Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Review: World Ocean Census

Darlene Trew Crist, Gail Scowcroft, and James M. Harding Jr.
World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life
Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-555407-434-1. 256 pp. $40.00 (US)

LEXINGTON, N.C.—For the past 10 years, more than 2,700 scientists from more than 80 countries have been engaged in one of the most ambitious projects in scientific history: the Census of Marine Life. Census scientists went on more than 540 expeditions, spending more than 9,000 days at sea—many more in labs and archives—and published more than 2,600 scientific papers. By any measure, it is a landmark achievement.

World Ocean Census is a coffee-table-sized chronicle of the project’s efforts. Published in 2009—the final official year of the census—it is not a summary of the results. Instead, it is an assessment of a work in progress: an explanation of the projects goals, methods, challenges, and some discussion of the achievements so far.

World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life

World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, What Lives in the Ocean?, has two chapters. The first, “The Known, the Unknown and the Unknowable,” describes the challenges of undertaking a census of the life of the world’s oceans. Frankly, it is impossible, as a census is generally a tally of all species and individuals that live in a specific area at a specific time. Nevertheless, Census of Marine Life organizers devised an innovative strategy to wrest what information they can from the mysterious depths. The second chapter, “Painting a Picture of the Past,” describes what we know about the state of the oceans in the not-too-distant past. Most of the recent news has not been pleasant, unfortunately.

Part Two, What Lives in the Ocean?, consists of six chapters. Beginning with “Expanding the Use of Technology,” it addresses the use of new and developing technologies in surveying ocean life. The next chapter, “Animals as Ocean Observers,” further develops the technological theme by portraying how animals can be used to document marine conditions by the use of tags or attached data recorders and transmitters. “Disappearing Ice Oceans,” examines the challenges of studying the life of polar waters. Coastal and nearshore waters get attention in “Unexplored Diversity at the Edges of the Sea.” Mysterious deepwater habitats are the focus of “Unexplored Ecosystems.” The section closes with, “Unraveling the Mystery of New Life-Forms,” which recounts how scientists attempt to identify, classify, and name previously unknown organisms. It also mentions some of the challenges of studying marine microbial life.

Part Three, What Will Live in the Ocean? contains two chapters, “Forecasting the Future,” and “The Path Forward.” The first of the two chapters discusses scientists’ efforts to model what will happen to marine ecosystems as influential species—such as sharks and whales—are pushed to the brink of extinction. The final chapter shows how the work of the Census of Marine Life has already contributed to a better understanding of and conservation efforts in the world’s oceans.

Unfortunately, the work of the census was incomplete at the time the book was published. That is the book’s weakness. It could not offer much in the way of results. For people wanting to skip ahead to the ending, the ending is not there.

Nevertheless, the book has much to recommend it. Anyone interested in how scientists study the life of the last great frontier remaining on Earth will learn a great deal about the challenges of oceanographic research as well as the innovative technologies used. Finally the size of the book suggests its great strength. As with most coffee-table books, it is loaded with pictures. Big pictures, small pictures—but lots and lots of them. The book is beautifully illustrated.

Newer books and hundreds of research articles can tell you much of what the Census of Marine Life accomplished in its 10-year life span. But nothing will tell you everything. More books and more research monographs will be developed from this project for years, maybe decades, to come. World Ocean Census will give those inclined to read an engaging introduction into what the project hoped to accomplish. For those not-so-inclined to read, its photos will serve up hours of surprise and wonder.

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