Marine Biology

Abbreviations: Hbk = Hardback, or hardcover.
Pbk = Paperback.

Marine Mammals

The Book of Whales by Richard Ellis. Retail: $35.00. Amazon price: $28.00. Pbk.
Richard Ellis is well known as one of the foremost marine illustrators and experts, and this book, covering every species of whale, is an example of this. There is tons of information in here, on all whale species, and everything is complimented by excellent black and white illustrations, and color paintings of selected species, by Ellis. Ellis is a great writer as well, so overall his books are some of the best marine biological tomes available, and are easily digested by anybody.

Dolphins and Porpoises by Richard Ellis. Retail: $35.00. Amazon price: $28.00. Pbk.
In this companion work to The Book of Whales (the two books succesfully cover all cetaceans), Ellis presents us with another excellent book. Every dolphin and porpoise species is covered in great detail, and throughout are illustrations, and a section of beautiful color paintings of certain species. The book also gives a nice chapter on basic dolphin and porpoise biology and behaviour, and relations to man. This is probably the best work on the subject.

The Deep Sea

Deep Atlantic: Life, Death and Exploration in the Abyss by Richard Ellis. Retail: $35.00. Amazon price: $24.50. Hbk.
This might be Ellis' best book. It is simply outstanding. In it, he discusses every aspect of the deep sea, including human exploration from hundreds of years ago to the present, the ocean floor, hydrothermal vents, a narrative of a made-up undersea voyage across the Atlantic (with encounters with the Titanic and other wrecks, various deep sea denizens and more), and a detailed survey of all major groups of deep sea life (a chapter for each, including cephalopods, sharks, fishes, invertebrates and whales). Nearly every page sports wonderful illustrations of bizarre deep sea fishes, cephalopods and others. I can't recommend this book enough.

Squids and Octopuses

The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis. Retail: $14.95. Amazon price: $11.96. Pbk.

(This review first appeared in The Cryptozoology Review vol 3 no. 3).

It is odd to think that an entire book could be written about an animal that has never been seen alive. This has not phased Richard Ellis, however, who has continued his tradition of impressive marine natural history books (including The Book of Sharks, The Book of Whales, and Monsters of the Sea) with an excellent new tome about the world's only certifiable sea monster---the giant squid (Architeuthis spp.).

The book is not solely about Architeuthis. An understanding of Architeuthis requires an understanding of squids, spineless yet complex creatures. In one of the early chapters Ellis concisely draws together a large amount of material, covering the in's and out's of squid anatomy, behaviour and biology. This chapter contains one of the very few errors in the book: the illustration of an Architeuthis beak (p. 39) shows the upper half of the beak to be the larger than the lower, like a parrot's; in reality, the lower is the larger, as Ellis correctly notes in the text.

Though the giant squid is not strictly cryptozoological, it is probably responsible for some sightings of sea serpents, Ellis argues. He largely reiterates the points and examples he raised in his book Monsters of the Sea (1995), but adds a few more cases to show his point. While he seems slightly less adamant this time around, Ellis sticks with his theory. To me, it certainly appears likely that a number of sea serpent sightings are in fact those of giant squid, creatures strange and monstrous enough to evoke images of sea serpents in the minds of those who have seen it. Some of the alleged sea serpent sightings that Ellis explains as giant squid don't convince me as easily, however. His interpretation of the Valhalla sea serpent, observed off Brazil in 1905 by two naturalists, requires us to believe that a giant squid was swimming on its side near the surface, with one tentacle and one half of its tail fin sticking out of the water. It seems more unlikely that a giant squid would do this than to unquestionably call the Valhalla creature a sea serpent! As Ellis notes, however, we know so little about the giant squid that we cannot say that it does not do this.

Such is the mystery of Architeuthis. The creature has a long and convoluted taxonomy, Ellis shows, as he wades through the many species attributed to the genus Architeuthis over the years. Despite its messy taxonomy, the giant squid is not hard to recognize when it washes up on beaches worldwide. Ellis looks at these carcasses from a historical perspective, showing how scientists slowly began to learn more about Architeuthis, which had for so many years been considered mythical.

Even today, however, little is known about Architeuthis, but this allows Ellis to incorporate every detail of what we do know about its biology into his book. We learn about baby giant squids, such as a tiny individual with a mantle length of only 1 cm netted off Australia in 1981; the reproduction of the giant squid, including the male's hypodermic sperm transfer system; the debate about whether the giant squid is sluggish or an active, voracious creature (much to the chagrin of monster-lovers, the former appears most likely); and many other facets of Architeuthis' biology.

One of the most vivid sea stories is that of the giant squid and the sperm whale locked in combat, but in reality, Ellis explains, the combat is not much of a contest, as the sperm whale always takes the prize. Furthermore, sperm whales usually eat smaller squids, with Architeuthis comprising only a fraction of its diet. A few of these squids, some quite large themselves, are discussed, including the fabulous Taningia danae, a deep-water, 7-foot-long "winged" demon of a squid, with large eyes, hooked suckers, and a pair of "stroboscopic arm flashers". It is a fantastic creature, but not as fantastic as the claims, which Ellis reasonably discounts in this chapter, of huge Architeuthis sucker marks found on the carcasses of sperm whales taken by whaling ships.

Because of its monstrous nature and its prominence in myth, it is not surprising that the giant squid has a rich literary and cinematic career, upon which Ellis bases a witty, sarcastic chapter. He exposes the errors and inherent silliness of many interpretations of Architeuthis in the media, from Jules Vernes to Peter Benchley, and from Reap the Wild Wind to the recent TV movie Beast. Also in this chapter are reports of ship-sinking giant squid, giant giant squids---that is, over the accepted maximum length of 18 m---and other cryptozoological accounts said to be true. Ellis takes a skeptical standpoint on many of the reports, and rightly so, as they often seem unbelievable or unlikely.

Architeuthis' impressiveness has made it a desirable item for museums and zoos. Due to its rarity, however, these institutions have usually had to settle with life sized models. After tracing the history of these various models, Ellis finishes with a conclusion that questions the skeptical viewpoint that he maintains throughout the book. A useful, referenced appendix is provided that lists all known sightings and strandings of giant squid. Also included is an extensive bibliography, which lists nearly every paper, book and article ever published on Architeuthis.

There is very little wrong with Ellis' book. At some points the author's style seems a little loose, and tighter editing could have removed some redundancy. These are minor points, however, that take little away from Ellis' enjoyable prose, which is nicely supplemented by many beautiful illustrations, several by the author. Ellis is to be commended for his excellent research, apparent throughout the book. The Search for the Giant Squid is a well written, useful and interesting work that pays tribute to one of the world's last monsters.


SeaLife edited by Geoffrey Waller et al. Retail: $49.95. Amazon price: $34.97. Hbk.
This is a beautiful, up to date look at every aspect of marine biology. Covers all major groups of animals in the seas in detail, marine explorations, physical oceanography and more. The informative, up to date and well written text is complimented by tons of illustrations of everything imaginable from whale internal organs to the structure of a lobster's eye. There are also extensive color plates of fishes, invertebrates, whales, sea birds and other marine organisms. There's also a useful glossary and lots of ditribution maps. This is easily the best overview of the marine environment ever produced. Very recommended.