Review: ‘Sex in the Sea’ by Marah J. Hardt

Sex in the Sea; Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep. Marah J. Hardt. St. Martin’s Press. 277 pages. $26.99.
Sex in the Sea; Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep. Marah J. Hardt. St. Martin’s Press. 277 pages. $26.99.

Lobsters are lascivious. Their exhausting bug love involves a week of foreplay that begins with the female sneaking up to the brawniest bully of a male she can find and quickly spraying him in the face with pee. Once that’s gotten him sufficiently aroused, she’ll head into his lair for some heavy petting sessions, including a bit of mutual licking but flees before things go too far.

“It’s kinky stuff,” writes Marah J. Hardt in Sex in the Sea, her entertaining compendium of weird and fascinating facts about sea life mating.

Her description of lobster sex makes the act seem almost sweet. Lobsters like to mate right after the female sheds her shell, a time when she is at her most vulnerable. But before she strips down for the male she has chosen, she spends time in his home, making sure that he can protect her.

“At the appointed time, the male circles behind her, assuming a doggy-style mount,” Hardt writes. “But then, in what may be the most tender act of lovemaking in the invertebrate kingdom, he lifts her gently off the seafloor and cradles her in his small walking legs. He braces himself, with big front claws and tail pressing into the sand, and gently turns her onto her back, pulling her up toward him.”

When they’ve completed the act, “he gently rolls her back over and sets her down.”


There’s plenty of anthropomorphizing in Sex in the Sea, along with a lot of lighthearted puns. The book takes a charming look at the vast variety of mating behaviors and at some of the mind-boggling sexual equipment that sea creatures have evolved. It’s funny and entertaining, with a high gee whiz factor.

Take for example the penis fencing of hermaphroditic flatworms. The two worms rear up and try to stab each other in the head with their members! Or consider the prodigious piece wielded by the lowly barnacle, which can reach eight times the size of his body.

One fish, a peacock wrasse, has dutiful dads, males who guard the eggs until they hatch. But there’s also the “pirate” peacock wrasse. The pirates run off males protecting eggs. A pirate will guard the eggs as if they’re his until some ladies swim by and drop off a few more eggs that he can fertilize. But this deadbeat dad doesn’t even stick around to take care of them. He takes off, knowing the original male will eventually return and take care of all of the eggs.

“Sneaky wrassetard,” writes Hardt, who’s the research co-director of the nonprofit Future for Fish.

Sex in the Sea is fun to read, but it is also a warning. Misunderstanding the mating habits and needs of sea life poses great risks to our own way of life.

“The way marine life gets busy in the deep matters — it matters for food security, human health, coastal development, climate change, and other global issues,” Hardt writes. “Take food security. Nearly three billion people rely on fish as a major source of protein. Half of that fish comes from the sea. To feed that many people requires a lot of fish successfully making a lot of baby fish every year.”

Throughout Sex in the Sea, Hardt points out ways that human have failed to understand sea life sex. Her book has an important message for Florida readers, surrounded by seawater and overwhelmed by politicians with pseudoscientific ideas about how to manage those resources.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.