Claire Nouvian is a journalist, producer, and film director who has traveled the world for more than ten years, shooting wildlife for French and international television. Her passion for undersea fauna and deep-sea diving, piqued when she visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was further spurred in October 2005 when, as a correspondent at sea on the Gulf of Maine mission of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, she traveled 1,000 meters down onboard the submersible Johnson Sea Link-1. She said of the experience, “That was the most amazing, the most incredible moment of my life; as if I had been offered a trip to the moon … I thought of nothing else for months before it happened. Afterwards, for weeks I couldn’t talk about it without crying. I’m still not entirely over it … It was so beautiful and so intense, it changed me forever.”
Nouvian’s enthusiasm for the sea led her to create The Deep—a book that brings the creatures of abyss to a wider audience. Over three years, and with the cooperation of eminent international researchers, Nouvian gathered an unprecedented collection of photographs of deep-sea creatures from mostly American oceanographic research institutions—including images taken by robots capable of diving to a depth of 6,000 meters. From this, she chose the most spectacular images—vampires of the deep, finned octopi, living fossils, and fragile bioluminescent creatures—for The Deep.
Interview with the author
Question: After more than four years working on this subject, has your view of the deep sea changed?
Claire Nouvian: Yes, without a doubt. What originally attracted me to deep sea was very clearly biology, the fascinating fauna I had discovered for the first time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. My perspective was thus essentially limited; like most novices in this area, I had a rather gloomy and boring idea of the deep sea. At the time when I began this project, there was very little, if any, documentation aimed at a general audience on the subject of the ocean’s depths. So it was very difficult to conceive of the extent of the oceanic depths with so little material that reflected its reality. In an attempt to show this reality, I looked further at what was also occurring at the bottom of the oceans. In addition to biology I was led to look at the physical, chemical, and geological phenomena. I discovered that the formation of methane or of an under-water canyon is as fascinating as the unbelievable creatures that one sometimes encounters in the water column. My perspective was thus enlarged and enriched.
Q: Does the book do justice to the reality of the deep sea, as you had hoped?
CN: Yes, in the sense that the tableau is complete, even if it can’t be exhaustive in so few pages, of course. Nevertheless, there is a dimension that cannot be expressed through a book, which is the incredible emotions these exceptional encounters trigger. The captions in the book try to convey the rarity of the encounter, but the concentration of these astounding images page after page, however, create the opposite impression—that’s the big paradox of this compilation of photos. If I had wanted to produce these photos myself (which I would have loved to have been able to do), I would have had no guarantee of succeeding even if I dedicated the rest of my life to doing it. This collection of images is fantastic because it portrays what even the specialists have never had the opportunity to see: the “créme-de-la-créme” of all the dives carried out by their colleagues in the four corners of the world over the last 20 years. From this point of view it was very interesting to show the proofs of the book to the great specialists of the ocean depths during the marine biology meetings in Southampton in July 2006. The images drew “oohs” and “ahs” from researchers who nonetheless spend half the year at sea exploring the great oceanic depths. They were truly stunned by some of photographs because in spite of their great experience with deep-sea diving, it is by definition impossible for them to encounter all the creatures gathered together in this book. It is at times like these that one grasps the immensity of the oceans. It is possible to spend 10 years diving in a submersible without encountering a certain type of jellyfish, and then to see five of them during the same dive, and then never to see one again. Haroun Tazieff [a volcano expert and geologist from France] has said that exploring the oceanic ridge with the help of submersibles was the equivalent of exploring the Alps at night with a flashlight. That’s a strong image that indicates how rare and moving such encounters can be.
Q: How did this project change your life?
CN: First of all, this project took two years and a few more years to raise funds, find a publisher, etc. I don’t really have a personal life any more, and I understand that this is the price one pays to accomplish something really good, really ambitious—it happens to many freelancers who want to produce something personal. But what becomes immediately very clear from all of this, however—and this is the true personal revelation I experienced during this project—is that one doesn’t sacrifice one’s personal life for just any subject. When I discovered that, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, two-thirds of the planet was still unexplored, I was shocked. When I learned that this huge space, which occupies close to 99% of the planet in terms of volume, was not protected, this resonated in me without my even being aware of it. With a bit of distance now I tell myself I’ve found my guiding principle: I can no longer imagine giving so much time and energy to a project that doesn’t have a deeper meaning that is important to me. To create something beautiful for beauty’s sake isn’t my thing, even if I’m delighted that others do so and I can enjoy such creations that make daily life more pleasant. What this project has made clear is that it definitively changed my relationship to time. I no longer want to lose a minute to activities that I find useless when there is so much worthwhile to accomplish.
From this perspective, I can only imagine myself continuing on this path. I sense I have laid the first stone with The Deep. I know that evolution is a slow process, that, for example, our society cannot become more environmentally conscious in a few months—it will take years of construction, effort, initiatives, both individual and public to prepare the ground for change. I hope that my achievements and actions may eventually have an effect on the course of events, on laws, and the status of conservation.