Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea
We have seen the Titanic lying in her grave more than 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the North Atlantic; we have seen the crabs and tube worms and other unlikely creatures that inhabit cracks in the sea floor far beyond the reach of light; we have even seen the Challenger Deep, the most remote of all the places on earth. Submersibles, robots, and video cameras have routinely given us access to the most exotic spots in the sea. But what was it like to be the first humans to venture into the deep? In 1934, William Beebe, a naturalist, and Otis Barton, an engineer, climbed into a crude steel ball called the bathysphere and descended half a mile into the unknown darkness off Bermuda. During the dives, Beebe communicated with his colleague, Miss Hollister, who was on the surface, via telephone.
Adequate presentation of what I saw on this dive is one of the most difficult things I ever attempted. It corresponds precisely to putting the question, ``What do you think of America?" to a foreigner who has spent a few hours in New York City. Only the five of us who have gone down even to 1000 feet in the bathysphere know how hard it is to find words to translate this alien world. This dive turned out to be one of essential observation, and first hand impressions must take precedence over all others. At 9:41 in the morning we splashed beneath the surface, and often as I have experienced it, the sudden shift from a golden yellow world to a green one was unexpected. After the foam and bubbles passed from the glass, we were bathed in green; our faces, the tanks, the trays, even the blackened walls were tinged. . . . The first plunge erases, to the eye, all the comforting, warm rays of the spectrum. The red and the orange are as if they had never been, and soon the yellow is swallowed up in the green. We cherish all these on the surface of the earth and when they are winnowed out at 100 feet or more, although they are only one-sixth of the visible spectrum, yet, in our mind, all the rest belongs to chill and night and death. Even modern war bears this out; no more are red blood and scarlet flames its symbols, but the terrible grayness of gas, the ghastly blue of Very lights. . . .
At 320 feet a lovely colony of siphonophores drifted past. At this level they appeared like spun glass. Others which I saw at far greater and blacker depths were illumined, but whether by their own or by reflected light I cannot say. These are colonial creatures like submerged Portuguese men-o'-war, and similar to those beautiful beings are composed of a colony of individuals, which perform separate functions, such as flotation, swimming, stinging, feeding, and breeding, all joined by the common bond of a food canal. Here in their own haunts they swept slowly along like an inverted spray of lilies-of-the-valley, alive and in constant motion. In our nets we find only the half-broken swimming bells, like cracked, crystal chalices, with all the wonderful loops and tendrils and animal flowers completely lost or contracted into a mass of tangled threads. Twenty feet lower a pilotfish looked in upon me--the companion of sharks and turtles, which we usually think of as a surface fish, but with only our pitiful, two-dimensional, human observation for proof. When scores of bathyspheres are in use we shall know much more about the vertical distribution of fish than we do now. For example, my next visitors were good-sized yellow-tails and two blue-banded jacks which examined me closely at 400 and 490 feet respectively. Here were so-called surface fish happy at 80 fathoms. Several silvery squid balanced for a moment, then shot past, and at 500 feet a pair of lanternfish with no lights showing looked at the bathysphere unafraid.
At 600 feet the color appeared to be a dark, luminous blue, and this contradiction of terms shows the difficulty of description. As in former dives, it seemed bright, but was so lacking in actual power that it was useless for reading and writing. . . . There are certain nodes of emotion in a descent such as this, the first of which is the initial flash. This came at 670 feet, and it seemed to close a door upon the upper world. Green, the world-wide color of plants, had long since disappeared from our new cosmos, just as the last plants of the sea themselves had been left behind far over head.
At 700 feet the light beam from our bulb was still rather dim; the sun had not given up and was doing his best to assert his power. At 800 feet we passed through a swarm of small beings, copepods, sagitta or arrow worms and every now and then a worm which was not a worm but a fish, one of the innumerable round-mouths or Cyclothones. Eighty feet farther and a school of about 30 lanternfish passed, wheeled and returned; I could guess Myctophum laternatum, but I cannot be certain. The beam of light drove them away. . . .
Lights now brightened and increased, and at 1100 feet I saw more fish and other organisms than my prebathysphere experience had led me to hope to see on the entire dive. With the light on, several chunky little hatchet-fish approached and passed through; then a silver-eyed larval fish two inches long; a jelly; suddenly a vision to which I can give no name, although I saw others subsequently. It was a network of luminosity, delicate, with large meshes, all aglow and in motion, waving slowly as it drifted. Next a dim, very deeply built fish appeared and vanished; then a four-inch larval eel swimming obliquely upward; and so on. This ceaseless telephoning left me breathless and I was glad of a hundred feet of only blue-blackness and active sparks. . . .
Suddenly in the distance a strong glow shot forth, covering a space of perhaps eight inches. Not even the wildest guess would help with such an occurrence. Then the law of compensation sent, close to the window, a clear-cut, three-inch, black anglerfish with a pale, lemon-colored light on a slender tentacle. All else my eye missed, so I can never give it a name.
One great source of trouble in this bathysphere work is the lag of mind behind instantaneous observation. For example, at 1300 feet a medium-sized, wide-mouthed angler came in sight, then vanished, and I was automatically describing an eight-inch larval eel looking like a transparent willow leaf, when my mind shot back to the angler and demanded how I had seen it. I had recorded no individual lights on body or tentacle, and now I realized that the teeth had glowed dully, the two rows of fangs were luminous. It is most baffling to gaze into outer darkness, suddenly see a vision, record the bare facies--the generality of the thing itself--and then, in the face of complete distraction by another spark or organism, to have to hark back and recall what special characters escaped the mind but were momentarily etched upon the retina. On this point I had thoroughly coached Miss Hollister at the other end of the telephone, so I constantly received a fire of questions, which served to focus my attention and flick my memory. Again and again when such a question came, I willfully shut my eyes or turned them into the bathysphere to avoid whatever bewilderment might come while I was searching my memory for details of what had barely faded from my eye. . . .
At 1500 I swung for two and a half minutes, and here occurred the second memorable moment in these dives--opportunity for the deliberate, accurate record of a fish wholly new to science, seen by one or both of us, the proof of whose existence, other than our word, must await the luck of capture in nets far more effective than those we now use in our oceanographic work. First, a quartet of slender, elongate fish passed through the electric light literally like arrows, about twenty inches long, whether eels or not I shall never know; then a jelly, so close that it almost brushed the glass. Finally, without my seeing how it got there, a large fish swung suspended, half in, half out of the beam. It was poised with only a slow waving of fins. I saw it was something wholly unknown, and I did two things at once; I reached behind for Mr. Barton, to drag him away from his camera preparations to the windows, to see and corroborate, and I disregarded Miss Hollister's insistent questions in my ears. I had to grunt or say something in reply to her, for I had already exceeded the five seconds which was our danger duration of silence throughout all the dives. But all this time I sat absorbing the fish from head to tail through the wordless, short-circuiting of sight, later to be materialized into spoken and written words, and finally into a painting dictated by what I had seen through the clear quartz. . . .
At 1630 feet a light grew to twice its diameter before our eyes, until it was fully the diameter of a penny, appearing to emanate from some creature which bore irregular patches of dull luminosity on its body. The outline was too indistinct to tell whether it was with or without a backbone.
At 1900 feet, to my surprise, there was still the faintest hint of dead gray light, 200 feet deeper than usual, attesting the almost complete calm of the surface and the extreme brilliancy of the day far overhead. At 2000 feet the world was forever black. And this I count as the third great moment of descent, when the sun, source of all light and heat on the earth, has been left behind. It is only a psychological mile-post, but it is a very real one. We had no realization of the outside pressure but the blackness itself seemed to close in on us.
At 2000 feet I made careful count and found that there were never less than ten or more lights--pale yellow and pale bluish--in sight at any one time. Fifty feet below I saw another pyrotechnic network, this time, at a conservative estimate, covering an extent of two by three feet. I could trace mesh after mesh in the darkness, but could not even hazard a guess at the cause. It must be some invertebrate form of life, but so delicate and evanescent that its abyssal form is quite lost if ever we take it in our nets. Another hundred feet and Mr. Barton saw two lights blinking on and off, obviously under control of the fish. . . .
At 2300 some exclamation of mine was interrupted by a request from above to listen to the tug's whistles saluting our new record, and my response was, ``Thanks ever so much, but take this: two very large leptocephali have just passed through the light, close together, vibrating swiftly along; note--why should larval eels go in pairs?" And with this the inhabitants of our dimly remembered upper world gave up their kindly efforts to honor us. On down we went through a rich, light-filled 2400, and to rest at 2500 feet, for a long half hour. . . .
The several nodes of high lights of which I have written occur on every descent, but there is in addition a compounding of sensations. At first we are quick to see every light, facile in sending up notes, but when we have used up most of our adjectives it is difficult to ring changes on sparks, lights, and darkness. More and more complete severance with the upper world follows, and a plunging into new strangenesses, unpredictable sights continually opening up, until our vocabularies are pauperized, and our minds drugged.
Over two hours had passed since we left the deck and I knew that the nerves both of my staff and myself were getting ragged with constant tenseness and strain. My eyes were weary with the flashing of eternal lights, each of which had to be watched so carefully, and my mind was surfeited with visions of the continual succession of fish and other organisms, and alternately encouraged and depressed by the successful or abortive attempts at identification. So I asked for our ascent.
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gene carl feldman (firstname.lastname@example.org) (301) 286-9428