National Geographic : 1954 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine Now I see the bottom, clear and bare. The guide chain dangling below our car touches the ground and relieves just enough weight to bring our fall to a stop. No vibration. F.N.R.S. 3 is trimmed neatly 10 feet above the sea floor, 4,040 feet down. I shout, "A shark!" Houot laughs and says something about nitrogen narcosis, the intoxication of the depths. "Another shark!" I cry. "Your case seems serious," the pilot ob serves. I pull him down to look over my shoulder. He sees a charming little shark about three feet long. It comes on until its nose almost touches the Plexiglas. It seems to want a good look at us. Now it slowly swims away, its curiosity satisfied. Larger sharks, 8 to 10 feet long, swim through the arena of light. Unlike their fa miliar cousins in the heights of the sea, they have broad, flat heads, elongated like a snout, and big, protruding white eyes which glisten in the searchlight's beams. Lazily they turn in the glowing circle, throwing shadows larger than themselves on the pale mud. I remember now where I have seen one of these creatures before; it was at a country fair, billed as a "caterpillar of the sea," a weird monster from the great depths. What are its eyes for, I ask myself? No daylight penetrates into this absolute dark ness. The shark must use its eyes simply to detect the phosphorescence of its prey. I break off my speculations, for suddenly I see something so startling I burst out laughing. A newspaper lies spread on the sea bottom. Sharks Still Prowl Around Sphere We decide to rest the sphere on the mud by valving a little gasoline. We know the theory of this technique, but we have never actually done it in the depths. When Houot turns the valve, we almost wince: gasoline is precious, and this is like losing one's blood. We sink the last 10 feet more to land with out a jolt, throwing up a light mud cloud. Now my porthole, slanting diagonally, is three feet from the bottom of the Toulon canyon. The clear yellowish sand, or mud, is blistered with innumerable big mounds pierced by small holes like those of marmots. Animals are bur rowing into the bottom, indicating an intense underground life. Shrimps four or five inches long float by. We are in no hurry. We plan to stay on the bottom for four hours while I experi- ment with movie and still pictures. Before starting the motors to make a journey across the floor, we intend to look at the landscape and discuss it for a while. Outside, the fan tastic weaving dance of the sharks continues. There are as many as four in sight at once, casting huge baroque shadows on the sand. "Soup" Grows Thicker with Depth Houot and I agree that bathyscaphe dives upset some traditional ideas of the sea. For us, at least, the problem of the deep scattering layer is now restated in entirely new terms. So far as we can see, there is, biologically speaking, no DSL, but rather a great bowl of living soup extending on down and growing thicker the deeper into the "tureen" we go. Both Beebe and Barton, the two men who have previously looked out into the deeps, have reported that the density of organisms seems to increase with depth; but so far little attention has been paid to their statement. The cycle of marine animal life is supposed to depend directly or indirectly on phytoplank ton, generally microscopic algae that live in suspension in the water. These basic plants of the undersea economy rely on photosyn thesis, the process by which those containing chlorophyll use energy derived from sunlight to make carbohydrates. This activity can take place only in the layer penetrated by sunlight, usually to a depth of 600 feet; often not more than 200 feet. Below this life-giving realm of the sun, says classic theory, the animal population thins out in the dark and the cold, where living crea tures are supposed to depend on the plant life at the top, in a vastly complicated web of existence. Yet against this notion are ranged the direct observation of five men who have been to the depths-Beebe, Barton, Houot, Willm, and myself. I cannot propose an ex planation of why reality does not match the simple, attractive theory. But there must be somewhere an unsuspected link in the cycle of marine life yet to be discovered. We decide to cruise along the bottom. Houot presses a lever to discharge some ballast. In stantly we hear the rumbling noise of some thing heavy falling from the ship. We look at each other. Says Houot: "The guide chain must have fallen." I am still at the porthole. "No. The out side lights have gone out. The batteries must have dropped off." A very short silence. The pressure gauge is just above my head.