by Elous Telma
On a secluded Greek island in the 1950s, an enormous abandoned mine is filled with sea water for a major international experiment in marine biology. It is intended to study natural selection and, perhaps, evolution in a new aquatic ecosystem. However, the experiment and the island are eventually abandoned.
Decades later, a sailor’s photograph of the corpse of a large shark prompts a team of biologists to visit the island. The team discovers unique environments, including an underwater brine lake. The life forms act in ways that affect the fauna on the island as well as themselves.
The new ecosystem is dangerous. How to cope with it? The biologists will need some form of interspecies communication with the sea life and even with a cat that has been stranded on the island. It’s simple in theory...
Chapter 3: Digging Holes for Fun and Profit
Humanity has dug some big holes. In fact, so many holes have been dug that some are already abandoned. Diamond mines are often deep and, when they give up all the easily found diamonds, they are left unused and useless. Unlike mines dug for toxic metals, such as copper, they may be chemically quite safe.
A remarkable one was located on a small island on the Greek waters. Greece has about 300 inhabited islands and another 2,500 uninhabited ones. Soon after WWII, Greece agreed to sacrifice one of the uninhabited islands, west of Crete, the largest Greek island, in order to dig a diamond mine to help with rebuilding the country.
This plan resulted in an extraordinary structure, because the island was not much bigger than the hole. Imagine a tiny rock island that you scoop out almost entirely. There was just a strip of land left so that you could walk around it, and a slightly wider areas where a small port and a few buildings were located.
One building housed the workers; the other, the offices of the mine company. Another was used as a workshop for the vehicles and equipment. Material from the cave wasn’t processed there; it was simply collected and shipped to the main port of Piraeus, about 300 kilometers away, in the Athens urban area.
The island was fairly round in shape. At two kilometers in diameter, the circumference was about six kilometers. Diamonds could be found anywhere in the soil. The idea was simply to dig, and then sieve and search. The deeper the better. The task proved to be difficult, because the terrain was mostly rock. On the other hand, the hole could be dug deep, since the hard rock prevented the walls from collapsing.
A broad spiral road about 50 meters wide was carved on the edge of the hole to let large trucks and equipment move up and down. The spiral road, from top to bottom, was approximately the length of a Marathon course. The floor of the hole provided an additional flat surface, about three football fields in width.
Diamond dividends helped Greece, but diamond mines are not forever. Eventually, the quarry was depleted. With no more diamonds to help in the post-war recovery of the country, Greece was happy to convert the hole into anything that would bring in — within dignified reason — some money.
* * *
An unusual idea was proposed: to turn the hole into a marine biology center with international funds and research grants flowing in. Such ideas came with the peaking of entrepreneurial spirits in the 1950s. People were interested in science, and the exploration of the sea infused a warm, familiar, and organic feel to the process. It contrasted with the exciting yet remote and sterile environment of space exploration programs.
A large international consortium started work on the carved island. First, the original buildings were torn down to make room for the new research facilities, accommodations for researchers and personnel, a water processing plant, a visitor center, an amphitheater, and a new, small port to bring visitors in.
Then the hole was filled. Large tubes were fit to let water flow in. The flow was stopped when the water filled all but the top level of the hole. Then, glass observation cubes were constructed where a large number of visitors could walk in and observe life forms.
After the construction was completed, more water was let in to cover up the cubes. The top part of the cubes was connected by way of a short glass corridor and a ladder to the shore so that visitors could easily walk in without getting wet. The floor was also made of glass, adding to the immersive experience.
Turning the taps on may have been one of the most impressive sights ever caused by humans. Enormous pipes were placed and giant pumps pulled water from the sea into the Aquarium. A lot of energy was spent to get the flow started, but fluid mechanics took care of the rest.
A huge surge of water splashed onto the road and each level underneath for two kilometers. Zoom cameras captured footage of the chaos at the bottom, which quickly started filling up. The press and members of Parliament were present for all major developments, and plenty of international hoopla was created on this little uninhabited, carved island in the Aegean Sea.
Water was taken from the surface of the sea around the island. That way, not much sea life was expected to make it into the Aquarium. Any captured sea life wasn’t expected to survive the trip anyway.
When all was filled, months later, sea water from different depths was sampled and brought into the Aquarium and released at the same depths to inoculate the Aquarium with plankton, bacteria, and larvae from all ocean strata. This was fairly easy, as mechanical systems ensured the pressure in the sampling containers would stay constant throughout the trip. But it had to be repeated several times at different seasons to make sure that adequate inoculation would occur and that many types of sea life would be represented by their planktonic and larval states.
* * *
The whole operation had been taken seriously from the start. Still, it was hard to grasp the international status it was to reach. There was enough interest that this little island, just miles away from so many other Greek islands, had become a new entity of nondescript nationality.
The sovereignty was, of course, Greek, but the presence was mostly American, given that the USA was the major source of funding, but it had the feeling of a large international university. A delegation of U.N. scientists came to the island with the purpose of helping to secure this endeavor’s longevity.
As is common with scientific startups, a chunk of money gets the ball rolling at first, but when it runs out, it is up to the scientists themselves to get new funds. These often come as grants given by the government or research foundations and, sometimes, investors. It was hard to know what to invest in here, other than Aquarium customers.
Basic research doesn’t pay well, either, especially research on fish. Anyway, this aquarium wasn’t conceptually new, and other aquariums around the world did fine; it was just on a completely different scale and in an unconventional location. But Greek tourism was on the rise, and this hole could potentially piggyback on the trend. And the U.N. assessed it could be an appropriate vehicle on which many nations could collaborate.
There was another problem, but this had been taken into account: It would take time for any sea life to develop from the larval state to a creature worth paying a ticket price to observe. During this period, the Aquarium would be closed to the public.
Scientists would start their research and, to them, this development phase was very interesting. In the meantime, facilities and all that was needed to run a commercial enterprise would be built.
In a few years, and scientists would make the transition from ready money to grant-writing and the stress of competitive fundraising. Many joked about the antithesis between the academic free market they found themselves in and the enclosed area their research subjects occupied.
Ups and downs are foreseen with every research effort. But this one was also subject to wide trends not so easily calculated. The public’s excitement about the hole subsided. In the first years of the project they couldn’t visit it, and for a few more years thereafter, there wasn’t much to see.
Now, for effect, one could capture a couple of whales and bring them in. There are sperm whales living in Greek waters, and they dive into the deep waters west of the Peloponnese where they hunt deep-sea squid.
Rightfully, whales and squid were never introduced, since one of the main scientific goals was to study the development of a complex ecological system in semi-free conditions from the bottom up. Delegates decided against the introduction of outside life for entertainment purposes. Start-up monies would have to do for the initial period.
While tiny creatures slowly developed under the watchful eyes of a large team of scientists, the space race had become the new big thing. The Cold War, fortified by a herd of German rocket scientists, some of whom had been acquired by the USSR and the lucky ones by the USA, was represented by the successes and failures of the space program of the two traditional enemies. Germany’s marine biologists were not considered as hot a commodity as their space-engineer colleagues. Several did find their way to the Aquarium, though.
Some of the most severe hits to the project came from political pettiness. East and West working at the same site proved a bit difficult. Scientists are competitive anyway, although they often do achieve great feats of cooperation. The secret is to have clear separation of tasks and proper allocation of credit.
In Greece, they say good accounts make good friends. Governments would happily bypass this unwritten understanding to make sure their people would be considered more successful. From time to time, small grants from particular countries given to scientists representing that country appeared to aim at improving their political status at the site more than their research. The presence of the U.N. was probably for the best, but it was no great catalyst of peace. Nationalist spirits flourished.
* * *
An infusion of cash came from entrepreneurial minds. As the research facilities were being built, the plans for the original visitor center were replaced by more lavish ones. Gift shops, cafes, a larger hotel were eventually built. If needed, the island could be promoted as a perfect vacation spot, with the added bonus of the earth’s largest aquarium. Work started on keeping future visitors happy.
A glass tube was lowered onto the top of the spiral road. The tube provided an improved dry entrance to the underwater cube, and a nice and longer chamber under the surface of the water. It would serve as the standard observation spot, and the price was included in the general-admission ticket.
Engineers and marketing personnel let their imaginations run wild. Next to the tube, a swimming pool was constructed. This was placed in the hole, and its bottom was made of glass. The water supply was separate from that of the Aquarium.
For an extra ticket, visitors would be able to swim in safe waters in a pool floating on the Aquarium, with the abyss visible under their feet. On occasion, the pool was kept open at night, and a light show was introduced. This would attract interesting night life, which visitors could observe under their feet.
A research boat served as the main observation deck for scientists. This gave them the flexibility to explore all areas of the surface. They spent as much time as they could at the side opposite the visitor area.
Researchers had already started trying to raise funds. Their preliminary data — always necessary for big grant proposals — were a massive, unprecedented hole. But their scientific perspective stretched into the unknown. An ecosystem would be observed in the making, at a scale that had never been attempted before. Whatever happened would be new and difficult to predict.
They diligently studied larvae, plankton and bacteria, as well as the chemistry of the water: salinity; the content of common and rare elements; shifts in temperature and everything they could come up with. Data poured in for years and years. Water samples were gathered continuously, from different spots and depths. These were rushed to the lab on shore and analyzed.
New methods were developed, including tanks that allowed the samples to be maintained for long periods of time at the same pressure as the one of the source environment. This allowed some assessment of the importance of pressure for deep-sea creature survival.
* * *
Crustaceans such as crabs, shrimp, etc. were the first mature animals to be observed. They were perhaps the first concrete scientific result to come out of the Aquarium; certainly the first one to be announced to the public.
Little crabs and shrimp were collected and identified. You could fit several in your palm, and nothing about them was too impressive to the untrained eye. But to specialists, they were giants, clearly larger than their brethren living just outside the island.
These new creatures were half to three-fourths again as large as before, and that was a pretty exciting finding. These little creatures were exhibiting gigantism, the tendency of certain life forms to grow to larger sizes than their cousins in particular environments.
Water fleas, even tinier than small shrimp, also exhibited gigantism. They were still tiny, but a good size bigger than normal. Now, if the scientists could just find out what in this new environment determined their size. Was their large size due to a selection of larger individuals over several generations? Was it due to genetic changes? Or perhaps changes to the way genes are regulated? Or might any normal-sized shrimp grow larger if you placed it in the Aquarium? Was there more food in it? These were the general lines of research taking place, at least at first.
Fish became increasingly numerous. Finally and happily for many marine biologists, a few shark species were found. Of course, sharks do not have planktonic forms, but shark eggs had been brought in to give the Aquarium a chance to thrive with as much biodiversity as possible. Other fish appeared to be growing larger as well, although they do take time to grow to their full size.
Eventually, even juvenile squid figured out how to live in the Aquarium. The environment was large enough that different ages of the same species could coexist. The young and the mature squid settle in different areas in order to avoid direct competition for the same resources. Otherwise, the adults would most certainly prevail, and the young would perish, thus ensuring extinction.
Growth was always a hot topic, and measurements were performed as often as possible. There are two types of growth in animals: Some grow until they reach a maximum size and then age without growing further, like humans. Others grow for as long as they are alive. The older they get, the bigger they become.
Even ordinary little fish can fall into either category. Zebrafish, an unassuming little striped fish, stops growing at a particular age, whereas danio, another small fish will grow for life. How this semi-artificial environment would affect longevity and size in these creatures was not yet known.
* * *
The Aquarium became a melting pot of serious science and fun. Children would play in the glass-bottomed swimming pool while scientists were tagging sharks on the research vessels a couple of kilometers away. Dance troupes would perform in the pool while angler fish hunted for food with their bioluminescent lures two kilometers below.
Before the hole was filled with water, scientists had strategically blown holes on the walls along the winding road. They assumed, correctly, that these holes could serve as useful hiding places for creatures.
The 50-meter wide winding road also provided a vast surface area for life forms to rest on. Additional structures were later lowered to provide more support for marine life. A simple box-shaped grid sunk onto the spiral road would soon be covered with algae and home to a large number of fish.
The grid could also be gradually pulled towards the surface to assess the creatures’ resistance to changes in water pressure. Would they adapt and stay with the grid if it were brought up gradually enough? Or would they abandon it and find another home at their original depth?
* * *
The atmosphere on the island brought in quite a few visitors. There was sun, play, science, and a sense of awe, all in one spot. The winters in the Aegean Sea are mild but not necessarily swim-worthy. Yet the virtually guaranteed sunshine and the heated glass-bottom swimming pool kept the whole visitor operation going the whole year round.
Additional works kept guests excited. A large slide leading to a new swimming pool gave visitors the impression of falling into the hole itself. The strategically placed glass walls gave the impression of entering the very environment of the Aquarium.
The island’s circumference provided a unique walkway and jogging path. Walkers and joggers had a strip of land, flanked by the mysterious waters of the Aquarium on one side and by the Aegean Sea on the other.
Two new, transparent, floating walkways were built to take visitors from the shore to the center of the Aquarium. These met in a V-shape at the center of the hole, where a ring-shaped platform stood.
Visitors — four at a time, for an additional price — could enter a chamber called the “Bubble,” which was lowered a couple of hundred meters towards the bottom of the Aquarium. Visitors saw the waters darken as they descended, and the luckier ones got to see some remarkable swimming creatures.
As visitors returned to the surface, they saw daylight gradually returning. The whole trip lasted for about forty minutes, but it was such a powerful experience to many that it felt like hours.
The Bubble was well maintained, and its safety was guaranteed. It was buoyant: if its lines were cut, it would resurface easily. It descended on a cable anchored at the bottom of the hole. The Bubble also had external airbags that could be deployed to bring it up quickly, in case of an emergency.
The materials and thick windows allowed the Bubble to reach a depth of 400 meters, but it was never taken farther than 250 meters, which was enough; the environment was in almost complete darkness.
The Aquarium flourished for a number of years with its mixture of science and tourism. But watching an ecosystem grow is not a very fast-changing scenario. Light shows and ice cream were not enough to keep the excitement of visitors to the level needed to sustain the operation financially. And the Aquarium’s novelty had also subsided, since tourism was booming on nearby and distant islands.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma