Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Whales and Their Friends















We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean’s depths, but we have figured out that there’s some remarkable creatures swimming around down there—whales not the least of them (because whales are really, really big). From the near-mythical giant squid to the quirky little seahorse, the creatures of the deep are extraordinary and they’re about to become your new best friends.

The Whale: In Search for the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare, 2010, Ecco Books (Nature Writing/ Marine Biology/ Whales)
















Spellbound by the model of the blue whale at the Natural History Museum and inspired by the elusive white whale in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, biographer Philip Hoare turns his attention to his favorite subject: whales. Combining science, nature, history, literature, and personal experience, Hoare waxes poetic about all things whale. From the creation of that infamous whale model to the arctic narwhal’s horn to the exotic uses of ambergris (not to mention explaining what exactly ambergris is), The Whale is an eloquent exploration of our enthrallment with the giant beasts of the deep. Hoare delights in little known facts, curious anecdotes, historical photographs, and elegant illustrations to round out his portrait of the ages-long relationship between man and the original sea monster. Winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, you’ll have a whale of a time reading The Whale (sorry; couldn’t resist!).

Grayson by Lynne Cox, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Nature Writing/ Wildlife Rescue/ Memoir)
















When Lynne Cox was seventeen years old and finishing her morning swim off the California coast, she suddenly found herself surrounded by a swirling school of anchovies, grunion, and tuna. But Lynne could sense another, larger presence in the water with her. After another mile or so, Lynne got her answer—an eighteen-foot-long baby gray whale was following her. Lynne knew that this “little” whale was migrating with its mother to the Bering Strait. But there was no mother whale—and at forty feet in length, Lynne would know if she were nearby. Soon a network of fishermen and lifeguards were on the lookout while the youngster—dubbed Grayson—swam with Lynne. And Lynne had to stay in the water, because if Grayson tried to follow her to shore, he’d die. This true adventure is fraught with danger, emotion, suspense, and an overwhelming sense of awe at the beauties of the ocean and its creatures.

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mystery of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson, 2004, HarperCollins (Nature Writing/ Natural History/ Marine Biology/ Lobsters) 
















Ah, the lobster—big, red, juicy, delicious. Of course, a lobster’s goal is not to end up on your dinner plate, but to eat and mate and thrive in the deep blue sea. The fishermen who harvest this tasty seafood would agree, believe it or not, since their livelihood depends on there being enough lobster to meet demand. Journalist Trevor Corson traces the circle of life that is Maine’s lobster industry. Now, lobsters are not cute. But what they lack in the grace of a leaping dolphin or the majesty of a diving whale, lobsters make up for in sheer tenacity. Having survived overfishing, artificial insemination at the hands of scientists, and ferocious claw-to-claw battles, lobsters are thriving. With a cast of dashing fishermen, witty marine biologists, and the bold brash crustacean itself, there’s a lot to be said for The Secret Life of Lobsters indeed.

Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality by Helen Scales, 2009, Gotham Books (Nature Writing/ Natural History/ Marine Biology/ Seahorses)
















Greek mythology casts the seahorse as the “hippocamp,” a magical part-horse, part-fish beast that pulls the chariot of Poseidon, god of the sea. To modern sea-gazers, the seahorse is simply adorable. It has a charming little silhouette (long snout, round belly, curly tail) and a whimsical love life (a heart-shaped mating dance that leads to papa seahorse bearing babies in a kangaroo-like pouch). The dainty seahorse is also a rare delicacy sold on the streets of Hong Kong’s black market, a supposed cure for everything from baldness to impotency, and a collector’s treasure in aquariums around the world. The delicately balanced undersea ecosystem of the seahorse is at risk, a fact which marine biologist Helen Scales (who learned to scuba dive just so she could someday observe the wild seahorse) is careful to point out. But mostly, Poseidon’s Steed is a love letter to the seahorse, and the author’s passion for the dazzling little critters shows on every page.

The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology and Mythology of the World’s Most Elusive Sea Creature by Richard Ellis, 1998, Lyons Press (Nature Writing/ Natural History/ Marine Biology/ Giant Squids)
















Meet Architeuthis (arki-TOOTH-iss), otherwise known the elusive, mysterious, very rare giant squid. Until 1997, no one had ever observed a living, healthy giant squid. Dead squid—often more than fifty feet long—had been washing up on beaches or getting tangled in fishermen’s nets for decades, but it took a fully-funded voyage manned by experts and equipped with deep-sea cameras (attached to the backs of whales) to actually capture the first images of giant squid in action. As marine biologist Ellis recounts the details of the National Geographic-sponsored expedition, he tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the giant squid—and really, it’s all completely absorbing and utterly fascinating. From the facts of the squids’ biology to the tenuous theories about its behavior, from myths and legends to historical tall-tales and classic literature, one thing about The Search for the Giant Squid rings true: Architeuthis is irresistible.

The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss edited by Claire Nouvian, 2007, University of Chicago Press (Science/ Marine Biology/ Deep Sea Photography)
















Okay, so maybe whales never meet the sea monsters that swell in The Deep. Thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface, far from the sun-kissed waves, down where light cannot reach and where the water pressure is thousands of pounds per inch, there is life—weird, bizarre, uncanny life. Translucent jellyfish abound in seas across the globe. Every other fish lights up the dark water with bioluminescent headlight-eyes. Anglerfish prowl the deep with dangling glow-in-the-dark tentacles to lure prey straight into their big-toothed jaws. And everything has a fantastic name, as if the scientists who discovered these creatures just couldn’t resist the strangeness of it all. So get ready to meet googly-eyed glass squid, fanfin seadevils, elephant fish chimaeras, and naked sea butterflies in all their glory as you pour over the amazing colored photographs that make up The Deep.

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