Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.30

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 30


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  Among the various fish inhabiting it, some I viewed, others I glimpsed,and the rest I missed completely because of the Nautilus's speed.Kindly allow me to sort them out using this whimsical systemof classification. It will at least convey the quicknessof my observations.

  In the midst of the watery mass, brightly lit by our electric beams,there snaked past those one-meter lampreys that are commonto nearly every clime. A type of ray from the genus Oxyrhynchus,five feet wide, had a white belly with a spotted, ash-gray backand was carried along by the currents like a huge, wide-open shawl.Other rays passed by so quickly I couldn't tell if they deserved thatname "eagle ray" coined by the ancient Greeks, or those designationsof "rat ray," "bat ray," and "toad ray" that modern fishermenhave inflicted on them. Dogfish known as topes, twelve feet longand especially feared by divers, were racing with each other.Looking like big bluish shadows, thresher sharks went by,eight feet long and gifted with an extremely acute sense of smell.Dorados from the genus Sparus, some measuring up to thirteendecimeters, appeared in silver and azure costumes encircledwith ribbons, which contrasted with the dark color of their fins;fish sacred to the goddess Venus, their eyes set in brows of gold;a valuable species that patronizes all waters fresh or salt,equally at home in rivers, lakes, and oceans, living in every clime,tolerating any temperature, their line dating back to prehistoric timeson this earth yet preserving all its beauty from those far-off days.Magnificent sturgeons, nine to ten meters long and extremely fast,banged their powerful tails against the glass of our panels,showing bluish backs with small brown spots; they resemble sharks,without equaling their strength, and are encountered in every sea;in the spring they delight in swimming up the great rivers,fighting the currents of the Volga, Danube, Po, Rhine, Loire, and Oder,while feeding on herring, mackerel, salmon, and codfish; although theybelong to the class of cartilaginous fish, they rate as a delicacy;they're eaten fresh, dried, marinated, or salt-preserved,and in olden times they were borne in triumph to the table ofthe Roman epicure Lucullus.

  But whenever the Nautilus drew near the surface, those denizensof the Mediterranean I could observe most productively belongedto the sixty-third genus of bony fish. These were tuna fromthe genus Scomber, blue-black on top, silver on the belly armor,their dorsal stripes giving off a golden gleam. They are said tofollow ships in search of refreshing shade from the hot tropical sun,and they did just that with the Nautilus, as they had once donewith the vessels of the Count de La P?rouse. For long hours theycompeted in speed with our submersible. I couldn't stop marvelingat these animals so perfectly cut out for racing, their heads small,their bodies sleek, spindle-shaped, and in some cases over threemeters long, their pectoral fins gifted with remarkable strength,their caudal fins forked. Like certain flocks of birds, whose speedthey equal, these tuna swim in triangle formation, which promptedthe ancients to say they'd boned up on geometry and military strategy.And yet they can't escape the Proven?al fishermen, who prize themas highly as did the ancient inhabitants of Turkey and Italy;and these valuable animals, as oblivious as if they were deafand blind, leap right into the Marseilles tuna nets and perishby the thousands.

  Just for the record, I'll mention those Mediterranean fishthat Conseil and I barely glimpsed. There were whitish eelsof the species Gymnotus fasciatus that passed like elusive wispsof steam, conger eels three to four meters long that were trickedout in green, blue, and yellow, three-foot hake with a liverthat makes a dainty morsel, wormfish drifting like thin seaweed,sea robins that poets call lyrefish and seamen pipers and whose snoutshave two jagged triangular plates shaped like old Homer's lyre,swallowfish swimming as fast as the bird they're named after,redheaded groupers whose dorsal fins are trimmed with filaments,some shad (spotted with black, gray, brown, blue, yellow, and green)that actually respond to tinkling handbells, splendid diamond-shapedturbot that were like aquatic pheasants with yellowish fins stippledin brown and the left topside mostly marbled in brown and yellow,finally schools of wonderful red mullet, real oceanic birds of paradisethat ancient Romans bought for as much as 10,000 sesterces apiece,and which they killed at the table, so they could heartlessly watch itchange color from cinnabar red when alive to pallid white when dead.

  And as for other fish common to the Atlantic and Mediterranean, I wasunable to observe miralets, triggerfish, puffers, seahorses,jewelfish, trumpetfish, blennies, gray mullet, wrasse, smelt,flying fish, anchovies, sea bream, porgies, garfish, or any ofthe chief representatives of the order Pleuronecta, such as sole,flounder, plaice, dab, and brill, simply because of the dizzyingspeed with which the Nautilus hustled through these opulent waters.

  As for marine mammals, on passing by the mouth of the Adriatic Sea, Ithought I recognized two or three sperm whales equipped with the singledorsal fin denoting the genus Physeter, some pilot whales fromthe genus Globicephalus exclusive to the Mediterranean, the forepartof the head striped with small distinct lines, and also a dozenseals with white bellies and black coats, known by the name monkseals and just as solemn as if they were three-meter Dominicans.

  For his part, Conseil thought he spotted a turtle six feet wideand adorned with three protruding ridges that ran lengthwise.I was sorry to miss this reptile, because from Conseil's description,I believe I recognized the leatherback turtle, a pretty rare species.For my part, I noted only some loggerhead turtles with long carapaces.

  As for zoophytes, for a few moments I was able to marvel at a wonderful,orange-hued hydra from the genus Galeolaria that clung to the glassof our port panel; it consisted of a long, lean filament that spreadout into countless branches and ended in the most delicate laceever spun by the followers of Arachne. Unfortunately I couldn'tfish up this wonderful specimen, and surely no other Mediterraneanzoophytes would have been offered to my gaze, if, on the eveningof the 16th, the Nautilus hadn't slowed down in an odd fashion.This was the situation.

  By then we were passing between Sicily and the coastof Tunisia. In the cramped space between Cape Bon and theStrait of Messina, the sea bottom rises almost all at once.It forms an actual ridge with only seventeen meters of waterremaining above it, while the depth on either side is 170 meters.Consequently, the Nautilus had to maneuver with caution so as notto bump into this underwater barrier.

  I showed Conseil the position of this long reef on our chartof the Mediterranean.

  "But with all due respect to master," Conseil ventured to observe,"it's like an actual isthmus connecting Europe to Africa."

  "Yes, my boy," I replied, "it cuts across the whole Strait of Sicily,and Smith's soundings prove that in the past, these two continentswere genuinely connected between Cape Boeo and Cape Farina."

  "I can easily believe it," Conseil said.

  "I might add," I went on, "that there's a similar barrier betweenGibraltar and Ceuta, and in prehistoric times it closed offthe Mediterranean completely."

  "Gracious!" Conseil put in. "Suppose one day some volcanic upheavalraises these two barriers back above the waves!"

  "That's most unlikely, Conseil."

  "If master will allow me to finish, I mean that if this phenomenon occurs,it might prove distressing to Mr. de Lesseps, who has gone to suchpains to cut through his isthmus!"

  "Agreed, but I repeat, Conseil: such a phenomenon won't occur.The intensity of these underground forces continues to diminish.Volcanoes were quite numerous in the world's early days, but they'regoing extinct one by one; the heat inside the earth is growing weaker,the temperature in the globe's lower strata is cooling appreciablyevery century, and to our globe's detriment, because its heatis its life."

  "But the sun--"

  "The sun isn't enough, Conseil. Can it restore heat to a corpse?"

  "Not that I've heard."

  "Well, my friend, someday the earth will be just such a cold corpse.Like the moon, which long ago lost its vital heat, our globe willbecome lifeless and unlivable."

  "In how many centuries?" Conseil asked.

  "In hundreds of thousands of years, my boy."

p; "Then we have ample time to finish our voyage," Conseil replied,"if Ned Land doesn't mess things up!"

  Thus reassured, Conseil went back to studying the shallows thatthe Nautilus was skimming at moderate speed.

  On the rocky, volcanic seafloor, there bloomed quite a collectionof moving flora: sponges, sea cucumbers, jellyfish called seagooseberries that were adorned with reddish tendrils and gave offa subtle phosphorescence, members of the genus Beroe that are commonlyknown by the name melon jellyfish and are bathed in the shimmerof the whole solar spectrum, free-swimming crinoids one meter widethat reddened the waters with their crimson hue, treelike basketstars of the greatest beauty, sea fans from the genus Pavonaceawith long stems, numerous edible sea urchins of various species,plus green sea anemones with a grayish trunk and a brown disk lostbeneath the olive-colored tresses of their tentacles.

  Conseil kept especially busy observing mollusks and articulates,and although his catalog is a little dry, I wouldn't want to wrongthe gallant lad by leaving out his personal observations.

  From the branch Mollusca, he mentions numerous comb-shaped scallops,hooflike spiny oysters piled on top of each other, triangular coquina,three-pronged glass snails with yellow fins and transparent shells,orange snails from the genus Pleurobranchus that looked like eggs spottedor speckled with greenish dots, members of the genus Aplysia also knownby the name sea hares, other sea hares from the genus Dolabella,plump paper-bubble shells, umbrella shells exclusive to the Mediterranean,abalone whose shell produces a mother-of-pearl much in demand,pilgrim scallops, saddle shells that diners in the Frenchprovince of Languedoc are said to like better than oysters,some of those cockleshells so dear to the citizens of Marseilles,fat white venus shells that are among the clams so abundant offthe coasts of North America and eaten in such quantities by New Yorkers,variously colored comb shells with gill covers, burrowing datemussels with a peppery flavor I relish, furrowed heart cockles whoseshells have riblike ridges on their arching summits, triton shellspocked with scarlet bumps, carniaira snails with backward-curvingtips that make them resemble flimsy gondolas, crowned ferola snails,atlanta snails with spiral shells, gray nudibranchs from the genusTethys that were spotted with white and covered by fringed mantles,nudibranchs from the suborder Eolidea that looked like small slugs,sea butterflies crawling on their backs, seashells from the genus Auriculaincluding the oval-shaped Auricula myosotis, tan wentletrap snails,common periwinkles, violet snails, cineraira snails, rock borers,ear shells, cabochon snails, pandora shells, etc.

  As for the articulates, in his notes Conseil has very appropriatelydivided them into six classes, three of which belong to the marine world.These classes are the Crustacea, Cirripedia, and Annelida.

  Crustaceans are subdivided into nine orders, and the first ofthese consists of the decapods, in other words, animals whose headand thorax are usually fused, whose cheek-and-mouth mechanism ismade up of several pairs of appendages, and whose thorax has four,five, or six pairs of walking legs. Conseil used the methodsof our mentor Professor Milne-Edwards, who puts the decapodsin three divisions: Brachyura, Macrura, and Anomura. These namesmay look a tad fierce, but they're accurate and appropriate.Among the Brachyura, Conseil mentions some amanthia crabs whose frontswere armed with two big diverging tips, those inachus scorpions that--lord knows why--symbolized wisdom to the ancient Greeks, spider crabsof the massena and spinimane varieties that had probably gone astrayin these shallows because they usually live in the lower depths,xanthid crabs, pilumna crabs, rhomboid crabs, granular box crabs(easy on the digestion, as Conseil ventured to observe), toothlessmasked crabs, ebalia crabs, cymopolia crabs, woolly-handed crabs, etc.Among the Macrura (which are subdivided into five families:hardshells, burrowers, crayfish, prawns, and ghost crabs)Conseil mentions some common spiny lobsters whose females supply a meathighly prized, slipper lobsters or common shrimp, waterside gebia shrimp,and all sorts of edible species, but he says nothing of the crayfishsubdivision that includes the true lobster, because spiny lobstersare the only type in the Mediterranean. Finally, among the Anomura,he saw common drocina crabs dwelling inside whatever abandonedseashells they could take over, homola crabs with spiny fronts,hermit crabs, hairy porcelain crabs, etc.

  There Conseil's work came to a halt. He didn't have time to finishoff the class Crustacea through an examination of its stomatopods,amphipods, homopods, isopods, trilobites, branchiopods, ostracods,and entomostraceans. And in order to complete his study ofmarine articulates, he needed to mention the class Cirripedia,which contains water fleas and carp lice, plus the class Annelida,which he would have divided without fail into tubifex worms anddorsibranchian worms. But having gone past the shallows of the Straitof Sicily, the Nautilus resumed its usual deep-water speed.From then on, no more mollusks, no more zoophytes, no more articulates.Just a few large fish sweeping by like shadows.

  During the night of February 16-17, we entered the secondMediterranean basin, whose maximum depth we found at 3,000 meters.The Nautilus, driven downward by its propeller and slanting fins,descended to the lowest strata of this sea.

  There, in place of natural wonders, the watery mass offeredsome thrilling and dreadful scenes to my eyes. In essence,we were then crossing that part of the whole Mediterranean so fertilein casualties. From the coast of Algiers to the beaches of Provence,how many ships have wrecked, how many vessels have vanished!Compared to the vast liquid plains of the Pacific, the Mediterraneanis a mere lake, but it's an unpredictable lake with fickle waves,today kindly and affectionate to those frail single-masters driftingbetween a double ultramarine of sky and water, tomorrow bad-temperedand turbulent, agitated by the winds, demolishing the strongestships beneath sudden waves that smash down with a headlong wallop.

  So, in our swift cruise through these deep strata, how many vessels Isaw lying on the seafloor, some already caked with coral, others cladonly in a layer of rust, plus anchors, cannons, shells, iron fittings,propeller blades, parts of engines, cracked cylinders, staved-in boilers,then hulls floating in midwater, here upright, there overturned.

  Some of these wrecked ships had perished in collisions, others fromhitting granite reefs. I saw a few that had sunk straight down,their masting still upright, their rigging stiffened by the water.They looked like they were at anchor by some immense, open,offshore mooring where they were waiting for their departure time.When the Nautilus passed between them, covering them with sheetsof electricity, they seemed ready to salute us with their colorsand send us their serial numbers! But no, nothing but silenceand death filled this field of catastrophes!

  I observed that these Mediterranean depths became more and morecluttered with such gruesome wreckage as the Nautilus drew nearerto the Strait of Gibraltar. By then the shores of Africa and Europewere converging, and in this narrow space collisions were commonplace.There I saw numerous iron undersides, the phantasmagoric ruinsof steamers, some lying down, others rearing up like fearsome animals.One of these boats made a dreadful first impression:sides torn open, funnel bent, paddle wheels stripped to the mountings,rudder separated from the sternpost and still hanging from aniron chain, the board on its stern eaten away by marine salts!How many lives were dashed in this shipwreck! How many victimswere swept under the waves! Had some sailor on board livedto tell the story of this dreadful disaster, or do the waves stillkeep this casualty a secret? It occurred to me, lord knows why,that this boat buried under the sea might have been the Atlas,lost with all hands some twenty years ago and never heard from again!Oh, what a gruesome tale these Mediterranean depths could tell,this huge boneyard where so much wealth has been lost, where so manyvictims have met their deaths!

  Meanwhile, briskly unconcerned, the Nautilus ran at full propellerthrough the midst of these ruins. On February 18, near three o'clockin the morning, it hove before the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar.

  There are two currents here: an upper current, long known to exist,that carries the ocean's waters into the Mediterranean basin;then a lower countercurrent, the only
present-day proof of its existencebeing logic. In essence, the Mediterranean receives a continual influxof water not only from the Atlantic but from rivers emptying into it;since local evaporation isn't enough to restore the balance, the totalamount of added water should make this sea's level higher every year.Yet this isn't the case, and we're naturally forced to believe inthe existence of some lower current that carries the Mediterranean'ssurplus through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic basin.

  And so it turned out. The Nautilus took full advantage ofthis countercurrent. It advanced swiftly through this narrow passageway.For an instant I could glimpse the wonderful ruins of the Templeof Hercules, buried undersea, as Pliny and Avianus have mentioned,together with the flat island they stand on; and a few minutes later,we were floating on the waves of the Atlantic.


  The Bay of Vigo

  THE ATLANTIC! A vast expanse of water whose surface area is 25,000,000square miles, with a length of 9,000 miles and an average widthof 2,700. A major sea nearly unknown to the ancients, except perhapsthe Carthaginians, those Dutchmen of antiquity who went alongthe west coasts of Europe and Africa on their commercial junkets!An ocean whose parallel winding shores form an immense perimeterfed by the world's greatest rivers: the St. Lawrence, Mississippi,Amazon, Plata, Orinoco, Niger, Senegal, Elbe, Loire, and Rhine,which bring it waters from the most civilized countries as wellas the most undeveloped areas! A magnificent plain of waves plowedcontinuously by ships of every nation, shaded by every flag in the world,and ending in those two dreadful headlands so feared by navigators,Cape Horn and the Cape of Tempests!


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