Seven Great Stories About Sea Creatures

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Sept. 29 2012 7:15 AM

The Longform Guide to Sea Creatures

Keiko, Nessie, and giant squids: a collection of stories on animals from the deep.

Hoaxed photo of the Loch Ness monster.
Supposed photo of the Loch Ness Monster from 1934

Robert Kenneth Wilson/Wikipedia.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

There is no hook whatsoever for a collection of stories about sea creatures—except, of course, that sea creature stories are the absolute best and should be read at all times. Some favorites:

The Squid Hunter

David Grann • The New Yorker • May 2004

An obsessive marine biologist gambles his savings, family, and sanity on a quest to be the first to capture a live giant squid.

“In 1999, O’Shea studied what few had ever seen—the corpse of a baby Architeuthis, which was discovered off New Zealand. He described its curious morphology: two eyes spread disconcertingly far apart; a parrot-like mouth concealing a raspy, serrated tongue; eight arms extending outward from a torpedo-shaped head. Each elastic limb was lined with hundreds of suckers, ringed with sharp teeth. The skin was iridescent, and filled with chromatophores—groups of pigment cells—that allowed it to change colors. A funnel near its head could shoot out clouds of black ink. The specimen also had two extraordinary-looking clubbed tentacles. (When a giant squid is mature, they can stretch up to thirty feet.)

Armed with this rare expertise, O’Shea has spent the last five years mapping out where to find a baby giant squid and puzzling over how to catch one and grow it in a tank. This year, he told me, he would venture out during the summer nights of the Southern Hemisphere, when giant squid released their babies. ‘Come on down, mate,’ he said. ‘We’ll see if we can’t find the bloody thing and make history.’”

David Foster Wallace • Gourmet • August 2004

A trip to a lobster festival leads to an examination of the culinary and ethical dimensions of cooking a live, possibly sentient, creature.

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“In any event, at the Festival, standing by the bubbling tanks outside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, watching the fresh-caught lobsters pile over one another, wave their hobbled claws impotently, huddle in the rear corners, or scrabble frantically back from the glass as you approach, it is difficult not to sense that they’re unhappy, or frightened, even if it’s some rudimentary version of these feelings …and, again, why does rudimentariness even enter into it? Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here—at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride of the Maine Lobster Festival. The truth is that if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.

Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why? Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts.”

John Seabrook • Harper’s • June 1994

Stalking the disappearing bluefin tuna, the world’s most valuable wild animal.

“The giant tuna, seen from the perspective of the flying bridge, is a radiant yellow-and-blue shape, about ten feet under the water. The immense bulk of the trunk, contrasted with the long, slender dorsal fin, gives the fish a singular appearance. Giant tuna have astounded human beings for thousands of years. The oldest Punic coins are engraved with tuna. Aeschylus compares the slaughter of Persians by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis to the butchering of tuna. Aristotle believed that giant tuna got so fat because they fed on acorns from oak trees that grew on the bottom of the ocean. Pliny the Elder describes a confrontation between a school of giants and the fleet of Alexander the Great that caused Alexander to draw up his ships in battle formation.

Brooks, leaning over the pulpit, throws the harpoon at the tuna. The colors shiver and disappear. "Damn!" Brooks shouts into the water. ‘Goddamn!’ Timmy groans over the loudspeaker. Brooks yells, "Did you see him look at me?" He is still staring down into the water. ‘He rolled over and looked me right in the eye!’”

Tom Bissell • VQR • December 1998

A trip to Scotland and an investigation of enduring belief.

“It has been described as ‘one of the most enduring, and controversial, images of the twentieth century.’ Well, no—but it remains, after seven decades, the best photo ever taken of Loch Ness’s most putative inhabitant. Its influence has been determinative: few referred to a “monster” before this photo’s 1934 publication and no one has thought of it since as anything but. In 1992, an American woman claimed to have spied a sea serpent in the Pacific Ocean and described it as resembling “the picture of the Loch Ness monster.” No one had to ask which picture she was talking about.”

Brendan Kiley • Stranger • June 2009

On the mysterious and moderately intelligent giant Pacific octopus.

“Buster's tank, the guide tells the schoolchildren, sits on top of a rock outcropping with an underwater octopus den. After watching Buster's coy performance, you could, in theory, jump out the window, swim to the bottom, and wrestle another one out of a cave.

Not that you'd want to. Giant Pacific octopuses are, well, giant—the largest ever found, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was 600 pounds and 31 feet from tentacle to tentacle—and they're disproportionately strong, all muscle and protein. While trying to escape, a 40-pound octopus at the Seattle Aquarium once pushed a 60-pound weight from the top of its tank. They have venom for drool and their mouths look like something from Alien: two sharp beaks hiding a drill-like instrument called a radula that scrapes through thick shells to paralyze whatever's inside before the octopus sucks out its innards.

And sometimes they attack divers.”

Where's Willy?

Susan Orlean • The New Yorker • September 2002

A profile of a celebrity whale.

“But Keiko—which means “lucky one” in Japanese—is the most watched whale in the world. He has a satellite tag and a VHF transmitter and three nonprofit organizations vested in him, along with millions of spectators, waiting to see if this famous, accomplished, celebrated whale, who has lived most of his life as a pet, will take to the wild. Every day that Keiko is on his own, his location is tracked by satellite, relayed over the Internet, and then plotted on a marine chart in the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation offices in the Westman Islands, a row of neatly pencilled ‘X’s tracing his arcing route through the sea.”

Donovan Hohn • Harper’s • January 2007

In 1992, a Chinese freighter tipped violently in a storm dumping a load of plastic floating infant toys—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—to the open sea. This is their story.

“Where had they gone? Into the Arctic? Around the globe? Were they still out there, traveling the currents of the North Pacific? Or did they lie buried under wrack and sand along Alaska’s wild, sparsely populated shores? Or, succumbing to the elements—freezing temperatures, the endless battering of the waves, prolonged exposure to the sun—had they cracked, filled with water, gone under? All 28,800 toys had emerged from that sinking container into the same acre of water. Each member of the four species was all but identical to the others—each duck was just as light as the other ducks, each frog as thick as the other frogs, each beaver as aerodynamic as the next. And yet one turtle had ended up in Signe Wilsonhot tub, another in the jaws of Betsy Knudson’s labrador, another in the nest of a sea otter, while a fourth had floated almost all the way to Russia, and a fifth traveled south of Puget Sound. Why? What tangled calculus of causes and effects could explain—or predict—such disparate fates?”

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Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.