Randi Kreiss

Into the abyss, and discovering a new world


Some octopuses probably could score better than I did on an SAT. It’s hard to figure, though, since they can’t hold a pen or read the questions, but that’s just me being human-centric. Scientists have discovered that cephalopods, octopuses in particular, are super smart and seemingly capable of what we humans call feelings.
If you saw the Netflix documentary “My Octopus Friend,” you get it. A diver forms a relationship with an octopus that swims to him whenever he scuba dives and actually cuddles her body against him. It is a powerful account of cross-species attachment.
In one memorable study, hidden cameras in a marine lab caught an octopus climbing out of his tank at night to crawl into a neighboring tank where he could dine on starfish. The big brains couldn’t figure out why the starfish were disappearing until they checked out the lab’s videotape.
Today is World Octopus Day, which coincided with me turning the last page on a lovely read, “The Brilliant Abyss,” by Helen Scales. (And yes, her last name is also a happy coincidence.) She studies life in the vast deep oceans around the world, focusing on creatures that live 3,000 to 7,000 feet below, in the freezing, murky darkness that has been a mystery up until recent years.
Her book and World Octopus Day remind us of yet another natural resource we are about to squander.

Scales mentions the deep-sea fish known as orange roughy, which has become quite popular in recent years. The real name of the fish is slimehead, which was a no-go. So the name was changed, and the fish, which live at extreme depths, are now being caught by the mega-tons with new technology. Scales agrees that orange roughy is delicious, but she points out that the fish live to some 200 years. They have thrived in the black world 5,000 feet below unharmed until now. The entree on your dinner plate could have hatched 50 years before the Civil War.
According to Scales, the trawlers have nets and weights that crash into the underwater mountain ranges that are loaded with coral and destroy the outcroppings in the process. Some of those corals have been alive for millennia. She says that submersibles have collected samples from the deepest parts of the oceans that reveal new life forms, even new bacteria, which may hold revolutionary cancer-fighting properties. We need to find out before it’s gone.
Swimming through the abyss are giant octopi, some growing to 20 feet across. They have been found as deep as 5,000 feet. At the same depths, whale carcasses have been found, covered in blankets of red, furry worms. The oddities and miraculous discoveries abound.
Naturally, human beings are about to sink the ship.
Scales talks about the emergence of underwater mining. Technology has permitted mining for metals at ever-greater depths. Giant ocean-going machines have begun to dig up the bottom of our seabeds, disturbing animals and coral and minerals that have lain there for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Only now are environmental groups beginning to take action against these mining operations.
The first day that the first human dropped a line into the ocean was a bad day for marine wildlife. Nearly every species is under pressure from overfishing, even as fishing technology is improving, making it possible to kill tons of fish at a time. Giant net fishing creates collateral damage for tons of innocent victims, the turtles and dolphins and other species that are caught up in the nets.
In the 1900s, humans killed more than twice the number of sperm whales that remain alive today. We used up what was within reach and now we are digging at increasing depths.
Swimming below, a mile under the surface, are creatures like zombie worms and vampire squid, nine-foot tube worms, phosphorescent jellyfish, and awesome red feather worms without guts of any kind that carry their own harem of dwarf males waiting to fertilize their eggs. Some of the deep-sea gossamer jellies disintegrate as soon as they hit the air; they have only been seen through the tiny viewing windows of submersibles. These precious life forms swim among singular geological formations like hydrothermal vents in the bottom of the oceans.
We’ve gone a long way toward fouling up outer space with junk, and we are equally irresponsible in the trashing of our oceans. One of the groups that are trying to preserve the seas around us is oceanconservancy.org.
The deep deep is still somewhat pristine, but the giant mining rigs are on their way.

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.