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 9: Watermelon in the Hole
By the time everyone had a fair idea of how the Watermelon worked, Hanson and Fawkes had arrived at Dioptra. They quickly saw the brief footage from the pole camera — which wasn’t particularly revealing — and were keen to see the Watermelon in action.
On their boat, which was the largest on the island and even larger than Taro’s, they had brought their favorite new toy, a manned rover that would be easily able to take both of them all the way down to the bottom of the hole. Normally, they had a team of another two people helping them with prepping the rover, but the two of them — with help from the other team members — would suffice. Eiko was such a talented tech that Hanson and Fawkes looked forward to her input and ideas on their beloved machine.
Hanson and Fawkes were wealthy businessmen, each with his own enterprises. They shared a passion for adventure. Long-time friends, they often went on tandem explorations that were typically well thought-out. They took pride in professionalism and didn’t want to look like amateurs in front of the reporters that often followed them around. This mission was being undertaken on a whim, based on flimsy data, and it was certainly best to keep a low profile with minimal involvement.
The immediate plan was to send the Watermelon down and take an overview of the environment. Of course, everyone would be delighted to see large fish, especially one representing the mysterious Guardian of the hole, as they had jokingly referred to the subject of Frank’s grainy picture.
* * *
Nannion, from the safety of the second floor of the building she was in, hadn’t missed anything of what was going on by the shore. It was so exciting to have some kind of company after six months of complete isolation. She watched the team set up the kiosk and prepare the Watermelon. She was startled when they put it into the water during prepping. She still remembered her ordeal swimming in those waters.
She stood by the window, transfixed by the team for over half an hour. She caught herself purring, something she had only done on occasion when a ray of sunlight hit her, giving her a fuzzy warm feeling.
Nannion wasn’t feral to begin with; she had always interacted with people. In fact, she had worked out by herself how to communicate with people, comfortably securing delicious seafood whenever she chose to. But she was afraid to blow her cover; that would go against her self-preservation instinct.
She ran towards the room door as if she was going to meet the people by the sea. But then she turned around and went back to the window sill. She did that a few times. But, in the end, she stayed quietly on the window ledge and kept on staring, not understanding why anyone would want to put anything into those waters. She wondered what it would feel like to rub her head against the legs of one of those humans.
* * *
In the early evening they sent the Watermelon in. Tethered to the control center kiosk, Cannavaro gave it a little good-luck push and then went straight to its controls.
At first, he chose to follow the submerged winding road for a while. The road was broad, up to fifty meters wide. It was designed to be a two-way street for gigantic trucks and leave plenty of room to spare. In the mining days, road safety was essential both for the sake of the drivers and the machines. And if any part of the road collapsed and did not allow the trucks to pass through, the repair would be a nightmare.
At the kiosk monitor, the team could take, for the first time in decades, the same route as those trucks. But everything was underwater. They did see holes at the sides of the road that had been made by the marine biologists. There were algae and small fish in and around them.
They could see the road disappear into the distance. Cannavaro turned the Watermelon to face the center of the hole. The water was pristine, but the distances were so vast that they seemed to dip into the open ocean.
He turned the vessel upwards, and they saw the surface. The transparent walkway would have given a beautiful view, but it was too far away to be visible. He directed the Watermelon back along the road in the hope of seeing some more, maybe exciting, life, perhaps associated with other holes along the way.
A bit further down, they did encounter such life in the form of a resting shark, almost in the middle of the road. Almost two meters in length, it looked like a sandbar shark. How many sharks were there in these waters? This one looked nothing like the one in Frank’s grainy photo.
“I’m taking it down,” said Cannavaro as he maneuvered the Watermelon towards the center again. This time he kept it going inwards and downwards in order to reach the bottom as fast as he could. He turned on the lights after a depth of about 200 meters. He was very careful not to bring the Watermelon down too fast, in order to avoid hitting the road.
The way down was lonely for the Watermelon. Little life was observed, suggesting either that creatures avoided the open waters or the Watermelon. Some time later, they realized they had almost reached the bottom.
The relatively weak lights only gave them a limited field of view, but as the Watermelon approached the bottom, they could see the remnants of the black smoker. The collecting hood over it was gone. Some of the tubing could be seen on the floor close by. Nothing was coming out of the chimney. The tube worms that would have lived there were dead and on their way to becoming fossils.
But there were crustaceans on the structure. These could have been the adapted progeny of the original creatures that thrived in the black smoker environment or completely different species that had colonized that part of the Aquarium later. Every observation challenged a question that could be turned into an entire science project.
The floor of the Aquarium was a gorgeous white sand layer that had been added during construction to provide a nice generic substrate for fish to lie on. Flatfish have been found at great depths in several seas, and they like to burrow into sandy floors.
Cannavaro tried his best to maneuver the Watermelon to scan as much of the floor as possible. But with no location equipment or positional cues, and with the narrow field of view provided by the lighting system, it was up to his sense of spatial orientation to scan as thoroughly as he could.
Zigzagging along the floor, they saw a lot of white sand and a sole, validating the original idea. It was gorgeous watching this environment on camera, but it would be really nice to see something other than just sand and the occasional little fish. At approximately three football fields in area, they knew they would miss potentially interesting areas.
But then it happened.
Amidst the white sand, there was an underwater lake, just like those Cannavaro had studied a few tens of kilometers away. The Watermelon had reached the edge of a lake. Its lights were flashing off its surface, making it look like a liquid mirror. The lake had its own little waves, and the observers could see them break gently on the shore, two kilometers under the surface of the water.
Cannavaro knew of the corrosive chemical composition of the water in many of these lakes, and he wanted to avoid having the Watermelon touch it. Unprepared for this discovery, they were not equipped for sampling in this dive. Normally such samples required mechanical add-ons.
Cannavaro carefully took the Watermelon over the surface of the lake to make a rough estimate of its size. It was about the size of an ordinary swimming pool. He did everything he could to peek beneath the surface by changing the angle of view, but the properties of the lake surface made it too reflective to see through. They could not measure its depth.
Cannavaro knew that the Watermelon was far too buoyant to dip under the surface. But perhaps he could push the Watermelon’s camera and lights onto the surface and get some useful images. But Fawkes suggested he protect the Watermelon, as it would be essential for tomorrow’s mission with their rover.
The rover was equipped with a mechanical arm on which a small camera could be placed. It would be able to pierce through the surface, sparing the more precious core equipment from potential damage.
The remainder of the afternoon involved everyone aiding in preparations for the rover descent on the next day. They carried on lively discussions about the origin of the brine lake. How deep was it? Was there a connection between the lake and the underground sources of black smoke? Was there a connection between the lake and the other brine lakes that Cannavaro studied? Could there be Loricifera in this one?
J-Cap delivered a phenomenal meal, and everyone who ate his food for the first time told him that the dinner proved his culinary legend justified. It was decided that, given the fact that all of this had started from Frank’s initiative, it would be correct to invite him to the island, should he choose to join them. Taro sent him an email on behalf of everyone at the table.
* * *
Meanwhile, Nannion had reached Taro’s boat, which, to her, sounded and smelled just like a seafood tavern by Monastiraki Square. This was familiar territory, and her Athenian instincts would have seen her comfortably show herself and demand food. But her six months of isolation had made her wary of everything.
She was not ready to make friends, especially knowing that she was trapped on the island with no escape and no parked cars to hide under. She sat by the boat and breathed in as much of the fishy air as she could.
If cats could cry, Nannion would have cried, not so much out of self-pity but due to the emotional burden of working out whether she should risk revealing herself or not. She rolled around by the boat, imagining she was a pet.
Cats can sigh, and she sighed. She walked away from the boat. She sat at the port and watched the open sea. Other than the occasional passing dolphins, there is no sign of life in these waters when you just look at them from over the surface. Everything was dark blue: the sky, the light on the ground, and the boats beyond the buildings.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma