In the 16th century, Pierre Belon published one of the earliest scientific depictions of a dolphin: a woodcut with finely hatched skin and pointed teeth. He noted, for what’s considered the first time, that the animal was quite different from a fish, as had long been believed. The discovery is among the historic moments in the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) Opulent Oceans, showing the visual side of early ocean science.
Most of these illustrations were made after Belon’s dolphin, as technology facilitated the exploration of ocean ecology in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are several deep-sea creatures, like the tiny black seadevil with its frightening jaw jammed with sharp teeth, drawn by Fritz Winter for August Brauer’s Die Tiefsee-Fische (1906–08). The publication was based on the German Deep Sea expedition of 1898–99, in which many fish from depths beyond 3,300 feet — where previously no life was known to exist — were first recorded.
It was on this voyage that biologist Carl Chun discovered the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, or “vampire squid from Hell.” The vampire squid is only about the size of a softball, but the deep-sea cephalopod, with its saucer eyes, ominous pigmentation, and cape-like webbed fins, does appear like a miniature monster, as shown in an illustration by Louis Joubin.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 95% of the ocean “remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes.” Whether the bioluminescence of copepods (small crustaceans), illuminated in the 1892 work of Wilhelm Giesbrecht, or the delicate single-celled radiolarians published in 1887 by Ernst Haeckel, Opulent Oceans demonstrates the diversity of a world we are still discovering.
Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...
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