Maritime Marvels

The sea hath no king but God alone
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The maritime domain,which constitutes over 70 percent of the world’s surface area,holds many marvels in its midst,the pity being that few are bold enough to venture deep into its realm or discerning enough to notice. These marvels include natural wonders,technological innovations and feats of superhuman endurance.

As compared to the world’s surface,which has been thoroughly mapped,the ocean floor by contrast is comparatively unexplored,more than 98 percent in fact,which is why new species of deep sea creatures get discovered with every new dive. In the ocean’s fathomless depths,well beyond the crushing limits of even steel-hulled submersibles, live miraculously resilient creatures surviving in an incredibly harsh environment. Take the bizarre Fangtooth for instance(so named because of it’s unbelievably disproportionate teeth),which has been observed at crushing depths of up to 5000 meters. Reflect for a moment on the nightmarish conditions prevalent there: close to a thousand bars of pressure, negligible amounts of oxygen, pitch darkness, extreme cold and even worse, no food, with hope being placed on morsels floating down from above.

An intrepid film director-turned adventurer James Cameron finally became the first human to reach the deepest point of the ocean floor, the Challenger Deep, located within the Mariana Trench. He achieved this milestone on 26 March 2012 plunging a full mile deeper into the bowels of the ocean than the the highest mountain is above sea level. The Deepsea Challenger, the 24 ft long one-man submersible in which this feat was accomplished, had been specifically designed for the express purpose of challenging the Challenger Deep using a specialised syntactic foam material(with a specific gravity of barely 0.7) capable of buoyancy as well as for withstanding the massive compressive forces encountered at such mind-boggling depths.

Amongst the world’s maritime wonders, let’s pick two, the Dead Sea east of Jordan and Lake Baikal SE of Siberia: a more startling contrast can hardly be imagined. The Dead Sea, so named because it’s intense salinity cannot sustain life of any sort, is actually more than 400 meters below sea level, making it the earth’s lowest elevation on land. It’s very saltiness, nearly nine times the ocean average, which defies life, also enables a person to float effortlessly on its surface. While the Dead Sea,at 377 meters,is the world’s deepest hypersaline lake, Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake. But this is where the comparison ends. Apart from having been formed some twenty million odd years ago, Lake Baikal is also the purest, with its vast population of small crustaceans forming a natural purification system by eating up the visibility-lowering particles to maintain its clarity. It’s biodiversity likewise is remarkable, with nearly three-fourths of its flora and fauna being specific to the area.

Spreading outward from western European ports, intrepid Italian,Spanish,Portuguese,Dutch and British sailors explored,discovered,traded with and colonised new worlds,new continents,new islands. Though most of the exploratory work was undertaken with relatively small sailing ships, it was the advent of steel-hulled steamships that revolutionised ocean travel. With around 20,000 gas-emitting vessels cross-crossing the ocean these days, a need now exists to keep its by-product,environmental degradation,in check. A Norwegian entrepreneur has come up with a possible solution: harnessing the power of the wind but with a twist. The cargo container ship that he plans to build will have a small natural gas-fired engine coupled with a computerised sailing system that most effectively utilises the power of the wind along its giant hull which is designed to channel air more or less like a sail does. This ‘wind ship’ also takes advantage of the wind created simply by the ship’s forward movement. It’s aerodynamic sailing capabilities have already been tested in a wind tunnel.

Humans have also stamped their imprint on the maritime world through feats of courage and willpower,setting new records in the process.

A British explorer Felicity Aston, 33, became the first woman to cross the continent of Antarctica alone and the first person to make the crossing using only her own strength; it took her 59 days to ski the 1084 miles from Leverett Glacier to Hercules inlet.

A 70 year old sailing enthusiast, Jeanne Socrates, became the oldest woman to sail solo around the world non-stop. She learned to sail while in her fifties, but after the death of her husband, she sold her family home to take her pastime more seriously. Acting as skipper, navigator, engineer and chef on her 38 ft yacht Nereida, the former maths teacher set off on her mammoth voyage from Victoria, Canada and completed the 25000 mile circumnavigation in her third attempt.

A 64 year old endurance swimmer, Diana Nyad, became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. She accomplished this amazing feat in her fifth attempt, her fourth since turning 60. Braving rough seas for 49 out of the 53 hours she took to undertake the crossing, she also had to overcome a severe bout of vomiting(owing to excessive salt water intake) and traverse 103 miles of shark infested waters.

An amazing survival story in a harsh environment is also worth narrating. A tugboat, which had capsized off the coast of Nigeria, remained suspended some 30 metres under the water surface. Only one sailor survived, simply by finding an air bubble to stay in and by helping himself to the soft drinks floating nearby. He managed to cling to life for nearly three days, while all this time the pressure his body was subjected to was almost four times the atmospheric normal, which he equalized by inhaling the pressurized gases. After being rescued, he was kept in a decompression chamber for two days to gradually bring his body back to normal. Amazing piece of handiwork the human body is! That’s double the pressure in our car tyres. Without gradual decompression, the nitrogen would have rushed out of the body and caused a death-inducing gas embolism.

It is not without reason that nearly three-fourths of the earth’s surface consists of water. The ocean plays a vital role in the sustenance of life on the planet through its capacity to act as a limitless reservoir of food,medicine and oxygen. If it wasn’t for the carbon dioxide and mercury absorbing ability of the oceans, the world would have become an intolerable place to live in.


Note: This article was published in the October 2016 issue of the Global Age monthly magazine under the heading ‘Wonders of the Sea’.



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