I was excited to read a book about unusual marine organisms written by a big name in marine science and his science-writer son. I looked forward to learning a plethora of new information, but unfortunately I was disappointed. Rather than delving into any particular organism, this book takes a scattershot approach, akin to a “who’s who” of amazing marine animals, but the reader comes away with very little in depth of understanding. For someone who already knows a lot about marine organisms, the book can serve as a fun trip down memory lane, triggering memories that are invariably much more in depth than what the book presents. But watching a Blue Planet video will serve that purpose more effectively. For someone who knows little about marine organisms, this book might introduce some interesting new factoids, but largely the tidbits are placed in isolation rather than a connected framework, with nothing tying organisms within a chapter together other than the fact that they all are “small,” “old,” “fast,” “live in the deep,” or “travel far or fast.” As such, the book reads more like an extended version of a Guinness Book of World Records rather than the comprehensive, cohesive, interest-inducing read that I had expected. The authors have made a concerted effort to make sure that their information has copious references for further reading for those interested, both from scholarly sources and widely accessible websites, but I pick up a pleasure-reading book because I am interested in the subject already and want to learn a lot from that book, not because I want to be led to 60 other references that I can find in my spare time to learn more.
In addition to the cursory view of most of the animals presented, there is a tone throughout the book that seems overly dramatic, as if the authors are trying too hard to convince their audience that the subject matter is interesting, rather than merely letting the information speak for itself. This overly exerted effort at times borders on annoying and sometimes on factual fallacy. For instance, in describing a battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid (which has never been witnessed by humans, a fact the authors mention in passing after describing the entire event), they pit a male “bull whale” against a “mother squid” (p. 3), but squid don’t travel with babies and typically die after laying eggs, so why label it a “mother squid”? Additionally, some common misconceptions about other organisms are perpetuated. For example, the authors state that Archaea “remain in extreme environments, in the closest analogues to the planet they lost” (p. 8), but recent findings are showing that these organisms are found in nonextreme environments as well, including the open ocean. In the brief coverage of each group, terms are used, but not explained, that I am not sure typical readers would understand, such as the difference between RNA and DNA, or the “primitive pinhole apertures instead of lenses” (p. 22) of the nautilus, or their ammonoid cousins, which would likely make the reader wonder “What were the ammonoids, and how are they different from nautiloids?” Of course, the reader could look this up; the point is that a book detailing marine organisms shouldn’t make the reader wonder such things. The authors draw nice analogies and have funny statements that make the reader chuckle and stay awake (comparing the benefits of old VW bugs to living fossils, calling oxygen a “home wrecker”). I enjoyed reading the book in small doses, because it did bring me down memory lane regarding many of my favorite organisms. This is a good place to start for someone looking to be wowed by marine organisms, but I think even that person would be left thinking, “I really wish there was more information on that, I have so many questions.” Fewer topics and taxa and more in-depth discussion with links among the organisms highlighted would have produced a much more interesting, engaging, and ultimately useful book.
ELIZABETH COWLES teaches freshman-level biology, biochemistry, and entomology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She has taught at the undergraduate and graduate college levels for over 20 years. Her interests include insect toxicology, protein characterization, and astrobiology. Cowles holds degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cornell University and Michigan State University. Her address is Department of Biology, ECSU, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, CT 06226; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.