August 13, 2015

Don't forget the plankton

I’M READING A BOOK about one of the most fascinating stories of survival at sea in a small boat, one that ranks right up there with Captain Bligh and Shackleton and Survive the Savage Sea.

It’s called All Brave Sailors, by J. Revell Carr (Simon & Schuster), and it deals with the sinking of an English tramp steamer, the Anglo-Saxon, after a surprise attack by a German raider ship (a powerful warship disguised as a neutral merchant freighter) during World War II.

Only seven of the Anglo-Saxon’s crew managed to escape from the sinking ship in a clinker-built 18-foot open gig. They had practically no food, just a few gallons of water, and no navigation equipment apart from a compass.

Of those seven, only two survived a 70-day sail in the gig from the eastern side of the North Atlantic to Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, where they became instant celebrities.

They ran out of food and water fairly quickly, and a large part of the book explains how their ravaged bodies coped with the situation. What strikes me, however, is that they made no attempt to catch plankton, an act which surely would have saved more lives.

Dr. Alain Bombard demonstrated the abundance of life-giving plankton in his Atlantic crossing in his raft, L’Heretique. Before that,  William Beebe, the famous naturalist, writer, and explorer, undertook the laborious task of counting the number of the tiny creatures he caught in a net. Here’s his account, from The Arcturus Adventure (G. P. Putnam’s Sons):

“One dark moonless evening I put out a silk surface net, the mouth of which was round and about a yard in diameter. At the farther end of the net a quart preserve jar was tied to receive and hold any small creatures which might be caught as the net was drawn slowly along the surface of the water. This was done at the speed of two knots and kept up for the duration of one hour.

“When drawn in, the net sagged heavily and we poured out an overflowing mass of rich pink jelly into a flat white tray."   

Most of the these individuals were primitive crustaceans, which make plankton a rich, nourishing food, even raw.

It’s also worthwhile repeating that all these creatures that we call plankton were caught at the surface on a dark night. Beebe repeated the experiment in full daylight and caught only about 1,000 individuals instead of 40,000,000.

“Plankton will have nothing of the sun or even of moonlight,” he observed, “and remains well below the reach of the stronger rays.”

You might want to try dragging a net, or even a shirt sleeve knotted at the end, next time you’re at sea on a dark night. You never know when this knowledge might come in useful.

Today’s Thought
Shipwrecked men in an open boat, if their lot is cast on waters rich in plankton, never need to starve to death if they can manage to drag an old shirt, net, fashion, through the water at night. — William Beebe, The Arcturus Adventure

Tailpiece
“How’s your son getting on these days?”
“He just turned 16. He kissed his first girl and started smoking.”
“Wow! Must have been some kiss.”

2 comments:

Gary Burton said...

Check out this blog for a sample of how much plastic is in the water ... this is a study going on right now. Its really shocking.
https://roundtopdr.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/sea-treasures/

Anonymous said...

These days, that's likely to net quite a bit of small bits of plastic: https://vimeo.com/133921725