Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest: A Photographic Encyclopedia of Invertebrates, Seaweeds and Selected Fishes
November 4, 2013
Review By Tony Pitcher
This book is a self-confessed labour of love, and it took the authors twenty-five years working in their spare time to complete it. Beautifully produced and reasonably priced, it has over 1,700 original colour photographs of 1,400 plants and animals found along our coast from southern Alaska to central California. The book includes some seaweed photos taken by Michael W. Hawkes (UBC). In a short introduction Andy Lamb, formerly of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, now from the Vancouver Aquarium, and the professional photographer Bernard Hanby set out their rationale for producing the book (“it’s time, already”) and explicate a laudable and helpful conservation philosophy that was so evidently lacking in their former bosses.
It is difficult, however, to work out who the intended buyers of Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest are meant to be. I suspect that the authors, too busy being in love with these wonderful animals, did not think much about that common publishing question. Most of these animals and plants are commonly met only by scuba divers, while a subset of them are encountered by beach and rocky shore ramblers. A few professionals need scientific identifications: these include schoolchildren and university students on field courses, reef guardians and other environmental volunteers, and technicians and scientists engaged in environmental monitoring and research. The problem with this beautiful book is that it is not obvious how it serves the needs of any of these potential purchasers.
The publisher confidently states that “the book is designed to allow the reader to recognize virtually any coastal organism that might be encountered,” but I do not think this confidence is well-founded. We can “recognize” only what we know and have met before; meeting these wonderful sea creatures for the first time, we need to find out what they are. For that, one needs a field guide, which this book could so easily have been. Indeed, the typography, introductory reference guide, and colour-coded page tips suggest that someone attempted to produce a field guide, but the rest of the production does not match that aim. Moreover, the introduction, written by the respected Murray Newman, founder of the Vancouver Aquarium, describes the book as an encyclopaedia rather than as a field guide, and I think he is dead right. The large coffeetable cloth format would be hopeless for field use, even when carried in the large trucks favoured by BC scuba divers. How is the most likely target audience expected to use this book? By comparing their own amateur snapshots with the professional photos in the book? By bringing rotting organisms home and depleting the natural environment? There are a few hints at identification in the text accompanying each photo (e.g., for a pink annelid tube worm: “graft-like incisions around the anterior part of the head and twig-like gills” ), but for the most part, we have only the photo, size, and habitat to go on. For scientific purposes, unequivocal identification usually requires a dichotomous key approach or the description of unique diagnostic features. Unfortunately, neither the precise identifications required by scientists nor the synoptic field guide desired by amateurs will be well served by this book.
Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest fails (rather splendidly) as a field guide, but does it stand up, as its title would lead one to expect, as an encyclopaedia? Unfortunately, the answer is “no.” What is there is marvelously documented and interestingly written, but there are, unfortunately, some obtrusive curiosities within this book. For example, the inclusion of most seaweeds, sponges, bivalves, all types of worms, sea slugs, crustaceans, and echinoderms is encouragingly complete, but we have only some jellyfish and squid, a few deep sea creatures, and, from page 361 on, one finds such an odd and incomplete assortment of BC fishes – mainly rockfish and sculpins – that one does have to ask why any fish are included at all (the authors had some lovely photographs perhaps?). Moreover, no marine mammals or sea birds are included. These omissions mean that the book cannot meet its claim to be an encyclopaedia. Again, readers will doubtless find the inclusion of an unidentified, headless fragment of a worm on page 161 intriguing, and even charming, but why is it included in the book? The labour of love factor strikes again, I fear.
The photos, the main distinguishing feature of the book, are superb. But even here one can carp a bit. For identification, the photos could do with a size scale (such as a loonie or quarter): when one reads that most were taken with a high-end macro lens, one realizes that many of those crabs and worms could be quite small (e.g., that pink tube worm on page 159 is only eight centimetres long). The authors also congratulate themselves on not using any digital photography aids, but that may be why many of the photographs seem very flat, with the result that crucial animal bits like legs, spines, and feelers disappear into the background. The processing of visual information in our human brain is very sophisticated, and we do not perceive real animals as being flat, even when the camera sees them that way. Some digital image processing techniques can bring out features that facilitate our visual recognition, and they could have been employed judiciously to the reader’s advantage.
In summary, this lovely, big, colourful, and information-packed book will doubtless attract many purchasers. I am sure it will find a home on the shelves of many professional and amateur naturalists in British Columbia, but I wonder how often this flawed encyclopaedia will actually get taken off the shelf after its purchase. There is a super field guide in here crying to be let out. Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest would have been much improved with stronger editorial assistance, perhaps from a mainstream international pub lisher that has experience with producing field guides.