Our World in Numbers: Five Six Fifty Six
5: the temperature of the sea in degrees Celsius
6: the temperature of air in degrees Celsius
56: the degrees south of the equator
800: the [approximate] distance remaining in nautical miles to Cape Horn
Sunday 24th November
Our instruments on board Bark Europa show some vital statistics: Five degrees Celsius the water temperature, six degrees the air temperature. A person overboard counts their life in minutes now. Something the Captain is only too aware of.
My wet face, buffeted by the steady so’ westerlies astern, winces with the sweet sting of the wind chill, as I gaze off the stern railings down toward Europa’s billowing wake. My watch companions on the helm lightly wrestle with the spokes on the wheel and beneath the ‘bread box’ behind the wheel the manually-driven pump valves make the occasional knocking sound in the hydraulic lines as they spin the wheel back from fighting position. It’s close to midnight and even if the waxing moon were risen, the low pillows of cloud and mist would not light our way. We haven’t had a sun sighting in over a week, much to the consternation of Fruitbat’s constellation navigation students.
My eye catches a low glowing body of green-yellow luminescence trailing off within the wake. Then appears another. I squint and strain my corneal muscles and I make out its shape as a sphere, floating just under the water’s surface. What could they be? I’m told later by a fellow voyage crew mate that they might be communities of dinoflagellates, rising of a night from the dark Southern Ocean depths to undertake unknown, strictly-nocturnal, business in the shallower night waters.
It appears that their collision with Europa’s gliding hull causes them to react with phosphorescence. More appear. Different sizes. Eerie orbs of the night; all with the same other-worldly hue. I follow them in the wake and an approaching wave front lifts up my distant deep-sea friends a little, enough for me to see them from further astern the ship. And through the wave’s cresting profile I see their three-dimensional forms hover and ripple. They then falter and fade as the water column curtain grows thicker and their little nightlight glows are extinguished. Where do they come from? What depths do they return to? What business do they have?
At about the same time at around midnight our good ship Europa passes just 54 nautical miles to the south of the deepest ocean floor in these parts; a speck of a place located to our north at 54.6° South, 95.1° West. On the floor of the Southern Ocean this deep hole lies in the middle of the Mornington Abysmal Plain – a large area extending far off the southeast coast of Chilean Patagonia towards the East Pacific Rise, with depths gently moving between 4000 and 5000 metres below sea level. In the midst of this vast uncharted area the gentle plain suddenly dives towards the centre of the earth and over a space of less than eight nautical miles, plummets from the surrounding plains at 5000 metres to an astounding depth of 6034 metres below the surface. It must be like a steep inverted cone. What detritus accumulates here? What life lurks here waiting in abeyance for manna to descend from the watery heavens above? In the case of the dinoflagellate enclaves however, await they do not. And arise they do, in the cover of night.
I’m left imagining what unknown worlds this planet contains. And as I gaze in awe and serenity at the dinoflagellatic globes below me in Europa’s wake, I contemplate how many degrees of separation there may be between me and these wondrous communities of bioluminescence, rising from these dark worlds to greet the night time surface of the Southern Ocean. Perhaps there are five; the same number of degrees Celsius above zero that these glowing waters beneath me currently possess. Brrrr. I shudder at the thought and turn back to the helm and the business of the ship.