Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 80 of 165

“Well, sir, can’t we manage without his permission?”

I didn’t answer the Canadian. I wanted no arguments. Deep down, I was determined to fully exploit the good fortune that had put me on board the Nautilus.

After leaving Keeling Island, our pace got generally slower. It also got more unpredictable, often taking us to great depths. Several times we used our slanting fins, which internal levers could set at an oblique angle to our waterline. Thus we went as deep as two or three kilometers down but without ever verifying the lowest depths of this sea near India, which soundings of 13,000 meters have been unable to reach. As for the temperature in these lower strata, the thermometer always and invariably indicated 4° centigrade. I merely observed that in the upper layers, the water was always colder over shallows than in the open sea.

On January 25, the ocean being completely deserted, the Nautilus spent the day on the surface, churning the waves with its powerful propeller and making them spurt to great heights. Under these conditions, who wouldn’t have mistaken it for a gigantic cetacean? I spent three–quarters of the day on the platform. I stared at the sea. Nothing on the horizon, except near four o’clock in the afternoon a long steamer to the west, running on our opposite tack. Its masting was visible for an instant, but it couldn’t have seen the Nautilus because we were lying too low in the water. I imagine that steamboat belonged to the Peninsular & Oriental line, which provides service from the island of Ceylon to Sidney, also calling at King George Sound and Melbourne.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, just before that brief twilight that links day with night in tropical zones, Conseil and I marveled at an unusual sight.

It was a delightful animal whose discovery, according to the ancients, is a sign of good luck. Aristotle, Athenaeus, Pliny, and Oppian studied its habits and lavished on its behalf all the scientific poetry of Greece and Italy. They called it “nautilus” and “pompilius.” But modern science has not endorsed these designations, and this mollusk is now known by the name argonaut.

Anyone consulting Conseil would soon learn from the gallant lad that the branch Mollusca is divided into five classes; that the first class features the Cephalopoda (whose members are sometimes naked, sometimes covered with a shell), which consists of two families, the Dibranchiata and the Tetrabranchiata, which are distinguished by their number of gills; that the family Dibranchiata includes three genera, the argonaut, the squid, and the cuttlefish, and that the family Tetrabranchiata contains only one genus, the nautilus. After this catalog, if some recalcitrant listener confuses the argonaut, which is acetabuliferous (in other words, a bearer of suction tubes), with the nautilus, which is tentaculiferous (a bearer of tentacles), it will be simply unforgivable.

Now, it was a school of argonauts then voyaging on the surface of the ocean. We could count several hundred of them. They belonged to that species of argonaut covered with protuberances and exclusive to the seas near India.

These graceful mollusks were swimming backward by means of their locomotive tubes, sucking water into these tubes and then expelling it. Six of their eight tentacles were long, thin, and floated on the water, while the other two were rounded into palms and spread to the wind like light sails. I could see perfectly their undulating, spiral–shaped shells, which Cuvier aptly compared to an elegant cockleboat. It’s an actual boat indeed. It transports the animal that secretes it without the animal sticking to it.

“The argonaut is free to leave its shell,” I told Conseil, “but it never does.”

“Not unlike Captain Nemo,” Conseil replied sagely. “Which is why he should have christened his ship the Argonaut.”

For about an hour the Nautilus cruised in the midst of this school of mollusks. Then, lord knows why, they were gripped with a sudden fear. As if at a signal, every sail was abruptly lowered; arms folded, bodies contracted, shells turned over by changing their center of gravity, and the whole flotilla disappeared under the waves. It was instantaneous, and no squadron of ships ever maneuvered with greater togetherness.

Just then night fell suddenly, and the waves barely surged in the breeze, spreading placidly around the Nautilus’s side plates.

The next day, January 26, we cut the equator on the 82nd meridian and we reentered the northern hemisphere.

During that day a fearsome school of sharks provided us with an escort. Dreadful animals that teem in these seas and make them extremely dangerous. There were Port Jackson sharks with a brown back, a whitish belly, and eleven rows of teeth, bigeye sharks with necks marked by a large black spot encircled in white and resembling an eye, and Isabella sharks whose rounded snouts were strewn with dark speckles. Often these powerful animals rushed at the lounge window with a violence less than comforting. By this point Ned Land had lost all self–control. He wanted to rise to the surface of the waves and harpoon the monsters, especially certain smooth–hound sharks whose mouths were paved with teeth arranged like a mosaic, and some big five–meter tiger sharks that insisted on personally provoking him. But the Nautilus soon picked up speed and easily left astern the fastest of these man–eaters.

On January 27, at the entrance to the huge Bay of Bengal, we repeatedly encountered a gruesome sight: human corpses floating on the surface of the waves! Carried by the Ganges to the high seas, these were deceased Indian villagers who hadn’t been fully devoured by vultures, the only morticians in these parts. But there was no shortage of sharks to assist them with their undertaking chores.

Near seven o’clock in the evening, the Nautilus lay half submerged, navigating in the midst of milky white waves. As far as the eye could see, the ocean seemed lactified. Was it an effect of the moon’s rays? No, because the new moon was barely two days old and was still lost below the horizon in the sun’s rays. The entire sky, although lit up by stellar radiation, seemed pitch–black in comparison with the whiteness of these waters.

Conseil couldn’t believe his eyes, and he questioned me about the causes of this odd phenomenon. Luckily I was in a position to answer him.

“That’s called a milk sea,” I told him, “a vast expanse of white waves often seen along the coasts of Amboina and in these waterways.”

“But,” Conseil asked, “could master tell me the cause of this effect, because I presume this water hasn’t really changed into milk!”

“No, my boy, and this whiteness that amazes you is merely due to the presence of myriads of tiny creatures called infusoria, a sort of diminutive glowworm that’s colorless and gelatinous in appearance, as thick as a strand of hair, and no longer than one–fifth of a millimeter. Some of these tiny creatures stick together over an area of several leagues.”

“Several leagues!” Conseil exclaimed.

“Yes, my boy, and don’t even try to compute the number of these infusoria. You won’t pull it off, because if I’m not mistaken, certain navigators have cruised through milk seas for more than forty miles.”

I’m not sure that Conseil heeded my recommendation, because he seemed to be deep in thought, no doubt trying to calculate how many one–fifths of a millimeter are found in forty square miles. As for me, I continued to observe this phenomenon. For several hours the Nautilus’s spur sliced through these whitish waves, and I watched it glide noiselessly over this soapy water, as if it were cruising through those foaming eddies that a bay’s currents and countercurrents sometimes leave between each other.

Near midnight the sea suddenly resumed its usual hue, but behind us all the way to the horizon, the skies kept mirroring the whiteness of those waves and for a good while seemed imbued with the hazy glow of an aurora borealis.


  1. ScottS-M Identiconcomment_author_IP, $comment->comment_author); }else{echo $gravatar_link;}}*/ ?>

    ScottS-M wrote:

    I’d never really heard of argonauts. Pretty interesting animals although I don’t think they actually use their tentacles as sails.

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