Article(s): The Longform guide to sea creatures (some holiday reading!)

Here are some holiday reading recommendations – not too taxing, not entirely insubstantial – to enjoy while lounging under an umbrella by the pool or waiting for a flight to board. You will probably enjoy them because they’re about marine life, and I assume that if you didn’t have a passing interest in the ocean, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Octopus at Pyramid Rock
Octopus at Pyramid Rock

Longform is a website that provides reading recommendations – usually (as the name suggests) long form stories, not restricted to a particular range of topics. I am a subscriber to the Longform newsletter, and lately a user of their iPad app.

The Longform guide to sea creatures is a short list of juicy long articles whose common thread is that they focus on marine animals. I’ve shared some of them with you already – Killer in the Pool and Moby Duck being the most notable. Others are about giant squid, octopus, tuna, whales, and the Loch Ness monster. It’s a page worth bookmarking, should you anticipate requiring a couple of hours of thoughtful, fact-checked, well researched reading on the subject of marine life.

You can find the list of Longform sea creature articles here, and a mostly overlapping but slightly different version on, here. (The advantage of the Slate list is that you can send the articles to your Kindle, to read later.)


Movie: Sphere


Sphere is a B grade horror/psychological thriller from the late nineties. I remember borrowing the Michael Crichton novel that it is based on from the library as a teenager, and being terrified by it. The book had a cool pale green green cover with a silver sphere on it, and a nice font – I recall these factors influencing my decision to read it at the time.

The mostly excellent main cast play scientists sent to investigate a large, spherical object that the US Navy has discovered lying on the ocean floor, encrusted with 300 years’ worth of coral (deep water coral, one assumes). Samuel L. Jackson plays a mathematician, which makes me happy. The scientists install themselves in an underwater habitat close to the sphere, and try to figure out what the spherical object is. The answer is surprising and, when the scientists think about it, not promising for their future health and happiness. The conclusion of the film is quite intellectually satisfying, if not spectacular.

This isn’t really a horror movie, although it does have a bit of gore and a lot of tension. The wisdom of middle age gave added perspective when Tony and I watched this a few months ago (I forgot to publish this post). At times I was forced to grab Tony’s arm with sweaty palms, but as many times I was able to chortle quietly as a mysterious underwater creatures (squid! jellyfish! sea snakes!) menaced various members of the crew of the underwater habitat. As in Sharknado, it wasn’t hard to see who was going to be eliminated next.

Shakespeare it isn’t. Grab your bowl of popcorn and leave your skepticism at the front door.

Get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.

Bookshelf: The Extreme Life of the Sea

The Extreme Life of the Sea – Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi

The Extreme Life of the Sea
The Extreme Life of the Sea

Father and son team Stephen and Anthony Palumbi tackle the ocean superlatives in this entertaining, easy to read volume. The Extreme Life of the Sea is riddled with pop culture references (many of which whizzed right over my head), but in between these the Palumbis conduct a tour of the most notable parts of the ocean food web. They pause at the creatures that are smallest, largest, oldest, most tolerant of heat and cold, fastest, strangest, first to evolve, and least changed since the dawn of time. The pace is rapid, but despite this the authors manage to be both interesting and detailed where necessary.

There is a recurring element of storytelling as the Palumbis introduce new creatures (they cover approximately 200 species in just over 200 pages), and I can imagine a relatively young reader with a scientific bent deriving great enjoyment from these interludes as well as from the rapid fire facts that follow each lyrical species introduction. Albatross, whales, sea jellies, worms, and giant squid line up one after the other, demonstrating their particular adaptations to the environment in which they live. Billions of microbes and viruses duke it out beyond the range of human vision. I was dazzled by how different all marine life is from humans, and how ridiculously varied.

The final chapter treats “future extremes” – the extremes we will be left with as global warming and our current fishing practices run their course. As the authors point out in concluding this chapter,

… over the long term the oceans don’t need saving. People need saving. people will need to live through the next hundreds or thousands of years when the oceans are no longer the pantry of the world, no longer safe to swim in or sail across, toxic and wracked by ever-stronger storms… The fate of the oceans has become our fate too, and we are out of easy ways to ensure that the future of the ocean is secure.

Reviews at the Washington PostThe IndependentThe Guardian, and Scientific American, if you crave more.

You can get a copy here or here. If you’re in South Africa, here.

Video (TED): Edith Widder on filming giant squid

Giant squid – until very recently – are always seen dead, washed up on shore or floating at the ocean’s surface. This TED talk describes the Discovery Channel expedition that took place off Japan in 2012, which succeeded in filming a giant squid, alive, in the wild. The scientists used special, unobtrusive techniques to attract the squid so that they could capture it on film. You’ll hear about that, and see it in action, here:

Yay science! And wow squid!

Series: Trawlermen, Series 1

Trawlermen Series 1
Trawlermen Series 1

Trawlermen is the British version of Deadliest Catch and the related spinoff series (Tuna Wranglers and Lobster Wars among them). The series (five episodes in this season) charts the activities of several fishing trawlers working in the North Sea out of Peterhead in Scotland. Having watched a lot of Deadliest Catch, we were well equipped to marvel at the restrained, unsensational voice-over narrative. The structure of the show is far more episodic, and each episode’s subject or arc is revealed early on.

The trawlers fish mostly for prawn, dragging huge nets along the sea floor. The bycatch from prawn trawling is significant, but I confess that I didn’t find it as horrific as I’d imagined it would be. Many of the fish are gutted and boxed for market, so not a lot of it seemed to go to waste. I do suspect that the full extent of the bycatch wasn’t shown. Trawling is incredibly, unbelievably destructive – for a scientific view on that, this article is a good start.

The trawlers also catch Greenland halibut, cod, squid, and a few other kinds of fish. They however are limited by EU regulations to a fish catch (technically bycatch) amounting to no more than 65% of their total catch, because they are prawn trawlers. Excess fish must be thrown overboard, whether it’s dead or alive. One of the boats pulls up a number of huge boulders, as well as a torpedo while fishing in Norwegian waters, which the crew swiftly decide is not live (it was full of sea water). They position the torpedo on deck, pointing away from the superstructure of the boat, just in case it goes off!

The boats are high-sided with deep holds in which there is a conveyor belt for sorting the catch. The smaller fish are gutted using a machine, while the larger ones are done by hand. Everything is flash-frozen in boxes, ready for market. The work on deck is dangerous as there are many moving parts, massive nets, and ropes all over the place. The crew are mostly quite reserved (with one or two camera-loving exceptions!) and speak in broad Scottish accents which – the producers of the series deem – occasionally require subtitles.

This isn’t a glamorous or easy job, and the conditions in the North Sea are rough and very cold. I didn’t find this at all to be a rehash of things I’ve seen in other fishing shows; it was fascinating to see how a trawler works, having seen crab fishing, lobster fishing, and tuna fishing. If the voice of Armageddon style presentation of most Discovery Channel productions annoys you, try this very civilised BBC production.

The DVD box set is available here or here.

Series: Underwater Universe

Underwater Universe
Underwater Universe

The four episodes of this History Channel series cover waves, tides and currents, predators, and pressure – all powerful features of the ocean that can be sensationalised (some more easily than others) and presented for shock value and as imminent threats to human life. Full advantage is taken of this fact.

This very American offering doesn’t boast the measured, mellifluous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch or Steve Toussaint as narrator, but the line-up of (mostly in-studio) guest narrators is quite impressive. Bruce Parker (The Power of the Sea), Susan Casey (The Devil’s Teeth and The Wave), David Gallo (scientist presenter of the TED Talk I mentioned here), Scott Cassell (student of the Humboldt squid), Richard Ellis (writer of a number of ocean history, art and science books), and Neil Hammerschlag (shark scientist) were familiar to me, as was big wave surfer Ken Bradshaw, from this article. The strange, uncomfortable way in which the studio narrators were filmed, with silent close ups interspersed with talking, was very annoying and must have been incredibly embarrassing to shoot. Or perhaps the cameraman took the footage when the narrators didn’t realise they were being filmed.

Unlike BBC documentaries, which tend to rely purely on incredible photography and fluent narrative to convey information, the History Channel favours a CGI-heavy approach that we encountered in Treasure Quest, Deep Sea Salvage, and also in the National Geographic Shark Men series. For the subject matter of this series – particularly the sections on waves, tides and currents – it was very appropriate and informative. The first episode, devoted to tsunamis, rogue waves and “monster waves”, made good use of CGI to illustrate the concepts as they were explained. The series was produced shortly before the Japanese tsunami of 2011 (there is a hastily tacked on “thoughts and prayers” disclaimer) and features interviews with a survivor of a tsunami in Samoa. I am fascinated by rogue waves – the whole episode could have been devoted to them but they don’t make for good television – we only have indirect evidence of their existence. Also, I could have done with more footage of giant ships battling storms, but that’s what youtube is for…

The least interesting and most irritating episode was the one devoted to the ocean’s top predators, which suggested that orcas are a serious threat to humans. As evidence, the cases of captive killer whales drowning and injuring their trainers at marine theme parks were cited. No mention was made of the psychosis that these whales suffer from as a result of confinement in a small, barren, completely unnatural environment. An incident in which orcas inexplicably rammed and sank a yacht in the Pacific Ocean is also described and re-enacted. Whether the orcas did what they did because they wanted to kill the people on board is highly debatable. There is also a half-hearted attempt to paint whales as potentially vicious killers, recounting incidents when sperm whales rammed whaling boats in the 19th century. More power to the sperm whales, I say.

The other dangerous predators were (predictably) white sharks, Humboldt squid, saltwater crocodiles and Australian box jellyfish. There was a small environmental message at the end of this episode, mentioning that squid will probably end up the top predators in our oceans if current trends – fishing out large predatory fish and global warming in particular – continue.

The third episode, on the immense pressures that objects in the deep ocean are subjected to, was very interesting to Tony and me as divers. A confusing interview with a diver whose brother got DCS on a wreck dive leaves (I suspect) much out. Were they even qualified divers? Why was he surprised that his brother felt unwell and confused as to the cause after he popped to the surface from 30 metres after a 30 minute dive?

The bulk of the third episode, however, recounts a 1981 experiment called Atlantis III in which three volunteers were taken in a saturation system to a simulated depth of 686 metres while breathing Trimix 10 (70% helium, 20% nitrogen and 10% oxygen). It took 31 days for them to decompress. The chief of the experiment, Peter Bennett, was the founder and former CEO of DAN. There’s a more information about the project here – worth a read (download the pdf slowly), and a briefer account here.

The series concludes with an episode on tides and currents, including rip currents. The massive tidal range of Morecambe Bay in the United Kingdom,  is discussed at length. At low tide, up to 300 square kilometres of mudflats is exposed, and flooded again when the tide comes in. The guides who escort people out onto the mudflats when the tide is out seem like charming individuals – it is recommended not to wander around at low tide without local guidance. In 2004, the rising tide trapped and drowned 23 Chinese immigrants who were working the cockle beds – with such a large expanse of land to cover, the rising tide comes in at great speed. There is also a harrowing re-enactment of a father and his two sons getting washed out to sea in a rip current in Kauai that should make you think twice about swimming at beaches with warning signs on them.

You can get the DVDs here if you’re in South Africa. Foreigners, go here or here.

Bookshelf: The Log from the Sea of Cortez

The Log from the Sea of Cortez – John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez
The Log from the Sea of Cortez

John Steinbeck was the author responsible for some of the best known works of American 20th century fiction – you may have read The Grapes of Wrath (or The Wrath of Grapes, as  my sister is occasionally wont to call it) at high school, for example. The Log from the Sea of Cortez is a non-fiction work, recounting a marine specimen collecting trip that Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts made in the Gulf of California, in 1940. This extremely biodiverse piece of ocean has been the site of studies of Humboldt squidShark Men expeditions, and studies of whales.

Ricketts was a biologist, and inspired some of Steinbeck’s fictional characters. The two of them chartered a fishing boat, and sailed from Monterey Bay and spent six weeks making various stops in the Gulf, anchoring the fishing boat and using their unreliable tender to travel to shore and back. They concentrated chiefly on the intertidal zone, and collected samples of as many species as they could find.

To most modern readers, accounts of them trying to spear manta rays and eating dolphin will be upsetting, but in general the curious delight that Steinbeck and his companions took in their discoveries is infectious. More than this, however, I enjoyed the way Steinbeck evoked life on board the fishing boat, the warm evenings, the companionship of the crew, and the sun-baked, sleepy towns they encountered en route. Steinbeck was distressed by Japanese shrimp trawlers wreaking havoc on the ocean floor, and horrified by the tons of bycatch (specimens, to him!) that was thrown back into the ocean, dead and dying.

In between accounts of their life on board the ship, and their forays to shore searching for specimens, Steinbeck ruminates beautifully and gently on man’s connection to the ocean and to everything else, materialism, contemplation, politics, love, freedom, and any number of other lofty themes.

We have thought often of this mass of sea-memory, or sea-thought, which lives deep in the mind. If one asks for a description of the unconscious, even the answer-symbol will be in terms of a dark water into which the light descends only a short distance.

A group of scientists reproduced Steinbeck and Ricketts’s journey in 2004; while the website that recorded their voyage has disappeared from the internet, a description of their expedition has not.

This is a book to be read during a summer holiday, or when one wishes to invoke the feeling of summer, and with ample time to hand for slow-paced philosophical musing. It’s a travelogue that says much about the interconnectedness of things, and more.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Series: Shark Men, Season 2

Shark Men, season 2
Shark Men, season 2


Season 2 of Shark Men is more of the same as Season 1 – shouting, HOO-HAAing, chest slapping, and manly bleating. It’s not all complete, unmitigated suffering for the patient viewer, however. There is less focus on the manly art of extreme angling than there is in Season 1, which was a welcome relief.

The first two episodes are filmed at the Farallon Islands, a location off California that swarms with white sharks, and with which Tony and I are familiar from reading The Devil’s Teeth (recommended, with reservations). The team has a permit to capture and tag white sharks there, the first time anyone has been allowed to do this kind of work at the Farallons. Not everything goes according to plan, and the team’s research permit is suspended.

Attempting to tease out the entire life cycle of the southern Pacific white shark population, the Ocearch vessel drops anchor off Malibu in southern California. There they fish for juvenile white sharks, in view of the busy beaches. Surfers and swimmers are largely unaware that they are sharing the water with a white shark nursery. The researchers also return to Guadalupe Island off Mexico, and capture and tag more sharks there.

The final few episodes of this season are the most fascinating – a trip is made to the Sea of Cortez, a squid-rich ecosystem teeming with terrifying Humboldt squid, pods of sperm whales, and other cetaceans. There is a long history of white sharks of various sizes being caught in the area, which makes the researchers suspect that it is a pupping area. It is, however, a popular long lining location, which puts the white sharks in danger of being caught by fishermen.

This season of the show was dogged by controversy. The Farallon Islands permit revocation was of serious concern, and repercussions were felt long after filming completed. A shark known as Junior (or Lucky) was badly hooked and spent a long time out of the water on the Farallon Islands trip while the team attempted to remove the hook from deep in his throat. The shark was later filmed with a terrible injury to the side of his face. The Ocearch team were subsequently exonerated from any blame for the wounds, as Junior’s injuries were from another shark (and sharks bite each other frequently and indiscriminately).

There’s an interview with Chris Fischer and Brett McBride about this season of the show, here. Episode guide here. Get the series here, otherwise try here or here. You may have trouble getting them shipped to South Africa.

Series: Shark Men, Season 1

Shark Men, season 1
Shark Men, season 1

After the controversy, drama, self examination, and ultimately very interesting research that came out of the Ocearch expedition to South Africa early in 2012, we had to watch the television show that made Chris Fischer (amongst others) famous for working with white sharks.

Enter Shark Men, a National Geographic series featuring television personality Chris Fischer (who had something to do with getting the funding, or the boat, or both – try to disentangle it here if you’re so inclined) and Dr Michael Domeier, a respected white shark researcher. The researchers fish for white sharks off Guadalupe Island in Mexico, and then lift them out of the water in a specially modified cradle attached to the Ocearch boat. Water is pushed across the shark’s gills while they’re out of the ocean. The team measure and tag the sharks, and take samples for genetic testing. The sharks are released after 15-20 minutes out of the water.

The Ocearch boat also makes a trip to the Shared Offshore Foraging Area, or SOFA, where white sharks are believed to feed. A (giant) squid-rich ecosystem inhabited by sperm whales is found, and Domeier theorises that the sharks subsist on squid while they’re here. I found the two episodes covering the SOFA trip to be fascinating. There’s nothing special demarcating this piece of ocean – just the patterns made by the migrating white sharks, which show evidence that the sharks move between Guadalupe and the SOFA. Domeier believes that their time at Guadalupe is for breeding, and aims to take sperm samples from mature males to verify this theory.

The science is very interesting. During the course of the filming a couple of improvements in the handling of the sharks is made, of which I approved. There is magnificent footage of huge white sharks in crystal clear water. Unfortunately there is also a lot of testosterone-fuelled shouting, posturing, and remarkably inane commentary from a variety of sources. By the end of the series we wanted to watch with the sound off, it was that bad. The only person who comes off well at the end of it all is the captain of the Ocearch vessel and chief angler, Brett McBride, and it seems to be largely because he shuns the limelight and doesn’t say much.

I hate sport fishing. I think it’s pathetic that humans need to prove their mastery of the natural world by shooting or fishing the earth’s most amazingly put together predators. This show is mostly about fishing, and so I found it mostly repugnant. I understand that good television wouldn’t be the expected result from a quiet, respectful treatment of the shark while it’s being brought to the cradle – which leads me to question whether I think that something like this should be televised at all.

If you want the DVDs, get them here. They’ll only ship to the US, so make a plan (mine involved a friend, and a plane). Episode list here.

Article: Smithsonian Magazine on whirlpools

Whirlpools are like giant squid: one feels that they are almost mythical. They have been the subject of stories, legends and poems, and yet they are real and – if you’re lucky – can be seen and visited.

Simon Winchester, author of Atlantic, writes beautifully of a visit to the Corryvreckan whirlpool between the islands of Jura and Scarba, two of the inner Hebridean Islands off Scotland. I’ve read accounts of diving this incredible (and terrifying) water feature in Rod MacDonald’s books, The Darkness Below and Into the Abyss. His interest in this whirlpool was piqued after seeing it marked on a map, and wondering whether it was really a whirlpool, or whether it would be a disillusioning sign that British map making was not all he believed it to be.

He follows this visit with trips to see other whirlpools, and some research into their provenance. The word maelstrom, meaning a large vortex of water, is derived from the name of a whirlpool called Moskstraumen, in the Lofoten archipelago of Norway. This particular system of eddies featured in an Edgar Allan Poe story (A Descent into the Maelstrom).

Whirlpools are the result of winds, tides and currents interacting with underwater topography, generated when great volumes of water are forced over suddenly shallow outcrops of rock. Winchester says:

In other words, whirlpools—the Maelstrom especially, the others most probably—are fluid marine phenomena that have solid submarine causes. There is the pinnacle that rises underneath the Saltstraumen. There is a shelf of rock that rears up in the Corryvreckan. There are shallows that the charts of Norway show south of Lofoten Point. There are ridges of rock under Japan’s Naruto Strait such as to allow a bridge to be built across it. And a number of near-islands loom perilously beneath the keels of such boats as pass beside the international boundary in the tidal estuary that divides the state of Maine from the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

Shallowing, in short, is what it is all about. A narrow passage, a fast-speeding current, howling winds, large tides—and beneath all of these things a sudden, dangerous, confusion-causing shallowing. When these conditions all combine—then the waters begin to eddy and swirl, vortices are formed, immense sounds begin to thunder, spray fills the air, and all around the region notices are posted to warn sailors that to pass through this or that at flood or the ebb is at your direst peril.

Read the full article here. Highly recommended!