Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea


Peter Benchley

On a cold and blustery autumn night more than a decade ago, I sat in the stern of a small research vessel and gazed down into the black water of the abyssal deep. We were a dozen miles out from the scarp of the extinct volcano that is the foundation of the Bermuda archipelago, floating a thousand fathoms above the craggy bottom. No lights were visible anywhere on the sea around us, and I felt alone and vulnerable, comforted only by the faint loom from the invisible islands.

Steel cables angled downward into the darkness from two winch drums mounted on the bulwarks. The first 2,500 feet of cable were bare; the last 500 we had festooned with chemical lights and baited hooks.

Huddled against the wind in the shelter of a bulkhead, warmed by black coffee and a steaming stew of mashed potatoes and boiled hog snout, I sat and waited, half hoping to feel the boat lurch suddenly, from the bite of an unseen beast half a mile below, half hoping for a night of peaceful failure.

The odds favored failure: no one had ever caught a full-sized specimen of the creature we were seeking; few had ever seen one alive.

We were fishing for giant squid -- Architeuthis dux--one of the last great monsters on earth, and a living nightmare: ten writhing arms studded with chitinous sucker disks, gigantic eyes, a huge, razor-sharp beak that flays prey and jams shredded flesh back toward a rasp-studded tongue.

Giant squid have been sighted for millennia: Homer's personification of Scylla in the Odyssey is thought to be a portrait of Architeuthis; Herman Melville saw one during his sailing days, and recorded it in Moby-Dick. They have been documented at more than 50 feet long, and extrapolated (from partial carcasses washed up on beaches) at 75 or 80 feet. Some scientists have speculated, off the record, that a 100-foot giant squid is a distinct possibility. They have been known to attack small boats and life rafts, and have been widely (if unreliably) reported to have assaulted ocean-going ships.

We had tried to prepare ourselves for success. We had brought knives aboard, and hatchets, and side-cutters to sever the cables in case the squid that took our bait was too big to battle. Still, the atmosphere on the boat was charged with tension.

Suppose . . .

What if . . .?

Dawn came, and with it disappointment. Nothing had happened. There had been no yawing of the stern of the boat, no squeal of stretched cable, no sign whatever of action. Red-eyed and weary, we began to reel in the cables . . .

. . . and found that they had been sheared off. Both of them. At about 2,000 feet. Not merely broken, as if they had somehow caught in the bottom or foul-hooked a whale, for the strands would have popped and curled; not abraded, as they would have been by the grinding teeth of a deep-dwelling shark.

Forty-eight woven strands of stainless steel had been snipped as cleanly as if by sharpened bolt cutters.

Bitten off.

The hair on my neck stood on end, and a shiver scampered up my spine.

I looked at Teddy Tucker, the legendary Bermudian who has seen more in his half-century on the sea than most have dreamed of, and said, "What could have done that?"

"Who knows?" he replied with a smile. "Maybe a squid, maybe not. Maybe something we've never heard of and can't even imagine." He started the boat and turned toward shore. "The sea's a tease, and she always will be. That's what keeps us looking."

Man has been looking in the sea for more than 3,000 years, pushing at the frontier of this alien world ever since he first realized there was food to be had from the shallows near shore. His curiosity, need, and ambition have driven him farther out and deeper down, and still he has been teased far more often than rewarded.

Even today, our most sophisticated methods for studying the sea have been likened to trying to learn about life on land by towing a butterfly net behind an airplane. And the facts bear out the simile: it has been less than three decades since man first set foot on the moon, yet we already know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of our own oceans. An estimated 95 percent of the sea floor remains to be mapped in detail.

Small wonder, if you consider the challenge: the oceans that blanket the planet in perpetual darkness hide mountains higher than the Himalayas, valleys deeper than the Grand Canyon, and plains vaster than the Gobi Desert--all squeezed by weight and pressure so enormous that they can crush a dreadnought to rubble and reduce terrestrial life to jelly in the blink of an eye.

Compared to the task of exploring the deep sea, scaling the summit of Mount Everest is a stroll in the park.

I well recall the thrill I felt diving to 200 feet for the first time, awed by the profusion of exotic life, amazed by the absence of all reds and yellows and greens, frightened by the enveloping darkness--and then suddenly thunderstruck by the knowledge that here, near the limits of safe diving, I had barely scratched the skin of the sea.

In the last 50 years, humans have descended more than 150 times deeper than I had gone that day. They have taken appalling risks and endured incalculable dangers, all in pursuit of the unknown. I wondered why. What combination of daring and genius, courage and conviction, impels otherwise rational human beings to risk their lives attempting the manifestly impossible?

What must William Beebe have felt when, in 1934, he allowed himself to be lowered 3,028 feet beneath the surface in a tiny steel ball? I know that I, surrounded by pressure of more than half a ton per square inch, might well have babbled in hysterics; Beebe maintained scientific detachment and astonishing cool. "We had no realization of the outside pressure," he wrote, "but the blackness itself seemed to close in on us."

What kind of courage did it take for Jacques-Yves Cousteau, one morning in l943, to walk into the Mediterranean and, wearing a tank of compressed air and an experimental breathing hose, submerge himself into a medium 800 times denser than air? Was he aware of all the things that could go wrong? Did he know about the bends and air embolisms and spontaneous pneumothorax? Did he have any premonition that this so-called Aqualung he had developed with "mile Gagnon would alter forever man's future underwater?

Imagine the sensation of delight for the Smithsonian Institution's Dr. James Mead when, in 1991, he startled the world with the announcement of his discovery of an entirely new species of whale: Mesoplodon peruvianus.

Of course, giant leaps in technology have increased exponentially our ability to explore the undersea world. Without the development of submersibles and ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles), scientists would never have been able to visit and photograph the wreck of the Titanic, which had lain hidden beneath more than two miles of ocean since 1912.

Nor would they have been able to make their (literally) earth-shaking discovery of hydrothermal vents on the deep-sea floor--cones that spew a hot (400 degrees Centigrade) smokelike fluid from the bowels of the earth. Even more remarkable was the revelation that there are communities of living things that exist in, and thrive on, the sulphurous fluid, in a process called chemosynthesis, which is revising long-accepted theories about the origin and continuity of life.

As important as submersibles are, however, they have as yet been able to afford us only the most fleeting glimpse of all that lies down there in the darkness. I like James Hamilton-Paterson's analogy in The Great Deep:

"One might compare [exploring by sumbersible] to traveling across Asia by oil-lit hansom cab with the conditions of a Dickensian fog outside, and then claiming to have seen the world."

The newest allies of ocean science are satellites, which can accomplish Herculean tasks in a fraction of the time required by traditional methods.

It took HMS Challenger, for example, four years (1872-1876) to circumnavigate the globe and fulfill its mandate from the Royal Society of London to investigate #everything about the oceans.# The crew collected animals, sediments, and rocks, took readings of water temperatures, and observed and measured currents and depths.

Nowadays, a satellite can take more thorough and accurate measurements of virtually the entire planet in ten days.

Still, whenever I read dazzling reports of technological breakthroughs, I remind myself that as the twenty-first century approaches, we have acquainted ourselves with only 5 percent of the oceans of our world. And when we talk of the sea, we find ourselves confronted with many more questions than answers.

As for the giant squid, I have continued to look for him every year. I have dived with sperm whales, which feed on him. I have sent lights and cameras and tantalizing baits into the abyss, hoping to lure him to my sight.

I have never found him.

I will keep searching, but, in a way, I hope I never find him, for he is one of our last dragons, and I believe deeply that we need dragons, to keep alive our sense of mystery and adventure.

To me, the giant squid--beautiful, horrible, efficient, elusive, terrifying, mythical, and real--represents the frontier of the sea, still out there, still beckoning.

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)