The best books about the ocean and seas

Who am I?

Dr. Helen Scales a marine biologist, broadcaster and bestselling writer whose books include Spirals in Time and Eye of the Shoal. Her stories about the ocean appear in National Geographic Magazine, The Guardian, New Scientist, and others. Helen co-hosts the Catch Our Drift podcast, teaches at Cambridge University and is a scientific advisor to the marine conservation charity Sea Changers. She divides her time between Cambridge, England, and the wild French coast of Finistère.


I wrote...

The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed

By Helen Scales,

Book cover of The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales of Exploring the Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life and Selling the Seabed

What is my book about?

The oceans have always shaped human lives, but the surface and the very edges have so far mattered the most. However, one way or another, the future ocean is the deep ocean.

A golden era of deep-sea discovery is underway. Revolutionary studies in the deep are rewriting the very notion of life on Earth and the rules of what is possible. In the process, the abyss is being revealed as perhaps the most amazing part of our planet, with a topography even more varied and extreme than its Earthbound counterpart. Teeming with unsuspected life, an extraordinary interconnected ecosystem deep below the waves has a huge effect on our daily lives, influencing climate and weather systems, with the potential for much more--good or bad depending on how it is exploited. Currently, the fantastic creatures that live in the deep--many of them incandescent in a world without light--and its formations capture and trap vast quantities of carbon that would otherwise poison our atmosphere; and novel bacteria as yet undiscovered hold the promise of potent new medicines. Yet the deep also holds huge mineral riches lusted after by many nations and corporations; mining them could ultimately devastate the planet, compounded by the deepening impacts of ubiquitous pollutants and rampant overfishing.

The books I picked & why

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The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier

By Ian Urbina,

Book cover of The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier

Why this book?

Urbina gives a shocking and vital account of the human and environmental troubles that are taking place across the ocean, out of sight beyond the horizon. From cases of modern-day slavery and murder aboard fishing vessels to the tricks played by whaling ships and cruise ships to avoid detection of their environmental crimes.


Lady With a Spear: A Young Marine Scientist's Memoir

By Eugenie Clark,

Book cover of Lady With a Spear: A Young Marine Scientist's Memoir

Why this book?

Eugenie Clark wrote this book about the early days of her amazing career as a marine biologist and shark specialist (she was later nicknamed the ‘Shark Lady’). In the 1940s, not only was she unusual for being a female scientist, but she set off on intrepid journeys around the world, studying fish around tiny islands across the Pacific and in the Red Sea, long before it was developed as a tourist destination. This book gives a glorious view of a pioneering scientist and what ocean science used to be like. I was lucky enough to meet her a few years before she died in her nineties. She was incredibly warm and generous, and was clearly still driven by the same boundless curiosity and adventurous spirit that you will see written across the pages of her book.


The Log from the Sea of Cortez

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Why this book?

In 1940, author John Steinbeck accompanied marine biologist, Ed Rickets (the inspiration for the character Doc in his book Cannery Row), on a six-week research expedition to the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, onboard the converted sardine fishing boat, The Western Flyer. This book is based on notes written by Rickets, edited by Steinbeck, and gives fascinating insights into the animals they were finding and collecting as well as the two men’s philosophical outlook on marine ecology. A quote I especially like is:

It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.


Fathoms: The World in the Whale

By Rebecca Giggs,

Book cover of Fathoms: The World in the Whale

Why this book?

I used to think of whales as a great success story in the history of humans and our plundering of the ocean – after all, these fabulous beasts were swiftly transformed from a heavily hunted, industrial resource into protected, cherished wildlife. But as we are learning more all the time, things are more complicated than that in the ocean. As Giggs eloquently tells us, humanity has replaced whaling with many other modern troubles for the great whales. Her writing is vivid and fresh, at times a sweeping personal narrative, for instance as she contemplates a dying whale stranded on an Australian beach, and at times brilliantly intimate and zoomed in, as we examine with her the hitch-hiking creatures that ride around on whales, or consider what is going on behind those apparently knowing eyes of theirs.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

By Jules Verne,

Book cover of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Why this book?

This is one of the books about the ocean I have read the most. It’s science fiction, but based on much of what was the cutting edge science at the time, giving a fascinating insight into the Victorian state of knowledge about the ocean. I’ve noticed how my empathy with the characters has changed over time. On first reading as a teenager, I liked the adventures of Professor Aronnax, the marine scientist held captive by the renegade Captain Nemo on his amazing submarine, the Nautilus, as they explore the undersea world together. Returning to the book later, after I myself had become a marine biologist and studied many parts of the ocean, I felt a much closer connection to Aronnax and shared his dilemma over whether to stay with Nemo, and keep on exploring the ocean in ways he never imagined possible, or try to escape the clutches of this mysterious and dangerous character. Do I chose freedom or science?


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in whales, submarines, and travel?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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