Book: Extreme Life of the Sea

A book in search of the weirdest, smallest, oldest, hottest and coldest species beneath the sea. Reviewed by Bill Condie.

The extreme life of the sea
By Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi
Princeton University Press (2014)
RRP $45.95

Biologist Stephen Palumbi and his novelist son, Anthony, have come up with a bold experiment in which the scientist provides the expert information and the writer the prose.

The aim, they say, is to step back from the doom and gloom that engulfs most works on natural history these days – the body count for ancient creatures facing extinction, the disappearing habitats – and focus on the wondrous life that teems in the oceans. There is plenty to choose from.

Some of the most mysterious is to be found on the sites of “whale falls”, the last resting places of the giant creatures, which become oases in the otherwise watery deserts of the deep ocean. Whale falls quickly become vital ecosystems, which scientists believe provide stepping stones that allow animals to traverse what would otherwise be uncrossable wastes. Everyone passes through, like commuters flocking to “the only open coffee shop at midnight at a giant airport”.

First come the regular bottom feeders – the molluscs, the worms, the crustaceans – until all that is left are the bones.

But the feast does not finish there. A wave of much more mysterious predators soon arrives to finish the job - the zombie worm, an all-female species (males remain stunted larvae). Truly an extreme lifeform, zombie worms thrive on the final remains in the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean.

The flying fish can double its waterborne speed by
leaving the water and gliding across the surface.

Closer to the light, there are the ocean’s fastest creatures – the billfish which hunts at such speed the authors describe it as “driving at 40 mph on a busy street while trying to snatch a cup of coffee off the asphalt”. All this speed has an added advantage, the exertion of their muscles providing much needed warmth for the billfish to plumb the coldest depths.

For other species, the water proves too much of a constraint and they take to the air. The flying fish, we are told, can double its waterborne speed by leaving the water and gliding across the surface. The flight lasts only seconds, but is enough to evade a predator.

Billfish, like this marlin, are the fastest creatures in the sea. – Masa Ushioda/Getty Images

Other chapters cover the smallest, the oldest, the hottest and the coldest species. The imagined battle to the death of a sperm whale and a giant squid in the pitch black – a contest never observed – is a masterpiece of description that would be as at home in a science fiction work as in one about biology.

The book is charmingly written and packed with quirky information. In the end, however, the Palumbis cannot quite keep their bargain to ignore what we are doing to this amazing, largely unseen world. The authors consider what it will mean to the extreme life of the sea when water temperatures and acidity rise. For all their beauty and resilience, we are reminded of the fragility of the systems on which all species survive – the world of the average reef fish, for example, is less than the size of an Olympic pool – and in the “war on fish” we have waged for 60 years our victory may well be pyrrhic.

Even so they end on an optimistic note. We have the know-how to protect habitats, to fish sustainably and to build healthy oceans. We just have to want it badly enough.

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