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Fire in the Sea

Bioluminescence and Henry Compton's Art of the Deep

David A. McKee

Publication Year: 2014

The cold, stygian dark of the extreme sea depths is home to some of our planet’s strangest creatures. Even their names evoke a science fiction adventure: dragonfishes, greeneyes, viperfishes, mirrorbellies, lanternfishes. Marine biologist Henry “Hank” Compton (1928–2005) of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Rockport Marine Lab was present on some of the earliest Gulf of Mexico cruises on which these fishes were collected for the first time in Texas waters.

Upon returning, Compton would retire to the darkroom he had constructed beneath a stairwell at the lab and photograph the specimens. A talented artist, Compton then painted watercolors based on his photographs. He allowed free rein to both his scientific judgment and his artistic vision as he constructed representations of how the specimens might have appeared in the crushing pressure of their alien environment.

Compton dubbed the series of deep-water paintings “Fire in the Sea” because of the shimmering bioluminescence common to these deep-water species. Then, along with taxonomic descriptions, he drafted fanciful narratives to accompany the paintings: quirky, humorous, and sometimes cryptic stories of the fishes in their unreachable habitat.  
Professor, researcher, and author David A. McKee has taken Compton’s work, discovered in cardboard boxes following his death, and, along with others, provided chapters on bioluminescence, life in the deep, taxonomic arrangement, and life history information.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Gulf Coast Books Series


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Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright

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Because Henry (Hank) Compton would likely have preferred that anything done with his art and his prose have as broad a readership as possible, the authors of this book are attempting to do just that. We feel strongly that the art and text in this book will be of great...

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David A. McKee

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Foremost we are indebted to the late Helen Compton (Hank’s sister-in-law) for having the foresight to salvage the materials used in this book after his death and for allowing the use of them. Her encouragement and enthusiasm for this project to honor her brother-in-law...

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pp. 1-2

Henry (Hank) Compton was the artist of the illustrations in my 2008 book, Fishes of the Texas Laguna Madre. In fact, both of us worked as biologists at the Rockport Marine Lab aboard the R/V Western Gulf conducting sampling and collections...

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Life in the Deep Sea

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pp. 3-8

Where the deep sea actually begins varies among sources. In this book the seaward edge of the continental shelf marks the beginning of the deep-sea portion of the Gulf of Mexico. This equates to a depth of approximately 200 m...

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pp. 9-11

The title of this book relates to bioluminescence, or biological light, so it is most appropriate to include a section on this dazzling subject. Hank Compton more eloquently referred to it as “fire.” On land, where light is abundant, few organisms...

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Hank Compton

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pp. 12-13

Hank Compton was born on April 10, 1928, in San Angelo, Texas, where his father worked as an accountant and his mother as a public schoolteacher. The family later moved to Snyder, Texas. From an early age Hank was fond of animals and...

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The Art of Hank Compton

Mark Anderson

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pp. 14-17

Some time ago, David McKee asked if I would come to his office to look at some paintings. I didn’t know what to expect. What he showed me when I arrived were paintings on panels stacked in cardboard boxes. As I recall, some of them were in...

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Fire in the Sea

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pp. 18-162

Taxonomic classification is an identification system that allows scientists to understand and distribute information and new research to others throughout the world. Scientific classification is intended to cross language barriers by giving scientists...

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Appendix: Digitizing the Artwork

Larry J. Hyde

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pp. 163-166

The 57 pieces of artwork reproduced in this book were digitized from 2 media formats: the original artwork itself, or in cases where the original works were not available, a collection of 35 mm transparencies that Compton himself photographed...


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pp. 167-168


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pp. 169-170

Other Works in the Series, Back Cover

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pp. 171-174

E-ISBN-13: 9781623491062
E-ISBN-10: 1623491061
Print-ISBN-13: 9781623490317

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Gulf Coast Books Series
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OCLC Number: 880409301
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fire in the Sea

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Subject Headings

  • Compton, Henry, 1928-2005.
  • Biology in art.
  • Painting -- Conservation and restoration.
  • Marine biologists -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Marine artists -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Bioluminescence.
  • Deep-sea fishes -- Pictorial works.
  • Deep-sea fishes -- Classification.
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