I did find it very depressing to realise that many of the amazing species I had just learnt about probably face imminent extinction.

This book, I think, is a timely scientific and well-researched look at the human threats to our oceans, in light of the recent flawed (but still important) Seaspiracy Netflix documentary. Although it is not without its own biases of course.

For example, Scales (nice bit of normative determinism!) does seem to be particularly critical of the Marine Stewardship Council, conveniently leaving out some facts to suit her argument. However, as I personally don’t agree with eating fish anyway (except coastal communities who rely on fish for their food and livelihoods) this personally wasn’t an issue for me.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves marine biology and has a curious mind. It is also an ideal and timely book to pick up if you would like to learn more about the challenges our ocean ecosystems face after watching Seaspiracy.

The Brilliant Abyss is now available in bookshops. With thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for an advance copy of the ebook in exchange for an honest review.

*This is an affiliate link which means I will earn a small percentage from the purchase of this book. By buying this book from the Wild & Green bookshop you are helping support the running costs of this blog. You will also be supporting local bookshops. Thank you.

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