Friday, July 31, 2015

Let’s stay down under, way, way, way down deep

While researching his book Deep, James Nestor hires a private submarine for a tour of the sea bottom 2500 feet down. Nestor’s description of the sights reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s Sea Fairies wherein the visiting land dwellers are given mermaid tails and gills so they can mosey about comfortably. They see fiddler crabs playing violins, listen to the songs of barnacles, avoid a cross sea pig, and pause before a batch of jellyfish:

[F]loating in the clear water was a group of beautiful shapes that the child thought looked like molds of wine jelly. They were round as a dinner plate, soft and transparent, but tinted in such lovely hues that no artist’s brush has ever been able to imitate them. Some were deep sapphire blue; others rose pink; still others a delicate topaz color. They seemed to have neither heads, eyes nor ears, yet it was easy to see they were alive and able to float in any direction they wished to go. In shape they resembled inverted flowerpots, with the upper edges fluted, and from the center floated what seemed to be bouquets of flowers.

Most of the creatures in Sea Fairies are punnily magical, but in the case of the jellyfish Baum seems to find their natural state magic enough. Sea Fairies was published in 1911 and available views of undersea life at that time were very limited.

Even today the deeper you wish to go the harder it is to get there. Water is heavy and ever so crushingly heavier the more it piles on itself. Light doesn’t get as deep as Nestor does in the little yellow Idabel (captained by its creator Karl Stanley). Yet there is color in the darkness, color generated by the natives:

In the distance, a group of glittering disco balls hangs a few feet above the seafloor. It’s a school of squids, Stanley tells us. Each is wrapped in a Technicolor coat more sparkly and garish than the next. Beside the squids are other animals — jellyfish, I think — that emit bright pink and purple light. It’s like we’ve stumbled into some underwater Studio 54. …

A two-foot glob of flashing color approaches, then hovers a few inches from the window. Along the top of this glob is a blanket of lights, all blinking, one after the other, in perfect synchroncity. First, only blue lights flash, then only red; then purple; then yellow, until every color in the spectrum has appeared. Then all the colors flash at the same time and the spectacle repeats. The hundreds of rows of little lights are evenly spaced around the glob. It looks like a cityscape at night: when the lights are red, they look like the taillights of cars on a freeway; when they’re white, they look like a grid of streetlights as viewed from an airplane thousands of feet above. Between these lights, there is nothing, no visible flesh, no nerves, no bones or body. … Stanley says it’s a comb jellyfish, the biggest he’s ever seen.

Deep: freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves by James Nestor
2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York
Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum
1911. Reilly & Lee, Chicago

[The post title is a couple lines from Tom Tom Club's "Suboceana"]

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