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 19: Let Them Go?
The shark’s splash showered water everywhere, but much of the equipment was mostly waterproof. The shark lay on the edge, thrashing in discomfort. It didn’t try to attack anyone, and it wasn’t moving violently. But it was going to perish if it stayed in the air for long.
It was massive, maybe 6 meters in length and heavily built. It looked like a muscular, tightly built Greenland shark. Nannion ran in front of it, clearly jolted, but not aggressively. She meowed loudly but did not hiss. She was agitated and looked at Meni with the pleading look she had mastered back in central Athens.
Meni ran towards the tail of the fish. Alexandros and Cannavaro had already grabbed it in order to pull the shark back into the water. J-Cap leaped over the shark to its right side and began to help Alexandros and Cannavaro push it. Everyone pulled and pushed to get the animal to safety. Frank put his arms under its chin and lifted as much weight as he could, completely devoid of any fear. Nannion stayed in front of its face, meowing all the while.
The effort paid off. The shark was now very close to the water. Alexandros, who was pulling its tail, found himself on the ledge of the shore, with his back protruding over the water. Hanson shouted to him to let go and come over to the other side to push the shark.
Alexandros didn’t want to compromise the effort and just shouted back, “It’s fine, push.” As they did, the shark rolled back into the water, with Alexandros behind it. As it rolled over, they realized it was a male shark; clearly there were at least two.
Some meters behind it, another shark appeared, presumably the female they had previously encountered. Cannavaro and J-Cap jumped into the water to help Alexandros; they feared he might have been knocked unconscious by the shark when it fell into the water. Slightly jolted but otherwise fine, Alexandros emerged, and the rest of the team helped him, J-Cap and Cannavaro back onto land.
“Nannion, if only you could talk...” said Taro jokingly, trying to diffuse the intense atmosphere.
Frank had an idea. “When I was here alone, the first time, I entered the old glass observation deck, and one of the sharks appeared. The deck seems sturdy enough, if we don’t put too much weight on it. Maybe one or two of us could go back to it with the cat. If the sharks can interact with her, we may get an idea of what they’re trying to communicate.”
Taro was skeptical. “If they are trying to communicate something.”
He felt inquisitive stares directed at him.
“We shouldn’t anthropomorphize this situation completely. We should keep our objectivity. Of course, I do acknowledge these interactions, and perhaps they are trying to communicate something, even their urge to be free. We don’t know, that’s all I’m saying. Worth a try.”
Meni offered to go into the deck with Nannion. Since she had already established an affectionate rapport with the cat, everybody agreed. They all wanted to follow her but knew the choice would have to be objective. It was decided that as an animal behaviorist, Alexandros should also go. He had worked mostly with mammals, but he had spent a good part of his career observing sea life, as well.
Alexandros and Meni put on life vests and entered the deck. Nannion agreeably went with them, seemingly sensing the importance of the move. She let Meni carry her inside. Meni had brought a bag where, if needed, she could put Nannion in, zip it up, and easily carry her out to safety.
The other team members stood at the deck entrance, ready to communicate with Meni and Alexandros, and watching the water for signs of the sharks. Cannavaro had pulled the Watermelon out of the water to avoid disturbing the sharks.
Nannion sat on her hind legs at the center of the deck, close to the glass surface, and looked forward. Alexandros gestured to Meni that they should sit back, on each side of Nannion, and stay calm, letting her do whatever she needed to do.
A little later, they saw what appeared like the two shadows of the sharks. They were far away, near the surface of the water. Anticipating that the team would have seen them and try to call a warning, Alexandros raised his hand. He did not have to make a sound, and Nannion remained undisturbed.
Moments later, Meni and Alexandros confirmed that the shadows were indeed the two sharks. These swam up to the glass frame and waited, watching Nannion, as she calmly watched them back.
Nannion hopped onto Meni’s lap and resumed looking at the sharks, as if signaling to them that she had made a new alliance. Alexandros looked at Meni to see how she was coping with her experience, holding a sweet little cat while being stared at by two enormous sharks, a couple of feet away from her. As she looked at Meni, he noticed something on the floor, behind her.
Alexandros asked quietly, “Meni. What is that behind you by the corner?”
Meni was just close enough to pick it up and show it to him. “It’s a piece of cloth, like a piece of a blanket. With white hair on it. Probably Nannion’s.”
“She’s probably been coming here often. She made herself comfortable.”
Meni gave Nannion the blanket who grabbed it in her teeth. “Yes, it must be hers.”
Meni was sitting with her legs crossed. She placed Nannion between her legs and extended both her hands onto the glass. She leaned forward, putting her face close to the glass and looked at the sharks. Nannion stood up, with her hind legs on top of Meni’s, and also placed her paws on the window. The sharks kept looking at them for some time.
Meni, face and hands still on the window, addressed Alexandros. “Alexandre, I think it may be just these two sharks.”
Meni, Alexandros, Nannion, and the sharks were all peaceful. But this experience was still intense as nothing Meni or Alexandros had ever been through. Wanting to lighten things up while continuing to reason about the situation, Alexandros used his seniority to keep the conversation going. “Possibly. Ask me the next question, Meni.”
“Do these sharks lay eggs or give birth to live young?”
“That’s the question.”
“Either way, that would not impact their will to leave this place. It’s all about seeking the right environment for their offspring at the time their offspring are born — live or eggs.”
Alexandros speculated. “They seem to us like they want to leave. But we may be over-interpreting their actions. How do they even know there is more space outside of this hole?”
“They know there is a wall keeping them in.” Meni turned to the sharks. “Do you want to leave this place? Do you need low pH lakes? If we find a way to lead you to them, will you follow us?”
Alexandros interrupted Meni’s rhetoric. “Next topic, Meni? Lake-related.”
“You mean the egg-maker in the lake, whatever is spawning?” She turned to the sharks: “Is this hurting you? Like it did to Mari? And Frank? Did it alter your development?”
Alexandros had a thought. “Likely. Accidental or products of natural selection, I don’t know. Maybe they are meant to change other animals, or maybe this is an unfortunate byproduct of a chemical that has a completely different, possibly virtuous, function.
“Cannavaro will know how to rationalize this better than I can, but this may be even barely plausible. Maybe, whatever this egg producer is, it spawns once every several years, and it just happened that we were here when it happened. Maybe it happens all the time and it messes everything up but doesn’t kill everything.
“Maybe there were lots of sharks here and it killed all but two. We should discuss this with him now. Let’s go up. We have made contact with these big fish, and we can come back. Come on, let’s go. We need to decide what to do.”
Meni had a second thought. “You should also interact with them before we go.” She passed Nannion to Alexandros. Nannion looked at him, slightly annoyed to be out of Meni’s arms, who was by now her best friend. But a couple of head- and belly-rubs from Alexandros and she liked him well enough not to jump out of his lap.
Meni told him, “Put your hands and face by the window.”
He did, and the sharks came to him, gently regulating their buoyancy. He was delighted to have an experience he could never have dreamed of. A few moments later, it was time to discuss the science with the team.
Alexandros said, “OK, let’s go back up. We should leave the cat...”
Nannion jumped out of Alexandros’ lap, grabbed her little blanket and curled onto it, gazing at the sharks.
Meni was doubtful. “Nannion!” she called.
“We can leave her here with her blanket,” Alexandros said reassuringly. “She obviously knows how to get in and out of here. She’s been here before and she seems to be okay with this place.”
Meni and Alexandros rejoined the team. They told them what they had seen and that Nannion clearly was at least a bit less lost on this island than they had assumed.
Cannavaro agreed that, given the extraordinary situation, one could envision an unlikely, yet plausible scenario where a coral or jellyfish or urchin could have survived in the lake. Either they evolved inside the lake over tens of thousands of years, or one egg out of millions that would have been produced in the Aquarium, most of which would end up in the lake like dead fish, had acquired genetic mutations rendering it capable of surviving and thriving in the lake.
Maybe bacteria or even other organisms like Loricifera from the lake incorporated into the lifeform as it developed, generating hybrid organisms that survived. Maybe the eggs were unfertilized and did not even know that they would be able to become a complete organism.
Cannavaro concluded, “We’ll have to go back in there and see what is making the eggs.”
Taro was enthusiasstic. “We cannot hide this from humanity. We will have to let the scientific community know.”
Hanson agreed. “Yes, we will. But what do we do now, in the short term? What about these sharks?”
Fawkes was on board. “Yes, we need to decide what to do about the sharks.”
Eiko also agreed. Then, J-Cap chipped in: “Why do you all of a sudden worry so much about the sharks? Don’t get me wrong, I do, too. I have worked extensively with the sharks, but why such worry so suddenly? You almost sound depressed about their situation.”
Fawkes took J-Cap’s point. “He’s right. Are we getting affected? Frank, how are you doing?”
Everyone turned towards Frank who had been standing a little behind them, quietly, all this time. They had gotten used to him behaving mostly normally over the last couple of days. But they saw that face again, gloomy and sad, clearly on the verge of a new bout of depression.
Taro was alarmed and took charge. “We must leave the island immediately! Everyone, get on my boat. J-Cap, bring the cat. We will go onto open waters, away from what is messing with us here. The wind is gone, and humidity is accumulating again.”
J-Cap ran to the deck. He saw Nannion curled onto her blanket by the window, the sharks swimming gently in front of her. He paused for a second — just a second — marveling at the sight. He grabbed her gently but decisively and ran out to join the others.
Nannion was too confused to react. By the time she was going to complain, he had already assigned her to Meni, and Nannion started purring. Everyone got on the boat and into the open sea. Alexandros called his lab in Crete, told them everything was okay and asked about Mari. She was doing just fine, happily helping them with their research at the lab.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma