Book: Mapping the Deep

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Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science

Author: Robert Kunzig
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

A vivid, up-to-date tour of the Earth’s last frontier, a remote and mysterious realm that nonetheless lies close to the heart of even the most land-locked reader.

The sea covers seven-tenths of the Earth, but we have mapped only a small percentage of it. The sea contains millions of species of animals and plants, but we have identified only a few thousand of them. The sea controls our planet’s climate, but we do not really understand how. The sea is still the frontier, and yet it seems so familiar that we sometimes forget how little we know about it.

Just as we are poised on the verge of exploiting the sea on an unprecedented scale-mining it, fertilizing it, fishing it out-this book reminds us of how much we have yet to learn. More than that, it chronicles the knowledge explosion that has transformed our view of the sea in just the past few decades, and made it a far more interesting and accessible place. From the Big Bang to that far-off future time, two billion years from now, when our planet will be a waterless rock; from the lush crowds of life at seafloor hot springs to the invisible, jewel-like plants that float at the sea surface; from the restless shifting of the tectonic plates to the majestic sweep of the ocean currents, Kunzig’s clear and lyrical prose transports us to the ends of the Earth.

This book was also published in under the title The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves.


The Restless Sea is an homage to marine-obsessed scientists. Discover editor Robert Kunzig lovingly describes pioneering oceanographers mapping the mountains and valleys of the sea floor, discovering strange ecosystems thriving in the abyssal deep, identifying strange new gelatinous zooplankton floating in the vast blue mid-ocean realm, finding out how marine food webs work, and (most depressingly) assessing the damage done by pollution and overfishing. Kunzig loves the sea, and he admires those who study its fringes, its surface, and its depths to figure out what makes it tick.

Part of Kunzig’s purpose in writing the book is to highlight how little we actually know about the sea, especially now that we have the power to permanently damage it. We’ve got a lot to learn yet, but we’ve come a long way from the early oceanographers who had very little data to help them map the seafloor: “To say that they relied heavily on intuition in sketching the seafloor is to engage in euphemism: they made most of it up.”

But the unknown represents opportunity and excitement for scientists. Kunzig clearly captures the thrill of discovery that makes otherwise sane people jump on boats and head out beyond sight of land, risking seasickness, numbing cold, and even death. Here he captures the moment when scientists realized for the first time that life existed down to the very bottom of the sea:

From the 150 pounds of grey, chalky mud, he and his collaborators sifted five species of mollusk, two species of echinoderm, an annelid worm or two, a sponge, numerous single-cell foraminiferans, and more…. Now the deep sea was, once and for all, alive; and the idea of an azoic zone anywhere on Earth’s surface should have been dead, once and for all.

Kunzig’s tour of the world’s oceans and the scientists who study them is full of the joy of discovery. The Restless Sea makes you understand why a couple of echinoderms might be cause for a party. —Therese Littleton

The title of Mapping the Deep suggests that it is primarily about oceanography. Although the extremely interesting history of this subject forms a major element in the book, its broader, richer subject is man’s changing relationship with the oceans. Until recently these have been characterised by high-handed ignorance, the oceans seen at once as inexhaustible resource and bottomless dump. Robert Kunzig remarks that politicians and science writers seem to be most interested in space exploration, whereas the real story is closer at hand—in the oceans. The symbolic goals of space exploration are easier to understand than the endlessly complex ecology of the deep oceans or the mysteries of the great currents that circle the globe and control its weather. Yet, as Kunzig demonstrates, the oceans are where the future of mankind may be determined. It is now widely accepted, for example, that global warming may precipitate a sudden, massive realignment of the ocean currents, an event certain to have vast but unforeseeable consequences. The climatic catastrophes attendant on the relatively minor disturbance known as El Nino give an idea of what may be in store.

Mapping the Deep records the extraordinary (and chronically underfunded) work of the scientists who have painstakingly explored the huge chemical, biological and geographical mechanism of the oceans. Robert Kunzig provides expert and gripping accounts of the (literally) earth-shattering revelation of plate tectonics, the novel life-forms of the black smokers, the unexpected diversity of life at the greatest depths, the commanding ecological role played by the overlooked organisms of the oceanic plankton, the dreadful consequences of over-fishing; and much more. His ability to make complex science comprehensible to the non-scientist without over-simplification make him the best kind of populariser. A remarkable book, both a celebration and a warning. —Robin Davidson

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