“Given the vastness of the ocean, I would not be at all surprised if someday some intrepid explorer discovered some bizarre new form of sea life that we never thought possible.” – Timothy Essington, professor of aquatic & fishery sciences, University of Washington.
Tell the story of that intrepid explorer OR describe a bizarre sea creature that has yet to be discovered. Or better yet, do both.
Prudence descended slowly through a trench in the Arctic seafloor, a narrow arc of light illuminating the waters directly in front of her. Here, although the waters were not as deep as Challenger Deep or other areas of the ocean, they were at the point of the sea floor closest to the center of the earth. She had switched off the tiny display of numbers on her visor and was listening only to the sounds of her breathing as bubbles, rocky formations, and tiny fish ascended around her as though they were being called to heaven, or perhaps caught in the ray of an abducting alien ship.
A voice crackled to life in her ear: “Prudence, your descent rate is a little fast – we recommend you slow down to avoid passing out down there.”
“Relax, Johnny – that’s what the suit’s for. Plus, all the spider silk used to make it is giving me spidey-sense. I’ll be fine,” she said calmly back through the com at her chin. There was no reply from Johnny or the others on the SS Cameron – by this point in their mission they knew it was useless to argue with her.
Prudence’s kit was a state-of-the-art atmospheric diving suit. The old ADS could go to a depth of one thousand feet and were shackled by their limited joint mobility, massive blind spots, and the use of jawed claws for interacting with the environment instead of a diver’s own nimble fingers. Her modern outfit, rather than looking like something from the cover of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, looked more similar to a space suit with fins. In the suit she could reach, grab, kick, twist, and swim to a depth of 3 miles. Her swimming was augmented by jets of recycled water forced through a pack on her back. In addition and if she desired, Prudence could view her vital signs, depth, outside pressure, water acidity – it even tracked her menstrual cycle. Everything was controlled by her voice and eye movements inside the suit.
Again, a voice spoke inside her helmet – Sarah this time, “Prudence, in 20 seconds you’ll have gone closer to the core of the earth than any human has ever gone without a submarine… 4…3… 2… 1…” A few cheers sounded through the speaker from Zoey and Jim in mission control.
“Take that, Don Walsh and Jaques Piccard,” Prudence murmured to herself.
Six months prior to the dive, seismologists had recorded a large earthquake in the vicinity of the North Pole. Subsequent sounding missions discovered that a new rift had formed, further expanding Litke Deep and exposing areas of the earth’s crust that were previously unseen by any explorer. Prudence was ready to be that explorer.
Her descent lasted about 3 hours before she reached the suit’s maximum depth and she started swimming around instead of floating down in a straight line. She began receiving instructions from the team to collect a sample here, turn right, go over there, snap a few pictures with the helmet-cam, hold still while we calibrate this real quick, okay? Prudence enjoyed the thrill of seeing things that had not yet been seen, of touching things that had not yet been felt, and of being the only human for miles, alone in the alien vastness of the deep sea.
After another hour or two, Prudence had used up five of her nine available hours of oxygen. “Alright, Prudence, we should probably start wrapping this up so you can start your ascent,” Sarah ordered. “Just finish up those recordings you’re working on and then eject the ballast.”
Prudence glanced down at the black trench which continued beneath her. “I have a little bit more oxygen; I think I’m just going to go a little deeper before heading back, Sarah,” she said.
Johnny instantly cut in, “Prudence, you’re already at the limit of this suit, it’s not advisable to push it. If you get in trouble, we’re too far away to get to you quickly.”
“It’ll be alright. I’ve got spidey-sense, now – remember?” she replied lightly.
“Prudence this isn’t the time for you to be playing Kirk! If you don’t follow orders this will be your last dive with our team. Johnny’s right – we’re not risking you and we’re not risking the suit! I’m ordering you to eject the ballast now and start your ascent.”
“As co-captain I’m making an executive decision, Sarah. A little deeper won’t hurt.”
Sarah’s fury seemed to invade the very air of her suit, but Prudence turned down the volume on her speakers and began to sink into the exciting blackness. This was what she lived for and nothing else. Sarah couldn’t take that away.
She looked around as she dropped, allowing herself to absorb the experience of blackness, depth, and isolation in a nearly meditative state. Was anything as beautiful? She smiled to herself.
As she looked around, eventually something wedged in a crevice caught her eye. At first it had seemed like part of the rocks, maybe 200 feet away, but as her light scanned back and forth, it gave the distinct impression of a giant dorsal ridge, scapula, and neck. She knew the human brain played tricks like this in shadowy light – seeing faces or bodies where there were none. Nonetheless, she turned her speakers and microphone back up. Sarah had stopped yelling.
“Can you guys see what I’m seeing?”
“Our picture isn’t phenomenal, as you know, but yes – we are also noticing what resembles the silhouette of a large animal,” said Sarah
“Can you tell if it’s alive?” said Johnny.
“I can’t really tell anything, yet,” Prudence replied, swimming closer. Gradually a head the size of an SUV took shape in her view and she began describing it to the best of her ability to the team.
“Okay the skull looks oblong. I’m just hazarding a guess, here – relatively small cranial space… eyes are slightly on the side – at least I think that’s the eyes? I’m not sure.”
“Broaden the beam of your headlamp, Pru.” Johnny’s voice was tense and Prudence could hear Zoey and Jim talking very rapidly in the background of his mic.
“Don’t get any closer, Prudence,” Sarah commanded.
“Is this… is this a new species, Johnny?” Prudence asked, drifting a mere ninety feet over the craggy hide of the monstrosity.
There was no response for a little while, but Prudence knew that up on the boat the team was conversing wildly.
“We think it may actually be very old, Pru…”
An electric shiver went flooded Prudence’s spine and skull.
“…Sixty five million years old, even.”
“So it’s dead?” She could see a broad shoulder, now, and the hint of an upper limb.
“The mosasaur has probably been encased in the rock for eons–” Johnny was saying, just as Prudence’s light slid back over the thing’s skull again and she witnessed an eye open, its third eyelid slipping to the side.
“Back up, Prudence,” Sarah ordered immediately. “No sudden moves, just back up as much as you can.”
Prudence didn’t need telling. As she jetted backwards, the mosasaur peeled away from its alcove in the rock, clawed fins pushing it up into the chasm about them. Its head jerked back and forth in the light from Prudence’s suit, irritated by a stimulus that had been unknown to it for uncountable years. It then began to move smoothly and swiftly in a tangential pattern to Prudence. Was it hunting for something illuminated by her lamp, or was it going to change direction and attack the source of the light?
“Eject your fucking ballast, Prudence!”
Prudence took a deep breath, turned off her light and hid herself along the fissures of the wall of the chasm. The mosasaur was likely used to hunting in the dark of the deeps. If it wanted to find her, would hiding even help? Would activating her jets to rise to the surface only alert it to her presence? She turned her stats display back on and saw that she had no choice. If she didn’t start ascending now, she might run out of oxygen before reaching the surface.
Prudence counted to ten, dumped her counterweight, and activated her jet pack while kicking furiously upward.
“Have a hyperbaric chamber ready, Sarah – I’m not planning on taking this slow!” She yelled.
Prudence’s muscles burned and she could taste acid in the back of her throat, but she didn’t stop kicking until the pale light of the surface began to filter through her visor.
“It must not have wanted to eat you very much, Pru, or I doubt you’d be here right now. Zoe is on the phone with the University of Chicago and she’s locked herself in the office, so I think it’s going to be a while, but I’m sure they’re talking about something interesting.” Prudence had insisted on receiving regular updates on their research and results while she was sitting in the hyperbaric chamber. The chamber had no windows, so Prudence couldn’t see Johnny’s face, but she could hear that the tension hadn’t yet left his voice.
“You’re still scared, aren’t you?” she laughed through the chamber’s microphone. “You’re still calling me Pru. You only give people nicknames when you’re emotional.”
“I’m anxious and I’m angry. What you did was stupid. It could have ruined our mission and gotten you killed.”
“What I did was exciting. We found a living mosasaur and you can’t wait to know more. We need to know how the species survived; we need to know how it lives and hunts! You’re excited, and you’re going to talk Sarah into getting another mission approved so we can go back. We have to go back!”
“I doubt you’ll be going back with us. You’re going to be in such trouble…”
“I’m going to get a fucking medal,” Prudence insisted.
“You’re going to be in medical observation for at least the next 48 hours,” interrupted Sarah’s voice. “Then we’re going to talk about disciplining you.”
“And then we’re going to go back? We’re going back, right Sarah?” There was a reason Sarah had tolerated Prudence on her team for years.
“Boldly,” she said.