Read an Excerpt
"UNDERSEA" was originally titled "The World of Waters" and
written as an introduction to a U.S. Bureau of Fisheries brochure in
1935. Carson's supervisor correctly assessed it as too lyric for a
government report and encouraged her to submit it to the Atlantic
Monthly, where it was published by editor Edward Weeks. "Undersea"
subsequently became the basis of Carson's first book, Under
the Sea-Wind (1941), which remained her favorite piece of writing.
The title "Undersea" was suggested by the Atlantic's editor who
was impressed with Carson's illumination of science "in such a way
as to fire the imagination of the layman." Its publication marked
Carson's literary debut as a writer of critical merit.
Here Carson surveys both the ordinary and fantastic creatures
of the sea from the immediate perspective of an underwater eye,
making the mystery and beauty of that world accessible to the nonscientific
reader. "Undersea" introduces two of Carson's signature
themes.' the ancient and enduring ecology that dominates ocean
life, and the material immortality that encompasses even the smallest
organism. From these four remarkable pages in the Atlantic,
Carson later admitted, "everything else followed."
WHO HAS KNOWN THE OCEAN? Neither you nor I, with
our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide
that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool
home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean,
where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and
the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere.
Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor,
where the sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water,
makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and
mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish
twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels
lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend
those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the
abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal
To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the
sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth
and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading
water. For to the sea's children nothing is so important
as the fluidity of their world. It is water that they breathe;
water that brings them food; water through which they see, by
filtered sunshine from which first the red rays, then the greens,
and finally the purples have been strained; water through which
they sense vibrations equivalent to sound. And indeed it is nothing
more or less than sea water, in all its varying conditions of
temperature, saltiness, and pressure, that forms the invisible
barriers that confine each marine type within a special zone of
life--one to the shore line, another to some submarine chasm on
the far slopes of the continental shelf, and yet another, perhaps,
to an imperceptibly defined stratum at mid-depths of ocean.
There are comparatively few living things whose shifting pattern
of life embraces both land and sea. Such are the creatures of
the tide pools among the rocks and of the mud flats sloping
away from dune and beach grass to the water's edge. Between
low water and the flotsam and jetsam of the high-tide mark,
land and sea wage a never-ending conflict for possession.
As on land the coming of night brings a change over the face
of field and forest, sending some wild things into the safe retreat
of their burrows and bringing others forth to prowl and forage,
so at ebb tide the creatures of the waters largely disappear from
sight, and in their place come marauders from the land to search
the tide pools and to probe the sands for the silent, waiting
fauna of the shore.
Twice between succeeding dawns, as the waters abandon
pursuit of the beckoning moon and fall back, foot by foot, periwinkle
and starfish and crab are cast upon the mercy of the
sands. Every heap of brine-drenched seaweed, every pool forgotten
by the retreating sea in recess of sand or rock, offers sanctuary
from sun and biting sand.
In the tide pools, seas in miniature, sponges of the simpler
kinds encrust the rocks, each hungrily drawing in through its
myriad mouths the nutriment-laden water. Starfishes and sea
anemones are common dwellers in such rock-girt pools. Shell-less
cousins of the snail, the naked sea slugs are spots of brilliant
rose and bronze, spreading arborescent gills to the waters, while
the tube worms, architects of the tide pools, fashion their conical
dwellings of sand grains, cemented one against another in
On the sands the clams burrow down in search of coolness
and moisture, and oysters close their all-excluding shells and
wait for the return of the water. Crabs crowd into damp rock
caverns, where periwinkles cling to the walls. Colonies of
gnome-like shrimps find refuge under dripping strands of
brown, leathery weed heaped on the beach.
Hard upon the retreating sea press invaders from the land.
Shore birds patter along the beach by day, and legions of the
ghost crab shuffle across the damp sands by night. Chief, perhaps,
among the plunderers is man, probing the soft mud flats
and dipping his nets into the shallow waters.
At last comes a tentative ripple, then another, and finally the
full, surging sweep of the incoming tide. The folk of the pools
awake--clams stir in the mud. Barnacles open their shells and
begin a rhythmic sifting of the waters. One by one, brilliant-hued
flowers blossom in the shallow water as tube worms extend
The ocean is a place of paradoxes. It is the home of the great
white shark, two-thousand-pound killer of the seas, and of the
hundred-foot blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived. It is
also the home of living things so small that your two hands
might scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky
Way. And it is because of the flowering of astronomical numbers
of these diminutive plants, known as diatoms, that the surface
waters of the ocean are in reality boundless pastures. Every marine
animal, from the smallest to the sharks and whales, is ultimately
dependent for its food upon these microscopic entities
of the vegetable life of the ocean. Within their fragile walls, the
sea performs a vital alchemy that utilizes the sterile chemical
elements dissolved in the water and welds them with the torch
of sunlight into the stuff of life. Only through this little-understood
synthesis of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates by
myriad plant "producers" is the mineral wealth of the sea made
available to the animal "consumers" that browse as they float
with the currents. Drifting endlessly, midway between the sea of
air above and the depths of the abyss below, these strange creatures
and the marine inflorescence that sustains them are called
Many of the fishes, as well as the bottom-dwelling mollusks
and worms and starfish, begin life as temporary members of this
roving company, for the ocean cradles their young in its surface
waters. The sea is not a solicitous foster mother. The delicate
eggs and fragile larvae are buffeted by storms raging across the
open ocean and preyed upon by diminutive monsters, the hungry
glassworms and comb jellies of the plankton.
These ocean pastures are also the domain of vast shoals of
adult fishes: herring, anchovy, menhaden, and mackerel, feeding
upon the animals of the plankton and in their turn preyed
upon; for here the dogfish hunt in packs, and the ravenous bluefish,
like roving buccaneers, take their booty where they find it.
Dropping downward a scant hundred feet to the white sand
beneath, an undersea traveler would discover a land where the
noonday sun is swathed in twilight blues and purples, and
where the blackness of midnight is eerily aglow with the cold
phosphorescence of living things. Dwelling among the crepuscular
shadows of the ocean floor are creatures whose terrestrial
counterparts are drab and commonplace, but which are themselves
invested with delicate beauty by the sea. Crystal cones
form the shells of pteropods or winged snails that drift downward
from the surface to these dim regions by day; and the
translucent spires of lovely Ianthina are tinged with Tyrian
Other creatures of the sea's bottom may be fantastic rather
than beautiful. Spine-studded urchins, like rotund hedgehogs
of the sea, tumble over the sands, where mollusks lie with
slightly opened shells, busily straining the water for debris. Life
flows on monotonously for these passive sifters of the currents,
who move little or not at all from year to year. Among the rock
ledges, eels and cunners forage greedily, while the lobster feels
his way with nimble wariness through the perpetual twilight.
Farther out on the continental shelf, the ocean floor is
scarred with deep ravines, perhaps the valleys of drowned rivers,
and dotted with undersea plateaus. Hosts of fish graze on
these submerged islands, which are richly carpeted with sluggish
or sessile forms of life. Chief among the ground fish are
haddock, cods, flounders and their mightier relative, the halibut.
From these and shallower waters man, the predator, exacts
a yearly tribute of nearly thirty billion pounds of fish.
If the underwater traveler might continue to explore the
ocean floor, he would traverse miles of level prairie lands; he
would ascend the sloping sides of hills; and he would skirt deep
and ragged crevasses yawning suddenly at his feet. Through the
gathering darkness, he would come at last to the edge of the continental
shelf. The ceiling of the ocean would lie a hundred fathoms
above him, and his feet would rest upon the brink of a slope
that drops precipitously another mile, and then descends more
gently into an inky void that is the abyss.
What human mind can visualize conditions in the uttermost
depths of the ocean? Increasing with every foot of depth, enormous
pressures reach, three thousand fathoms down, the inconceivable
magnitude of three tons to every square inch of surface.
In these silent deeps a glacial cold prevails, a bleak iciness
which never varies, summer or winter, years melting into centuries,
and centuries into ages of geologic time. There, too, darkness
reigns--the blackness of primeval night in which the ocean
came into being, unbroken, through aeons of succeeding time,
by the gray light of dawn.
It is easy to understand why early students of the ocean believed
these regions were devoid of life, but strange creatures
have now been dredged from the depths to bear mute and fragmentary
testimony concerning life in the abyss.
The "monsters" of the deep sea are small, voracious fishes
with gaping, tooth-studded jaws, some with sensitive feelers
serving the function of eyes, others bearing luminous torches or
lures to search out or entice their living prey. Through the night
of the abyss, the flickering lights of these foragers move to and
fro. Many of the sessile bottom dwellers glow with a strange radiance
suffusing the entire body, while other swimming creatures
may have tiny, glittering lights picked out in rows and patterns.
The deep-sea prawn and the abyssal cuttlefish eject a
luminous cloud, and under cover of this pillar of fire escape
from their enemies.
Monotones of red and brown and lustreless black are the
prevailing colors in the deep sea, allowing the wearers to reflect
the minimum of the phosphorescent gleams, and to blend into
the safe obscurity of the surrounding gloom.
On the muddy bottom of the abyss, treacherous oozes
threaten to engulf small scavengers as they busily sift the debris
for food. Crabs and prawns pick their way over the yielding
mud on stilt-like legs; sea spiders creep over sponges raised on
delicate stalks above the slime.
Because the last vestige of plant life was left behind in the
shallow zone penetrated by the rays of the sun, the inhabitants
of these depths contrast strangely with the self-supporting assemblage
of the surface waters. Preying one upon another, the
abyssal creatures are ultimately dependent upon the slow rain
of dead plants and animals from above. Every living thing of the
ocean, plant and animal alike, returns to the water at the end of
its own life span the materials that had been temporarily assembled
to form its body. So there descends into the depths a gentle,
never-ending rain of the disintegrating particles of what once
were living creatures of the sunlit surface waters, or of those
twilight regions beneath.
Here in the sea mingle elements which, in their long and
amazing history, have lent life and strength and beauty to a bewildering
variety of living creatures. Ions of calcium, now free
in the water, were borrowed years ago from the sea to form part
of the protective armor of a mollusk, returned to the main reservoir
when their temporary owner had ceased to have need of
them, and later incorporated into the delicate statuary of a coral
reef. Here are atoms of silica, once imprisoned in a layer of flint
in subterranean darkness; later, within the fragile shell of a
diatom, tossed by waves and warmed by the sun; and again entering
into the exquisite structure of a radiolarian shell, that
miracle of ephemeral beauty that might be the work of a fairy
glass-blower with a snowflake as his pattern.
Except for precipitous slopes and regions swept bare by submarine
currents, the ocean floor is covered with primeval oozes
in which there have been accumulating for aeons deposits of varied
origin; earth-born materials freighted seaward by rivers or
worn from the shores of continents by the ceaseless grinding of
waves; volcanic dust transported long distances by wind, floating
lightly on the surface and eventually sinking into the depths
to mingle with the products of no less mighty eruptions of submarine
volcanoes; spherules of iron and nickel from interstellar
space; and substances of organic origin--the silicious skeletons
of Radiolaria and the frustules of diatoms, the limey remains of
algae and corals, and the shells of minute Foraminifera and delicate
While the bottoms near the shore are covered with detritus
from the land, the remains of the floating and swimming creatures
of the sea prevail in the deep waters of the open ocean.
Beneath tropical seas, in depths of 1000 to 1500 fathoms, calcareous
oozes cover nearly a third of the ocean floor; while the
colder waters of the temperate and polar regions release to the
underlying bottom the silicious remains of diatoms and Radiolaria.
In the red clay that carpets the great deeps at 3000
fathoms or more, such delicate skeletons are extremely rare.
Among the few organic remains not dissolved before they reach
these cold and silent depths are the ear bones of whales and the
teeth of sharks.
Thus we see the parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving
from earth and air the simple materials, storing them up
until the gathering energy of the spring sun wakens the sleeping
plants to a burst of dynamic activity, hungry swarms of planktonic
animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant
plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in
the end, to be redissolved into their component substances
when the inexorable laws of the sea demand it. Individual elements
are lost to view, only to reappear again and again in different
incarnations in a kind of material immortality. Kindred
forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote,
gave birth to that primeval bit of protoplasm tossing on the ancient
seas continue their mighty and incomprehensible work.
Against this cosmic background the life span of a particular
plant or animal appears, not as a drama complete in itself, but
only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.