The Washington Post

Book review: ‘The Extreme Life of the Sea’ by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi


By Stephen R. Palumbi and
Anthony R. Palumbi
Princeton Univ. 225 pp. $27.95

Stanford University marine biology professor Stephen R. Palumbi has a theory about humans’ relationship with the ocean: Unless we get a sense of what happens beneath the surface, we will never bother to protect it. Teaming up with his son Anthony, a professional writer, Palumbi has written a book that depicts some of the sea’s most bizarre and mesmerizing creatures.

Drawing on decades of scientific research as well as a knack for storytelling, the authors convey what happens at the ocean depths without sugarcoating it. They reconstruct a battle between a bull whale and a giant mother squid in which “40 tons of flesh and hot blood collides” with a squid “at 10 feet per second. . . . She rolls with the blow, wrapping her arms around the attacker’s head and jaws. Hooks tear long gaping wounds in his skin, layering fresh damage on top of chalky white scars. He’s no stranger to this kind of fight.”

Some fascinating creatures, such as Opabinia regalis, a mud-dwelling animal with a backward-facing mouth, lost out in the evolutionary race while others, such as their neighbors the horseshoe crabs, survived.

The book also answers basic questions that many readers may have about some of the marine world’s most charismatic residents. How exactly do sharks grow their razor-sharp teeth, at a rate of one new set every seven to 10 days? This “tiny miracle of cellular engineering,” the Palumbis explain, starts as an unformed lump of tissue that becomes defined by a network of fibers and then is filled in by a bone-like material and covered in a hard seal of enamel.

‘The Extreme Life of the Sea’ by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (Princeton Univ.)

The authors work hard at making their subject matter accessible to readers — an effort that often pays off. Ocasionally this stands out as one of the book’s few shortcomings: The authors pepper the text with too many analogies. It’s one thing to dramatize oxygen’s tendency to break atomic bonds by calling the element “a home wrecker,” but it’s overkill to add, “Oxygen atoms insinuate themselves slyly into nearly everything they encounter, breaking bonds faster than after a celebrity marriage.”

But that’s a small complaint, given what this book accomplishes. It doesn’t just shed light on some of the most mysterious workings of the sea; it does so with vivid prose while managing to convey scientists’ current understanding of how and why these phenomena operate. If that doesn’t make people more invested in preserving the ocean, it’s hard to know what will.

Juliet Eilperin

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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