December 12, 2013

The mysteries of the deep

I WAS REMINDED the other day of how little we know about the sea.  I don’t mean the surface of the sea, but underneath. We know well enough about waves and currents and tides and hurricanes, but  we know very little, comparatively, about what lurks in the depths.

I think it was the naturalist William Beebe who wrote about the unease he felt out at sea, when he could almost feel millions of little eyes looking upward at him, especially at night. He was probably referring to plankton, which he used to catch in a net trawled from the stern of the boat on moonless nights, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe plankton are too small to have eyes, in which case it must have been shrimps or octopuses or the enormous schools of squid that are attracted to any kind of light at night.

Ordinarily, you’d never know they were down there — along with a host of other sea life we know next to nothing about. I can remember sailing along in a nice breeze one pitch-dark night somewhere between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point when two streaks of light came hurtling toward us amidships from starboard.

To say I was startled is putting it mildly.  They were twin tunnels of light apparently intent on boring into our hull at high speed, and my first irrational thought was “Torpedoes!”  Then I realized that the tubes of submerged light were actually phosphorescence created by some things moving about six feet below the surface on a collision course.

At the last moment, while I was still frozen with inaction and fright, they dived under the boat, came up on the opposite, and raced away into the night. I realized then that they must have been dolphins having a bit of fun scaring the human beings.

And now I wonder how many times this happens during the day when we have no tubes of light to alert us to their presence. How often do the creatures of sea approach us and leave no clue of their presence?  It’s impossible to know, obviously, but one can’t help speculating about how many close calls there have been with whales and (even more frightening) the giant squid known as Architeuthis, whose eyes are as large as automobile hubcaps and who grow to 65 feet or more, and who have large poisonous fangs and hundreds of suckers as big as dinner plates, and who have been known to swarm aboard large sailing ships in the old days and drag them and their crews down to Davy Jones’ locker, and . . . well, perhaps I exaggerate a little, but not much.  

It’s enough to keep a person very alert for any sign of tentacles creeping over the cockpit coaming during the night watches.

Today’s Thought
Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your Maker’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye codlings peep,
And wag your tails about.
— Cotton Mather, Hymn

Confucius, he say that it’s better to have loved and lost than to do homework for six children.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)   

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