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BENEATH THE SURFACE - Tales of a sailing marine biologist

beneath the surface

A watery world full of rainbow-coloured animals and bizarre-shaped formations with waving fingers reaching towards the surface. Occasionally, a large creature glides by or a strange head appears from a coral cavern. Bubbles tinkle up to a silvery ceiling above. Every diver remembers the first time he or she plunged beneath the surface; just as everyone remembers their fascination when they first peered into a rock pool as a child.

 The author, Michael King, is a marine biologist, diver, beachcomber and sailor but not necessarily in that order. In Beneath the Surface he tells exciting stories of sailing and adventure on tropical islands and provides fascinating information about sea-life and ocean systems.

 The sea supports more plants than the land and possibly the most abundant of all the Earth’s larger animals. The world’s fastest animal and highest mountain are found in the sea. Excluding micro-organisms, the total number of species in the world has been estimated at about 8.7 million, give or take a million or so, and about a quarter of these live in the oceans. However, it is estimated that over 90% of species in the ocean are yet to be discovered and described.

 Beneath the Surface is a book that answers many questions.

What is the largest fish in the sea?

Why do sea currents circulate clockwise in one hemisphere and anticlockwise in the other?

Which sea creature is used for the production of Royal Tyrian purple?

What causes “phosphorescence” in the sea?

Why should you never order shark-fin soup?

What is ciguatera fish poisoning?

What is the Pacific Ring of Fire and what is the Pacific Plastic Soup?

Which marine animals can “feed” from sunlight?

Why do many marine species change sex?

Which plant with a marine connection has the largest of all seeds?

 And perhaps most topically and of much concern –

Why is seafood becoming more and more expensive?

 On a less technical level, the author warns of the risks of sleeping in a motorbike sidecar and using a spear gun to catch mahi-mahi. He describes the worst seafood meal he has ever had, sailing through floating rocks and making an illegal stop on a small South Pacific island – an event that nearly caused a war. In Samoa, he describes working with David Attenborough to film a most unlikely creature.

 Dr King is a well-known specialist in fisheries development and management and has worked in many countries around the world from the Persian Gulf to Polynesia. He is a past lecturer at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and an Associate Director at the Australian Maritime College.  

In Store Price: $29.95 
Online Price:   $28.95



Ebook version - $AUD9.00 upload.

ISBN: 978-1-922229-82-3         
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 262
Genre: Non Fiction

All illustrations by Dr Michael King. Cover: Clive Dalkins

The book contains 94 detailed illustrations.

Author - Dr. Michael King
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published:  2015
Language: English




The author holds a PhD in Marine Biology and is a recognised specialist in fisheries development. He has been a university lecturer for many years, an Associate Director of the Australian Maritime College and a fisheries consultant in many countries from the Persian Gulf to Polynesia. 

He continues to spend much time working on fisheries development in various developing countries and the Pacific Islands in particular.  

He is the author of several books on marine species including the successful and widely used textbook Fisheries Biology, Assessment and Management, published as a second edition in 2007 by Wiley/Blackwell in Oxford, UK (the book is widely used in UK and US universities and has been translated into foreign languages). 

But his real love is in popularising marine biology and ocean science. He has a current entry with professional details on LinkedIn.




Imagine you’re in a world full of rainbow-coloured animals and bizarre-shaped formations with waving fingers that reach up towards you. Occasionally, a large creature glides by or a strange head appears from a coral cavern. Bubbles tinkle to a silver ceiling above. Who wouldn’t want to spend a lifetime in a world like that?

I am a SCUBA diver, marine biologist, beachcomber and sailor but not necessarily in that order. When I was young all I wanted to do was dive, swim, surf, and later sail the world. But when the system caught up with me and I found the need to earn a living, I chose to study science and marine biology. And, because most available jobs for marine biologists were in fisheries science, that’s where I ended up.

My first job was as a fisheries biologist with a government agency to work on a prawn fishery. I was provided with a four-wheel drive vehicle, a large boat on a trailer, and assistants who became close friends. I spent my days and nights at sea on fishing boats and towed a small net in estuaries on the wilder parts of the coast. I couldn’t believe that I was paid to do these things – to go to sea, to go SCUBA diving, and to camp alongside estuaries in the bush. Later I worked on fisheries around the world and I was paid to live and work in some of the more interesting and exotic places on earth.

Once, at a conference after I had presented some research results on trapping deepwater shrimps in the South Pacific, I was surprised that most of the questions asked were not about science but about working at sea, setting shrimp traps from a yacht, and about some of the tropical islands where the shrimps were caught. I found that scientists are interested in details unrelated to science. And elsewhere I have found that many people are interested in science as well as sailing and adventure.

The book’s main purpose is to entertain and inform. The descriptions of sailing and working in exotic locations are, I hope, entertaining, but I had three other reasons for writing this book. One is that all of us need to know more about nature and appreciate that we are not the only species on this planet. I think that knowing this makes us better people and citizens of the world. The second reason is that life is more interesting if you understand how Nature works – knowing why a sunset appears red doesn’t detract from its beauty, it enhances it. The third reason is that the seas and sea-life are under threat. In the same way that excessive hunting on land has threatened many terrestrial species, excessive fishing in the sea has reduced the populations of many marine species to dangerously low levels. In the years to come, seafood is likely to become a luxury food item that is beyond the reach of the millions that depend on it for basic sustenance.

Many people have been interested enough to ask me about the sea and the creatures that live therein. And their interest is justified. Without trivialising the sea’s importance with mere facts, the sea supports more plants than the land and possibly the most abundant of all the earth’s larger animals. The world’s fastest animal and highest mountain are found in the sea. The questions asked have ranged from the amusing to the intuitive. Once, after sailing across an ocean, someone asked me if I had anchored each night. I suppose the equivalent question in marine biology is – how much deeper would the sea be if it wasn’t for all the sponges? But most of the questions were good ones. What is the largest fish in the sea? Why are certain fish poisonous only at some times of the year? Are sea squirts and corals plants or animals? Why is the sea salty? What are spring tides? And perhaps most topically – why is seafood becoming so expensive? I have tried to recall the most asked questions and I hope that this book answers many of them.

A few years ago I wrote a textbook that is used by professionals and poor-suffering marine science students who have to wade through all the technical details. But this present book is meant to be fun – it was certainly fun to write. In it I write without recourse to jargon about the things that people want to know.

The descriptions of sailing and South Pacific islands are a little self-indulgent but they also serve to string together the descriptions of marine life and phenomena encountered along the way. These are the sorts of things that any coast watcher, shore wanderer, sea traveller or, indeed, any inquisitive person would find of interest. I hope that you enjoy it.

I dedicate this book to two old shipmates – Bryan Frankham and Geoff Hall.




Chapter 1 (part sample)





The realisation hit me like a breaking wave. On one particular night while I was on a very old and slow yacht that glided across a moonlit ocean with low seas drifting by like scrolls of silver.

Like a man and a woman who had been friends for a long time before recognising that the friendship had moved on to something else, I realised that I was in love with the sea. Perhaps it was the magic of the night – who wouldn’t love a sea like that? I had always been passionate about the sea, mainly because it could support a boat, but I knew almost nothing about what went on beneath the surface.

Life on earth began in the sea and each of us starts life in our own personal ocean within our mother’s womb; perhaps these are the reasons that the sea draws so many of us back to her. But in spite of the sea’s allure and its role in the evolution of life on earth, I knew very little about the mysterious forces that moved it and the creatures that lived within it. On the particular night that this realisation came to me, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, invisible forces were pushing a powerful current beneath the yacht and countless millions of the most abundant of all living things were scattered on the surface of the sea all around me.

During daylight hours on the yacht the helm was taken by anyone not involved in doing anything important such as reading a book or trying to make a new and inspiring meal out of fish, rice and canned beans (the yacht had no freezer). But during the night we had a roster of three-hour watches – one from 9 pm to midnight, the second from midnight to 3 am and the third from 3 am to 6 am. Of course, the least favourite watch was the middle one. People didn’t mind staying up late chatting in the wheelhouse or even getting up early to see the new day arrive but were not that keen to get out of a comfy bunk in the middle of the night.

It fell to the current watch-keeper to rouse the next person on watch from his bunk. The sleeping crew member would often be lying on his back mumbling through lusty dreams of mouth-watering food when he was rudely awakened. Shaking the sleeper usually worked but there were less pleasant ways. If a hand draped over the bunk was immersed in a bucket of water, for example, the sleeper would suddenly jump up with an overly-full bladder and a firm belief that the boat was sinking. He would stagger gibbering up on deck before taking in that he had a three-hour stretch on the helm before him.

To decrease the frequency of the midnight watch for each crew member only one person was on deck for each of the three night watches, which were rotated. So every three days I had the dreaded midnight watch and the best way to tackle something you don’t like but have to do, is to grow to like it. And grow to like it I did.

In the tropical Atlantic, the yacht steered herself pretty well in the gentle trade winds. All the watch-keeper had to do was to check the compass course and, now and then, make a small adjustment on the wheel. And of course, look around the empty horizon and sometimes scoot down below to the galley to make a cup of coffee. Out on the dark deck, with all the others down below and asleep, there was the seductive solace of solitude. The sails were always full and steady in the following trade winds and there were no noises except for the tremulous tinkling of the sea against the hull. With no land for a thousand miles and stars from horizon to horizon, I felt as if I was the only person on earth. But the stars weren’t the only source of light. I was mesmerised by a wake of glittering lights that stretched back behind the yacht for hundreds of metres on the surface of the sea. Closer to the hull of the yacht I saw the ghostly shapes of larger animals, often dolphins, clearly bathed in small points of light.

Some of the lights were from jellyfish-like animals called comb jellies, about one centimetre long, but most were from much smaller creatures. Beachcombers may be familiar with comb jellies as their small and fragile bodies are often swept ashore, sometimes in considerable numbers. They are usually given uninspiring names such as sea-gooseberries or sea-walnuts – names that may describe their appearance in death but sell short their beauty in life. They move their transparent bodies by the beating of eight rows of comb-like paddles. Small lights flicker along the rows so that, even when still, they look like a train flashing by with lighted windows. Their non-stinging tentacles sweep the water for smaller food that appeared as pinpricks of light.

These pinpricks of light were caused by particular types of plankton – small plants and animals that drift in the surface layers of the sea. The plankton gave out light in response to being disturbed by the passage of larger creatures and the yacht itself. And to fill in the hours of my watch, I collected them in a bucket. Many of the plankton were too small to be seen clearly with the naked eye but each time I flicked my finger in the bucket a shower of sparks rippled out from the disturbance. From that time when I sat on the dark deck peering into a bucket full of stars, I was hooked and resolved to learn more about creatures, both large and small, that lived in the sea. So, I made a decision to study to become a marine biologist when I was 21 years of age on a yacht in the middle of the Atlantic.



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