WHALES—IN REAL LIFE, AND SCIENCE FICTION.
Photo ©2014 Richard Malzahn
Excerpt from Chapter 17 of my new sci-fi thriller, Exodus 2022:
“Can you zoom in on this section, please?” It was Edelstein, and she was standing in front of a close-up of the chamber mouth. A low angle.
There was something in front of one tiny section of the structure’s gracefully curving lower lip. Small randomly shaped protrusions. Bits of detritus backlit by the chamber’s eerie glow.
Brandon tapped his keyboard, and the magnification increased. He boosted the resolution, made some adjustments, zoomed in even more.
“Anthosactis,” said Edelstein. “In a whale fall. I’ll be damned.”
“Antho-what in a what?” asked Phelps.
“Anthosactis pearseae,” she replied. “It’s a type of anemone.”
Brandon fine-tuned the picture until they could all see what Edelstein was talking about. The anemones were small, white, and roughly cube-shaped. They appeared to be growing—flourishing—amid a vast pile of bones.
“Anthosactis is about the size of a human molar,” said Edelstein. “It even looks like a tooth.”
They stared. There were thousands of the little white cubes—each with a small tentacle on one side—covering the jumble of bones. Stuck to them.
Brandon switched to a different angle, an even lower perspective. Now they were looking through the bone garden, toward the phosphorescent chamber mouth.
The chamber opening looked vast and alien. Glowing fibers along the base of the chamber connected it to the seafloor. Like anchor lines. Like tethers. Like the chamber might float away if the lines didn’t hold it secure.
Edelstein said, “Researchers discovered the species in Monterey Canyon, in 2007, twenty-five miles off the California coast, in about three-thousand meters of water. Living in a whale fall there, as well.”
“You’re talking about a dead whale?” said Phelps. “A whale skeleton?”
“Exactly.” Edelstein pointed at an image of gigantic vertebrae, snaking along the seafloor. “The flesh of an animal like this decomposes within weeks, but the bones can last a hundred years. As the bones break down, they release sulfur. And creatures, including this anemone, use that to make energy. Just like terrestrial plants use the sun.”
The group stared at the otherworldy scene: the bones, the eerie glow, the massive chamber mouth in the background. It was like something from a Salvador Dalí dreamscape.
“Find a wider angle,” Beck said to Brandon.
Brandon skimmed through images. Dozens per second flashed on screen, a blur of colors and shapes. Then he found what he was looking for and the stream of pictures stopped. He adjusted the resolution and brought the image up. It was a wide shot: the chamber, head-on, hovering in the darkness, shimmering softly, like the entrance to a fantastical labyrinth. The whale bones were there, in the foreground, but barely noticeable—insignificant bumps, tiny silhouetted protrusions against the immensity of the chamber mouth.
“Even if the bones are from a small whale,” Phelps said quietly, “the chamber is—” his voice trailed off.
“Huge,” said Beck. “Big enough to house a Trident submarine. Or two.”
They stared in silence.