Books About Ocean Life and Undersea Exploration | Focus On

A survey of outstanding nonfiction titles about ocean life and food chains and the challenging science of marine exploration.

In David Wiesner’s Flotsam, a boy gazes across ocean swells while holding fantastic photos of undersea life where octopuses read by bioluminescent fish lamps and sea turtles swim with shell cities on their backs. Although the ocean covers more than 70 percent of Earth, most humans see little more than its surface, never suspecting how far down the waters extend or what fantastic plants and animals live there. Mountain ranges that dwarf Everest, trenches deeper than the Grand Canyon, and seafloor volcanoes exist in waters moving constantly in tides and currents. The titles listed here explore the marvels of this hidden world.

First up are introductions to ocean-related topics, including currents, tides, food chains, and topography. In Down, Down, Down and Journey into the Deep, the authors organize their tours vertically, descending into ever-darker ocean zones, revealing giant tube worms and carnivorous sponges. With thousands of animals to study, most writers concentrate on a group such as whales or octopuses to show how species interact within a habitat. Books about prehistoric ocean life allow students to compare ancient animals with current ocean dwellers, while speculation about sea monsters can turn to fact as new discoveries are made.

Challenges facing scientists remain formidable. More humans have walked on the Moon than in the Marianas Trench, 35,000 feet below the surface. Although some people dive in search of sunken ships or treasure, many more study the ocean itself. The final illustration in Life in the Ocean, a biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, shows two people looking over the water. Below them, a panorama of animals and plants extends downward against deepening shades of blue. As elementary and middle school readers dive into this collection of ocean wonders, their awareness of and appreciation for the world under the sea are sure to grow.

The Big Picture

BANG, Molly & Penny Chisholm. Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas. illus. by Molly Bang. Scholastic. 2012. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-0-545-27322-0. K-Gr 4–Sunlight’s role in ocean food chains extends from surface waters to pitch-black depths. The dramatic growth of phytoplankton cascading across a spread is one of many arresting illustrations, large enough for group sharing yet complex enough to study individually. Detailed notes cover topics such as photosynthesis, marine snow, and chemosynthesis.

COLE, Joanna. The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor. illus. by Bruce Degen. (Magic School Bus Series). Scholastic. 1992. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-59041-430-2; pap. $6.99. 978-0-59041-431-9. Gr 1-4–A diligent lifeguard tries to rescue Ms. Frizzle’s class as she drives across the beach and continental shelf into deep waters. A whirlwind tour of the ocean floor and coral reefs ends with a surfboard ride to demonstrate wave action. Cartoon illustrations and fact-filled “class report” sidebars enliven another entertaining and informative field trip. Audio and DVD versions available from Scholastic.

GREEN, Dan. Oceans: Making Waves! illus. by Simon Basher. (Basher Science Series). Kingfisher. 2012. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-7534-6821-0. pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-7534-6822-7. Gr 5-8–With its conversational tone and cartoon illustrations, this unconventional guide packs a lot of information into each double-page entry. Not only do animals introduce themselves, but ocean features such as tides, seaweed, and pollution also have their say. The wide-ranging topics and appealing format should jumpstart interest in the watery world.

JENKINS, Steve. Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 2009. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-618-96636-3. Gr 2-6–Jenkins’s masterful collages reveal characteristics of animals at different ocean depths from the sunlit surface to the deepest trench. For example, contrasting images of twilight-zone animals as they would appear in light with their glowing outlines in dark water illustrate bioluminescence. Those interested in specific species will find more information after the main text.

JOHNSON, Rebecca L. Journey into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures. Millbrook. 2010. PLB $31.93. ISBN 978-0-7613-4148-2. Gr 5-8–From 2000 to 2010, hundreds of scientists worldwide participated in the Census of Marine Life. New species that they identified, such as zombie worms or yeti crabs, appear in amazing photographs that accompany quotations from scientists and descriptions of their research methods and findings at various ocean depths.

WALKER, Pam & Elaine Wood. The Open Ocean. (Life in the Sea Series). Facts On File. 2005. PLB $35. ISBN 978-0-8160-5705-4. Gr 6-10–The authors supply extensive information about the open ocean, which covers more than half of Earth’s surface. Drawings and diagrams accompany clear explanations of topics such as animal anatomy, food chains, hydrothermal vents, and properties of seawater. Although a few color photos are included, the volume is aimed at researchers, not browsers.

WIESNER, David. Flotsam. illus. by author. Clarion. 2006. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-618-19457-5; ebook $17. ISBN 978-0-547-75930-2. PreS Up–Photos developed from a “Melville underwater camera” washed ashore astound the boy who discovers the device. Fantastic scenes of undersea life and images of children from years before encourage him to add his own photo to the series. Wiesner wordlessly stretches readers’ imaginations about the timeless ocean circling the globe.

Animals Past and Present

BRADLEY, Timothy J. Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest. illus. by author. Chronicle. 2007. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-8118-4878-7. Gr 4-8–Sharks from the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras have connections to current ocean dwellers. Diagrams show relative sizes of the ancient shark, great white shark, and human diver while dramatic illustrations often feature predators and prey. Bradley clearly explains what paleontologists can and can’t deduce from fossil remains.

BULION, Leslie. At the Sea Floor Café: Odd Ocean Critter Poems. illus. by Leslie Evans. Peachtree. 2011. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-1-56145-565-2. Gr 5-8–Eighteen poems introduce unusual ocean animals such as the bone-eating osedax and eviscerating sea cucumbers. Linoleum-block illustrations plus fact-filled paragraphs accompany the poetic portraits. Explanations of the poetic forms, including limerick, cinquain, and triolet, encourage readers to follow Bulion’s lead in presenting scientific information in verse.

BUTTFIELD, Helen. The Secret Life of Fishes: From Angels to Zebras on the Coral Reef. illus. by author. reprint ed. Diane Publishing. 2004. (original ed. Abrams, 2000). Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-7567-8075-3. Gr 5-8–More than 250 fishes glide across the pages of this elegant introduction to life on coral reefs. Meticulous watercolor illustrations accompany Buttfield’s pithy text, which often notes the importance of color and pattern for attracting mates, eluding enemies, or fooling prey. Share with students of art and design as well as ichthyologists.

CYRUS, Kurt. The Voyage of Turtle Rex. illus. by author. Houghton Harcourt. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-547-42924-3; ebook $16.99. ISBN 978-0-547-77283-7. K-Gr 2–A tiny turtle scuttles past T. rex to reach the ocean’s sheltering seaweed, where she grows into a two-ton Archelon. Swimming with Plesiosaurs and escaping a massive Mosasaur, she eventually returns to the same beach to lay eggs for another generation. Easy-flowing narrative verse plus large illustrations encourage read-aloud visits to ancient seas.

DAVIES, Nicola. Surprising Sharks. illus. by James Croft. (Read & Wonder Series). Candlewick. 2003. pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-2742-3. K-Gr 3–Large diagrams and bright illustrations note the essentials of shark anatomy and how different senses help sharks find food. The fierce great white may not surprise readers, but the variety of sizes, shapes, and colors of other sharks will. Most surprising? Sharks kill about six people yearly, but humans kill millions of sharks.

ELLIOTT, David. In the Sea. illus. by Holly Meade. Candlewick. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4498-7. K-Gr 3–Short, bouncy poems introduce ocean animals to young listeners. Evocative imagery of an octopus as an “eight-armed apparition” or a dolphin as an “acrobat with fins” plus energetic woodcut illustrations of creatures that swim, swirl, and dive across oversize pages add up to a good choice for storytimes as well as individual viewing.

GISH, Melissa. Whales. (Living Wild Series). Creative Education. 2012. PLB $35.65. ISBN 978-1-60818-084-4; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-89812-676-1. Gr 5-8–Gish packs an impressive amount of information into this well-designed volume. Effectively covering diverse science topics such as whale communication methods, life cycles, and migration patterns, she also considers whales in myth and literature and includes a Japanese fable and D. H. Lawrence poem. Large photos, maps, and illustrations will engage browsers as well.

GUIBERSON, Brenda Z. Into the Sea. illus. by Alix Berenzy. Holt. 1996. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-0-8050-2263-6; pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-0-8050-6481-0. Gr 2-5–From when a hatchling makes her way across the beach until she returns to lay her eggs years later, a sea turtle lives in the ocean. Pencil and gouache illustrations depict her underwater life amid sea grass refuges and fishing net dangers. Compare this contemporary reptile with Cyrus’s prehistoric Archelon.

HALFMANN, Janet. Star of the Sea: A Day in the Life of a Starfish. illus. by Joan Paley. Holt. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8050-9073-4. K-Gr 3–Sea stars may look harmless, but hundreds of sticky tube feet under their rays, plus a stomach that extends from their mouth, make them effective predators. Collage illustrations follow a sea star’s hunt for mussels and its escape from a seagull. More information, including the animal’s ability to grow replacement rays, appears after the story.

MARKLE, Sandra. Octopuses. (Animal Prey Series). Lerner. 2007. PLB $25.26. ISBN 978-0-8225-6063-0; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-8225-6066-1. Gr 3-6–Octopuses must elude predators while seeking their own prey. Color photos reveal techniques such as blasting ink to distract pursuers or changing shape or color to blend in with the seafloor or reef. Views of octopuses from around the world will intrigue browsers and beginning researchers, who can follow the creatures’ life cycle.

NEWQUIST, HP. Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid. Houghton Harcourt. 2010. Tr $18. ISBN 978-0-547-07678-2. Gr 5-8–Sailors’ tales of sea monsters fueled speculation about kraken long before giant squid carcasses washed ashore in the 19th century. Illustrations range from 16th-century maps to 20th-century movie posters, accompanying summaries of legends and excerpts from poems and stories. Photos by modern scientists elucidate current research about the elusive animal.

PFEFFER, Wendy. Life in a Coral Reef. illus. by Steve Jenkins. HarperCollins. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-029553-0; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-06-445222-9. K-Gr 3–Coral reefs bustle with activity day and night. Paper cutout illustrations capture the vibrant hues of reef animals from tiny coral polyps to a lime-green moray eel gliding past a mucus-enclosed parrot fish. Fact pages identify coral reef locations worldwide and threats to their existence.

SIMON, Seymour. Coral Reefs. HarperCollins, 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-191495-9; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-06-191496-6. Gr 2-5–Vibrant close-up photos accompany Simon’s informative text. He explains how coral polyps slowly develop into colonies that form different reef structures. Careful page design matches relevant photos with introductions to various hard and soft corals and unusual reef animals. Throughout, the author stresses the importance of reefs and notes threats to their survival.

TURNER, Pamela S. Project Seahorse. photos by Scott Tuason. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton Harcourt. 2010. RTE $18. ISBN 978-0-547-20713-1. Gr 4-8–Coral reef destruction from blast fishing, pollution, and dredging threatens many fish, including seahorses. Amazing close-up photos complement explanations of their unusual biology, including that males give birth. Attempts by Filipino scientists and villagers to establish a marine protected area demonstrate the need for cooperative conservation efforts at local, national, and international levels.

Human Explorations

BECKER, Helaine. The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea. illus. by Willow Dawson. Kids Can. 2012. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-55453-746-4; pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-1-55453-747-1. Gr 3-6–Even students far from coastlines can participate in hands-on activities to learn about the ocean. More than 30 simple experiments employ everyday materials to investigate topics such as currents, salinity, pollution, and camouflage. Sidebars with diagrams and photos cover current issues including environmental threats and ways to help.

BERNE, Jennifer. Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau. illus. by Éric Puybaret. Chronicle. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8118-6063-5. Gr 1-4–Cousteau’s childhood fascination with machines, movies, and the sea provided the foundation for his inventions and explorations that drew worldwide attention to ocean life. Blue-green backgrounds painted in acrylic on linen reinforce the watery theme, especially in the fold-out panorama of Cousteau diving ever deeper. Compare this biographical introduction with Dan Yaccarino’s The Fantastical Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau.

EARLE, Sylvia A. Dive! My Adventures in the Deep Frontier. National Geographic. 1999. RTE $18.95. ISBN 978-0-7922-7144-4. Gr 3-7–A marine biologist, Earle shares her lifelong passion for ocean exploration and conservation. From childhood observations of creatures on shore to journeys thousands of feet below the surface in a submersible she helped design, Earle has retained her fascination with marine life. Numerous photos document various forays under the sea.

FALLS, Kat. Dark Life. Scholastic. 2010. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-545-17814-3; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-545-17815-0. Gr 5-9–In this futuristic novel, rising waters force humans into stack cities while pioneers farm the ocean floor. Western adventure motifs combine with subsea adaptations, such as Liquigen for breathing, as Undersea Ty and Topsider Gemma face fast-paced treachery and danger while searching for the girl’s brother. Challenge readers to invent additional underwater survival strategies.

GIBBONS, Gail. Sunken Treasure. illus. by author. reprint ed. HarperCollins. 1990. (original ed. Crowell, 1988). pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-446097-2. Gr 1-4–Gibbons’s exciting account of the sinking of a Spanish galleon near Florida in 1622 and the 20-year search to locate the ship more than 300 years later demonstrates that divers search for treasure as well as marine life. Detailed illustrations accompany explanations of the work involved in discovery, salvage, and restoration.

MALLORY, Kenneth. Adventure Beneath the Sea: Living in an Underwater Science Station. photos by Brian Skerry. Boyds Mills. 2010. RTE $18.95. ISBN 978-1-59078-607-9. Gr 4-8–Readers follow Mallory and Skerry through aquanaut training and their stay on Aquarius, an underwater research station. A map of Aquarius plus numerous photos give potential oceanographers insights into coral reef research as well as station life from meals to Internet connection. Mallory concludes with warnings about threats to coral reefs.

MATSEN, Brad. The Incredible Record-Setting Deep-Sea Dive of the Bathysphere. Enslow. 2003. PLB $23.93. ISBN 978-0-7660-2188-4. Gr 4-7–The 1934 dive of William Beebe and Otis Barton continues to inspire oceanographers. Diagrams of the bathysphere and period photos set the scene. Matsen effectively builds the suspense and excitement of their descent. Even though readers know the outcome, the danger surrounding the small ship in a vast ocean is palpable.

NIVOLA, Claire A. Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. illus. by author. Farrar. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-374-38068-7. K-Gr 3–Nivola weaves quotations from Earle into her brief biography, but richly colored illustrations draw viewers on their own. Earle swims past reef fishes, walks through bamboo coral, and plunges into a galaxy of bioluminescent creatures. The final spread incorporates earlier illustrations in a panorama of a teeming world worth exploring and preserving. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

WALKER, Sally M. Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H. L. Hunley.Carolrhoda. 2005. RTE $18.95. ISBN 978-1-57505-830-6. Gr 6-10–History and science combine in a fascinating account of the submarine developed to break the Union blockade of Charleston. Documents, maps, and diagrams illustrate the Civil War section while photos enhance explanations of the 1990s work of divers, engineers, and geologists to locate and raise the H.L. Hunley in order to learn why she sank.

YACCARINO, Dan. The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau. illus. by author. Knopf. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-85573-3; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-375-84470-6; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-0-375-98755-7. Gr 1-4–Bold colors and abstract patterns emphasize Cousteau’s energetic quest to invent ways to explore the ocean, document what he saw, and share his discoveries with others. Brief quotations from Cousteau complement Yaccarino’s simple text. Words are secondary to the layered illustrations, which reveal the vitality of ocean life.

Kathy Piehl is Professor Emerita at Memorial Library, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Robin Brickman

I would like to suggest our book "One Night In The Coral Sea" Written by Sneed Collard III, Illustrated by Robin Brickman Charlesbridge Press, 2005 • John Burroughs List of Nature Books for Young Readers, 2006 • Charlotte Award Nominee for 2008 (New York State Reading Association).

Posted : Jun 28, 2013 12:49



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing