In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sea Creatures in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Atlantic Fisheries
  • Cod
  • Herring
  • Eels
  • Sharks
  • Fisheries Regulation and Science
  • Whales in the Age of Empire
  • Whales in the Modern Age
  • Otters, Seals, Walruses, and Manatees
  • Coral
  • Crustaceans
  • Mollusks
  • Seabirds
  • Turtles
  • Merpeople
  • Sea Serpents
  • Humans
  • The Science of Sea Creatures
  • Marine Biological Research Stations
  • Archival Repositories

Atlantic History Sea Creatures in the Atlantic World
Christopher Pastore, Kristian Price
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0387


Sea creatures, both real and imagined, helped forge the principal pathways of Atlantic world circulation and exchange. By the sixteenth century Europeans were crisscrossing the North Atlantic in pursuit of fish and marine mammals and the equatorial Atlantic in search of gold, silver, sugar, and souls. Those voyages created new economies of extraction but also produced new knowledge of Atlantic geography and marine natural history. With the help of African and Native American divers, Europeans marveled at turtles, manatees, corals, and pearl-producing mollusks. They forged new material and psychological relationships with sharks, which haunted an expanding slave trade. And fishing transformed European foodways and helped establish New World settler societies. Yet, along the limits of philosophical understanding, where the apprehensions of exploration muddled perception, there often lurked merpeople, sea serpents, and other apocryphal beasts. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, inquiry into these real and imagined sea creatures helped lay the foundations of taxonomy, marine biology, and oceanography. A more organized, professionalized science of the sea developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often in efforts to understand changing ocean ecologies. Some marine scientists sought to fix ailing fisheries, and often made great strides in ocean conservation. But at various times, as was the case with oysters and clams, their efforts to modernize fishery management served to privatize fishing grounds, thereby transferring those resources from fishers to powerful corporations. In other cases, fishery scientists were simply unable to accurately estimate fish stocks or rates of reproduction, which led to overfishing. And in still other cases, traditional knowledge trumped science. As the history of marine creatures has shown, humans have shaped the living sea in profound ways, and sea creatures—from the smallest plankton to the largest whales—have shaped human history across the Atlantic world (and beyond) in return.


Although a general history of Atlantic world sea creatures has yet to be written, there are several works that highlight the importance of marine environmental history and the history of science for understanding the living ocean. Holm, et al. 2001 introduced preliminary studies from the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), an international, interdisciplinary effort to reconstruct the environmental history of the seas. Rozwadowski 2005 encouraged historians to consider the volumetric ocean and the importance of the life within it, thereby highlighting the synergies between marine environmental history and the history of ocean science. Bolster 2006 identified new scholarly opportunities among these new modes of interdisciplinary research. Starkey, et al. 2008 collected further results from HMAP in Oceans Past. Schwerdtner-Máñez and Poulsen 2016 surveyed the field of marine environmental history, while Schwerdtner-Máñez, et al. 2014 identified new avenues for future research. Similarly, historians of science continue to investigate the ways knowledge of the sea and its creatures was constructed over time. Adamowsky 2016, for instance, showed that mystery and a sense of wonder continued to shape oceanic science well into the twentieth century. And by combining history of science with environmental history, Rozwadowski 2018 provided one of the best synthetic histories of the living ocean over the long sweep of time.

  • Adamowsky, Natascha. The Mysterious Science of the Sea, 1775–1943. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    Examines the history of ocean science, arguing that following the Enlightenment wonder and mystery shaped scientific knowledge about the sea throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries.

  • Bolster, W. Jeffrey. “Opportunities in Marine Environmental History.” Environmental History 11.3 (July 2006): 567–597.

    DOI: 10.1093/envhis/11.3.567

    In this detailed scholarly review of the field, Bolster makes the case that the ocean is an important, if overlooked, area for further environmental history research. He shows, moreover, that marine environmental history can contribute to the field of marine ecology in important ways.

  • Holm, Poul, Tim D. Smith, and David J. Starkey, eds. The Exploited Seas: New Directions for Marine Environmental History. St. John’s, NL: International Maritime Economic History Association/Census of Marine Life, 2001.

    This collection of papers stems from the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), which was created in 1999 with the goal of historicizing ocean animals for the Census of Marine Life, which tallies current populations of marine species. The volume outlines HMAP’s research agenda and provides preliminary studies of marine fisheries in a global context.

  • Rozwadowski, Helen. Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674042940

    Rozwadowski examines the genesis of ocean science during the nineteenth century. If in earlier centuries the ocean had been an obstacle or void, it was during the nineteenth century, she shows, that people began to reimagine the ocean as a place of recreation, resource extraction, and scientific investigation. The book emphasizes the importance of the volumetric ocean and protecting the life within it.

  • Rozwadowski, Helen M. Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans. London: Reaktion Books, 2018.

    Synthesizing oceanic history, marine environmental history, and the history of science, Rozwadowski tells the story of the global oceans from its geologic origins to the present. She makes the case that the ocean is central to human history.

  • Schwerdtner-Máñez, Kathleen, Poul Holm, Louise Blight, et al. “The Future of the Oceans Past: Towards a Global Marine Historical Research Initiative.” PLoS ONE 9.7 (2 July 2014): e101466.

    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101466

    Drawing on findings from the History of Marine Animal Populations, this article identifies emerging topics in marine environmental history from a global perspective. It also identifies important tools available to researchers investigating the ocean’s past.

  • Schwerdtner-Máñez, Kathleen, and Bo Poulsen, eds. Perspectives on Oceans Past: A Handbook of Marine Environmental History. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Nature, 2016.

    This volume includes essays that examine the living ocean from both scientific and humanistic perspectives. It also provides several methodologies for investigating historical marine sources, including modeling, archeology, and archival research.

  • Starkey, David J., Poul Holm, and Michaela Barnard, eds. Oceans Past: Management Insights from the History of Marine Animals Populations. London: Earthscan Research Editions, 2008.

    This collection of studies conducted under the auspices of the History of Marine Animals Populations (HMAP) examines environmental changes to fish and whale populations. It also considers environmental impacts to the sponge industry as well as marine invasive species and disease.

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