Ocean of wonders

Ocean of wonders

‘[The Pacific Ocean] has been a frontier to explore, a space to conquer, a resource to plunder – and a place of infinite wonder…’

Have you ever wondered why the ‘Pacific’ Ocean is named that way? In November 1520, Ferdinand Magellan, after a perilous voyage through the rough seas of the Atlantic, finally reached a calm, unfamiliar ocean after crossing the strait that now bears the navigator’s name. Relieved, he decided to call this body of water ‘Pacific’, meaning peaceful. If you’re anything like me, the first things you picture when you hear ‘Pacific Ocean’ are the remote, paradisiac lagoons filled with warm, turquoise waters home to colourful coral reefs and beautiful fishes. This idyllic view, while perfect for covers of travel magazines, does little justice to the power of the largest, widest and deepest of all oceans, which is ‘the world’s largest stage for nature’s unending drama’.

In her book Big Pacific: An incredible journey of exploration and revelation, Rebecca Tansley takes us on an adventure to mystical places and introduces us to amazing creatures. Packed with beautiful photographs and fun facts, this book will satisfy the curiosity of both kids and adults, and will grab the attention of scientists and laypeople alike. As well as describing the habits of the Pacific’s inhabitants, big and small, and the dramas that strike its iconic habitats, Tansley reflects upon the way humans affect the place she is most fascinated by, and the role they should play in protecting it.

Dugongs are the only entirely vegetarian marine mammal, and are nicknamed ‘sea cows’. They live for 70 years, and mothers spend up to 7 years raising each calf. Image: Natural History New Zealand Ltd / CSIRO Publishing

The first chapter of the book, ‘Passionate Pacific’, delves into the intimate lives of the creatures that call this ocean home. Learn about the sex changes and prolific sexual encounters of the clownfish “queen” with the only male around she desires, while the others lie in wait unable to reproduce. You’ll also read about newly discovered behaviours, such as the embrace that Larger Pacific Striped Octopus partners envelop each other in for hours. Plus, you’ll be amazed by the lifelong dedication that Wolf Eel partners have for one another, the perilous ways Yellow-eyed Penguins come back to land to feed their offspring trip after trip, and many more of the adaptations marine creatures have developed to ensure they successfully reproduce.

The anemone’s venomous sting makes it a hostile companion – except to clownfish, which acclimate their bodies to the venom in return for a safe haven from predators. Image: Natural History New Zealand Ltd / CSIRO Publishing

Mating is not the only crucial activity organisms have developed amazing adaptations for. You’ll find that the need to eat has also resulted in the evolutionary development of some quirky behaviours. The author, once again, does not disappoint and describes plenty of unusual, sometimes only recently discovered techniques for animals (and plants!) to catch their next meal, in the second chapter ‘Voracious Pacific’. Alongside those, she catalogues some great adaptations to deal with the sometimes-rough environments they live in. For example, as scary and angry as Marine Iguanas look, they are vegetarian and dive to scrape algae off rocks at depth, before coming back to the surface, and “sneezing out” the excess salt through special nasal glands. Now, that’s pretty cool! But perhaps not as cool as sea anemones devouring cormorant chicks on the Californian coast. Think I just made that up? Don’t just take my word for it – go and read more about it.

Unlucky insects that are caught in a pitcher plant ‘pitfall trap’ are broken down into a solution of minerals that helps sustain the plant in nutrient-poor soil. Image: Natural History New Zealand Ltd / CSIRO Publishing

What cues do hundreds of thousands of female Olive Ridley Sea Turtles use to know when to come back to shore to lay their eggs, sometimes after extraordinarily long trips across ocean basins? How come the Chambered Nautilus, a weird-looking cephalopod, was the only survivor of the mass extinction that wiped out the rest of the species in its group, the ammonites, along with a dazzling 75 percent of all plants and animals? What ingenious ways did the people of Pohnpei use to transport an impressive 750,000 tonnes of stone to build the ancient city of Nan Madol in Indonesia? The third chapter of the book, ‘Mysterious Pacific’, explores some of the Pacific’s best-kept secrets, and describes a range of mysteries scientists are still trying to solve.

All seven species of sea turtle face serious threats, and populations around the world have drastically declined in recent times. Image: Natural History New Zealand Ltd / CSIRO Publishing

The Pacific Ocean is home to the least stable part of the Earth’s crust. Therefore, the ability for its landscapes to be drastically altered within short timeframes does not come as a surprise. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions have created and destroyed habitats for as long as this ocean has existed. ‘Violent Pacific’, the last chapter of the book, looks into these perpetual and unstoppable natural phenomena, but also explores another type of violence. More recently, the Pacific has been the theatre of human-led dramas that have left their marks beneath its waves, such as the skull caves of Papua New Guinea that are reminders of past cultural practices such as cannibalism, and the wrecks of planes that are the only signs left of the fierce battles fought during World War Two. As you have probably gathered, this chapter is not for the faint-hearted.

If you don’t mind that, though, make sure you give this comprehensive book a read to discover more about the Pacific’s most intense clashes and fearless predators (including humans), as well as an immense array of incredible, and sometimes unbelievable, facts about Earth’s largest, deepest ocean.

You can purchase your copy of Big Pacific from CSIRO Publishing.

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