The Brilliant Abyss
by Dr. Helen Scales
**Spoiler Free** Review:
This book was a five-star read, until it really wasn’t. There are four sections- “explore” “depend” “exploit” “preserve”.“Explore” and “depend” are well researched interesting sections that together make up more than half of the book. If you are not into marine science, or even the deep sea, there may be a few parts of these sections that come off as a bit dry but all-in-all wonderful reads filled with intriguing topics. However, once you get to “exploit” we start to run into some problems. “Exploit” discusses how we have misunderstood the deep sea, and therefore taken more than a fair share of resources provided there. Unfortunately, some of the broad statements towards fishing, workers and sustainability labels are laced in judgment and privilege. If you read this book, please take this section with a grain-of-salt. It is lacking a lot of nuance and a look at the bigger picture. This book probably would have been a favorite read of mine, as someone deeply interested in our deep seas, but the way the author belittles workers while trying to make a point will never sit right with me and I can’t in good conscience give this book higher than a 2.5 stars.
Full Review *Spoilers*
This review is going out of order because there’s no way we can discuss anything before the inappropriate third section. “Exploit” brought up valid concerns regarding the deep sea, however, it neglected the full picture and instead left behind what could be a dangerous message. Firstly, in the talk about fishing orange roughies (Hoplopstethus atlanticus) the author discusses how a cap was placed on the fishery utilizing St. Helen Hill and how the industry was worried about workers losing their jobs. If she had then gone on to discuss how that was exploitation of the workers and they should have been given protection in the situation, it would have been a different story. Instead, she simply disregards the matter by saying “the fishery had been operating for less than six months” (143). This demonstrates a lack of consideration for the concern of workers who finally got a job with a comfortable salary and are going to lose it after only 6 months.
The book goes on to discuss other fishing issues in the deep sea before starting on sustainability labels like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Criticisms of these types of labels is important, and even necessary, but when you start using phrases like “greenwashed eco-label” (156) without any discussions about the importance of these labels, you’re doing the ocean and people a disservice. It was only within a single sentence that the author says there is a “need to feed the world” (160) and zero about the importance of sustainability labels in accomplishing that. To me, it gives off similar vibes to “Seaspiracy” in giving a one sided look at a complex issue, leaving people feeling strongly opinionated and resulting in movements that say there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing” and harass eco-labels on social media. If you want to have a conversation about fishing exploitation, then add a few pages to your book to discuss it properly, or instead of fixing the issue, you’re adding to the mess.
This single chapter truly derailed this entire book for me. I will discuss the other aspects because I found many intriguing. Yet, keep in mind the author's disrespect showcased in “fishing deep” is something we cannot gloss over. Alright back to “explore”. Truly what a fascinating summary of a fairly large chunk of the knowledge we currently have regarding our deep seas. Though I do wish more photos had been provided as we were continually jumping from sea creature to sea creature and I found myself not quite remembering what some looked like and therefore googled them which distracted from reading a bit. The author’s memories about being aboard the Pelican were fascinating where I normally find personal anecdotes to be unnecessary. Deep sea exploration using a submersible of some kind is dream research for countless marine scientists and getting to hear about that experience is motivating.
For my own personal liking, I wish there had been more about cold water corals (CWC). In Spite of being a fascinating topic, and a major part of the marine ecosystem in the depths, only 2-3 pages were dedicated to them. The discussion about Ruby, the whale-fall that brought about the discovery of Osedax or bone-eating zombie worms had some repetitions. Granted, it is a fascinating topic. It seems justified, however, to wish it had been edited down a bit in order to leave space for CWCs and their importance.
Surprisingly, the chapter “In a Chemical World”, which describes hydrothermal vents and their occupants, was one of the more fun chapters. What can be a rather dry topic was made vivid. Hell, we even got into chemosynthesis and it remained an understandable, easy read. The author does an impeccable job at condensing the collective knowledge of hydrothermal vents, even making the reader interested and hopeful for the ugly Yeti crab. What seems like a complete underrepresentation is the last section “Preserve”. After writing an entire book having the reader fall in love with the deep sea, and writing an entire section condemning any user of the deep sea’s resources, you would think the section on preserving it would be more than two tiny chapters. Unfortunately, that’s all we get. Similar to “exploit” this section felt half-baked and brimming with opinions instead of science. I do appreciate that the author’s take home message started from a large scale then gave individual actions. All-in-all I would have enjoyed this book much more had it not taken a steep turn into demonizing workers and the efforts that are being made to sustainably utilize the ocean’s resources to aid humanity. I wanted to rate this book higher, but I can't in good conscience.