Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Writings of the Sea

I’m browsing a book from 1968 called Under The Sea: A Treasury of Great Writing about the Ocean Depths, edited by Gardner Soule.  I used it as a source on marine life when writing my previous books.  In it I find photocopies from another book and little notes like “Copeia no.3, p.584, 1989 (2 new dogsharks).” That’s kind of nostalgic. I love having the wisdom (and stupidity) of the world at my fingertips on the Net, but I also miss the days of prowling sometimes-musty stacks of magazines and scientific journals, going back a century or more, at whatever university I was near (Purdue, Utah State, University of North Dakota, University of Arkansas, and so on) led to little nuggets of information that you couldn’t find elsewhere, and that no one had stitched into a pattern.
Inside this book I find a photocopied page from the 1989 Smithsonian book Sharks in Question, which says a great white shark definitely over 24 feet long has recently been caught in Australia and the jaws saved.  This one seems to have been forgotten or disproven.  Why was it well regarded in a book that was scrupulously conservative in saying there were no 22-foot white sharks on record?
Back to Under the Sea. There’s a discussion of what’s a dolphin and what’s a porpoise.  We learn that a dolphin named Keiki trained to swim fast to get fish rewards never exceeded 14.5 knots, although much higher speeds are reported in the wild. There is a geophysicist’s argument that continental drift isn’t possible. There is an account of a ship called the Oceaneer trying to catch a sea monster (or a monstrous sleeper shark). A report that the whale shark has “credibly” been reported at 60 feet long. (Modern authorities knock off 10 or 15 feet.)
There is an article about recent pioneering work in bioacoustics, and the discovery that not just whales but fish make a variety of noises. There is research on kelp by William Beebe and later a writer gushing over how the Great Barrier Reef is primeval, unchanging, a permanent source of delight. (We’ve sadly found it may not be so permanent.) There is a study of how the carcasses of long-dead fish in the Antarctic could have worked their way to the TOP of the ice in one spot.
Here we learn about a new phylum, Pogonophora, consisting of worms that had been tossed overboard as annoying “fibers.” The discoveries roll on: the pygmy angelfish, the living fossil Neopilina.
There is another of my handwritten notes: “1960 new sawshark Pristiophorus schroederi.” Named for the pianist in Peanuts? Probably not.
The rousing (and inaccurate) giant squid scene written by Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is here. Then there’s Sir Arthur Grimble’s first-hand tale of horror at having a reef octopus fasten itself to his face and neck, though the beast was too small to do him great harm. There are accounts of octopuses using stones or shells as tools, an ability that seemed to fade from the literature, being only recently restored with claims the first tool-using had been seen.
The book moves on to submarines and then to waves, with an account of the U.S.S. Ramapo’s trangulation of a wave 112 feet tall. The Ramapo was in the conjunction of three low-pressure centers (the perfect storm!) with a barometer down to 28.4 inches. The method of triangulation and why it was accurate even in terrible conditions is carefully explained here. Following items note waves splashing over 133 feet on lighthouses, being measured by a weather ship at 80 feet, and smashing up the liner Michelangelo, breaking bridge windows 81 feet above the waterline.
There's a folded scrap from an ancient email to my AOL address, in the prehistoric days of the 1990s. from British zoologist Karl Shuker, telling me I had crossed up the names of two exotic birds in the newsletter called Exotic Zoology that I used to write.  He was right, of course.
Soule's book contains a plan for a glass diving bell able to descend to 35,000 feet and a submarine to track ocean fish for the Bureau of Fisheries. The designer was Bill McLean of what is now the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, who I’ve written about in conjunction with the Project Pilot air-launched satellite program. Another scientist from the same institution describes a manned station to be built under rock on the seafloor!
Ah, when we could still be awed by Nature – and surprised by notes in books!

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