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Planet Ocean: An Essential Wide-World Book in a Widescreen World

Terrain.org staff reviews Planet Ocean: Voyage to the Heart of the Marine Realm, by Laurent Ballesta and Pierre Descamp

Planet Ocean: Voyage to the Heart of the Marine Realm, by Laurent Ballesta and Pierre Descamp.With alluring ocean photography and concise essays that celebrate the diversity—and perils—of Earth’s oceans and seas, Planet Ocean: Voyage to the Heart of the Marine Realm by Laurent Ballesta and Pierre Descamp (National Geographic Books, 2007) provides a book of wide-world views and thinking in what has otherwise become a widescreen world.

When I first received the large book (13x11 inches and nearly two inches thick), I found it beautiful but—in an age of high-definition television, wireless internet, and near virtual reality video games—wondered how it could compete. My question wasn’t as fundamental as whether books matter, but rather whether coffee table books still matter. After watching BBC’s amazing Planet Earth series, how can a flat book compare to the sights and sounds of a plasma flat screen?

Planet Ocean, however, is no designer coffee table book. Instead, it is a collaboration by celebrated underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta, a biologist and professional diver, and marine biologist Pierre Descamp, introduced by Jean-Michel Cousteau and wonderfully supported by short essays written by marine scientists and policy advocates from around the world.

In his introduction, Cousteau writes, “This beautiful, smart book is testimony to what we have to gain by living differently on the planet, by changing how we conduct ourselves on land so that these magnificent creatures you are about to meet will continue to thrive and lead lives of their own.” That is what distinguishes this book from the many others that visually highlight the beautiful intricacies of our shallow seas and deepest oceans: it centers as much on essays on the oceans and how they are under siege—“Ocean Biodiversity: Key to Our Survival Strategy” and “Climate Change and Marine Ecosystems,” for example—as it does on Ballesta’s often surreal photos.

It is also about a journey in both geographic and educational senses, which seems to be Descamp’s influence. For instance, the first chapter, “The Ocean—That Great Unknown,” is divided into such sections as Living in Water, Do Sea Monsters Exist?, Animals That Look Like Plants, Where Do Waves Come From?, and The Secret Language of Marine Animals. These sections, presented almost as poems interspersed with photographs, seem oriented primarily to children, or only the quick glances that coffee table books are usually afforded. From The Secret Language, for example:

Do dolphins talk? No one knows.
What is certain, though, is that marine animals exchange signals.
This distinction is important: A word makes one think, a signal makes one react.
The animals’ communication can take many forms: chemical, visual, auditory, tactile, or electric.
A grouper’s nostrils are extremely sensitive for detecting odors, whether of some prey or of a potential mate.
As for the bright colors of the bluespotted ribbontail ray, they warn any predators
that the ray has a fearsome, venomous stinger.

If Planet Ocean was filled only with these interesting tidbits and photos, it wouldn’t be more than the average coffee table book. Intriguing, certainly, but not essential. Fortunately, between chapters are sets of essays under the banner, The Endangered Sea - The Expert’s Opinion. In addition to the first two on biodiversity and climate change mentioned above, there are essays on sustainable fisheries, tomorrow’s aquaculture, polar oceans and their unknown ecosystems, sustainable fishing, marine protected areas, sea turtles, ocean governance, coral reefs in peril, sharks as essential predators, tourism and marine biodiversity, whales, navigation and biodiversity, and the unknown world of the deep seas.

Though the essays tend toward an academic voice, both individually and taken as a whole they are compelling and utterly important for an understanding not only of the nature of our oceans, but of the significant issues facing them.

From interesting facts:

The leatherback turtle, for instance, is one of the most extraordinary of Earth’s creatures. To begin with, it is the largest of all extant Chelonians, with specimens on record measuring more than 10 feet in length and weighing over 2,000 pounds. Furthermore, it achieves this enormity on an exclusive diet of jellyfish, an organism that itself is mostly water! Leatherbacks can make several dives each day to depths of over 3,000 feet, where the pressure, temperature, and darkness preclude all but the most highly specialized life forms, and annually they traverse thousands of miles of open sea, crossing entire oceans sometimes multiple times.

— Brian Hutchinson and Red Salm, Conservation International, from “Sea Turtles: A Marine Icon”

… to forthright analysis and recommendations:

Today, the case for shark conservation is more compelling than ever before. We now understand the importance of ensuring that shark fisheries are sustainably managed in order to yield long-term benefits to coastal communities, whether reliant upon commercial fisheries, sport fishing, or marine ecotourism….

For the conservation of cartilaginous fish, the following priorities are recommended:

  • Full protection status for rare, endemic, and endangered species;
  • Development of fisheries management programs to minimize waste and discards and to encourage full use of dead sharks instead of just one body part: the fin;
  • Identification and protection of critical habitats, such as nursery grounds, spawning grounds, and mating areas;
  • Development of national and Mediterranean research programs, and the raising of public awareness through educational programs and information
— Fabrizio Serena, Head of a Regional Environmental Protection Organization in Tuscany, from “Sharks: Essential Predators”

… the essays add critical context and vision to the wildly colored pages.

Combined, the stunning photographs, playful paths of the chapters, and scrutinizing essays make for an essential book. Set against the pulls of a hypertexted, widescreen world, Planet Ocean provides its own wide yet powerfully intimate view of our rich oceans—a view that compels us to tune in, in spite of and perhaps especially because of the constant electronic buzz all around.


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Planet Ocean: Voyage to the Heart of the Marine Realm

By Laurent Ballesta and Pierre Descamp

   National Geographic Books
   ISBN 978-1426201868


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