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 15: Deep and Surface Expeditions
In the morning, the senior team members — Taro, Cannavaro, Fawkes, and Hanson — went to Frank’s boat. They had arranged to be relatively few in order to avoid commotion. They wanted to ask him calmly, without challenging him, to explain what he was going through. They found him sitting on the deck of his boat, legs hanging over the side, holding the rail with his hands.
“Frank, what happened last night?” Taro had been chosen to pose the first question.
Frank appeared very calm but also sad. He lifted his head and looked at them. It was obvious to all that Frank was fighting with some kind of state of mind.
“Frank, did you go into the water, yesterday?” Hanson jumped in.
“I went... It was better there. I was compelled, I guess.”
Hanson continued to question Frank. Seeing that Frank was accepting and calm, the others let Hanson continue.
“Frank, days ago, when you fell into the waters, right there, by the explosion hole, you said you were scared to death. Are you surprised today that you didn’t feel afraid to go into the waters last night? You know there are sharks and other creatures in there.”
“I’m not surprised, but I see what you mean. Normally, yes, I would have been afraid, for sure.”
“Are you going back in, tonight?” Hanson’s questioning was becoming more to the point.
Frank’s head slowly nodded downwards, in tired agreement. A tear formed in his eyes.
“What are these sharks, Frank? Did you see them following Meni?”
“She touched one,” Frank said.
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you going back there?”
“I am compelled.”
“What does that mean, Frank?”
“I feel better there than here.”
“Are you suffering from depression?”
“I guess so.”
“Does going into the water soothe it?”
“It does... It does.... It just does. What can I tell you?” Frank was getting a bit tired of the questioning. He had no clear answers anyway.
Taro put his hand on Hanson’s shoulder to indicate that perhaps the interrogation should stop. There was no point in upsetting Frank, especially as he clearly didn’t have much information to offer.
Hanson closed the interaction. “Frank, we are going to leave you to rest. We will try to make some sense out of what happened here yesterday, OK? Probably nothing will come of it. But you understand us, yes? We’ll check up on you later.”
* * *
The team left Frank and convened with the rest of the members by the control center to discuss. Taro asked if Frank had lost it.
“That doesn’t explain the sharks,” Cannavaro said. “Nature has mechanisms to mess with your mind. There’s a brain worm, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, that afflicts elk and deer and such animals. Before it kills them, it changes their behavior. They lose fear, even fear of humans. If you encounter an overly friendly moose, it may be infected. It makes these animals come into contact with other animals they would normally fear and avoid. It can spread.”
Meni suddenly felt worried and somewhat shocked by this information. She had come into contact with an animal she would normally not have gone near.
Cannavaro mused, “It still doesn’t explain the sharks. Unless they, too, are somehow infected. I think this is far-fetched. Meni, don’t worry. I’m just brainstorming. I am just saying that, from different examples, we know that basic elements of our thoughts and personality can be hijacked. I am just making a proof-of-principle argument.”
Bending some rules and codes of conduct, it was decided to install night cameras to spy on Frank’s actions. One was set to monitor his boat and the other one the explosion hole. If Frank came out of his boat or entered the waters by the explosion hole again, they would know.
Out of respect for Frank and technical difficulties, the cameras would not be able to see inside his boat. J-Cap was put in charge of monitoring Frank while the rest of the team focused on preparing for the dive.
* * *
The dive plan was to set forth a tandem ROV/rover operation. Everyone was in high gear. Hopefully, this expedition would not be interrupted. Fawkes and Hanson would descend together in the rover. Taro’s team was already dipping the ROV into the shallow waters.
The rover was prepped and manned at the shore, next to where the spiral road entered the waters. It looked as if it had been modeled after the vehicle in the video game Moon Patrol. It was basically a buggy, with a glass dome and six large wheels, and it had a propeller at the back. Fawkes was in charge of piloting and gently took the rover into the water. Hanson, as co-pilot, was sitting next to him.
From inside the Aquarium, the hole looked enormous. As much as they could see, anyway. Ahead of them, the spiral extended for miles all the way to the bottom. But they could only see a few tens of meters in front of them.
To their left, after the edge of the roadway, there was a drop of a couple of hundred meters. If they were to peek over it, they would be able to see the continuation of the road underneath them. But they couldn’t possibly see all the way to the bottom; the waters were pitch black.
Parallel to the surface, however, waters were a beautiful blue and turquoise, nicely lit by the sun. They were seeing a tiny corner of the Aquarium, and it already looked gigantic. There were fish calmly swimming around. Probably many more had been scared away by the rover.
On the surface, accumulating close to the shore, eggs were still floating. Progressively fewer as they were constantly being picked off by fish. Inside the Aquarium, all was clear and calm.
Fawkes started descending. “I want to see the shark,” he told Hanson.
Hanson kept the focus on the mission. “Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Remember, our primary mission is simply to sample the lake and dip the camera in it.”
“Agreed,” responded Fawkes.
The Watermelon was now next to the rover, and the plan was that it would accompany the mission. The Watermelon was tethered with a cable so that it could be controlled remotely from the shore. A cable was needed, since radio waves cannot penetrate more than 20 meters or so of salt water.
The rover was not tethered, and it was piloted from within. As a consequence, direct communication between the rover and the control center was impossible. The Watermelon would be relaying a visual account of the rover.
A spiral that goes around a 2-km by 2-km hole is roughly the length of a marathon course. The rover was a wonderful piece of technology but it was also slow. A careful maneuver had been worked out to get them below faster.
“Ready?” asked Fawkes.
“Go for it,” replied Hanson.
Fawkes accelerated and took a gentle left turn. The rover cleared the edge of the road and started sinking. Fawkes kept the propeller going at low speed to give them just enough push to clear the second road level underneath.
“Readings OK.” Fawkes informed everyone.
“Video recording OK,” added Hanson. “High def, of course. Cannavaro will be drooling all over himself.”
“He’ll have to wait, though.”
The rover stopped on the spiral road, about 500 meters down. A thorough instrument check was made, and all seemed to be working fine. The Watermelon was sending up video footage of the rover. Through the rover windows, Fawkes and Hanson gave the thumbs-up to the control center.
At this depth, the rover pilots could only see as far as the headlights let them see. Everything was almost pitch black. The Watermelon had its own headlights, and these gave a little more visual acuity to the rover crew.
On the surface, Cannavaro was controlling the Watermelon and had the task to guess where they should project its headlights so as to help Hanson and Fawkes investigate their surroundings as much as possible.
The rover was facing the open waters. Fawkes started turning it slowly to inspect the wall. It was peppered with holes, many of which had been made on purpose by the marine biologists to provide hiding places for fish and other creatures. Some appeared really large, though, and Fawkes and Hanson didn’t know if these had been carved at that size or if erosion had enlarged them. The Watermelon sent images up and no one at the control center knew, either.
The rover took another leap off the road. On the way down, the occasional fish and jellyfish passed by the range of its headlights. They turned the lights towards the sea floor when the rover’s bathymetry apparatus warned them they were getting close. They were sinking slowly due to the almost-neutral buoyancy of the rover, but Fawkes gave a mild upwards boost to break the fall.
The floor was sandy and the touchdown stirred up some sand, but it would quickly settle and give them a clear view of the environment. While the sand was settling, Fawkes and Hanson did not move the rover so as not to scare away any fish and to have a good idea of where they were going. The Watermelon also did not move, hovering close to the rover and pointing towards it to let the land crew follow the expedition.
The Watermelon sent an image of an angler fish swimming behind the rover. Cannavaro hoped that Fawkes and Hanson would see it but he had no means to warn them other than moving the rover towards it. This was not an option yet; he did not want to disturb any life forms. The rover’s mirrors proved useful. Hanson and Fawkes gently turned their heads to see the fish.
“The lake should be on the other side of the sea bed,” said Fawkes. “Let’s go and find it.” He set the rover in motion.
At the surface, the team was fixed on the monitor bringing the Watermelon’s footage. J-Cap had multiple tasks: He was moving between the control center and his ship, from where he had a strategic view of the control center and the boats, including Frank’s. The monitors for Frank’s whereabouts were in J-Cap’s deck, hiding from Frank in case he decided to join the team at the control center.
Meni was more worried than anyone by the control center. She wondered if she had been singled out by the shark. She could only hope Fawkes and Hanson would bring up some answers. Mari saw she was agitated, guessed her thoughts, and told her it was crazy thinking.
Down at the bottom of the lake, the rover was moving slowly along the sandy surface towards the brine. Eventually, the headlights hit the surface of the brine lake and that made it shine brightly; it was visible from some distance. Fawkes and Hanson could see the waves of the lake, or at least from that distance they were able to infer waves from the way the light reflected back at them.
When they reached the lake, they saw that it was calm with small waves forming and crashing onto the sandy shore. The lake was about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The black smoker was behind the lake, close to the wall of the Aquarium. Nothing was coming out of it anymore. Plenty of fish appeared in the path of the headlights.
The exploration of the lake started timidly. Fawkes drove the rover slowly around the lake. They came across a narrow streak of some kind of sediment on the sand that appeared to originate from within the lake. It extended for a few meters. It could have been organic residue, perhaps indicating the presence of life that was comfortable with the brine. They agreed to come back to it later and try to retrieve a sample. But first they wanted to check inside the lake.
Fawkes moved the rover to the edge of the lake, facing it. The rover’s bright lights reflected onto the surface of the lake and made it impossible to see below the surface. Fawkes and Hanson waited for a couple of minutes to let the sand they had moved settle down. They were both transfixed by the lake’s surface.
“Do you also have the feeling this might be a deep lake?” Fawkes asked.
“I do,” Hanson replied, let’s find out.”
The Watermelon was still a few meters above the rover, watching it and the lake, sending video footage to Headquarters. Everyone at the control panel was equally focused on the video footage from the lake, and waiting for the sand to settle. Everyone except J-Cap, who was able to multi-task despite being just as interested as anyone else in this unique marine biology expedition.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma