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The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea
William J. Broad, Dimitry Schidlovsky (Illustrator)
Simon & Schuster, 415 pages

The Universe Below
William Broad
In 1985, William Broad covered the discovery of the Titanic. He's been a deep-sea aficionado since then. Broad has won a Pulitzer Prize (Teller's War, 1991) and is a science correspondent for the New York Times.

Simon & Schuster Book Page
About the Author
Alvin, the submersible
Garden of Eden
Chimneys of the Deep Sea
A Brief Chronology of Sea Exploration

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Stephen M. Davis

The Universe Below is a non-fiction work examining the latest deep-sea explorations, both of shipwrecks and sunken treasure, and of the diversity of bizarre life hidden in the ocean's depths--depths that contain some 97 percent of the Earth's biosphere.

While my experience with books on ocean exploration has generally consisted of works containing grainy photographs of underwater steps descending to the Temple of Poseidon in Atlantis, I was entertained by William Broad's book and recommend it.

There were spots where the writing became a bit academic. But there are always points of interest, even in a section like "Battle Zone," where much of the discussion centers around the evolution of the submersible from a civilian oddity to a military vehicle of espionage, then back to a civilian treasure hunter. By way of example, I quote a passage in which Mr. Broad describes a near-catastrophe for the submersible Trieste:

Suddenly, the ledge crumbled. Trieste began sliding down as the crew cabin filled with the sickening sound of metal scraping against rock. Another glance out the window showed that a deep avalanche was in progress. Mud and sand poured over the descending craft, with clouds of muck billowing up to obscure vision. Eager to abort the dive, Piccard flipped the switch to drop the forward iron ballast. No reaction. The mechanism was jammed with sand and mud. He quickly flipped the aft ballast switch. This time, to the relief of Piccard and his passenger, tiny pellets of iron ballast began to pour out. Slowly, very slowly, with half the positive buoyancy usual for an ascent, Trieste lifted out of the tumult and rose toward sunlit waters.
Granted, I might have found the book more entertaining if a living fossil of the Late Cretaceous period had swum up and gulped down a robot submersible or a Russian submarine crew, but there are enough oddities, disasters, and near-disasters here to keep a reader involved.

The author is most comfortable when he is a personal witness to events, and not just history's commentator. In the section entitled "Canyon", Mr. Broad gets to travel with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) as they head out to sea with the robot submersible Ventana on one of their routine probings of the Monterey Canyon.

Monterey Canyon is a submarine fissure that begins in Monterey Bay, California, and deepens quickly to a depth of more than two miles. As MBARI's president, Peter G. Brewer, says, "This is the only place in the country where you can leave the dock and, before you've finished your cup of coffee, you're at true oceanic depths."

Mr. Broad manages in "Canyon" to describe in some detail the progress Ventana makes as it descends more than a kilometer into Monterey Canyon, video-taping its surroundings and sucking in specimens at the request of scientists on board a ship floating high above the submersible.

After sucking a squid into one of Ventana's specimen containers, the scientists are overjoyed :

"Got 'em," Robey cried. "Got 'em both. Good job, Chris." Jay eyed the squid in the rotating drum. It was changing its colors, displaying a vivid range of hues. "I think he was about to ink. He looks really mad." "Can you imagine dining in Carmel and getting sucked up by aliens?" Kim joked from his console. Chris deadpanned that he recalled reading something about that in the pages of the National Enquirer. "Yea," Kim answered, his voice changing slightly, taking on an extraterrestrial tone. "We'll put him in the lab and probe him and he won't remember a thing."
In all, there are seven sections in The Universe Below, each focusing on a general deep-sea topic, though technological passages are often intertwined in sections that focus primarily on the deep ocean's residents, and vice versa.

In this book, the reader will find passages about global warming, radioactive contamination of the ocean, and new methods of hunting for treasure on wrecks that were previously inaccessible. The reader, though, will also learn about new deep-sea species that are being found almost daily, underwater "smokestacks" that contain unbelievable mineral riches, and espionage games that are as audacious as any spy operation run on solid ground.

I think the reader will find The Universe Below to be good non-fiction entertainment.

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen M. Davis

Steve is faculty member in the English department at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C. He holds a master's in English Literature from Clemson University. He was voted by his high school class as Most Likely to Become a Young Curmudgeon.

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