Creatures From The Vasty Deep

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Today is World Oceans Day. More than seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Without it, there would be no life on our planet. Life began in the oceans around three and a half billion years ago. There was nothing on land until four hundred million years ago. Our seas and oceans have been a major source of food for us, for thousands of years. The tiny phytoplankton that live in the water provide our planet with more than half of its oxygen. If we could harness just 0.1% of the energy in the tides, we could meet all our energy needs five times over. Our oceans are the cradles of our existence, they are our future. We should look after them.

Our seas and oceans make up ninety seven percent of the habitable space on our planet. But, as it is not habitable by us, less than one tenth of it has been explored by humans. Humans were sent to have a look at the moon four years before anyone went to explore our own planet’s longest mountain range. It extends from north of Greenland way down to well beyond the tip of South Africa and hardly any of it is above water. No one even knew it was there until the 1870s, when people started thinking about laying a transatlantic telegraph cable across it.

06 08 blue whaleThe oceans are home to the blue whale, which is the largest creature on Earth. So far as we know, it is the largest creature that has ever lived here. A blue whale may grow up to a hundred feet in length. Even just its tongue can weight as much as an elephant. They are also the loudest animals on the planet Although their calls are too low for us to hear, they can hear each other up to a thousand miles away. So, if I was a blue whale, sitting here typing this, probably on a really big keyboard with my massive tongue, I would be able to hear you shouting to me from Prague, or Madrid. You’d think we’d know everything there was to know about this large and noisy creature. But we don’t even know where they go to breed.

My point is, that the oceans are huge and we really don’t know what might be down there. I’ve come across loads of myths and legends about sea serpents while I’ve been researching this blog. Huge marine creatures that sometimes attack, sometimes just benignly swim past. Most of these tales are from so long ago that we can’t really know what they are describing. But there is a very long, serpent-like fish called a giant oar fish that is very real. Here is a drawing of one. He has some pretty fancy headgear.

06 08 oar fish

Again, we don’t know a great deal about them. The largest recorded specimen was thirty-six feet long. Some claim to have seen ones that are fifty-six feet long. But who knows how big they can grow. It won’t swallow you whole though. Like the blue whale, it feeds on krill, which are tiny.

06 08 weedy sea dragonThere are so many real-life monsters of the deep, that it’s a hard subject to narrow down. But I’ll mention a couple of my favourites. On the right is a weedy sea dragon. They’re not huge and scary, they grow maybe eighteen inches long. But they are beautiful. I love weedy sea dragons. I love the way they look. I love their name. They are a sort of fancy cousin of the sea horse, and like sea horses, it is the males who incubate the eggs. They look after them in a pouch and then sort of give birth to them when they’re hatched.

06 08 vampire squidThe other animal I want to tell you about is the vampire squid. Let’s start with it’s Latin name, ‘vampyroteuthis infernalis’. That literally translates as ‘vampire squid from hell’. They live two or three thousand feet below the surface in complete darkness. They are mostly red and black and have webbing between their tentacles which makes them look as though they have a cloak. The vampire squid, isn’t really a squid. It’s an ancient ancestor of the squid and the octopus that is still with us. This animal is older than the dinosaurs. It has several tricks to help it avoid predators. It can squirt ink but it is not black like squid ink. That would be useless in the dark, it is bioluminescent. They also have fake glow-in-the-dark eyes on the tops of their heads and on the ends of their tentacles. If that’s not confusing enough, they can pull their cloaks around themselves so the little spines on the underside of their tentacles stick out making them look a bit like a sea urchin. I find them fascinating to watch. You can see a video, and find out a bit more about them here.

There is much still to be learned about the deep ocean. It is only forty years ago that we discovered hydrothermal vents, miles below the ocean surface, which spew water that can be as hot as 400° C, that’s hot enough to melt lead. Yet there are whole colonies of creatures living there. In this habitat their food chain cannot possibly rely in any way on sunlight, which had been thought impossible. In fact, they rely on hydrogen sulphide, a substance poisonous to almost all other types of life.

Even more recently, in 1983, areas of concentrated brine were discovered on the ocean floor, These settle into pools that look like underwater lakes. The shores of these ‘lakes’ are populated with muscles and tube worms that rely on bacteria that feed on methane. It is these discoveries that have led us to believe that life may exist in the more inhospitable areas of our solar system. Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, may have liquid oceans beneath its crust. If these are kept from freezing by hydrothermal vents, then it is possible there could be similar life forms there. Amazing.

There’s so much more to tell you about the ocean. I could tell you about the 29,000 rubber ducks that were lost at sea in 1992 and are still turning up occasionally. They have taught us all sorts of things we didn’t know about ocean currents. We’re always loosing stuff at sea. We’ve probably lost more things in the sea than are in all the world’s museums put together. I could tell you about the millions of tons of gold that are dissolved in sea water (that doesn’t include the gold that we’ve lost in it) and peoples’ interesting plans to recover it. Or that the composition of coral is so similar to our own skeletons that we can use it to repair bone fractures. But there isn’t time. I need to go and look at Peter the Great, whose birthday it is tomorrow.

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