Book extract: A Medieval Knight beneath the Waves

10th April 2019

Our Senior Research Fellow, Alex Rogers, is one of the world’s leading marine biologists and was a consultant to the BBC’s Blue Planet II. In this extract from his book, ‘The Deep’, published on April 18, he recalls how his love affair with the sea began with lobster fishing as a child.

A young Alex Rogers with his family in Sligo

Buzzing with excitement, I started shouting “There’s something there, I can see it moving!”.

The pot was heaved on deck and to my delight it contained two snapping lobsters, tails flapping, spraying water and jerking around the bottom of the creel.

The lobsters were the European variety, magnificent crustaceans heavily armoured with a royal blue shell paling to yellow and whitish spots on the underside. As soon as the water had drained from the creel the lobsters backed into opposite corners wedging themselves between the mesh work.

Their front end was protected by an armoured shield covering the head, with a pair of blue black eyes on stalks and long, red antennae which curved out from the front of the animal.

Under this were long, jointed legs ending in small pincers covered in short orange hairs. The back end was formed of a long segmented tail with a fan of plates at the end.

They were armed with one large crushing claw with lumps and nodules on it and a lighter scissor claw with finely serrate edges. They held these up to catch an unwary finger as my Uncle retrieved them from the pot. He lifted them from just behind the head where they could not reach to deliver a nip.

On a previous trip I had seen my Father do this and be caught by one of the claws causing him to fling his arm back, not realising the lobster was still attached, launching the creature spinning through the air and into the sea with a splash to its freedom. Luckily there had already been a debate as to whether that particular lobster was too small to keep.

My Uncle had shown me how to hold the animal and I very carefully picked one of them up to examine it while the next creel was being hauled.

As a child, staring into the face of a lobster, I was always struck by just how alien these creatures are. Lobsters cannot form expressions so it is somewhat like looking into the face of a fully-armoured medieval knight with no clue as to what is underneath.

Spiny lobster (Jasus spp). Photo: James Cook

The eyes are of the compound type, like those of an insect, but the facets formed by the individual light-guiding crystalline structures which make up these eyes are not so obvious. As I was to learn many years later the lobster has a superposition compound eye, superbly adapted to perceive movement in dim light but unable to form sharp images. Instead, lobsters rely mostly on their senses of touch and smell to locate prey, their enemies and other lobsters.

Projecting from below a thick barbed spine that juts from between the eyes was the pair of long antennae, deep red in colour and articulated at the base, used by the lobster to feel around its environment. Smaller pairs of antennae tucked between the larger are used to “smell” chemicals in seawater. However, the lobster is covered in tiny hairs also used to taste the water, particularly located on the front legs and on the pincers that form their tips. They can literally smell with their feet.

‘The Deep’ is published by Headline. Reproduced by permission of the author and Headline Books.

At 5:30 on Monday 6 May at Somerville, Alex will be discussing the research expeditions that feature in the book and his hopes for the future of our oceans at a special launch event. Attendees are welcome to stay afterwards for refreshments and a book signing. Find out more.

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