As I sit here in my home in Switzerland at 520 meters (1700 ft) altitude, and read article after article on the spread of the oil catastrophe in the Gulf , my thoughts turn back to my youth, growing up on Norton's Point, in the community of Seagate, the furthest tip of Coney Island, the first land a ship sees on entering New York Harbor.
There is beach in Seagate and a reef of granite blocks running parallel to the shore, and before WWII, when excavations for anti-aircraft gun emplacements filled it in, there was a lagoon behind that reef where we kids braved the crabs and learned to swim. The reef was covered with huge mussels which the Sicilian workmen who cleaned the beach used to harvest for the table and which we kids used for bait for crabbing.
Fishing off the reef was good. The catch was mostly fluke, whiting and some mackerel and an occasional eel but once there was a tremendous run of mackerel which got trapped in the lagoon when the tide went out and we kids divided ourselves into two groups, one group in the water and one on land. The water group formed a skirmish line to drive the fish shore-wards where we could scoop the fish up with our bare hands and throw them on shore where the other group threw them higher, secure from reentering the water. The whole community had mackerel for a week and more.
Coney Island is within the New York city limits and it had an excellent public library where I discovered William Beebe's book: "Half Mile Down", an account of the first really deep dive of his bathysphere, an account which enflamed my youthful imagination.
Since that momentous first deep dive bathyscaphs have reached the ocean bottom and intensive investigation of the ocean's depths are even now ongoing. The Smithsonian Institution, Ocean Planet has published a short excerpt of Beebe's first impressions and I quote here a few excerpts of that excerpt:
A Dark and Luminous Blue
William Beebe - Half Mile Down, 1934
But what was it like to be the first humans to venture into the deep? In 1934, William Beebe, a naturalist, and Otis Barton, an engineer, climbed into a crude steel ball called the bathysphere and descended half a mile into the unknown darkness off Bermuda.
At 320 feet a lovely colony of siphonophores drifted past. At this level they appeared like spun glass. Others which I saw at far greater and blacker depths were illumined, but whether by their own or by reflected light I cannot say. These are colonial creatures like submerged Portuguese men-o'-war, and similar to those beautiful beings are composed of a colony of individuals, which perform separate functions, such as flotation, swimming, stinging, feeding, and breeding, all joined by the common bond of a food canal
For example, my next visitors were good-sized yellow-tails and two blue-banded jacks which examined me closely at 400 and 490 feet respectively. Here were so-called surface fish happy at 80 fathoms. Several silvery squid balanced for a moment, then shot past, and at 500 feet a pair of lanternfish with no lights showing looked at the bathysphere unafraid.
At 800 feet we passed through a swarm of small beings, copepods, sagitta or arrow worms and every now and then a worm which was not a worm but a fish, one of the innumerable round-mouths or Cyclothones. Eighty feet farther and a school of about 30 lanternfish passed, wheeled and returned; I could guess Myctophum laternatum, but I cannot be certain. The beam of light drove them away. . . .
At 1900 feet, to my surprise, there was still the faintest hint of dead gray light, 200 feet deeper than usual, attesting the almost complete calm of the surface and the extreme brilliancy of the day far overhead. At 2000 feet the world was forever black. And this I count as the third great moment of descent, when the sun, source of all light and heat on the earth, has been left behind. It is only a psychological mile-post, but it is a very real one. We had no realization of the outside pressure but the blackness itself seemed to close in on us.
At 2000 feet I made careful count and found that there were never less than ten or more lights--pale yellow and pale bluish--in sight at any one time. Fifty feet below I saw another pyrotechnic network, this time, at a conservative estimate, covering an extent of two by three feet. I could trace mesh after mesh in the darkness, but could not even hazard a guess at the cause. It must be some invertebrate form of life, but so delicate and evanescent that its abyssal form is quite lost if ever we take it in our nets. Another hundred feet and Mr. Barton saw two lights blinking on and off, obviously under control of the fish. . . .
On down we went through a rich, light-filled 2400, and to rest at 2500 feet, for a long half hour. . . .
I quote this for a purpose. Let us make what Albert Einstein described as a thought experiment.
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