4,000 Meters Below

New Research Reveals the Wonders of the Deep

Love at first sight is how journalist and filmmaker Claire Nouvian describes her first glimpse of the exotic creatures of the deep sea, "some with surprising shapes or baffling colors, others that spat out threatening flashes of blue light, and others still that undulated with infinite grace, producing iridescent sparkles." She was captivated, desperate to know more, and disappointed at the dearth of information available to the general public. "How is it possible that the Earth bears such marvels and that people don't even know about them?" she asked. Since the book she wanted didn't exist, she created it herself. The result is The Deep, an aesthetic introduction to the deep sea with over 200 striking photos that range from sublime to grotesque and 14 short, accessible essays by the world's leading oceanographers. Here, we offer an excerpt from Nouvian's introduction and four of the oceanographers' essays. To see photos from The Deep, please request a print version of the Winter 2007–2008 issue of American Educator from amered@aft.org.


By Claire Nouvian

On dry land, most organisms are confined to the surface or, at most, to altitudes of a 100 meters—the height of the tallest trees. In the oceans, though, available living space has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. With an average depth of 3,800 meters, the oceans offer 99 percent of the space where life can develop on Earth. A staggering thought.

The deep sea, which has been immersed in total darkness since the dawn of time, occupies 85 percent of this space, and thus forms the planet's largest habitat.

And what do we know about it?

Compared to what remains to be discovered, practically nothing. The earliest explorations of the midocean ridges date back to the 1970s. The first midwater dives to explore the vast deep-sea domain took place in the 1980s; even the very first studies of the deep seafloor were undertaken only relatively recently, with the large-scale oceanographic trawling campaigns of the 19th century. Currently, only about five percent of the seafloor has been mapped with any reasonable degree of detail, which relegates the overwhelming majority of the abyssal plains and other deep-sea habitats to the unknown. Moreover, in some of the expeditions carried out in the Southern Atlantic or around seamounts in the Pacific, 50 percent to 90 percent of the specimens coming up in the nets are unidentified specimens. For the last 25 years, a new deep-sea species has been described every two weeks, on average. Current estimates about the number of species yet to be discovered vary between 10 and 30 million. By comparison, the number of known species populating the planet today, whether terrestrial, aerial, or marine, is estimated at about 1.4 million. The deep sea no longer has anything to prove; it is without a doubt Earth's largest reservoir of life.

Claire Nouvian is a journalist, producer, and film director for French and international television. This article was excerpted from the book The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss by Claire Nouvian, published by the University of Chicago Press, © 2007 by Editions Fayard. All rights reserved.


Add Depth to Lessons on The Deep

The Deep's 14 essays are an excellent resource for high school science teachers (or English teachers looking for informative non-fiction reading material). For middle and elementary school teachers, the following Web sites provide lesson plans, videos, and other instructional resources to help pique students' interest in exploring the deep sea:

• The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers lesson plans here. For fifth and sixth grades, lessons focus on deep-sea habitats and "animals of the fire ice," such as methane hydrate ice worms and hydrate shrimp.

• Videos of the technologies that have opened up ocean exploration are posted at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Web site. The site also includes student activities, such as "Light Stick Chemistry" for fifth- through eighth-graders. The activity, helps students understand bioluminescence in deep-sea marine life with something as simple as a light stick.

• For students in kindergarten, first, and second grades, the Study Abroad Semester At Sea Sailing Program offers age-appropriate lesson plans on its Web site here. In one such activity, students make a mural to investigate how ocean animals are adapted to certain parts of their environment.

• National Geographic features several K–12 lessons, one of which is sure to excite the youngest generation of budding scientists. "Fish Aren't Afraid of the Dark!" is geared toward students from kindergarten to second grade. In this lesson, students use yardsticks, flashlights, and drawing materials to understand how light might help bioluminescent animals.



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American Educator, Winter 2007-2008