A few summers ago I spent a week snorkling in the Bahamas. Descending underwater, I had an out-of-the-planet experience. Minute by minute I realized that I was encountering creatures whose general business in life I couldn’t identify. How did they make their living? Animal, plant, or alien? I couldn’t tell. Life is simply far stranger than we can imagine, and no where is that more evident than in the compressed diversity of a coral reef. I needed a Who’s Who to introduce me to the characters of this underworld. The best beginner’s orientation I found was in Peterson’s Guide to Coral Reefs. It’s fine for a start.
Then a diver tipped me off to Paul Humann’s work. Working with 50 professional biologists, Humann has collected pictures and descriptions of Caribbean marine life into three color bursting field guides: Reef Fishes, Reef Creatures, and Reef Coral. These are working identification books used by divers, biologists and taxonomists themselves. (Comes in durable plastic protection cover; includes species life-check list.) Many of the species ID’d are little known. Most are weird. All are beautiful and wonderful. The guides contain a sufficient critical mass of species that you can be confident you actually saw what you think you saw.
The other way I use these: I sit late at night and page through them. My favorite is Reef Creatures, with back up by Reef Coral. I boggle at WHAT’S DOWN THERE. I read the bios. I swoon over the shocking images in full color. I stare. I re-read the bios. I feel holy, blessed.
Humann (and Peterson for that matter) covers the west Atlantic. There is no equivalent portable guide for waters in the rest of our ocean globe that I am aware of. Like Audabon’s masterpiece of birds in North America it can be used and appreciated in other locals.
Reef Set Boxed Set (3 volumes) $80
All by Paul Hamann and Ned Deloach
Coral Reefs: Caribbean and Florida
A Field Guide to Fishes, Sponges, Mollusks, Corals, and More
Peterson Field Guide
Eugene H. Kaplan
1982, 289 pages