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 5: Three Abyssal Sister Lakes
In the extreme depths of the seas, water behaves in peculiar ways. Minerals seeping from cracks at the sea floor can collect in basins, and the extreme pressures of the abyssal environment prevent the mineral-rich water from mixing with the rest of the sea. Underwater lakes form, whose water is devoid of oxygen and full of salts, different kinds of salts — the exact opposite from what most animal life needs on Earth.
Nowhere are deep waters as accessible as they are in Greece. Less than 200 kilometers from the island of Crete, in the warm and protected Mediterranean Sea, three such basins are located close to each other, at a depth of about 3,500 meters: L’Atalante, Urania, and Discovery.
To study such formations, you need to go down there. And there is a serious shortage of submersibles that can withstand the pressure of the deep. Science is still advancing slowly in this field of study. But the few vehicles able to reach the abysses bring back film footage that looks unreal.
Underwater lakes — with their own waves crashing at the shore — haven’t mixed with the rest of the ocean in tens of thousands of years. Fish appear confused. Cameras have captured fish swimming just above the lake surface; in what appeared to be a moment of awareness, the fish seemed to notice the lake and took a gulp of its water only to go into immediate convulsions. It must have felt like accidentally drinking car battery fluid.
So little is known of these brine lakes that we can conclude almost nothing, but one wonders if they are peaceful-looking death traps for unlucky passers-by. And if they are death traps, won’t evolution have already generated an exploiter?
These lakes, including the three Mediterranean ones, are teeming with organisms taking advantage of any food that reaches them. Bacteria thrive in the sediments of the lake, and any food the three sister lakes bring them is probably highly appreciated. It probably also helps direct their evolutionary fate, for selection is directly influenced by resources.
* * *
By the late 2010s, the Aquarium had been abandoned for over forty years. In the early days, the occasional scientist would visit on his or her own time out of curiosity. Some of the original scientists who left the Aquarium with a gaping hole on its side also came back. But these were sentimental trips that lasted a night, perhaps floating nostalgically on a small boat in the waters.
Even these emotional scientists had other jobs, many of them exciting ones in research institutes around the world. Fewer and fewer visitors came as the years passed by. On a sea with close to three thousand islands, this one, despite its unique history, was no longer a favorite of tourists. After decades, it had become merely a curiosity.
Yet life was continuing its cycles within the Aquarium while no one paid attention. Some wondered if the exit hole had taken away the potential scientific value of this endeavor. This was no longer a closed system but a semi-closed one, constantly “contaminated” by Aegean waters. The experiment couldn’t be resumed.
Meni Velisariou was far too young to have first-hand experience of the history of the Aquarium. She was a Marine Biology student at the University of Crete, finishing her undergraduate dissertation. She had joined the team of Alexandros Valis, who studied dolphins and whales in Greek waters.
There are several species of dolphin living in the Aegean Sea, and the relatively confined space of these waters brings them close together. Large pods consisting of different species oftentimes form. This phenomenon is highly unusual, and it raises all sorts of questions. What are the advantages of fusing interspecies groups? Do they hunt together? Can one species teach the other new hunting techniques? How does a dolphin of one species recognize its similarities with dolphins from other species?
* * *
The Valis group was on the University’s research vessel, returning from an expedition to the waters northeast of Crete. They had taken great film footage including high-resolution images of a mixed dolphin pod numbering several dozen individuals. They were particularly interested in determining whether the young of one species were kept segregated or whether they seemed to be comfortable among all members of the pod. Initial observations suggested the latter.
Following a long day at the sea, lab members were happy to be returning home. However, they also enjoyed riding the Aegean waters under the sun; it was one of the professional perks involved in finding these exciting mammals. Alexandros was at the wheel, and there wasn’t much to do until they reached land.
Meni knew they weren’t far from Dioptra, the official name of the island into which the Aquarium had been carved some decades earlier. She had never visited it but she expected she would someday. She was looking in the direction of Dioptra and daydreaming about taking the wheel from Alexandros and turning the boat towards the island. They could all spend a day there.
Of course, a visit could be a great disappointment, since the Aquarium had become a redundant artifact. When scientists wanted to film or sample the deep, they could just as easily do it in the open sea. But there was so much history in the Aquarium that made it worth pondering.
All Marine Biology students knew of Dioptra and the Aquarium; a few had even come to visit. Meni’s interest wasn’t even academic; the idea of the undertaking and its story were simply awe-inspiring to her. It was an uninhabited, derelict remnant of a grand plan of years past, and it had once been a center of international attention, science, tourism, and fanfare.
* * *
Meni had also studied the apocryphal accounts behind the Aquarium saga and its aftermath. Until the scientists left and blew the hole in the side of the Aquarium, everything had been well documented. Afterwards, the story became increasingly murky. The island was abandoned, and it turned into one of over two thousand Greek islands that were uninhabited.
The Aquarium marked the moment at which Marine Biology became big science. This was the Large Hadron Collider of fish science, as some jokingly called it. But its momentum simply wasn’t enough to keep it going. In the end, it wasn’t the lack of funding, but it was the lack of public interest that killed it. Gigantism in shrimp was not of much general interest when shrimp didn’t grow bigger than crayfish.
Meni imagined taking the public’s point of view. She sometimes half-cynically, half-teasingly called the public “detractors.” She wasn’t well enough known to have detractors among the lay public; rather she judged her work from the public’s point of view. Interesting things were certainly taking place in her lab. But would she have become a biologist if she had known she would be dealing with the projects she was currently running?
Meni was smart enough not to ruin her career; she didn’t quit or become reclusive. She took her accumulated holidays, went to Greece, rented a small yacht with a dingy and returned to the Aquarium.
Given the shape of the island, there wasn’t much distance from the yacht to the waters of the Aquarium. She pulled her boat up to the edge of the water. She took the walkway all the way to the center, where the bubble had been released.
She came back and got into her boat. She rowed slowly towards the center of the Aquarium and stopped. She had brought lights, which she dipped into the water to attract life. It occurred to Meni that she could have brought a scope to see underwater from her boat. But that is where her daydreaming stopped.
She knew that at some point, a dingy had been found floating into the Aquarium. Obviously, someone had visited the site. Quite possibly, it had been a marine biologist, one of many who had invested so much time on Dioptra. But likely, that person had left and abandoned a cheap, heavy dingy rather than drag it back to their boat.
* * *
Meni’s memories abruptly stopped drifting when the research vessel suddenly slowed down.
“10 o’clock! Sperm whales!” shouted Alexandros.
All rushed to see while the vessel proceeded cautiously and slowly as not to disturb the pod of twelve or so whales. This meant that the field work had not finished, yet. All knew what to do: Alexandros stopped the vessel and took out his video recorder. Meni brought the camera with the zoom lens. Yannis and Thora, the other two students, brought catalogs of the pod with member lists and identifying pictures of the fins and any scars. They knew this precious little family and had hoped they would see it on this trip, but sightings were difficult to predict.
Meni noticed a new addition to the family: “There is a calf!”
“I saw it,” Alexandros replied. “Make sure you identify the mother.”
GPS coordinates, pictures, and video footage were acquired. The mother was identified by high-resolution pictures of her fins and tail bearing telltale scars. She was constantly close to the calf and all seemed fine.
The waters in the area are the deepest in the Mediterranean: approximately five and a half kilometers deep. Sperm whales hunt squid, which live in these very deep waters. Sperm whales are extremely rare in the Mediterranean and live in areas above such deep waters. They look just like the sperm whales found in the oceans, but they are considerably smaller.
The team observed for some time, saw most of the pod dive, made sure they had collected all the necessary information, and continued on their way back. Their base was at the town of Heraklion, in the middle of the island, but they planned to stop at Chania first, eat, rest, and spend the night there.
This expedition was meant to become one of the memorable ones. Less than an hour from shore, the party encountered a basking shark swimming by the port side of the boat. Once again, Alexandros slowed down, and the cameras came out. The harmless young shark was a good six to seven meters in length and seemed unfazed by the research vessel moving along next to it. Great footage and pictures were taken, and Alexandros decided to ride the boat slowly alongside the shark for a few more minutes.
Meni put the camera aside and rested her elbows on the ledge of the boat, staring at the basking shark. It was moving slowly and Alexandros was just rolling the boat alongside it. Meni placed her body on the ledge and extended herself, giving the impression that she was swimming — or flying — over the shark. It was fun for a few seconds until Meni slipped — arguably not by accident — and landed onto the poor animal. She found herself on top of the shark, her right hand holding onto its dorsal fin, her left hand just behind its gills.
The incident was somewhat anti-climactic, for the shark and boat were proceeding at little more than a walking pace. The animal was still unfazed. Some intensity ensued when Meni found herself up in the air, pulled abruptly by Alexandros, who had left Thora at the wheel in order to bring Meni back on board. Alexandros was surprisingly strong, pulling her back onto the vessel all by himself.
Meni felt like a wet cat and a bit worried, too, when she noticed how red his eyes were, staring at her like an angry, disappointed parent, not saying a word. She chose not to make things worse by claiming to have slipped out of the boat. She said nothing, he said nothing. She sat at the back of the boat; Alexandros went back to the wheel, and off they went. Nobody said a word until they reached the port of Chania, almost an hour later.
Thankfully, this hour-long trip calmed everyone down. After all, they had done a great job and were bringing valuable data back to the lab.
* * *
Back at the town of Chania, the team sat at a fish tavern by the water, relaxing with ouzo and fried calamari while they waited for the rest of the food. It was an ultimately relaxing setting, not secluded at all, really close to the water, with strong traditional and folkloric elements. They had earned the respite.
“Meni, let’s see some pictures,” asked Alexandros.
Meni opened her laptop where she had already uploaded her images.
“So who’s the new mother?” Alexandros continued.
Meni: “Themis, I think.”
Alexandros looked at a few pictures and concurred: “I think you are right.” Friendship had been reinstated. Yannis, Thora, Meni, and Alexandros proceeded to look at some more data, but mostly they enjoyed their meal and the gorgeous port town of Chania.
A while later, while strolling around Chania, Alexandros approached Meni. Meni pre-empted him: “Alexandre, I am sorry for the shark incident.”
Alexandros replied, “Okay, Meni, but I want to talk to you about something else. I know you are interested in dolphins and whales, but I think you are more interested about the deep waters the whales swim to rather than the whales themselves. Perhaps you want to consider a different lab for your thesis.”
Meni felt sad seeing that Alexandros had realized her heart was not really into his research, because she liked him as a person and admired his work. But it was true: a career in cetacean research was not was she was looking for. She let him continue.
“It’s not an issue, Meni. If you want to move to this area and gain some experience in unconventional deep-sea ecosystems, I can talk to Cannavaro. He should have no problem taking you on board for the summer. That gives you the time to decide if you want to follow it up with a PhD. I won’t be offended.”
Meni thanked him in a somber and slightly remorseful tone and she kept her excitement to herself. For the remainder of the evening she imagined how it would be, studying life found in underwater lakes made up of what is best described as a battery acid, kilometers beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma