Who is there among us that has ever seen a lake, a pond, or a river-bed laid dry that has not felt an almost childish interest and curiosity in the aspect of a portion of earth’s surface hitherto concealed from our gaze?
The feeling is probably universal, arising from the natural desire to penetrate the unknown, and also from a primitive anxiety to know what sort of an abode the inhabitants of the water possess, since we almost always consider the water-folk to live as do the birds, really on land with the water for an atmosphere. But if this curiosity be so general with regard to the petty depths mentioned above, how greatly is it increased in respect of the recesses of the sea. For there is truly the great unknown, the undiscoverable country of which, in spite of the constant efforts of deep-sea expeditions, we know next to nothing. Here imagination may (and does) run riot, attempting the impossible task of reproducing to our minds the state of things in the lightless, silent depths where life, according to our ideas of it, is impossible,—the true valley of the shadow of death.
Suppose that it were possible for some convulsion of Nature to lay bare, let us say, the entire bed of the North Atlantic Ocean. With one bound the fancy leaps at the prospect of a rediscovery of the lost continent, the fabled Atlantis whose wonders have had so powerful an effect upon the imaginations of mankind. Should we be able to roam through those stupendous halls, climb those towering temple heights reared by the giants of an elder world, or gaze with stupefied wonder upon the majestic ruins of cities to which Babylon or Palmyra with all their mountainous edifices were but as a suburban townlet! Who knows? Yet maybe the natural wonders apparent in the foundations of such soaring masses as the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, or the Canaries; or, greater still, the altitude of such remote and lonely pinnacles as those of the St. Paul’s Rocks, would strike us as more marvellous yet. To thread the cool intricacies of the “still vext Bermoothes” at their basements and seek out the caves where the sea-monsters dwell who never saw the light of day, to wander at will among the windings of that strange maze of reefs that cramp up the outpouring of the beneficent Gulf Stream and make it issue from its source with that turbulent energy that carries it, laden with blessings, to our shores; what a pilgrimage that would be! Imagine the vision of that great chain of islands which we call the West Indies soaring up from the vast plain 6000 feet below, with all the diversity of form and colour belonging to the lovely homes of the coral insects, who build ceaselessly for themselves, yet all unconsciously rear stable abodes for mankind.
It would be an awful country to view, this suddenly exposed floor of the sea. A barren land of weird outline, of almost unimaginable complexity of contour, but without any beauty such as is bestowed upon the dry earth by the kindly sun. For its beauty depends upon the sea, whose prolific waters are peopled with life so abundantly that even the teeming earth is barren as compared with the ocean. But at its greatest depths all the researches that man has been able to prosecute go to prove that there is little life. The most that goes on there is a steady accumulation of the dead husks of once living organisms settling slowly down to form who knows what new granites, marbles, porphyries, against the time when another race on a reorganised earth shall need them. Here there is nothing fanciful, for if we know anything at all of prehistoric times, it is that what is now high land, not to say merely dry land, was once lying cold and dormant at the bottom of the sea being prepared throughout who can say what unrealisable periods of time for the use and enjoyment of its present lords. Not until we leave the rayless gloom, the incalculable pressures and universal cold of those tremendous depths, do we find the sea-floor beginning to abound with life. It may even be doubted whether anything of man’s handiwork, such as there is about a ship foundering in mid-ocean, would ever reach in a recognisable form the bottom of the sea at a depth of more than 2000 fathoms. There is an idea, popularly current among seafarers, that sunken ships in the deep sea only go down a certain distance, no matter what their build or how ponderous their cargo. Having reached a certain stratum, they then drift about, slowly disintegrating, derelicts of the depths, swarming with strange denizens, the shadowy fleets of the lost and loved and mourned. In time, of course, as the great solvent gets in its work they disappear, becoming part of their surroundings, but not for hundreds of years, during which they pass and repass at the will of the under-currents that everywhere keep the whole body of water in the ocean from becoming stagnant and death-dealing to adjacent shores. A weird fancy truly, but surely not more strange than the silent depths about which it is formulated.
In his marvellously penetrative way, Kipling has touched this theme while singing the “Song of the English”:— “The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar— Down to the dark, the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are. There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep, On the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep. Here in the womb of the world—here on the tie-ribs of earth, Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat— Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth— For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.”
Surely the imagination must be dead indeed that does not throb responsive to the thought of that latter-day workmanship of wire and rubber descending at the will of man into the vast void, and running its direct course over mountain ranges, across sudden abysses of lower depth, through the turbulence of up-bursting submarine torrents where long-pent-up rivers compel the superincumbent ocean to admit their saltless waters; until from continent to continent the connection is made, and man holds converse with man at his ease as though distance were not. Recent investigations go to prove that chief among the causes that make for destruction of those communicating cables are the upheavals of lost rivers. In spite of the protection that scientific invention has provided for the central core of conducting wire, these irresistible outbursts of undersea torrents rend and destroy it, causing endless labour of replacement by the never-resting cable-ships. But this is only one of the many deeply interesting features of oceanography, a science of comparatively recent growth, but full of gigantic possibilities for the future knowledge of this planet. The researches of the Challenger expedition, embodied in fifty portly volumes, afford a vast mass of material for discussion, and yet it is evident that what they reveal is but the merest tentative dipping into the great mysterious land that lies hidden far below the level surface of the inscrutable sea.
That veteran man of science, Sir John Murray, has in a recent paper (Royal Geographical Society’s Journal, October 1899) published his presidential address to the geographical section of the British Association at Dover, and even to the ordinary non-scientific reader his wonderful résumé of what has been done in the way of exploring the ocean’s depths must be as entrancing as a fairy tale. The mere mention of such a chasm as that existing in the South Pacific between the Kermadecs and the Friendly Islands, where a depth of 5155 fathoms, or 530 feet more than five geographical miles, has been found, strikes the lay mind with awe. Mount Everest, that stupendous Himalayan peak whose summit soars far above the utmost efforts of even the most devoted mountaineers, a virgin fastness mocking man’s soaring ambition, if sunk in the ocean at the spot just mentioned would disappear until its highest point was 2000 feet below the surface. Yet out of that abyss rises the volcanic mass of Sunday Island in the Kermadecs, whose crater is probably 2000 feet above the sea-level. But in no less than forty-three areas visited by the Challenger, depths of over 3000 fathoms have been found, and their total area is estimated at 7,152,000 square miles, or about 7 per cent. of the total water-surface of the globe. Within these deeps are found many lower deeps, strangely enough generally in comparatively close proximity to land, such as the Tuscarora Deep, near Japan, one in the Banda Sea, that is to say, in the heart of the East India Archipelago, &c. Down, down into these mysterious waters the ingenious sounding-machine runs, taking out its four miles and upwards of pianoforte wire until the sudden stoppage of the swift descent marks the dial on deck with the exact number of fathoms reached. And yet so vast is the ocean bed that none can say with any certainty that far greater depths may not yet be found than any that have hitherto been recorded, amazing as they are.
The character of the ocean floor at all these vast depths as revealed by the sounding-tube bringing specimens to the surface is identical—red clay—which strikes the fancy queerly as being according to most ancient legends the substance out of which our first ancestor was builded, and from whence he derived his name. Mingled with this primordial ooze is found the débris of once living forms, many of them of extinct species, or species at any rate that have never come under modern man’s observation except as fossils. The whole story, however, demands far more space than can here be allowed, but one more instance must be given of the wonders of the sea-bed in conclusion. Let a violent storm displace any considerable body of warm surface water, and lo! to take its place up rises an equal volume of cold under layers that have been resting far below the influence of the sun. Like a pestilential miasma these chill waves seize upon the myriads of the sea-folk and they die. The tale of death is incalculable, but one example is mentioned by Sir John Murray of a case of this kind off the eastern coast of North America in the spring of 1882, when a layer of dead fish and other marine animals six feet in thickness was believed to cover the ocean floor for many miles.
From A Sack of Shakings by Frank T. Bullen