penny dreadful deep water

27 May 2009 21:54:00 AEST

For a long time I have been fascinated by very deep water. I know the exact moment that this began. It started on a trip on a sub when we had a bit of time in hand, we were approaching the equator and decided to spend a day kicking back on the surface, barbie on the casing. The weather was totally clear, not a breath of wind for the last week. We surfaced at night and popped the hatch. Almost immediately I was knocked back by a wall of stench; rotting weed and slime. The boat had started to turn into a reef after a few months of stooging around in the tropics at slow speeds, the baby barnacles were clicking and snapping in the warm air.

Up on the bridge the view was magnificent, no land for over 1000 miles in every direction , enough starlight to read a book by. We were at stop about 5 miles south of the equator in around 6000m of water and there was zero wind, I noticed large shapes, shadows drifting by just out of visibility, wreckage? thought nothing of it and went to bed, it would be a pretty good day tomorrow.

The sun hit the slime and barnacles at about 0530.

It all started to cook immediately. The smell was overpowering. The call was made to scrape the boat down in preparation for a barbie on deck and a swim before getting underway. I got suited up to dive the bottom of the boat with three others and we waited while the shark sentry got in place. It was then that I saw what the dark shapes on the water were last night.

Drifting past the boat were jellyfish the size of a dining room table, great ovals with intricate patterns and contouring, huge skirts trailed behind them. They were spread out at random intervals over hundreds of metres. I knew what was coming next. The sentry always tested their weapon before we dived and now there was a target other than a piece of wood thrown over the side. It wasn't quite like killing an albatross but I was a little uncomfortable at having to go in the water after what followed.

A 5.56MM round travels at around 950metres per second.

The first round hit the nearest jellyfish with a soft thud. An instant thin slit appeared in the front of the animal while about 50 kilos of mass blew out the other side spraying in a fanning arc of white organic matter. Chunks and pieces skipped across the water like smooth stones. The thin slit facing us opened and closed as though the creature was trying to 'heal' itself somehow. After about 10 seconds it stopped and hung open, ripping slightly. The entire mass then rolled over a few seconds later - finished. The soft underbelly lay exposed to the morning sun, a deep red and crimson core colouring now visible, fading to light pink on the streaming tentacles. A burst of automatic fire followed. The mass shredded immediately, tentacles cartwheeling across the slick water. Two seperate hemispheres seperated and sank quickly - beginning the long trip down to the 6000metre mark.

Jokes followed about the 'survivors' closing in for payback....wouldnt want to be going in the water after that etc. To be honest I wasnt that happy about going in either.

We got to work scraping the hull with foot long stainless steel dive knives, they had a nice flicked up point that was good for lifting up barnacles and shell growth. It was all coming away pretty easily. About then I first looked down beneath me. I had never been diving in water this deep. It was a deep blue black. With no rain or shore run off, visibility was unrestricted, only limited by the absorption of sunlight - hundreds of metres potentially. There were four of us in total and looking down now I could see four distinct trails of barnacle and debris stretching down in perfect vertical lines into the abyss. I began to think what was down there. I knew these areas were technically deserts, so far from reefs or seamounts there was nothing except the great whales that had the body fat reserves to get across these zones into richer areas 1000 miles north or south. Still, we were introducing something very different into the system here. It would have been a million years before rich barnacles and crushed shellfish had filtered down to the bottom here. I suddenly had a vision of us 'waking' something up, 'disturbing' something that had been in stasis; waiting for a food supply to raise it from the bottom. This is exactly what we were doing. I imagined a freight train with teeth shooting up from the depths following the chains of food all the way to us and couldnt get it out of my head for weeks.

About then, one of the guys slipped, there was a sharp metal on metal 'tang' and then someone was holding their hand. Thin vapours of blood dissolved into the seawater as they streamed out of his hand - it was disturbingly fascinating to watch. I looked below as his knife spun out of reach, spinning end over end, the polished blade glinting in the sunlight.

The cut wasnt too bad, we put another glove on it to create pressure and started to finish up. About 5 minutes later we started coming up as a group. Looking down something caught my eye; it was the glint from the knife still visible, spinning all the way down into the darkness. I ran some numbers when I got back onboard after that and worked out that the knife must have been at around 300 metres when we left the water. It would take over an hour and a half for it to reach the bottom, and whatever was down there.

As we climbed out onto the deck, it was clear that the phenomena of the exceptional visibility had not gone un-noticed. A few of the sailors had polished up some coins and were throwing them over the side. One young seaman had spent an hour polishing an already bright 20 cent piece with silvo. As he flicked it over the side, I wondered when that coin would next be in the open air. 1 million years? 5 million? 200 million? At that depth, temperature and pressure, the coin would last indefinetly. I wonder what the being that next picked it up would think of it...I wonder what they would make of the Platypus upon it...

I went down below and threw myself around in the showers for a while before crawling into my rack. Dark dreams of the 'freight train' with teeth whipping up from the deep followed...jellyfish as big as cities drifting past in the gloom...



Cover Image :: Sea Nettles ''Chrysaora quinquecirrha'': Dennis Mojado; 2005 CC.

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