What We’re Reading: Below the Edge of Darkness

Book cover image from Penguin Random House website

In early February, for my birthday, I received an exciting and unexpected gift, a nightlight powered by living marine plankton called Pyrodinos that bioluminesce. I’ve had a well-known love of and interest in cephalopods for some time. But this got me interested in all the light-emitting creatures that live in the ocean. Around this time, I discovered Edith Widder’s book Below the Edge of Darkness: a Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea and I knew I had to check it out.

AJ with Bioluminescent Plankton (first with lights on, then with lights off)

Below the Edge of Darkness is, at its heart, a love letter to the unexplored depths of the sea, told in the narrative style of memoir. We follow Widder’s career from its start, with notable highlights along the way, such as her first brush with what she describes as an underwater “fireworks display,” “life-and-death equipment malfunctions,” and “breakthroughs in technology and understanding.”

Her perspective on her chosen subject is particularly unique. Widder is a Massachusetts native who had her first job at Harvard Medical School as a laboratory technician. She is most well-known for having founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA), a scientific conservation non-profit. While studying at Tufts to be a marine biologist, Widder had to undergo a spinal fusion and encountered life-threatening complications during the surgery that resulted in a four-month long hospitalization. During this time, she was blind and learned to reassess her perception of the world around her. The book describes how her “obsession with bioluminescence grew out of [her] brush with blindness.”  She also discusses how her medical challenges informed her ability to stay calm and collected during dives where panic was a reasonable response.

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it is accessible to readers who do not have a scientific background, without shying away from the science. Following Widder’s underwater adventures never felt dense or slow-moving. The enthusiasm and joy that Widder has in her subject comes through on every page, and it kept me actively engaged. For readers of the genre I’d compare it to Sy Montgomery’s Soul of an Octopus, with a bit more hard science.

If you’d like to find a copy:

  • Available from the Harvard Library
  • Available in print in many public libraries.
  • Audiobook: In Audible, and some public library Overdrive/Libby collections
  • Ebook: Kindle and some public library Overdrive/Libby collections.

Check out your public library’s free ebook, audiobook, and digital media collections in Overdrive/Libby or Hoopla.  All Massachusetts residents can register for a free Boston Public Library ecard to access the BPL online collections.

Scroll to Top