Is Susan Casey the Next Rachel Carson?
Susan Casey, The Underworld: Journeys to the Depth of the Ocean (Doubleday, 2023)
Is Susan Casey the next Rachel Carson? Yes. Her latest book, The Underworld: Journeys to the Depth of the Ocean, establishes her as the latest in the lineage of great ocean interpreters that began with Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind (1941,1952). Carson, the modern scientific and literary pioneer who helped generations after World War II to love the ocean and discover the environment is incomparable. But Carson and Casey are of entirely different eras – of wooden tennis rackets versus those of graphite and titanium. And ocean exploration, the technology available for it, and our knowledge of the sea has been totally transformed in today’s age of the Anthropocene and climate crisis. Aided by satellites, advanced computers and imaging, Susan Casey is able to dive in space-age submersibles to the deepest parts of the ocean that Carson could only imagine and write about. Like Rachel Carson, she describes her experiences in powerful, pictorial prose, but she is also able to transmit and bring back color photos and film of the otherworldly denizens of the deep.
When William Beebe first explored the deep ocean in a cast-iron bathysphere in the early nineteen thirties and made it cool with radio broadcasts and a best-selling book called Half-Mile Down, he peered at new species through a small porthole and had to have an artist provide color paintings to accompany his text.
Beebe helped launch Rachel Carson’s career and arranged a short dive for her in Biscayne Bay in 1945 for research on her bestselling book, The Sea Around Us (1951). It was Carson’s polished, poetic prose in her trilogy of ocean books that ignited the imagination and wonder of Americans in the 1950s. Jacques Cousteau, scuba diving, underwater photography all followed after Carson, as did a new generation of deep ocean divers using manned submersibles to explore the Mariana Trench and other wonders that Carson had made come alive with words.
The Cold War and the search for Russian subs and mastery of the ocean fueled Navy and NOAA research and drove technological leaps to the recovery of the Thresher, of U.S. H-bombs off the coast of Spain, and the location of the final resting place of the Titanic 12,500 feet down (2 ½ miles) on the ocean floor. Former Navy officer and explorer Robert Ballard carried out a number of these breakthroughs and describes them in his book, The Eternal Darkness, (2000).
And then came Sylvia Earle, the first female chief scientist at NOAA, who pushed ocean exploration further and linked it to the destructive impact on the ocean and marine life of oil spills, warfare and munitions, industrial scale fishing and more. With daring dives, a series of popular and accessible books with stunning photography, and global projects like Mission Blue to protect the marine environment, Earle expanded interest in and concern for the ocean that had begun decades before with Rachel Carson.
Enter Susan Casey a best-selling journalist, who is able to take advantage of the long and inspiring heritage of ocean exploration, technology, marine science and writing (she was born when Silent Spring was published) that is now nearly a century old. Casey combines the best of William Beebe’s flair for reaching the public, Robert Ballard’s dedication to documenting the history and findings of ocean exploration, and Sylvia Earle’s deep desire go where women have not been before and to use those experiences to rouse the public to protect our small blue planet made up mostly of water.
And Rachel Carson? Can Susan Casey really compare? Casey shares several essential qualities with her predecessor. Perhaps the most important in describing the far off universe that is the deep ocean and the endless creatures, colorful and bizarre, that inhabit it is Casey’s luminous language. A National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has been the editor-in-chief of O: The Oprah Magazine and of Sports Illustrated Women, Casey has also been featured in Best American Science and Nature Writing. She can make even the most technical details of submersible design, construction, and testing feel like an exciting invitation to hop inside and be plunged to the ocean floor. And her portrayals of the cast of ocean explorers she convinces to bring her along on their deep dives — from nerds to the elegant and eminently confident and cool Victor Vescovo — are better than their photos.
Vescovo, a wealthy financier who funds the final expedition into the deep that Casey joins, has climbed Mt. Everest, the highest spot on land, as well dived to the deepest spot on Earth, the Mariana Trench, some seven miles below the ocean surface. For Casey, he is “a lean kinetic man, six feet tall, with ice blue eyes, blond hair that he wears in a longish ponytail, and a close-cropped silvery beard. His aquiline features give the impression of a raptor but a polite one.” Or, Sylvia Earle, who teams up with Casey to fight deep-sea-mining, is “wearing a flowing blue and green jacket and chic black pants, but her preferred garment, even at age eighty was a wet suit.”
The seafloor and the creatures on it receive the same vivid visualization: “A rough sandy plain that was a pale gold, dotted with white anemones and obsidian rocks, dashed with splashes of orange…In our lights, the water glowed a crystalline jade green.”
Then, the pictures begin to move. We see and feel the ocean bottom that was once believed to be empty and dead. It is not. Casey’s narrative is so cinematic we begin to feel the awe, wonder and excitement of the abyss.
“There were animals everywhere, darting, wafting, pulsing. Holothurians grazing on the sediment like tiny translucent cows. Shrimps doing wheelies. Jellies blinking a welcome.”
As with Rachel Carson, there is a purpose to this palpable, pulsing prose. Like Carson, Casey believes that once we see and feel the beauty and mystery of the ocean, when we come to love it – we will want to protect it. She gives us the excitement and history of ocean exploration starting with William Beebe, the dangers, as well as delights, of voyaging to another world, and the sheer beauty of life previously unknown. Casey knows how to engage an audience, to draw them in rather than lecture and hector.
Once we are enamored with the deep sea, Casey can then simply describe some of the awful, heavy human footprint that she sees. In addition to long-lost legendary Spanish galleons like the San José lying on the ocean floor, we see the devastating effects of industrialized fishing with trawlers that Rachel Carson had warmed about eighty years ago. We see the sunken warships from Pearl Harbor as well as cluster bombs, live munitions, radioactive wastes, and more. Just in Hawaiian waters there are more than sixty-one thousand mustard bombs and mortar shells and 1,038 tons of sulfur-based chemical warfare agents. Casey says, “There are hard questions to be asked about a civilization that produces lethal weapons in such gleeful surplus, and with such cavalier disregard for the well-being of living creatures…”
But today’s dangers are what Casey wants us to understand and stop. The sea is now filled with chemicals and plastics so pervasive that an amphipod discovered at the bottom of the Mariana Trench was named Eurythenes plasticus. Every specimen had microplastics embedded in its gut. It is such principled advocacy and refusal to stay silent that is what truly puts Susan Casey in the lineage and legacy of Rachel Carson. Her portrayal of the horrors of deep-sea-mining and the corruption that has surrounded it and the ISA (the International Seabed Authority), the international body that was supposed to regulate it, are the stuff of chemical corporations and Silent Spring.
But Susan Casey does not advocate simply to prevent ecological damage and destruction of the ocean. She builds a compelling case that the sheer amount of the unknown on Earth — the vast majority of which is ocean — deserves to be explored. We can learn about the origins of life, the interconnectedness of all species, solutions for climate change, and more. The U.S. needs to end its fascination and funding of space exploration and shift to the watery depths that surround us.
Reading The Underworld will make you want to know more, think more, feel more about the ocean world beneath us, perhaps explore it, and certainly advocate for it. And, yes, Susan Casey should be right up there on the shelf of oceanic shamans that starts with Rachel Carson.
Bob Musil is the President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council and author of Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers, 2016) and Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital (Bartleby, 2016). He is also the editor of the forthcoming annotated edition from Rutgers University Press of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind with his Introduction, updated marine science, and historic and contemporary illustrations and photographs.