BookBrowse Reviews The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales

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The Brilliant Abyss

Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It

by Helen Scales

The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales X
The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2021, 288 pages

    Jun 2022, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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About this Book



In The Brilliant Abyss, marine biologist and broadcaster Helen Scales offers a guided tour around the most mysterious region of our planet — the deep sea.

The deep sea is a frightening, awe-inspiring place. Throughout history, human beings have traveled across the oceans on trade missions and explorations, but until relatively recently could only guess at what lay underneath their ships' hulls. This mysteriousness has provided fertile ground for myths and legends. We've imagined the deep as a place where monsters dwell; but the reality is, in many ways, stranger and more inspiring. In The Brilliant Abyss, marine biologist and broadcaster Helen Scales offers a guided tour of this astounding, under-explored region of our planet. She also argues urgently for the need to protect it from the growing threat of national interest and corporate exploitation.

Reading the first section of The Brilliant Abyss is like descending in a submarine, drifting slowly downwards as Scales points out and explains the strange creatures that swim into view. Her detailed and often poetic descriptions brim with an infectious passion for the world she has chosen to study. It is highly recommended that you read this section with access to the internet, so that you can look up images of all the bizarre and beautiful phenomena she mentions. Yeti crabs, sea butterflies, the truly surreal Forest of the Weird — all of these must be seen to be believed.

The most outlandish creations of science fiction can't hold a candle to the inhabitants of the abyss, and I enjoyed the even-handed way Scales bestows her attention on them. The great whales that "headbutt the sky" are lavished with as much admiration as the minute Osedax worms that feast on their decaying bones, which gave me an equal appreciation for both. In this way, the author subtly expresses the significance of even the smallest species for the health of the marine ecosystem — a point that becomes important later, when she outlines the both the current and potential threats to this ecosystem.

These threats, unsurprisingly, come from past and present human action. In the latter sections of the book, Scales argues fiercely against human interference in habitats that are still only barely understood. She presents her defense of the oceanic depths as not only altruistic, but pragmatic; marine scientists are still discovering new species in the abyss, many of which could be of priceless help to humanity. The potential for life-saving cures to be found at the bottom of the ocean is very real, and thrilling. Already, a compound copied from extracts of a deep-dwelling sea sponge has been shown to arrest the growth of cancerous tumors in people. This is only the beginning, she suggests, of what the deep sea can offer humanity. But the species living there, and their habitats, need to be treated responsibly if they are to provide us with their assistance.

Unfortunately, a growing interest in deep-sea mining within the international community is putting the ocean's vast potential and irreplaceable beauty at risk (see Beyond the Book). Scales ends her treatise with a rallying cry against the increasingly real possibility of nations exploiting the depths for their mineral potential, convincingly arguing that this is both unnecessary and dangerous — for animals and humans. Instead, she says, we should value the ocean as a precious resource — one with untold secrets we have yet to discover. In the end, the abyss might be our salvation.

For such a slim book (around 250 pages, excluding notes), The Brilliant Abyss feels like a surprisingly comprehensive introduction to the wonders of the deep. Anyone with an amateur interest in marine biology should find this work to be a perfect resource to indulge their curiosity. It will leave you wanting more, in the best possible way.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2021, and has been updated for the July 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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