BOOKS: Oceans: Exploring the hidden depths of the underwater world

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2009:

Oceans: Exploring the hidden depths of the underwater world
by Paul Rose & Anne Laking
University of California Press (2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley,
CA 94704), 2008. 240 pages, illustrated. $34.95 hardcover.

“Four fifths of all life on Earth is found below the waves
and there is still much to be discovered,” say authors Paul Rose and
Anne Laking of their year-long journey circling the globe. Sailing
with a crew of 25, and supplies including a shark cage, they
crammed a lot of research into a relatively short time. They found
“underwater caves that preserved the remains of lost civilizations,”


saw rare and endangered sea creatures, ran into a swarm of sharks,
and yes, their shark repellant worked.
Oceans educates readers about oceanic history, what’s down
below, and how the oceans are stressed from pollution,
contamination, and commercial fishing.
Their travels included a stop in the Mediterranean Sea. To
help understand the Mediterranean’s earlier history, the group
investigated some of the world’s longest submerged caves, with
“breathtaking formations.” Beaches in countries like Italy, Greece
and Egypt attract millions of visitors and job seekers every year.
“No less than 80% of urban sewage discharged into the Mediterranean
is untreated,” say the authors. At least half a million tons of
crude oil per year end up in Mediterranean waters from shipping.
Overfishing plus a contaminated environment endangers the blue fin
tuna, which may become extinct. “The sea that gave us the roots of
civilization is now reeling under its impact,” say Rose and Laking.
The Atlantic, the second largest ocean, contains the Gulf
Stream, “one of the most important currents on the planet,” Rose
and Laking explain. The Oceans team views shark species in the
Bahamas including hammerheads, bulls, makos, and nurses. They also
encounter the lionfish. Although stings are rarely fatal, it is said
that fishermen would rather drown themselves than deal with the
“agony of a lionfish barb.” Lionfish are alien to the area, native
instead to the Indo-Pacific. Theories abound on how they ended up in
the Bahamas, but regardless of how they got there, they attack the
coral reefs.
On the Pacific side of North America, the crew visits the
Sea of Cortez. Giant manta rays live there, as do sea lions, fin
whales and the cannibalistic Humboldt squid. “The California gray
whale completes the longest migration of any mammal by spending a few
winter weeks each year in breeding grounds here before returning to
the Bering Sea 5,000 miles away,” say the authors. Dolphins,
sharks, and many fish species share the Sea of Cortez too.
Sharks, perhaps the predator most feared by humans, are
vastly more menaced by humans than the other way around. The demand
for shark-fin soup in several newly affluent Asian nations brings the
death of as many as 26 million sharks per year. The practice of
slicing off a shark’s fin and throwing the rest of the shark back
into the ocean is illegal in U.S. and European waters, but
enforcement on the open seas is lax.
The Indian Ocean, the third largest, is vulnerable to
powerful earthquakes. The December 2004 tsunami, for example,
killed about 275,000 people, and left tens of thousands homeless,
jobless, and destitute in a region that was poor to begin with.
Economic desperation increased the pressure on the already stressed
environment.
The Indian Ocean, 20 years ago, was reputedly the only
ocean that was not overfished. That may have changed–for the worse.
Manta rays still thrive there, but dugongs, also known as sea cows,
are in decline. The seagrass beds that are dugongs’ only food
source are imperiled by silting, dredging, pollution, and effects
of global warming. Female dugongs usually birth just one calf in a
lifetime. Slow-moving, they get caught in fishing nets. Once
hunted for hides, meat and oil, most dugong populations are now
protected, but remain endangered.
The Antarctic Ocean occupies “nearly eight million square
miles and is the second smallest,” Rose and Laking say. The cold
Antarctic water provides a rich environment for plankton and algae,
which suck up as much as 8% of human-created carbon dioxide. Giant
kelp shelters the pot-belly and the big belly sea horse, and crested
and golden weedfish. The spiky and poisonous cowfish is found
nowhere else.
Australian fur seals, the largest seal species, were nearly
hunted to extinction, but appear to thrive in Antarctica today
because of legal protection. However, “Parts of the ocean here are
warming up over two and a half times faster than anywhere else on the
planet,” Rose and Laking warn.
Oceans contains stunning pictures of their world-wide
travels. There are fascinating shots of divers interacting with sperm
whales and close ups of coral reefs. The crew took more than 1,000
dives and spent at least 700 hours underwater to complete their
mission. But there wasn’t always smooth sailing. Sea sickness posed a
challenge for some. To gain entry into certain countries took complex
negotiations. Authorities impounded their boat once. Despite a few
snags, the crew completed their goal of studying the world’s oceans
and produced this fascinating book. Their findings, which should be
of interest to oceanography fans all over, are worrisome. The world’s
oceans and the plant and sea lives they sustain won’t last forever
unless we work harder to preserve them. –Debra
J. White

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