Oceans of Life

by Adele A Wilby

Marine biologist Helen Scales’ book, The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed is a triumph. The four major sections in the book, ‘Explore’, ‘Depend’, ‘Exploit’ and ‘Preserve’ are indicators of the breadth of issues addressed in the book: the variety of  life forms in the different levels of the oceans; the significance of the oceans to life on the planet; the various ways in which human activity exploits the oceans resources, and concludes with her ideas about how to prevent the ocean from becoming just another area of resources of the planet for exploitation by human beings.

Most of us would have, at some point, looked out across an ocean enthralled by the natural beauty that it projects. However, anybody who has travelled on the ocean would also be aware of the vagaries of the moods that the oceans are capable of and wondered at their awesome power and potential, making them worthy of respect and caution when entering their watery domains. But it is quite extra-ordinary to realise that the beautiful vista of a mirror glass reflection on an utterly calm ocean or the wild raging of it waters is only a fraction of the oceans’ breadth and depth.  As Scales tells us, the oceans take up seven tenths of the surface of the earth. The diverse topological structures and life on land are interesting enough, but the ‘expanses of the deep seabed, the abyssal plains and seamounts, canyons and trenches, plus all the water above them, constitute the single biggest living space on the planet’, a vast reserve of life being and waiting to be discovered and understood.

Under all that water is the world’s longest mountain range made up of mid-ocean ridges threading for more than 60,000 kilometres across the globe with underwater peaks of up to 3 kilometres high and 1,600 kilometres wide. In between are undulating hills, and winding valleys, ‘burping mud volcanoes and fizzing jacuzzies of methane bubbles, and tall volcanoes’. Such panoramic images cannot but fail to alter our vision of the topography of the earth’s landscape: land masses and the mountains above are just tips of the iceberg of what is below the oceans.  Moreover, oceans are thought to have existed for as long as earth. The question is: how did so much water end up here? As Scales points out, the answer to that question is a mystery to many cosmologists with one theory purporting that the oceans were ‘imported’ from the outer reaches of the solar system when icy comets bombarded the Earth. Another theory suggests that primordial water existed within the rocks that formed the planet billions of years ago. The answers to the question of the origins of the oceans will probably remain a matter of debate amongst scientists, with the oceans yielding more about their history with the passage of time. Of one thing we can be sure: the oceans are home to millions of species and billions of living creatures, with only a handful by comparison are known to us.

The early chapters of the book are taken up with Scales providing us examples of the amazing different animals that live in the various depths of the ocean that cannot help but leave the reader wondering at the broader philosophical issue of creation and diversity, and the magnificence of life on the planet. The oceans, Scales tells us, have levels of depth where different life forms can exist, but it is at the abyss, the hadal zone, in that vast space where a huge proportion of the planet is untouched by sunlight, that we find the most fascinating creatures. For example, a scientist threw logs into the deep, 3,200 metres down, and five years later returned to pick them up: they were covered with deep-sea clams that had evolved a specialised diet consisting entirely of wood. These clams had learned to survive on rotting wood, and over time a wood-based eco-system had been established in the abyss.

The Osedax is another fascinating life form, a marine worm, a bone eating worm that feeds on the skeletons of whales at the bottom of the ocean, animals that have no mouth, no guts and no anus, something unlike any scientist had seen before. Research of a piece of whale bone from the ocean floor revealed that these worms have green roots from which they secrete an acid. That acid melts the bones, and the bone is digested when the roots release an enzyme that enables the digestion of the bone’s protein. In this way, the worms acquire their nutrition. Equally as interesting was how the females were stuffed with eggs. Inside the green-rooted female tubes are her own harem of dwarf males.  Moreover, the late arrivals of larvae that land on the bone are likely to be females, and in some yet to be understood way, transform into males, crawl inside the females’ tubes and settle in with any other males, never to leave again. They eat the yolk supplied by the mother, converting the energy into sperm and once the yolk is used, the male dies. Although from such research it is tempting to suggest that the whales came before the worms, scientific evidence suggests that these worms predate the arrival of whales on the planet and might have fed on the bones of giant vertebrates that were in the ocean before whales more than 80 million ago.

Jellyfish also appear in all shapes and sizes. Siphonophores arranged in a giant spiral and thought to be 45 metres long, are contenders for the longest animal on record. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine a worm up to 3 metres long with scarlet feather plumes and clams the size of dinner plates. The many hydrothermal vent chimneys also form an eco-system of their own, and snails with shining black shells made of iron, the only animal known to make its body covering from iron, a consequence of the unique environment around the chimneys. Indeed, this book is a treasure trove of interesting life forms that continuously startles the reader by their ingenuity and resilience to survive and thrive in such a hostile dark world where food is scarce, and mates can be few and far between.

Scales’ expositions of the different life forms cannot but fail to create a greater appreciation of the richness of the diversity that inhabits the oceans before she sets out to warn us of the dangers the human lifestyle poses to them. She is right to point out that ‘as soon as you stop thinking about it, the deep can easily vanish out of mind’. However, as her book reveals, to do so is at our own peril: ‘The deep, she says, ‘…makes this planet habitable’, a big statement indeed, and she proceeds to explain why.  Thus, while humans on the land continue to produce carbon emissions, Scales shifts the reader’s focus to the role of the ocean in managing those emissions and the significance of those oceans to life on the planet. Indeed, 30 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions make their way into the oceans. Without the oceans, global temperatures would already be higher, highlighting the depth of importance that oceans play in sustaining life on the planet.

But apart from flagging the importance of the oceans to life on the planet, she also informs us just how the resources of the oceans benefit humanity in the form of providing material and chemicals that have contributed to the production of medicine for the treatment for diseases such as breast cancer. The oceans remain a vast resource for the discovery of chemicals with the potential for the development of new medicines. However, as is so often the case, the generosity and contribution of nature to promoting improved human conditions is rarely reciprocated, appreciated or valued, and instead that human tendency to see the planet’s resources as an endless pit for human exploitation and consumption, kicks in and reeks its havoc. Fishing is just one case in point. Trawlers drag the ocean waters scooping up in their path tons of fish. The orange roughy for example, is one casualty of this method. The once prolific fish would probably live for 200 years or more if left to its own devices. Now however, with the intervention of trawler fishing no-one can be quite sure just how many survive. Likewise, many readers of the book will be surprised to learn of the toxic waste that has been dumped on the oceans. The radioisotope thermoelectric generator that was supposed to be left on the lunar surface during the 1970, Apollo mission found a new resting place in the world’s second deepest hadal trench more than 10,000 metres down. In the same year, 20,000 tonnes of unwanted Cold War chemical weapons, including mustard gas and nerve agents were sent to the bottom of the ocean on board the scuttled ship USS Le Baron Russell,part of a secret military campaign to sink such cargoes. Indeed, it is estimated that 1 million tonnes of chemical weapons now sit on the bottom of the ocean floors: out of sight, but perhaps not out of mind – for some. International law now constrains such practices, but the toxic waste remains in the ocean, slowly leaking out the dangers it poses to marine life and human beings. Still, to this day, as Scales shows, the ocean is considered a justifiable dumping ground for certain waste, the consequences of which only time will reveal.

And then of course there is the whole issue of mining, that endless human search for valuable and rare minerals so important to the economy and maintaining our lifestyles. Scales comments that ‘the deep is the final frontier, the last, vast place left on Earth to open and exploit’ and states and mining companies realise precisely that, as they ponder methods to exploit that resource to keep the cog wheels of the modern economy and its technology grinding. Mining the ocean for precious resources is not a new phenomenon, but it has real potential to destroy the oceans’ life forms. It doesn’t take too much imagination to envisage the damage that could be done to eco-systems by enormous electric bulldozers digging at the ocean floor or the submersibles that would crawl along on caterpillar tracks flattening anything in its way. Scales writes clearly on this issue by providing examples of how marine life will be affected, and the irreparable destruction and loss of eco-systems that mining of the ocean bed would involve.

Scales’ book is a comprehensive and accessible exposition of amazing animals that populate the oceans and indeed the various topological structures that many of us are either unaware off, have some vague knowledge about, or have failed to appreciate. However, her book shines a light on this underappreciated part of the planet and the incredible living forms that it hosts. She ends her fascinating book with an appeal for a new approach to the oceans and their resources so that they remain a resource for positive human use. ‘There are,’ she says, ‘no compelling reasons for exploiting the deep, just industry and politics vying to push into the last frontier’.  Scales is not proposing that no-one should go to the deep, indeed that would be an impossible proposition, but rather that its resources should be used for research and discovering more about life and the minerals and chemicals under the water and how those resources can be used in productive, but the least destructive ways to the ocean and its life forms. This leads her to conclude that, ‘the deep needs, decisive, unconditional protection’.

There is little doubt that Scales’ selection of the oceans’ various life forms, her topological expositions of the seabed and the potential the oceans offer for the betterment of humanity provide greater insight into this unique and frequently taken for granted space on the planet. At the same time, she also warns us of the dangers that human activity poses to those rare and valuable resources.  Her proposals to protect the oceans deserve to be taken seriously in the light of her informative book and if they are to remain a wonder world of interesting and mysterious creatures protected from the ravages of human activity, and for the posterity of the planet.