If we could get one thing right, it would be to understand our connection to all life. Sylvia Earle
The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are full of beautiful and courageous creatures whose lives are so much more complex than simply being part of a food chain. Their small friendships and reunions and connections and attractions are brimming with intense drama and meaning. Many of these friendships have lasted decades. Sperm whales wait for their friends who swim down from the Arctic Circle to meet up with them in the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream every year. Dolphins and yellow fin tuna enjoy cruising their territories and sharing prey from the great schools of smaller fish they round up together. Of course, pods of dolphins are filled with close bonds and long-lasting family ties. The wide-eyed seahorse chooses a mate for life and one never sees one without the other close by. And communities of reef fish have surprising symbiotic relationships. The large grandfatherly pufferfish sits motionless on a mountain of coral while small wrasses swim in and out of its mouth picking parasites from its gills.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely pairs to strike up a long-lasting acquaintance is a seventy year old loggerhead sea turtle and his eccentric companion, an elderly toothless great white shark, one of just a few great whites to make his home primarily in the northern Gulf. Their companionship began more than a decade ago when the huge turtle, already weighing over 800 pounds, found himself stalked and rushed by a large tiger shark. The loggerhead, who cannot pull in his head like smaller turtles because of the big pectoral muscles at the base of his front flippers, dove three hundred feet down and by chance happened upon a great white shark twice the size of the tiger. The great white was just much too fearsome and probably wanted the turtle for himself so the ferocious tiger backed off.
Indeed, the white nudged the turtle but had already gauged the width of the creature and realized he could not swallow it whole, and without teeth could not bite through it. So he hurried away into deeper water propelled by his powerful tail as though he were a fugitive hiding from something. Surprisingly, the aged reptile followed him feeling quite safe in the fearsome shadow of this new guardian who did not seem hostile or menacing like others of his kind. Furthermore, he realized other sharks might think he was the exclusive prey of the great white and thus spare him their attacks. They made a strange pair these ancient beasts. How they had escaped being killed, wounded or disfigured by long lines, fishing gear, or shark hunters was yet another mystery. Indeed, these two creatures were probably the oldest survivors of their kind in the Gulf.
That the thirteen-foot 1200 pound shark, belonging to a species nicknamed “Great White Death”, had lost every one of his three thousand serrated triangular razor sharp teeth is yet another inexplicable event of the sea. He had once attacked a large motorboat that had followed him for miles, the drunken young men on board harassing him by throwing beer bottles, and in the process of biting through their motor he had damaged the nerves in his mouth. Gradually his teeth fell out and, astonishingly, were never replaced. This calamity caused him to seek easier prey and over the three decades he had compensated quite well by swallowing his food whole, as he still had a very large throat.
Being the largest carnivorous fish in the world, sharks usually have no reason to be worried since they have no enemies among other fish. But this unfortunate white, deprived of the three gleaming rows of weaponry common to the species, had reasons to fear others, and thus tended to avoid everyone. Here he was, the apex predator of the Gulf, at the pinnacle of the food chain, and yet he was afraid to open his mouth for fear another shark would see how helpless he really was.
For awhile he was annoyed by the shadowy presence of the immense sea turtle following him everywhere, but eventually became used to the creature and in the end rather enjoyed the phlegmatic but loyal company. The two had travelled together over ten years and they had developed an interesting ritual. The loggerhead would swim right up to the snout of the shark and touch his nose to the shark’s nose. Usually, sharks cannot bear being looked at directly and this shark, so paranoid anyway, was initially anxious about his companion’s behavior and would ineffectually gnash his leathery gums. Even though sharks are not the indiscriminate predators they are made out to be, they are used to other creatures swimming away from them, not the reverse. Eventually they worked it out. The turtle was simply trying to redirect the shark on a new route as they patrolled the sea. And on occasion, the great white would slap his tail hard against the water, his way of bickering and saying, “I don’t want to go off course right now”.
Normally, at this time of year, the two swam, anonymous and unacknowledged, into the blue black depths toward the Sigsbee Deep, the Grand Canyon of these waters, the shark always swimming in front and the turtle sculling effortlessly behind, every once in a while the shark swallowing an amberjack or red snapper and the turtle choosing sponges, shellfish, and jellyfish for their modest meals along the way. Like the shark, the loggerhead ate a meal every two weeks or so.
But this year, the shark had accompanied the turtle to a secret place 63 miles away off the southern coast where the big male loggerhead met up with an even larger female to mate before she swam in to the nesting beach to lay her eggs. This dutiful accompaniment had begun many years before and for the shark it was a nice break from his routine patrols in the colder waters of the deepest Gulf. Thus, they were quite far away on April 22nd when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.
Now, a few miles south of the oil spill that had already been gushing for over seventy days, the shark had slowed down near a strong current that provided enough lift as well as flowing water through his open mouth and out his five gill slits to give him the necessary oxygen he needed with only a minimum of swimming. Almost stationary, he pointed his snout toward the perimeter of the familiar spawning ground for the Atlantic blue-fin tuna and sperm whales. This dark cold area, (with water only 40 degrees) usually beneath a cobalt blue sea, lay in the midst of coral reefs to the east, the fisheries of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas to the west, and the teeming coastal marshes of Louisiana to the north. It was the shark’s favorite haunt. He had swallowed hundreds of blue-fin babies here over the years and plenty of small dolphins too, their soft smooth bodies just gliding down his throat.
But today the old shark scented oil-soaked water. The vibrational hum of a living ocean with its different layers of salinity and wave currents generated by millions of healthy swimming creatures had inexplicably disappeared. In its place was a silent black reeking stench so completely unlike the usual wonderful fragrance of living waters that he was reluctant to go further. His companion also sensed something wrong as he was very sensitive to how water tastes and this water was full of methane gas, a sickening surprise to the turtle. Nauseous, coughing up a recently swallowed jellyfish, he swam uneasily in slow circles around the great white. Unknowing, they had come too close to the disaster.
They were both trying to detect the tiny electrical fields generated by the muscular contractions of their usual neighbors living in this area: the dolphins and porpoises and whales, the red fish and snapper, grouper and other sharks who had always made a home here in the deepest coldest water. But there was nothing. The noxious spill was directly ahead, though some miles away. Within its devastating bubbling swath of fresh crude and gas with its volatile compounds, including concentrated dispersants, mixing disastrously with cold sea water, all sea creatures had apparently suffocated due to acute toxicosis. Two hundred and fifty turtles and thirty dolphins had already washed up on the coastlines of Alabama and Louisiana, although many of these sea turtles had been caught in the last round of shrimp netting when the frantic fishermen had closed off all escape holes in the net to try and accumulate more shrimp before fishing was stopped permanently in the fouled waters.
The shark and the turtle accepted such catastrophic death around them without emotion or surprise. One dies and another lives. That was all they knew of the deeper mysteries of life. They slowly swam away in the direction from which they had come, toward the Florida Straights and the Keys.
Though a carnivorous fish and a reptile are not the most emotionally sensitive animals in the sea, this peculiar pair grew deeply affected by the astonishing loss of so many of their neighbors. All those colorful joyous surprisingly clever fish who they had felt so comfortable swimming among, light-hearted charming creatures who loved to explore the nooks and crannies of their remarkable world of underwater reefs and mountains were suddenly gone. They had both loved to watch parrotfish gliding over and between beautiful coral, pairs of seahorses looking for familiar navigational landmarks in the vast aquatic fields of turtle grass and manatee grass, and groupers, like friendly puppies, floating above pufferfish. Sculling along, the turtle had especially relaxed watching lionfish pursuing each other in a game of hide and seek, yellowtail snappers floating through shafts of golden sunlight descending through the surface water above their heads, and of course blue tang and sergeant majors, each reflecting in its own way on the nature of the other fish around them, each individual fish distinctly different from any other. Many of these reef fish had actually used the metal legs of the oil rigs as their home. They were all gone.
Without this buoyant familiar energetic life as a backdrop to their life in the Gulf, the great white and the distressed loggerhead experienced a gradual consuming loneliness. Gradually, the larger fish and mammals who had the strength to disperse out of the poisoned northeast were catching up to them and passing them. Eventually, they were surrounded by a huge gathering of marine life, swimming with a strange eagerness in the same direction they were going: top of the line predators like swordfish, sharks, (even whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea) barracuda, grouper, snapper, tuna, dolphins, young sperm whales swimming side by side with amberjack and king mackerel, all in dazed horrified confusion, all leveled by a common enemy, all carrying with them a strange wretched stench of disease, oil, and death.
Subdued and frightened, the two resilient outsiders were exhilarated by the unexpected company. Bumped on every side by weary dolphins swimming back and forth whistling mournfully and searching for their lost families, cut off by mothers sometimes striving to hold up just-born dolphins on their backs, pushed and pulled and shoved by scattered families and deserted mates and hopeless orphans who had no chance in such a place, they lost their usual fatalistic composure and descended to find deeper quieter water, striving to see an opening through the dark noxious plumes and ever-spreading sheen of oil.
Weary, lost, confused, the entire ocean community of the northeastern Gulf and more recently the central Gulf, had faced down and struggled as best it could through something nightmarish that no one was adapted to survive in. The shark and the turtle found themselves caught up in the efforts of desperate exhausted creatures swimming for their lives, many of the largest species having ascended out of the deep blue-black gloom of the deepest waters.
The great white, though surrounded by panicked sick and dying animals that he would normally want to eat, completely lost his appetite. He hated being in a crowd for one thing and his strange malady bothered him for another. The loggerhead was having his own problems. Terribly upset by the odor of gas in the water, he found he could not hold down food and vomited any morsel he had managed to find. A juvenile sperm whale, crying with fear and pain, rolled over and started sinking right on top of the frightened shark who, horrified, had to hurriedly propel himself away, using up the last of his energy.
Thousands of individual small creatures, crabs, barnacles, starfish, snails, all resting on the numerous rocky ledges emerging from the valleys in the Gulf, went the way of their larger neighbors. It always began the same way: sick and disoriented creatures innocently inhaling and ingesting toxic plumes, becoming listless, suffering almost instant emphysema, losing their ability to breathe and to dive, and finally drowning.
The agitated great white felt unbearably heavy. He moved with extraordinary effort. Like the other fish around him, he was groggy with oxygen deprivation. Something was preventing enough water from getting down his throat and over his gills to let him breathe properly. His fathomless round black eyes, which had always been so reassuring to his turtle comrade, were now mournful and haunted. His ancient companion kept swimming up to the shark’s leathery snout and gently bumping it with his nose. The huge quantities of gas rushing into the Gulf along with the oil plus over 100,000 pounds of dispersant had created lurid toxic brown snowflakes floating in tiny ghoulish shapes that resembled plankton to the unwary and rushed into the open mouths of those who needed water over their gills, causing instant rupture of red blood cells resulting in a strange chemical pneumonia.
Epilogue It is Father’s Day at Fort DeSoto Beach. Hundreds of families have come for the day bringing their coolers and tents and umbrellas. The stone fireplaces behind the beach are crowded with fathers and uncles and brothers making cheeseburgers while the wives and mothers and sisters set out the coolers laughing and gossiping and the air is fragrant with the smell of grilled meat and burned rolls. Picnic tables are loaded with food. The smaller children play in the stream winding through the pine grove, catching crabs and tiny fish. Their parents sitting close by in the shade drinking beer and playing cards can keep an eye on them. The older children play in the ocean. It is high tide so there are not really any waves but the jet skis roaring back and forth make waves from their wake. The water is green and clear and warm with very little seaweed. The oil spill and its devastation are far away. Perhaps the plumes and sheen and tar balls will never come here.
In our hasty and careless dismissal of the importance of the lives of fish, the suffering of so many sea creatures suffocating and dying and lost in the mess in the northeastern gulf is unimaginable here where the black-headed laughing gulls fly in gangs from table to table snatching up pieces of egg salad sandwiches and potato chips. Concern now lies with the fishermen who can’t go out on their boats anymore or the restaurants along the northern coast that must close for lack of customers or the pelicans visible and oil-soaked, their nests buried inside the ruined wetlands. These victims we can see.
We return to what we know and can satisfy immediately: to a child who has captured a small crab and runs to show us. Here there are only peaceful, healthy, happy sunburned people celebrating a holiday on a beautiful weekend where all worries are cast aside and secure families eat good home-cooked potato salad and barbequed chicken, watching over contented children playing knee-deep in the muck of nature, and forgetting about work.
But somewhere in the gulf a harmless, dignified lumbering sea turtle is watching his eccentric comrade of a decade, die. The shark’s huge inoffensive jaws are helplessly agape as he dreamily turns and twists and descends forever into the blue-black abyss, still trying to find oxygen in water that holds 100,000 times more methane than it ever has before. Surprisingly disappointed, the loggerhead is caught up in an evolutionary moment: a certain light firing up inside that reptilian brain reveals a new mystery: yes, one lives and one dies, but one also grieves.
Epilogue 2 New star formations, spread over space like a twinkling tide, are covered by a thick bank of clouds as, far below, the heavy red and white coast guard plane heads out over the Gulf on its daily run. The pilots do not spot the old loggerhead swimming near the west coast of Florida toward Nokomis Beach. Seventy years ago, when this immense creature was only a hatchling, he had struggled out of his leathery shell and climbed through layers of suffocating warm sand to reach the surface air. Without pausing, filled with a frenzied longing to survive, he had raced toward the ocean, past pelicans and diving osprey, to reach the smashing waves, his new little legs scampering along as fast as they could in the difficult hills and valleys of the sand. Out of 5000 eggs laid down and buried on that beach, his was the only one that escaped wild dogs, crabs, insects and people, the only one that ended up an adult sea turtle. Now this remarkable survivor was returning home to that clean and gentle high tide that his internal navigational system, lined up at birth with the earth’s magnetic fields, had imprinted on his brain.
In all these years, this sea turtle has never pleaded with anyone to let him live, yet here he is, one of the few loggerheads left in the Gulf. So many have been incinerated in the fires burning oil off the surface water, so many have been smothered swimming through the globs of toxic crude to a nesting beach in Alabama, so many have tried to avoid the oil on the surface, the consistency of wet wallpaper glue, staying underwater too long (more than 30 minutes is generally fatal), but this old turtle, using all the resources the wise and unsentimental universe has given him, manages to survive once again. Travelling without his long-time bodyguard, he is careful to watch out for sharks and swordfish. He misses the leathery snout and toothless smile and round black eyes of his friend. It is time for him to wander the oceans and search out the misty luminescence of the dreamy and magical Andromeda Galaxy as he surfaces to breathe. It is time to reflect upon the deepest mysteries of existence in his ancient turtle way. But first he will revisit this serene and pleasant water by his mother’s beach.
He is precious and irreplaceable, still evolving, the spirit of life itself. And even though it appears that so many of our own kind indifferently destroy every immense, beautiful, magnificent animal on this planet as well as the places they have chosen to live, they will never be able to destroy the dangerous and reckless enterprise of life itself. Even now, I imagine the aging stars and stellar nurseries, that cosmic tide from where we all emerged, looking down upon this indomitable giant loggerhead with a grim and somber satisfaction.
©2010 Linda Clarke Volume 9 Issue 2