Day 29: 29 January 2019

We are told in the movie ‘Ghost Busters’ that science is there to serve humanity.  I am not so sure.  I think science kills.

Let me explain.  A couple of months ago I was with Ocean Infinity on a site right down in the very pit of one of our greatest oceans at depths of up to 6000 meters.  I was working in the ROV ops-room with about five others at the time.  The ROV was in paused state and its cameras were focused on a tripod-transponder that we had just installed about ten meters away.  The environment was alien, tenebrous, more than a bit forbidding and, frankly, rather barren of life.  Which is why I took notice  when this  … this freaky thing … suddenly  appeared from out of the dissolve behind the transponder and started advancing towards us on the current.  As it swelled in size everybody, one by one,  stopped what they were doing to stare.  None of us had ever seen anything like it before. It was just downright weird.  I can only describe it as looking like a plucked brushtail penguin whose head had been ripped off leaving a cavernous hole for a mouth.  In fact, for a moment, I thought it might be a dead headless penguin until I noticed that its flippers were moving in a graceful up and down motion.

None of us would have believed what we had just seen had we not caught it all on video.  And so for the last few months I have been showing the clip to anybody who would care to listen.  Thus it was, when I came on board this ship, I started showing my wonderful little aquatic mystery to the marine biologists in our party.  Cautiously at first and then I got a bit bolder.  And guess what?  None of them had seen it before.  You can imagine my delight.  Had I – I was even daring to think - discovered a new species? 

Today.  Ship’s mess. Lunch time.  Tap on my shoulder.  It was my dear friend Dr Lucy Woodall from Nekton in Oxford.

With the sweetest of smiles she handed me a neat little squared bit of paper.  ‘Got your critter’, she cooed. And this is what it said:

Enypniastes of the Holothurian genus

‘Nooooo Lucy,  stop!’ I wanted to scream, but instead I professed delight and thanked her profusely, but – and here’s the thing – at that moment something precious inside me died.  In the blink of a scientist’s eye, my fantastical little mystery had shrivelled to nothing. Gone. Poof!

Then I went back to my cabin, turned on my computer, and the first news flash was about how scientists have managed to explain away the murmurations, or the apparently random swarming motions, of starlings in flight.  One of the most beautiful, and supposedly inexplicable sights in nature.

Enuff, I say.  Do we really need to know this?  Next it will be the dance of the honey bee, the mating ritual of the whooping crane, the song of the humpback whale, the narwhale’s horn, the colours of the peacock’s tail …   

Keats famously despised Newton for having unwoven the rainbow with prisms and physics  – I get it, I’m with Keats on this one. 

And then there is the sooty petrel, one of my favourite birds in the South Atlantic; just beneath its chin there is a little dab of white that has always held me spellbound.  I cannot bear the thought of some scientist somewhere, some day, somehow, rationalizing its purpose.  Then indeed will ‘all charms fly’.

Where will it all end, I ask.  Will it be the arts next?  Do I really want to know the identity of Banksy or Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ or Beethoven’s ‘immortal beloved’, or why Iago had it in for Othello, or who built Stonehenge?  No, I don’t.

You see we humans need our mysteries.  They are there to enchant and delight.  Mysteries are not always there to be solved, or left like specimens ‘formulated’, ‘pinned and wriggling on the wall’.

It was while pondering all this, that a painful little thought intruded upon me.  Everybody who is not made of stone loves a good shipwreck, and the Endurance is the pezzo grosso of them all, el último jefazo.  She is the pre-eminent submerged mystery of our times.  There cannot be anybody who has heard the Shackleton story who has not, at one time or another, wondered what she looks like.  Right now everybody in their dreams can make of her what they will; she is fuel to everyone’s imagination.   But, if we find her, then we will have revealed all and I will be bursting bubbles just as assuredly as Lucy did mine today.    

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Another slow day because of thick fog.  We are east of the main Weddell Sea pack and working south, but there are some big icebergs out there and we are not taking any risks so, for much of the day, we have been chugging along at an undashing 5 to 6 knots.  At this rate we will not be back into the pack for a couple of days, at which point the real battle commences as we pound our way through to the search area a place, we are told, where no ship has been since the Endurance.  The scientists are all busy writing up their reports while everybody else is resting in preparation for some sleepless days ahead.

Noon position:  65  25.7  S,   047  54.3  W.

Mensun Bound (Director of Exploration)