Sunday, 16 July 2017

De profundis

Reading: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Listening to: "I'll Fly with You" by Gigi D'Agostino
Outside: Summer at its finest


Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear 
And query:"What does this vaingloriousness down here?"
                                   - Thomas Hardy
                                   "The Convergence of the Twain"



In December 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a South African Museum curator, got a call from a local trawler captain at the shore of the Chalumna River - he'd brought in a strange-looking fish. Could she come and see?

And she did. She pulled off all the seaweed, and there beheld the "most beautiful fish" she'd ever seen. At five feet long, with hard scales and fleshy, bony lobed fins, it resembled a fossil more than a fish. But she wasn't quite sure. Could it be? Was it really something special? Could her friend, Icthyologist J. L. B. Smith, have a look?

Smith, who was away at the time of her correspondence, arrived in the following February to confirm: it indeed was a Coelacanth (pronounced seel-a-canth). He named it Latimerus Chalumnae after his friend and discoverer, Marjorie.

Believed to be extinct for 65 million years, the Cretacious period's signature fish had been found.


The first coelacanth, 1938. Picture found here.


What makes the coelacanth so interesting, you ask?

Its amazingly unchanged genome, for one. All of the genes that make up this creature have stayed the same, remarkably, for a long, long time. From approximately 400 million years ago to today, this particular fish has maintained its evolutionary features that make it so perfectly suited for its deep-sea existence. Armor-like plated scales, bony leg-like fins and special, light-sensitive eyes, respectively, take the pressure of the deep and help this carnivore stride and search the pitch-black for food.

And those legs(Calm down, me, they're lobed fins.) But it's unmistakable: this fish, classified as a lungfish, is more closely related to tetrapods - things with backbones and legs, like frogs, reptiles and mammals, than it is to the far more common ray-finned fish (think clownfish, Nemo, Dory) one normally finds in the ocean. It is a one-of-a-kind ancient mystery. Evolutionarily-speaking, this fish is a real and rare treasure.

Why do I love this fish so much? Is it the smoothness of its name, something that unfurls off your tongue when you speak it, like loosening sails made of silk? Is it the horrifying sea monster look of it, something looming out of the darkness like something out of Grimm or Coleridge, an ancient story, a lesson for us to learn? Is it the size and heft of it, the fact that I, swimming alongside, would be dwarfed? Or maybe its fossil fins, a pocked mermaid's tail wafting the ice-cold water? Is it the pure secrecy of this Goliath, its survival as baffling and beautiful as the thing itself?

It is all of these things and more. It is my paralyzing fear of the ocean, of open water, of the tickle to your toes in the black depths. It's my helpless fascination of the things I fear the most: that singular weightlessness of the sea, and then the pressure: Who can help but imagine going that far down, far enough down into the suffocating depths that you would need a tank of oxygen and a whole f*ck ton of bravery, far enough to go deeper than the light can reach? And to see the gaping mouth first, large enough to eat a baby - its slow, dreamlike gulps - and its glazed, prehistoric eye flicking over you, blind and not blind, as it channels your motion. It measures you, watches you. You are food or you are nothing. That heart-stopping mammal-fear as you converge upon its life in that second of stillness.


Picture by Mordecai 1998 [CC BY-SA 4.0via Wikipedia Commons



This is a true story about a lot of things: What women in science can accomplish. What we can find if we search the sea, the staggering scope of which we as a species have only explored about 5 to 10%. And why it is so important, and what we must do to conserve the water and the animals in it. We have so much to learn about them, and by doing so, learn about us.

The problems we have made: Oil spills, contamination, whales washed ashore with their stomachs filled with plastic. Imagine, they are eating plastic, there is so much of it in our world's oceans. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The species of coral, fish and sea-birds that have been lost to us. Forever.

Rewind to 1905: Oscar Wilde, hurt beyond all repair, dying in the damp, pleaded with his lover, Bosie, for understanding, compassion and freedom, from Reading Gaol. It was, perhaps, the finest love letter ever written. "De Profundis," it was called, in Latin meaning, "Out of the very depths." A Biblical story turned reality, his cry of help went out to an unsympathetic world, and went pretty much unnoticed. A treasure was lost to the world forever.


I can imagine, given the chance to Scuba suit up and kick those flippers down, thigh muscles burning into the press of Earth's darkest, most languageless time, down into a time in which Triceratops ate their stones to help them digest their food, one might hear the gill-drawn sorrow, the un-words of a millions-of-years-old species. It would loom up out of its very depths, cast upon you its moon-like eye, and would say nothing and everything: Have compassion. Let me live.

Here is my love letter to you, Coelacanth. Here is my compassion for you. I hope you live forever.


Happy Sunday, everybody.

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