Fathoms Deep Beneath the Sea

Turns out watching 1920s nature documentaries is just the thing when you’re struck down by the flu. Slow-paced and 17 minutes long at the most, they seem to reduce all problems to a simple ‘eat or be eaten’.

Harry Bruce Woolfe’s Secrets of Nature series, which was run by his company, British Instructional Films, between 1922 and 1933, combines, according to the producers, “the critical accuracy of the scientist, the exuberant enthusiasm of the naturalist, and the anthropomorphic ideas of the layman”. Nature as portrayed in the films is red in tooth and claw, but also full of beauty, mystery and wonder.

Intertitles and Stills from Fathoms Deep Beneath the Sea
(UK / 1922 / black and white / silent / filmed at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth)

“Practically all the bottom of that Ocean of Air we call the “land” has been exploited by man for thousands of years. Forests have been swept away, the courses of rivers changed, and barren wastes cultivated. But since the beginning of time the bottom of the Ocean of Water, that we call the Sea-bed, has kept its abysses and beauty spots from man’s gaze. No idea of the life that it harbours can be seen from the surface. Beneath the waves are mountains, valleys and vast plains on a grander scale than any seen on land. Only here and there can we get glimpses of what is going on. The grim struggle for existence goes on here unceasingly. The larger animals, from Whales downwards, live by eating their smaller neighbours. From the shelter of a rock the ravenous Conger darts upon his victims.”


“The Octopus shoots out his tentacles armed with their fearsome suckers from which there is no escape.”

“But there is beauty as well as tragedy on the floor of the sea.
‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.'”


“The Sea Anemones look harmless enough but concealed about their bodies are terrible stinging cells, which paralyze small fishes which happen to brush against them.”

“Shreds of food torn up by creatures at higher levels drift down to them, and falling on their tentacles are pushed into the mouth which lies at the centre of the body.”

“Weird and uncouth creatures have here their lairs, lurking behind the boulders – and always hungry.”


“A Spider Crab stealthily makes for the shelter of a piece of rock, apparently afraid of being snapped up by the way.”

“As if realising that Nature had mad him a very obvious crab he begins a most amazing performance and contrives to match the ground by placing stones on his back.”

“By thus masking himself he hopes to escape the eyes of prowling enemies, as well as the smaller creatures on which he feeds – and which he grabs as soon as they are within reach.”

“Though Scientists insist that Man is the only thinking animal, does not the extraordinary behaviour of this crab seem to challenge their opinion?”

See also this feature on the BFI release Secrets of Nature: Pioneering Natural History Films in The Guardian.

2 thoughts on “Fathoms Deep Beneath the Sea

  1. Pingback: COASTS AND SCORES / FILM MUSIC / PASSENGERFILMS | Landscape Surgery

  2. Pingback: Coasts and scores | Write off the map

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