A Magical Memoir Exploring Light & Life in the Deep Sea

What do you think is more frightening – the ocean or outer space? These are the kinds of questions I think about often, and am sometimes kind enough to greet my lucky coworkers with. Right as they’re about to start their shifts, they’re gifted with a deep existential crisis, as I go home to settle in with a book to learn more about a deep fear and fascination of mine.

Book cover of "Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea" by Dr. Edith Widder, PhD

Enter Below the Edge of Darkness, a hold that came in for me and prompted my existential questions, which turned out to bean action-packed, thrill ride of a book that is about exploring the middle “pelagic zone” of the ocean with a focus on the abundance of bioluminescent creatures living there.

Bioluminescence is the phenomenon of a living thing emitting light. This is not super common on land, but is countless in the middle depths (approximately between 600-3200 feet deep) of the oceans. Upon seeing it for the first time, author Dr. Edith Widder remarked, “It’s like the Fourth of July down here”!

I highly recommend checking Below the Edge of Darkness out by candle or flashlight as part of your Earth Hour activities this year. What better way to spend an hour in the dark, re-evaluating our relationship to the planet than reading about the mysteries, alien wonders, and possibilities of the largest parts of our planet’s oceans?

Dr. Widder is a prolific and adventurous marine biologist who has been enchanted with and studying bioluminescent creatures for decades.  The possibilities of what lives in the dark, and even the idea that bioluminescence functions as a language of light, feels like magic. I absolutely love reading fantasy, but sometimes it’s nice to remember there’s so much magic in this world, too.

This book is about light, vision, and bioluminescent creatures big and small, but as good science writing always does, this book is about so much more. It’s an intense memoir that chronicles the ups and downs of Dr. Widder’s life, including health issues that led to long term hospitalization and short-term blindness, which is deeply tragic for someone who is so enchanted by light. It’s about technology, photography, current affairs, meeting Fidel Castro in the ‘90s, debunking natural history documentaries, and her many near death experiences.

Below the Edge of Darkness is also a spectacular adventure filled with futuristic, submersible crafts that can go thousands of feet deep, monsters as tiny as microorganisms, and the homes of giant squids.

This book is my favourite kind of science writing that intersects with philosophy and poetry, sometimes even when she doesn’t intend it to. I mean, how could anyone but a poet dub the ocean line where the water goes dark, “the edge of darkness”?

Dr. Widder is a person who has never stopped being in awe of the magic of the natural world. She is a harsh optimist, which feels fitting given the Earth’s current circumstances. Her writing is super accessible, darkly funny, and always returning to the magic of the world we live in and why it is so crucial to protect it. 

Am I still scared of the ocean after reading this book? Definitely. But more importantly, Dr. Widder said it best: “humans have an amazing capacity for changing our perspective…bioluminescence makes life that was once invisible and obscure brilliantly observable. In the deep and vast darkness of the largest living space on the planet, a single, tiny flash announces the extraordinary experiment that is life.