April 18, 2013

Abyssal Alphabet
Colin Dickey

Abyssal Plain If you want to learn anything, start with out-of-date science. You can read the latest reports of scientific journals, study advanced biology and chemistry and so forth, but that will only get you so far. You need disreputable texts, you need fanciful conjecture, old wives' tales, hasty assumption, poor observation, bias, faulty method. If you trust what the latest theories of science tell you, you run the risk of believing you're seeing the world as it really is. If, on the other hand, you look at out-of-date science, you see how humans try—and inevitably fail—to apprehend what's right before their eyes. The more you know how much we've gotten wrong in the past, how habitually we err, how fundamental our prejudices towards things we don't understand are, the more likely you'll treat your surroundings with humility.

C. P. Idyll's Abyss, which I discovered on the shelves of the Reanimation Library last fall, sits on the edge of a divide between current and debunked science. A guide of the deep-sea depths meant for a general reader, its mission is to translate the latest scientific discoveries into an accessible idiom—as well as to spark an interest in the scientific, commercial, and political uses of the sea. Published in 1964, much of the knowledge it contains is still fairly accurate, but the closer you look the more its anachronism begins to emerge.

I'm far from any kind of trained scientist, so what follows below offers only preliminary explorations, attempts to engage in Idyll's Abyss and what humans have learned since its publication about the things that lurk in dark spaces and scuttle across the floor of the abyssal plain.

Borophryne apogon See "Illicium"

Coriolis Force Wind currents do not sync with the ocean currents beneath them. The Coriolis Force, named for Gaspard Gustave de Coriolis, describes the way the earth's rotational spin effects both air and wind currents, causing them to turn to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern.

For centuries, it was this kind of knowledge that amounted to all we cared of the ocean—how to navigate it, how to predict its whims, how to chart courses. The deep waters housed nightmares—ferocious whales and squid—but little of interest beyond that. By the time Idyll wrote Abyss, much of that had changed, but only within the previous few decades. Now serious science was turning to what lay far beneath the hulls of ships, to the creatures there, the strange landscapes that composed the ocean floor.

But even then, the interest was pragmatic. Idyll's penultimate chapter, "Uses of the Sea," describes possible industrial and political reasons to care about the ocean: what fishing stocks we might yet plunder (such as the Malacocephalus laevis), how we might use the depths for strategic purposes to defend our sovereignty, and how the deep of the ocean might be a suitable location for the disposal of nuclear waste. If we descend into the abyss, we must also descend beyond these ways of understanding it, we must follow the mind of the Harriotta raleighana and the Rhizocrinus lofotensis, we must denude ourselves of color and of sight, soften our bodies to withstand the crushing pressure. We must go deeper.

Deep Scattering Layer The floor of the ocean ascends nightly. Sonar, with its imperfect eye, sends down echoes to bounce off the seabed, recording the distance the echoes take, making sense blindly of the black water below. In certain places, the seabed, as measured by sonar, seems to rise at night—from depths of several thousand feet to only a few hundred.

There are multiple such layers, these Deep Scattering Layers, these "phantom bottoms," false floors that dupe sonar. These layers that emerge nightly from the depths are horizontal planes of fish, plankton, shrimp and jellyfish—small organisms whose sheer numbers scatter the sonar echoes, looking for all the world like a flat surface, like bedrock. They rise in the dark to feed on the more plentiful food near the surface, where photosynthesis still plays a role.

The deepest of these three DSLs is around 2,400 feet, though the actual ocean floor, the abyssal plain and the deep sea trenches, lie far, far deeper. Scatter the layers once more, and descend.

Epipelagic Zone The layer of water stretching from the surface down to around 650 feet deep, where the ocean is still illuminated and where there is still sufficient sunlight for photosynthesis. Primary production occurs here, so there is a natural gathering of most marine life here, where plankton and seaweed can breed and provide food for the abundance of fish, sharks, jellyfish, dolphins, and so forth which live in these shallow depths.

Below here is the Mesopelagic, the Twilight layer, where only 1 percent of the sun's light penetrates (down to 3,000 feet or so). Water here is depleted of much of its oxygen, making life more difficult. Swordfish, squid, cuttlefish, along with bioluminescent species congregate here, though many will rise to the Epipelagic to feed. A transition zone, a plane of water that lies on the border of the living world and the Deep.

Beyond it the Bathypelagic, the Midnight Layer. From 3,000 feet down to 12,000 feet. Devoid of plant life, populated by sparse bioluminescent creatures like anglerfish, who provide the only and rare flashes of light in these depths. Without plant life, too far from the abundance of the Epipelagic Layer, animals here subsist on Marine Snow—detritus, feces, and decaying animal and plant matter that drifts down through the depths. Here prowls the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the Vampire Squid from Hell, a creature neither a squid nor vampiric. A relative of both squid and octopus and yet a singular species of its own order, Vampryoteuthis subsists on marine snow, trailing out a long filament to which chum and shit accrue, gathering it into its mouth once a sufficient meal has been harvested. A strange landscape, the Bathypelagic, and yet there is more beneath. As Dante must have felt upon reaching the gates of the City of Dis—realizing having come so far, that there was still much further depths yet to be explored.

Below the Bathypelagic lies Lower Midnight, the Abyssopelagic. The bottomless depths, that stretch beneath the very deep to the floor of the ocean. Eyeless, transparent and unspeakable creatures prowl these depths, wandering through the crushing pressure and frigid temperatures. The Sea Pig, the Basket Star, the Swimming Cucumber. World without morning.

And still, roaming along the floor of the ocean, it's possible to discover the edge of something even deeper, a crack in the bottom, a level even deeper. The Hadopelagic, the layer belonging only to Hades, the trenches that lie below 12,000 feet, the strange wonders of hydrothermal vents, giant tube worms feasting on bacteria that congregate along these fissures, while the sea bed around them is covered in the soft sludge of dead and decaying matter from all above who've drifted to this final resting place.

Funerary Depths So at last, here we are, in the depths. The Abyss.

Guyot Flat-planed underwater mountains, rising up from the bottom like truncated monuments. Imagine a sea-going Grim Reaper, striding noiselessly across the ocean's floor, leveling mountains in His wake. Then ask yourself by what hourglass Death might measure out the length of a mountain's life.

Harriotta raleighana A member of the Order Chimaeriformes. Formerly grouped by icthyologists as sharks, sometimes eels, and still known to some as "ghost sharks," current taxonomical nomenclature has grouped this Order (to which the Harriotta releighana now belongs) as "Chimaeras." Also informally known as ratfish (though not to be confused with rat-tails), spookfish (though not to be confused with the spookfish in the family Opisthoproctidae), or rabbitfish (though not to be confused with the perciform fishes of the family Siganidae).

Is declassifying this creature as a shark and renaming it after a mythical Greek creature an improvement? Not just a mythical creature, but one hobbled together from pre-existing parts of recognizable animals at that. There is a failure of descriptive language here—but a triumph of metaphoric and analogical language. We have all-but stopped naming the world, and instead or simply cannibalizing words already in use, looking for the best fit even when it's no fit at all. As though new descriptive language is so precious that we are afraid of using up what little remains.

Illicium A genus of flowering plants, including at least 42 known species of evergreen shrubs and small trees. From the Latin, "to entice." Native to eastern and southeastern Asia, southeastern North America, and the West Indies. Notable species include the Star Anise, the Florida Anise—though illicium is unrelated to Anise proper (Pimpinella anisum). North American varieties, including the Florida Anise and the Yellow Anise, are not edible.

"Illicium" is also the name for the modified three anterior dorsal fins on anglerfish, deep-sea predators who lure their prey with the illicium, which dangles above their eyes. The illicium (also, "esca") can be wiggled as though to simulate prey, and the anglerfish can stimulate luminescent bacteria living in the illicium through hyper-oxygenated blood. When other predators attempt to eat the illicium, the anglerfish's jaws are triggered by reflex.

"Human beings always display a special kind of startled amusement," Idyll writes, "when animals behave in any way like men. We pay very little attention to a horse that is handsome and strong: this is what a horse should be. But let the horse appear to smoke a pipe or count to ten and it becomes a celebrity. The bravest of silkiest coated dog is still a dog, and hardly unusual—but let it wear a hat and walk on its hind legs like a man it becomes a circus star. Monkeys are surely the most popular animals in the zoo because they behave more like their visitors. Turning to the sea, we expect fish to hunt and eat other fish—but we are startled and amused to find that some of them appear to use human techniques, using a rod and line, with a worm-like bait on the end!"

Of course, all this is fatuous. We have no similar appendage of our own body that we dongle for prey. A Borophryne apogon, could it be bothered to evaluate us, might note that we are so inferior to it that we are not even born with our own lures, and must make them artificially—more so, that we have just begun to learn this in the past few thousand years, when it mastered this technique some five million years ago.

Jumbo, Giant, Colossal We are running out of superlatives to describe the great squids of the deep. No sooner has the existence of the Giant Squid (genus Architeuthis) been definitively established than another monster emerges, the Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni). Perhaps eventually yet another monster will rise up from the depths, and what then—the Gargantuan Squid? The Behemoth Squid? We begin to lose all sense of relativism when it comes to deep sea creatures, all of whom, sooner or later, can find meaning in our minds only through nightmare.

The most common of these is the Jumbo or Humboldt Squid (Dosidicus gigas), which are ten to twelve feet long and known for being a general menace of the seas. In the fall of 2012 algae blooms were responsible for a mass die-off of Humboldt Squids, which washed ashore along the coasts of California in reeking pieces (that fall I walked along the beaches of Santa Cruz, avoiding bits of mantle, tentacles strewn like seaweed, gouged eyeholes where seagulls had already been). No love was lost, though, on these diablo rojos, as they're also known, which are notorious for attacking sailors, surfers, and anyone else who gets in their way.

Idyll discusses how vengeful fishermen, tired of Humboldt Squid eviscerating their marlin catches, turned to hunt the squid themselves, resulting in the fishermen in turn being deluged with torrents of jet-black ink. One angler described the "water shot from the funnel of the squid as 'about like the blast from a fire hose'; anglers and vessel alike were blackened by the ink. In defense the anglers took to wearing pillowcases over their heads, with holes cut for their eyes. They must have looked like eccentric ghosts, clinging to the rail of a pitching boat in the blackness of the Pacific night, flailing the sea with their fishing lines, while the giant squids shot inky water and hurled themselves with explosive speed through the sea, which exploded into brilliant phosphorescence as the animals blazed through it."

Kurile-Kamatchka Trench See "Zenkevitchiana longissima"

Lyonesse See "St. Brendan's Island"

Malacocephalus laevis "The fishes showing the greatest promise of commercially important catches from the deep-sea floor are the rat-tails. They are found in oceans over the whole world. One species, Malacocephalus laevis, was caught by the scientists of the Galanthea Expedition in such far-flung places as the Skagerrak between Denmark and Norway, off East Africa, and off South Australia.... Two things militate against extensive commercial exploitation of the rat-tails, in addition to the expense of fishing so deep: their name and—more important—their appearance."

Night In the upper reaches of the ocean, many fish employ counter-shading camouflage: their underbellies are lighter than their backs, so that looking up at them, they'll blend into the light of the surface, while looking down they'll blend into the darkness of the depths. Beyond the photic zone, however, where there is no light to speak of, animals are uniformly brown, black, gray—and red.

The question of the redness of deep sea animals is at first confusing, since presumably such a flashy color will attract unwanted predators. But as it turns out, since red wavelengths are longer than other colors, they are absorbed first in the density of dark water. One marine diver related how quickly, in some cases less than a hundred feet below the surface, red colors were "degraded to a deep maroon or brown."

Red is the first to go, but other colors follow. Orange disappears around 150 feet. Yellow is erased by 300 feet. Violet and green begin to fade out by 400 feet. As deep-sea explorer William Beebe wrote upon reaching 800 feet, "I saw only the deepest, blackest-blue imaginable." He described how the water "was of an indefinable deep blue quite unlike anything I have ever seen in the upper world, and it excited our optic nerves in the most confusing manner. We kept thinking and calling it brilliant, and again and again I picked up a book to read the type, only to find that I could not tell the difference between the blank page and a colored plate.... The repetition of our insistence upon the brilliance which yet was not brilliance was almost absurd."

Beebe, on one of his dives, brought with him a bright red shrimp in a jar: "It was no longer scarlet, but a deep black," he relates, "with an orange tone." And not just red shrimp, but blood itself discolors at these depths. Idyll: "Many skin divers have been astounded to see an eerie green cloud pour from the side of a wounded fish. The green cloud is ordinary scarlet blood—transmuted to a ghostly new color by light that water has robbed of all the warm tones."

Orpheus Rilke, like most writers I've read who've tried to describe Orpheus' descent to the Underworld, stays mostly away from ocean and water imagery. There are flowering trees, inscrutable stone monuments, and of course the poet's music, but little water to speak of. In none of these versions of the myth, does Orpheus descend the oceans to retrieve his beloved; no matter how Hades is imagined, it is always of rock and stone.

Why is this? Is it because the song of his lyre could not captivate underwater? Anyone who knows whalesong knows there's already beautiful music in the depths; perhaps the Hades of the Hadopelagic Zone would be unmoved by human song in such a world. Perhaps Orpheus, having come so far to rescue his beloved, would hear these songs and find a kinship, and abandon his quest to return to the surface.

Phantom Bottom See "Deep Scattering Layer"

Quetzalcoatl-class Destroyer "Yet another very practical reason for learning about the sea is its importance to national defense. Security depends on our ability to control the oceans, and this control will be impossible without intimate knowledge if the sea—knowledge we are far from possessing now."

Rhizocrinus lofotensis The Sea Lily, a flower-looking animal vaguely related to starfish, well known from rocks dated from the Jurassic and Cretacious, but thought to be long extinct until a specimen was found alive in 1864. As such, the Sea Lily is what's known as a "living fossil"—a distinction it also shares with Vampyroteuthis infernalis—both of whom appear in the chapter Idyll devotes to the phenomenon, "Fossils of the Sea." It was Darwin who coined the term "Living Fossil," in The Origin of Species: "And it is in fresh water that we find seven genera of Ganoid fishes, remnants of a once preponderant order: and in fresh water we find some of the most anomalous forms now known in the world, as the Ornithorhynchus and Lepidosiren, which, like fossils, connect to a certain extent orders now widely separated in the natural scale. These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition." The living fossil is a thing that appears unchanged from its form millions of years ago, unevolved, a relic of the old fossil order still living, breathing.

As it turns out, this is erroneous; some modern taxonomists prefer not to use the term living fossil, as it misrepresents the fact that genetic evolution is still very much taking place in these species. Research on tadpole shrimps shows that although similar organisms exist in the fossil record dating back 300 million years, they have gone through various periods of radiation, and extinction, and have been constantly evolving during that time. As one tadpole shrimp expert, Africa Gomez, commented, "Living fossils evolve like any other organism, they just happen to have a good body plan that has survived the test of time. A good analogy could be made with cars. For example the Mini has an old design that is still selling, but newly made Minis have electronic windows, GPS and airbags: in that sense, they are still 'evolving', they are not unchanged but most of the change has been 'under the hood' rather than external."

Gomez suggests that just because we lack the means to always track the evolution of a species, we should not then assume that they are living fossils. "Just because although outwardly they look very similar to tadpole shrimp fossils from the age of the dinosaurs, their DNA and reproductive strategies are relatively hidden features that are constantly evolving. The flexibility of their reproductive strategies, which our research has revealed, could be the evolutionary trick that has allowed them to persist as a morphologically conservative group for so long."

The Coelacanth, of course, is perhaps the most well-known of this type; originally thought to be extinct (and plentiful in the fossil record from 400 million years ago), the assumption is that it not only has miraculously persevered, but researchers have assumed that it remained largely genetically unchanged during all this time. In truth, though, the Coelacanth belongs to a somewhat different category, a Lazarus taxon—a species who appears in the fossil record, then disappears, presumed extinct, then miraculously reappears, as though risen from the dead. This would seem to apply to the Coelacanth, as well as the Nightcap Oak, the Majorcan Midwife Toad, and the South Island Takahe of New Zealand.

But this, too, is inaccurate, since of course animals simply do not spontaneously re-spawn after their extinction. Erwin and Droser suggest instead that what's perhaps really going on is that a lookalike species has asserted itself, an impersonator, and we have mistakenly assumed it to be related to the extinct specimen. Rather than Lazarus taxon, they prefer the term "Elvis taxon."

St. Brendan's Island Stare at the ocean from its lapping shores. Which is more impossible: that somewhere, thousands of miles from here, there is another shore, at which point the ocean ends? Or that it doesn't end at all? Which the more impossible thought: that it has a bottom, or that it doesn't?

St. Brendan's Island is a mythic island, a place that exists on maps but has never been found, not unlike Atlantis, or Lynoesse. Brendan supposedly landed there on 512 with a retinue of monks, as he was evangelizing the seas. Described as a place of paradise, with ever-abundant fruit, where the sun never set, the rivers ran with fresh water, and the birds were always singing. Countless sailors over the centuries have claimed to have sighted it, though none were able to make landfall. Christopher Columbus was among those who believed in its existence, who believed that islands existed that satisfied all human need and want, as though to prove the sea exists for human gratification.

There are days I find the relentless waves on the shore maddening, unbelievable—and yet if those waves were someday to cease and still, only then would I truly go mad. The ocean, bottomless, endless, ceaseless, is already its own impossibility. And so we dream of fictitious islands, sunken cities, impossible places, to place ourselves and our civilizations in this unending drama of madness.

Temperature Temperature drops, but inconsistently. At the surface, temperature is fairly uniform, from about 65 feet to 650 feet down. Beneath this is the "discontinuity layer," or the "thermocline," where temperature drops precipitously. The rate of decrease slows from then on, so that by 5,000 feet or so the temperature may be down to 40 degree Fahrenheit.

But of course, temperature does not reach freezing. As water gets colder, its molecular structure becomes more rigid; as a result, it becomes less dense as it reaches freezing (which is why ice floats on water). Which means that the water furthest from the sun, the coldest water in the ocean, is also rising, thereby stabilizing the temperature of the ocean. If it didn't, the abyssal depths would freeze, creating a permafrost layer along the bottom of the ocean that would inhibit life. "It might be said," Idyll concludes, "that our existence over much of the earth hangs on one curious rule of the physics of water."

Ultimostomias mirabilis Idyll writes of Ultimostomias mirabilis, one of the viper fish in the family stomias. Viper-fish, also dragon fish, are known for their horrific, uneven and ragged teeth, jutting out at all angles—so large that many cannot properly close their mouths, and swim in midnight depths with their maws open, luminescent patches on the insides of their mouths drawing in unwary prey. Another salient feature of the stomiatoids are the long, trailing barbels that string from their chins, a minute thread that are hyper-sensitive. "Even a slight stirring of the water near the barbel," William Beebe wrote, "would arouse the fish to the utmost so that it threshed about and snapped, striving to reach and bite the source of irritation. Again and again we proved the astonishing sensitiveness of this organ."

No stomiatoid has a barbel longer than the Ultimostomias mirabilis: though the fish itself is only 1-2 inches long, its barbel can reach lengths of ten times that length, a proportionately massive tendril trailing behind it into the endless depths.

When I went looking for more information on the Ultimostomias mirabilis, I found it no longer exists: it has been reclassified as the Photostomias guernei, the first name used to describe the fish (in taxonomy, the original name is always the winner). And yet, in all the descriptions of the Photostomias guerneii I found, none mentioned the extremely lengthy barbel, the sole identifying feature of what was once known as the Ultimostomias mirabilis.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis Lurks.

Waste "Today's quickened interest in the sea rises in part from man's need to protect himself from his own actions. The development of atomic power has confronted mankind with the completely new problem of disposing of the waste from nuclear reactors. As we rush further into the atomic age we will find ourselves with ever increasing quantities of the ominous garbage, and already we are looking about nervously for some place to throw it. Experts are still uncertain about how dangerous this waste is, but there seems to be no doubt that it cannot be left lying around the surface. Its danger is hugely magnified by its long life. Atomic waste does not disappear under the influence of bacteria, as organic garbage does; it continues to emit dangerous radiation for years or decades. Burial at sea seems to be the safest disposal plan, and the deep sea is of course the most likely site."

Xiphocaridina compressa "In most cases the luminescence is produced by chemicals made in the body of the crustacean itself, but in a few it is caused by captive bacteria. A fresh-water shrimp, Xiphocaridina compressa, from Lake Suwa, Japan, glows in a captivating manner as a result of luminous bacteria. On hot summer nights the shrimps swarm to the surface of the lake and provide such beautiful spectacle that they are protected as a national asset by order of the Japanese government."

Yellow Erased at 300 feet.

Zenkevitchiana longissima Bearded worms, strange filaments dredged from the bottom of the depths, from trenches, where they live along hydrothermal vents. They can stretch up to five feet long, and yet be not thicker than a tenth of an inch. A crown of tentacles at one end gives the appearance of a "beard," thus the name of the phylum, pogonophora.

These were first discovered around the turn of the century; it took researchers a full five decades to confirm that they had discovered a new phylum. Not just a species, genus, family or order, but a phylum unto itself, something new and rare in the world, a taxonomical wonder to behold. Imagine, that we are still to this day discovering modes of life so different from our own that we need whole new limbs on Linnaeus' tree to make sense of their workings. As biologist Libbie Hyman commented, "The finding of an entirely new phylum of animals in the twentieth century is certainly astounding, and ranks in zoological importance with the finding of the coelacanth fish and the archaic gastropod, both belonging to groups believed to be extinct for hundreds of millions of years."

Idyll's glee, as it turns out, may have been misplaced; in the years since Abyss was published, the phylum has been reclassified, beard worms like Zenkevitchiana longissima have been re-ordered within the phylum annelid, the same phylum of segmented worms that includes leeches and earthworms. Meanwhile, the deep sea worms haven't changed. They remain the same things we discovered when we thought them a creature with some new mode of living. As though science, in the end, is nothing but an increasingly frenetic and schizophrenic linguistic exercise, in which categories and names are dreamed up to describe a thing, then thrown out a generation later.

Taxonomy was designed to accommodate primarily the easiest things—humans, dogs, horses, redwoods, tuna, snakes. The deeper we go, the further into the abyss and darkness, the murkier our words and categories. The abyss isn't just lightless and colorless, it's wordless—we can bring these names down with us in exploratory vessels, but they remain alien to the life below.

Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. His work has also appeared in Cabinet, The Believer, LA Review of Books, and he is a regular contributor to Lapham's Quarterly. He is the co-editor (with Nicole Antebi & Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices. He lives in California.

View Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures that Live in It in the catalog.

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