Richard Ellis,
Monsters of the Sea
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1995; Lyons [revised], 2006)

Through the centuries since people first set out on the world's great oceans, stories have abounded about the monsters that live there. Many of them are flights of fancy, overactive imaginations coupled with the play of light on the ever-changing surface of the sea or a glimpse of some tantalizing bit of a real -- but hardly monstrous -- sea creature.

Richard Ellis examines those creatures -- both real and imaginary -- in great detail in Monsters of the Sea. Although the book is highly academic in nature, it also approaches the subject with a great sense of fun, and readers will share Ellis's sense of delight regarding the mysteries that swim below the waves.

Topics range from the fantastic, or at least unproven, such as mermaids, sea serpents and the Loch Ness Monster, to the real, including whales, manatees, sharks and octopuses. Ellis details the obvious parallels -- the kraken is a giant squid, for instance, and the leviathan is the sperm whale -- and explains exactly what about these creatures might be monstrous and what is simple fiction. (Don't get Ellis started on the various indignities and falsehoods heaped on the heads of simple sea creatures by writer Jules Verne, who apparently did not expend sufficient effort on research. H.G. Wells did better, according to Ellis, as did Peter Benchley -- although the latter had some atoning to do for his misrepresentation of great white sharks in Jaws.)

Where the science is certain, Ellis delves deeply into the known traits, habits and varying biologies of the creatures. You will doubtlessly come away from this book knowing far more about squids, octopuses, whales and other sea beasties than you ever dreamed possible. Where the science is murkier -- not only the existence of certain mythical creatures, but even in some of the more basic physiological questions regarding sharks and cephalopods -- Ellis supplies the various theories that have been considered over the years and weighs the merits of each.

And just what the heck are globsters, anyway?

Although first published in 1995, Monsters of the Sea was revised by Ellis for the 21st century, so the information here is fairly current. I picked up this book expecting to enjoy the chapters on mythical monsters and skim through the chapters on science. But it turned out the whole thing was fascinating, and it's written in an enjoyable fashion. Ellis is repetitive at times, but given the vast expanse of source material he had to work with, I can overlook that flaw.

review by
Tom Knapp

19 July 2008

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