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 4: The Decline and Fall of the Big Hole
The Vietnam War and the Apollo space program had a negative impact on the Aquarium. Vietnam had sucked out much of the will to have fun, and Apollo had depleted the research budget. Rumors had it that the NATO navy used the hole for training their dolphins and sea lions for war deployment, but that didn’t make much sense to many. What use was this hole for? Do you really need that deep a hole to train a dolphin?
In reality, interest from all parties had simply waned. Except from the scientists for whom this was as close an opportunity to witness natural selection and even, possibly, evolution in the making as they would ever get.
For the next few years after the Vietnam War, grant money came and went. Life in the hole kept developing, and observations caused some interest and brought in some funds but, undeniably, the public’s interest was in space exploration and other Greek islands where families could enjoy lazy holidays by the beach.
Scientists who got personal grants would sometimes spend a few weeks or months at the Aquarium. They came and went, faces kept changing. Interactions became less fruitful, and research output declined; you could tell by just looking at the facilities. Scientists often get by with little, and their quarters were kept decently well. But the research facilities looked half a generation old and increasingly moldy.
The visitor center had mostly closed down and the building was in the early days of dereliction. Without a resurgence of tourism, the hole gave the impression of a sad orifice on the surface of Earth with some little-studied living things in it.
Animals, by now some of them quite large, thankfully had plenty of room to live in. Freeing them was not a priority. Not yet. The water’s biological and chemical parameters seemed constant, suggesting a self-sustaining environment. Still, input and output valves were at hand to help with water quality, if required.
Most of the life we see around us on Earth has a direct connection to sunlight. Earth is not a closed system: energy reaches earth from the Sun, much of it as light and invisible radiation. Plants have evolved the process of photosynthesis, which is a means of capturing the energy of light and using it to combine CO2 and water, in order to make sugars and other large molecules needed to build the bodies of living things.
Without energy, CO2 and water don’t combine to make larger molecules, and life as we know it can’t exist. Even most animals that live in the darkness of the abyss rely on sunlight, although indirectly, because much of their food sinks down from shallower waters, where algae photosynthesize and feed larger creatures.
But sometime in the 1970’s a new type of ecosystem was discovered in very deep waters, which does not need the sun to exist. Seeps called hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor form from where heat and chemicals are released. With this soup of prime materials, light is not necessary to form complex molecules; chemistry is enough. Some hydrothermal vents appear like smoke chimneys because they look like the insides of the Earth seep out. In reality, it’s just hot, dark, iron-rich material, which is also great food for chemosynthetic bacteria.
Not long after black smokers — as these hydrothermal vents are colloquially called — were discovered, it was decided that a small one would fit nicely at the Aquarium. A kindly oil company helped them make a hole at the Aquarium floor, close to the edge, and place a pipe that would, hopefully, bring up dark raw materials.
Just a few tens of meters below the sea floor, they hit such a source, and the vent started spewing. Tectonic plates meet in the Aegean Sea and offer ample opportunity for access to such material sources. A suction vent was placed above the pipe opening to collect excess material and avoid contaminating the Aquarium. For a while, this material was collected at the surface and sent to iron ore industries.
A gorgeous little ecosystem developed nicely around it: bacteria ate the material and generated complex molecules. Worms ate the bacteria with their complex molecules and converted them to tissues. Fish, crabs, shrimp, and sea shells lived there, apparently happily for years and years, in the dark. To them, the sun was mostly irrelevant.
This little operation was no gold mine and didn’t make anyone rich. It was only harvesting iron, but it did bring in enough money to fund a rotating group of scientists and keep them coming back. It even paid for a small landing spot that helicopters could use for emergencies.
Like mines, hydrothermal vents are not forever, though. They eventually run out of material. For animals that cannot migrate to adjacent vents, this is a death sentence. Others may stand a chance. The Aquarium’s artificial vent had been small to begin with, and now it was barely seeping at all. This was enough to keep most creatures alive, but too little to make it commercially viable as an iron source.
Industry eventually left, so did most of the money, and the boat and helicopters. Grants evaporated, because the research was taking too long; animals need time to grow and ecosystems need even more time to develop. New submersible technologies made it easier to study the sea floor and hydrothermal vents in the real ocean. Ironically, scientists used the island as a base from which to launch their hi-tech submersibles into the open sea close by.
But so many new options appeared in larger islands that served as more convenient bases for exploration that eventually, the scientists also left. The last day was a stoic one. The scientists were not happy. To them, this was their workplace and playground. They considered the Aquarium a new field of study and a field for their subjects to thrive in. But in the late 1970’s, it was already time to go.
The last group of scientists spent several days debating their responsibilities to life in the Aquarium. All sorts of creatures were now thriving in the hole and, although they seemed to be doing fine, scientists wouldn’t be there to help them in case of need. The logic that prevailed was that if you abandon a zoo, you don’t leave the animals unattended in their cages.
It was agreed, then, that these animals living in the largest confined aqueous space in history, were indeed confined. In a last, non-scientific act of compassion, explosives were placed a few hundred meters from the research facilities to blow a hole at the rim of the Aquarium. This would give an exit to some creatures and would let ocean water in.
The explosives opened up a gaping hole. Suddenly, the Aquarium was no longer isolated from the Aegean Sea. The hole was not particularly large, and it did not extend deep into the side of the Aquarium. Metal debris partially blocked the passage.
But for some time, and for as long as the surface of the Aquarium waters did not recede, small fish would be able to exit their confinement while larger fish from the open waters probably wouldn’t be able to enter. A greater urgency was placed on removing machinery from the island like the water pipes and all sorts of other easily transportable equipment. Not so different from any other paradigm of abandonment, some equipment was left behind.
The last scientists left with heavy hearts. A few went back to visit, most decades later, like a retired U.S. marine biologist, who returned to see what had happened to the environment after all these years only to meet her demise and inadvertently leave a small whitish cat from Athens stranded and all alone.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma