Ocean Stories

5 Books to Read about Marine Life

5 great books for every (scuba) diver and ocean enthusiast.

Blowfish’s Oceanopedia: 291 Extraordinary Things You Didn’t Know About the Sea (2008)

by Tom Hird

Oceanopedia: the opus that brings together the totality of all knowledge about the oceans. Well, marine biologist Tom Hird, who has given himself the name Blowfish, doesn’t take it quite that seriously after all. In 291 stories he tells of the oceans and all their diversity. Beginning with the water itself he leads over coasts and reefs out to the open water and down into the deepest seas and tells about its inhabitants on the way.

The Ocenanopedia is riddled with funny and scurrile stories about snapping shrimps, slimy fish, fighting deep-sea giants, and really old sharks. Simply, about all the many wonderful and unique creatures of the oceans and the world they live in. It is truly an exquisite piece for every ocean lover’s book collection.

The Soul of an Octopus: A surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2014)

by Sy Montgomery

What does it take to become passionate about something you have little to no idea about in the beginning? For Sy Montgomery it was one touch from a giant Pacific octopus called Athena at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Only one touch and suddenly there was a connection between two beings who couldn’t be more different in their physiognomy and reality of life, and yet sensed each other’s intelligence, personality, and consciousness. Over and over again Montgomery goes back to Boston, puts her hands and arms in the 8-degree-cold water, and spends hours in the company of the aquarium’s 8-armed resident.

With growing passion, she collects any information she can find about octopuses and the people who search and research, care and take care, and are as fascinated by these squishy cephalopods as she is. But her thirst for knowledge doesn’t stop at gathering facts. To delve even deeper into the world of octopuses she defies all odds, squeezes herself into scuba gear, and dives down into the Gulf of Mexico to finally meet an octopus in its natural environment. And after a rocky start into the world of scuba diving, the underwater world casts its spell on her and lures her even further away to the island of Moorea in French Polynesia to study the personalities of big blue octopuses.

For one thing, it’s scientific interest that takes her around the globe in search of the octopus’ nature, and for another, it’s her absolute devotion. This is, after all, a love story.

Leviathan or, The Whale (2008)

by Philip Hoare

For centuries humans have spun stories and myths around one of the largest creatures ever to inhabit our seas. In Leviathan, or The Whale Philip Hoare goes on a search to find out where these stories and myths originate and finds himself on a journey that takes him from the coasts of England across the Atlantic to the whaling ports of New England and back to the deep blue waters of the Azores.

Hoare uses the classic story of Moby Dick itself and the biography of Hermann Melville, along with his own, to lead along his quest through the history of people and whales. He gets to the bottom of the stories about a creature nobody has barely seen from up close and alive for a very long time, and how it formed the relationship between humans and whales. It’s not the story of the whale so much as the story of humankind’s relationship with whales, which contains a vast amount of not understanding a mythical creature and a lot about how to make a profit out of killing them. The author does not spare the cruel facts of the whaling industry and how humankind managed to almost completely wipe out these gentle giants from our oceans. But he also tells about the change of perspective and how people have realized, almost too late, that in the search for the Leviathan they will not find monsters, but highly intelligent and social creatures that are worth more alive than dead.

So why read a book that is mostly about killing these fascinating creatures, although most of us love whales now and don’t want to be bothered anymore with the cruel history? Because it is important to know about the past, no matter how cruel and terrifying, to understand the present and do better in the future.

The whole time I was reading this book I thought: This is still happening! Whaling of course, but also the story of hunting and killing so-called monsters. Bloodthirsty, human-eating creatures that are roaming the seas, and making a profit out of killing them, sounds familiar? Now it’s the sharks that are being hunted and killed by the millions because people think they’re worth more dead than alive. So, I hope we learn from the past, as we did at one point with whales, and see the value of these fantastic creatures in their lives, not their deaths.

Spirals in Time – The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells (2015)

by Helen Scales

Spirals in Time is so much more than just a book about the empty seashells we find and collect at beaches. It gives us an insight into the brilliant world of shell-makers, the mollusks, and the cultural standing of seashells in history. It explains why people treat and have treated those empty calcium carbonate mantles like little treasures for centuries. Further, it reveals what shells have to do with wrestling ladies in Gambia, the search for the golden fleece, or hermit crabs lining up at a beach. 

The author and marine biologist Helen Scales takes us back to ancient times, when shelled cephalopods reigned the oceans, as well as to the here and now, where shells are literally facing the threat of dissolving in today’s waters. In a funny and affectionate way, she tells about the marvelous world of seashells and the people who devoted themselves to them.

Spirals in time, it’s scientific, it’s entertaining, and it’s beautifully well written, and the world of seashells: a joy and wonder indeed.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (2016)

by Peter Godfrey-Smith

What’s the outcome of a professor of history and philosophy of science putting on a mask and a pair of fins, and diving down into the world of cephalopods? Other Minds, a book about the creation of life itself, starting with the question of whether intelligent life evolved twice on earth or if the octopus is just a friendly visitor from another world. Once in the spell of the fascinating existence of these creatures, especially octopuses and cuttlefish, Godfrey-Smith lays down a colorful and profound net of facts and theories of how nature became aware of itself and how it manifested variously in different kinds of living creatures. But how did intelligent life evolve and why? And why did it evolve so differently? What actually defines intelligence? And what bricks does it take to build a mind? 

Godfrey-Smith approaches these questions from a scientific angle, but also with great empathy for individuals so contrasting to human beings like the phylum of the mollusks. Trying to decode the intelligence of octopuses and cuttlefish the author goes far back in time and deep into the anatomy of cephalopods. And even when all science is said, the story of their evolutionary journey is told, and the incredible physical and cognitive abilities of cephalopods are listed, there are still mysteries unsolved about the life of octopuses. But one thing becomes clear once again, the search for answers to the questions about the intelligence of living beings, the development of nervous systems and brains, the appearance of complex body plans that make the possession of brains possible and worth having, the origin of all this lies in the oceans. It shows us once again that we all come from the same place and that we, as humans, need to free ourselves from the idea that we alone are entitled to consciousness, feelings, and an intelligent mind.