Now, I haven’t actually read The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, but it’s been on my (never-ending) to-read list and it relates to this week’s topic, so I’m going to let this be the introduction. Perhaps you’ll notice that I started off the series talking about all the wonders of the ocean and what it has to offer us, before coming around to talk about what we have wrought upon the ocean (and how we might be able to undo some of the damage we have caused). Perhaps you’ll notice that I mentioned earlier in the series, at the very beginning, how there seems to be a formulaic approach to writing books about marine life, and that I’m adhering to that formula 100%. But given that we’ve covered what lives in the ocean, I think it’s really only fair to talk about the ocean itself, because that mass of water is amazing in its own right. And frankly, it would be entirely remiss of me and the authors below to talk about the ocean without talking about the horrors we’ve inflicted upon it.
Roberts starts off with a history of the ocean and how people around the world have interacted with it and its inhabitants throughout the years, starting with how various cultures around the world have depended on molluscs and fish to varying degrees to supplement their diet. However, our relationship to the fish living within the ocean has changed dramatically, and this is painfully clear from a couple of graphs that appear in the first section, which illustrate, among other things, how people working in the fishing industry now have to put in about 17x more effort (as of The Ocean of Life publication in 2012) to catch the same amount of fish. This is despite – or perhaps precisely because of – improvements in fishing technology that allow us to find fish more easily and (in theory) catch more fish while expending less effort. Of course, trawling, which completely destroys delicate ecosystems and produces an underwater wasteland, is not the only factor in the decrease in marine life: chemical pollutants and waste such as plastic bags also play their part.
Doom and gloom constitute the first part of the book, so what follows in part 2 is, perhaps necessarily, the hope of recovering our oceans. The book ends, however, on a somewhat gloomy note, preparing for the downward slide that is the health of our ocean. How can we adapt to these changing conditions in the ocean, and what will become of both the ocean and us if we are to refuse to make an effort to bring about change?
The following books also discuss the ocean and how humans have affected it, but perhaps more importantly – or not, since I personally think it’s pretty important in and of itself rather than in its relation to people – how these changes to ocean chemistry have in turn come back to bite us. They are an ode to the ocean of life.
If you’ve ever picked up a seashell and wondered how those shells came to be – what created the seashells that she sells by the seashore? – then Spirals in Time by Helen Scales is the book for you!
Starting off with delightful endpapers, Scales takes you through the varied and multitudinous creatures that inhabit these shells and build their homes one layer at a time over time: molluscs. The Mollusca phylum is constituted of invertebrates that live in water… except when they don’t. It’s complicated. To begin with, it’s pretty complicated to even define what constitutes a mollusc when we move away from looking at genetic similarities and onto physical ones. They’re all invertebrates, for one. Although some of them have a cuttlebone, it’s not strictly speaking a vertebrae, so they do all fall under the category. They’re also all… squishy (that’s a technical term*)? What about shells? We’ve been talking about shells! I’m sure it comes as no surprise that although seashells are all made by molluscs, not all molluscs make or make use of shells. Scales sums it up in the first chapter: “Having a soft body and a hard hat is not enough for an animal to be considered a mollusc” (p.26), and “the core concept of what it means to be a mollusc remains deeply contentious” (p.28). This coming from someone who studies them for a living**, or at least wrote an entire book on them.
For all their mysterious origins and shared characteristics (how does one make it into the Mollusca group?), these creatures follow what appear to be rather logical rules in how to build their shells. Indeed, a famous image that you have more like than not have seen is one of the logarithmic spiral that becomes visible after you cut a nautilus shell in half. (The logarithmic spiral is found across the world, and not just in nautiluses.) Scales describes how molluscs (might) make their shells, because for all their diversity of patterns, the process of seashell creation stays remarkably constant throughout the phylum. She also covers the effects of ocean acidification on molluscs that rely on calcium-carbonate shells, as this directly affects how much energy it takes for these organisms to create their homes, leaving less time and energy for food, rest, and sex.
Spirals in Time is remarkably informative and well organized, incorporating anecdotes into what could otherwise present as information-heavy, and if you really only want to read one book on molluscs, this would probably be it.
Interested in more molluscs? Follow me under the cut!
OK, now we’re starting to get into more specific ocean inhabitants. We’ll be focusing on cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) this week before moving on to molluscs in the next installation. And while we’re on this topic, something exciting’s going to be coming to FYL on Mondays for the next few weeks throughout the summer, so this series is going to be coming in slightly more sporadic spurts as a result. Now, onto cetaceans! I’m going to be highlighting a few different types of books so that hopefully everyone will be able to find something that suits their reading needs, from those who absolutely adore reading scholarly articles to those who are interested in something with a bit more narrative, whether it be fiction or memoir.
Starting off with something that probably has the greatest appeal in terms of how broad its audience might be, The Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen is a great book with which to complement the ROM’s whale exhibit! Yolen & Cataldo have done a wonderful job in depicting the little girl and her experience with a beached whale, continuing to explore how this event has affected the girl and her community. The Stranded Whale tugs at your heartstrings while providing some facts about stranding at the end after the story, which I think is a great way to start discussion about strandings as well as about whales in general. Going to the ROM would be great either before or after this book, as you’ll learn all about one of the possible futures for the whale that got stranded in this book: having its bones live at a museum.
A great follow-up for an older audience would be The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, where you will learn that some whales actually beach on purpose. (No, they’re not trying to commit suicide… or are they?)