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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065

The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau (hereafter Ocean World) is a 20-volume set concerned with the oceans generally and, more specifically, with marine life and exploration. This is a revised edition of The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau produced in 1974. According to the publisher, the 1975 edition resulted from revisions made by Captain Cousteau after thorough reassessment of the original edition. (p. 742)

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Ocean World is, according to its publisher, intended for student use through senior high school and for home use by both children and adults. This review will assess the set's appropriateness for this broad spectrum of readers….

The broad thematic organization of Ocean World distinguishes it generally from a more systematic and tradition approach which might have emphasized the academic disciplines such as geography, geology, marine biology, and their appropriate subdivisions. For example, marine life or biology could have been subdivided by such topics as "ecology," "plant life," "animal life," etc. Further subdivisions could have been taxonomic characteristics, organismic systems, and the like. Cousteau's "horizontal" or thematic arrangement is the more holistic and permits greater attention to interrelationships. Its attendant drawback is a greater dispersion of related material. And since broad themes tend toward indistinct definition, greater reliance must be placed on the thoroughness and precision of the set's indexes. The problem is somewhat exacerbated by the selection of … titles for some volumes which make it difficult to know the theme, and indeed the themes of some volumes remain vague even after an examination of the contents. (p. 743)

It should also be noted that occasionally material is included in a volume that seems to have little in common with the theme. For example, in the volume entitled Instinct and Intelligence, a section of one chapter deals with the interrelationship between food and sex. No mention is made of instinct or intelligence, and the material might more logically have been placed in the Act of Life, which deals with sexual matters, or in the one covering the quest for food.

In general, the first ten volumes treat biological themes, while the last ten concentrate on geography and exploration. No strict separation is made. Volume 13, A Sea of Legends, deals with the sea in legend, myth, and art; volume 19, The Sea in Danger, looks at pollution and conservation. The volumes concerned with exploration and geography seem generally to be more authoritatively handled than those dealing with biological topics. This may be due to the fact that knowledge in the former areas tends to be strictly cumulative, rather than qualifying, in nature—as is frequently the case in the biological sciences. Inattention to some minute thread within the expanding tapestry of scientific findings can often totally invalidate a statement about the life sciences.

Ocean World also differs from most traditional reference works in its frank espousal of respect for the delicacy of natural relationships and its encouragement of conservational attitudes. The set includes frequent references to Cousteau's own work, as well as the explorations and the historical and contemporary researches of others. Nearly every volume contains references to Cousteau's famous research ship Calypso. These personal notes add a dimension of interest commonly lacking in encyclopedic sets.

The material is reasonably accurate, but there are some errors, especially in discussions of biological subjects. Occasionally the errors seem to be the result of oversimplification which can perhaps be defended as inevitable if the material is to be comprehended by children. Were all the exceptions, reservations, and other complexities dealt with, the work would quickly be elevated to a level comprehensible only to specialists. Less defensible are confused presentations or misleading statements, such as the assertion that an average cubic foot of sea water has as many as 20,000 microscopic plants. If by "plants" is meant species of plants, it has not been possible to substantiate this undocumented statement. If individual organisms are meant, this figure conflicts with a subsequent statement that this same volume of water may hold 12 million plant cells or diatoms. But the greatest objection to the assertion is its implication that there is a "typical" volume of sea water and that meaningful statements can be made about it. In fact, the sea is composed of a number of zones—littoral, pelagic, etc.—the populations of which vary greatly. Even in well-defined areas such as the Sargasso Sea, the plants and associated animals tend to cluster so that comparatively lush patches are set off by areas with dilute concentrations of life. And there are other complicating facts such as "rips"—those foamy areas where two ocean currents converge—which tend toward high and diverse populations.

Again, with respect to coverage, there seems to be a bias towards dramatic aspects of marine life. But this is understandable in that unusual behavioral patterns and spectacular creatures are precisely where much interest resides, especially for the younger person or one with more elementary knowledge of marine biology.

The illustrative material which makes up a substantial part of the Ocean World is composed largely of photographic plates with occasional maps, charts, and colored drawings…. According to the publishers, the set contains more than 2,600 color pictures, 103 black-and-white pictures, and 197 maps, charts, drawings, and tables. In general the illustrative material is well chosen and helpful, although a serious lack in some photographs is scale or size information. A number of illustrations with little reference value, such as a photograph of a city street crowded with vehicular traffic, have been included. These add pictorial substantiation to a chapter on air pollution and frequently enliven and reinforce points made in the text. The charts and diagrams included are generally useful and accurate. (pp. 743-44)

In summary, The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau is a popularly written encyclopedia of marine life, oceanography, exploration, and conservation with somewhat better treatment of the latter three areas than of marine life. The work's content is adequate for young people and adult slow learners, but its treatment of biological topics tends to make it less suitable for secondary schools and adults capable of addressing more difficult materials. As a reference resource the set has deficiencies in organization and adequacy of access, but since a comparable better work is not available, The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau can be recommended for homes and libraries serving children. (p. 744)

A review of "The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau," in Reference and Subscription Books Reviews, a separate publication within Booklist, Vol. 73, No. 10, January 15, 1977, pp. 742-44.

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Dorothy Needham


Michael Allaby