The Brilliant Abyss is a beautifully written and highly engaging book which takes the reader to the depths of the sea bed, says Julia Jones

The Brilliant Abyss
Helen Scales
Bloomsbury Sigma, £16.99

Helen Scales’s compelling exploration of the deepest part of the global ocean begins with actual exploration, albeit remote.

She offers a glimpse on board the research ship Pelican where she and her fellow scientists watch and work as a submersible goes down.

TV viewers of David Attenborough films will have some insight into the way new technology has transformed our understanding of life in the deep but yet marine scientists are so few and the deep so vast.

Helen Scales offers some simple and memorable explanations of the layers of ocean beneath the area where blue light can still penetrate but the extent and mystery remain awe inspiring.

New species are constantly being discovered which challenge scientists’ understanding of the way organisms function.

One of the joys of this book is the descriptions of bizarre, almost magical creatures who are yet not bizarre or magical but are discovered to be logically adapted for existence in their particular circumstances.

Scales’ selection of extraordinary worms, jellies, sponges, stars, snails, crabs as well as deep diving whales, giant squid, bottom living octopus mothers brooding their eggs until death – is not a random freak show but a glimpse of biodiversity beyond our regular comprehension.

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Sadly, our lack of comprehension coupled with our ever-increasing mechanical ingenuity is dangerous to the deep sea world.

Scales’s description of the way deep sea trawlers hoovered up tonnes of the slow growing orange roughy fish, each capable of living up to 250 years, to pile as cheap fillets on supermarket counters or to use in cosmetics or as lubricants when spermaceti oil was no longer acceptable – is unavoidably distressing.

It probably seemed such a good thing at the time.

We want our fishing industries to survive but is the biological cost too great? Worse, perhaps, are the mining industry proposals to demolish seamounts and damage hydrothermal vents in the pursuit of metals such as cobalt, ironically to help power our electric cars as we try to tackle climate emergency.

Scientific opinion however suggests that the ‘breathing’ of the deep sea may be an intrinsic part of planet health.

Scales makes a cogent appeal for a change in our thinking away from ‘frontier’ exploitation towards circular economies recycling the resources we already possess.

This is a disturbing, stimulating, beautifully written and important book.

The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed

Price: From £16.99

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