MONSTERS OF THE SEA by Richard Ellis


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 A comprehensive, fact-packed examination of the deep's largest denizens, tracing the patterns that connect mythology, biology, and the human imagination. Marine illustrator Ellis (Men and Whales, 1991) starts with the legends and teases out their kernels of fact, drawing on material from medieval bestiaries to cutting-edge scientific discoveries. Sailors ogling mermaids from afar were really staring at manatees, he concludes; the biblical Leviathan was probably the whale (which would be overhunted in later times). The scores of people who have reported sightings of giant sea serpents certainly saw something, Ellis believes, probably a red- crested ribbon fish or the arm of a giant squid basking near the surface. He moves his discussion a step further than simple myth debunking, however, by showing how these creatures have been remythologized in the contemporary consciousness. The whale, once a commodity, is now a symbol, its image adorning T-shirts and its song analyzed for signs of an intelligence greater than our own. Hollywood's special effects have introduced sharks and giant squid as diabolical forces carefully plotting to wreak havoc on the human race. No matter how many Latin names are bestowed on these animals, the author asserts, their evasiveness will continue to ensure their status as ``monsters.'' Ellis has included a hefty dose of marine biology, especially regarding squid and octopus, and his technical writing deflates much of the excitement his subject can provide; titillation has been banished in favor of analysis. The title promises entertainment, but the book might actually be more useful as a reference text--the attention to detail (sightings, strandings, anatomy) is exhaustive, sometimes excessively so. Still, a handful of mysteries are allowed to remain mysterious. Intelligent and often provocative writing, but devotees of Ripley's Believe It or Not will find these sea monsters a bit too tame for their taste. (120 b&w photographs and drawings, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-40639-5
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1994


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