Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 92 of 165

On February 9 the Nautilus cruised in the widest part of the Red Sea, measuring 190 miles straight across from Suakin on the west coast to Qunfidha on the east coast.

At noon that day after our position fix, Captain Nemo climbed onto the platform, where I happened to be. I vowed not to let him go below again without at least sounding him out on his future plans. As soon as he saw me, he came over, graciously offered me a cigar, and said to me:

“Well, professor, are you pleased with this Red Sea? Have you seen enough of its hidden wonders, its fish and zoophytes, its gardens of sponges and forests of coral? Have you glimpsed the towns built on its shores?”

“Yes, Captain Nemo,” I replied, “and the Nautilus is wonderfully suited to this whole survey. Ah, it’s a clever boat!”

“Yes, sir, clever, daring, and invulnerable! It fears neither the Red Sea’s dreadful storms nor its currents and reefs.”

“Indeed,” I said, “this sea is mentioned as one of the worst, and in the days of the ancients, if I’m not mistaken, it had an abominable reputation.”

“Thoroughly abominable, Professor Aronnax. The Greek and Latin historians can find nothing to say in its favor, and the Greek geographer Strabo adds that it’s especially rough during the rainy season and the period of summer prevailing winds. The Arab Idrisi, referring to it by the name Gulf of Colzoum, relates that ships perished in large numbers on its sandbanks and that no one risked navigating it by night. This, he claims, is a sea subject to fearful hurricanes, strewn with inhospitable islands, and ‘with nothing good to offer,’ either on its surface or in its depths. As a matter of fact, the same views can also be found in Arrian, Agatharchides, and Artemidorus.”

“One can easily see,” I answered, “that those historians didn’t navigate aboard the Nautilus.”

“Indeed,” the captain replied with a smile, “and in this respect, the moderns aren’t much farther along than the ancients. It took many centuries to discover the mechanical power of steam! Who knows whether we’ll see a second Nautilus within the next 100 years! Progress is slow, Professor Aronnax.”

“It’s true,” I replied. “Your ship is a century ahead of its time, perhaps several centuries. It would be most unfortunate if such a secret were to die with its inventor!”

Captain Nemo did not reply. After some minutes of silence:

“We were discussing,” he said, “the views of ancient historians on the dangers of navigating this Red Sea?”

“True,” I replied. “But weren’t their fears exaggerated?”

“Yes and no, Professor Aronnax,” answered Captain Nemo, who seemed to know “his Red Sea” by heart. “To a modern ship, well rigged, solidly constructed, and in control of its course thanks to obedient steam, some conditions are no longer hazardous that offered all sorts of dangers to the vessels of the ancients. Picture those early navigators venturing forth in sailboats built from planks lashed together with palm–tree ropes, caulked with powdered resin, and coated with dogfish grease. They didn’t even have instruments for taking their bearings, they went by guesswork in the midst of currents they barely knew. Under such conditions, shipwrecks had to be numerous. But nowadays steamers providing service between Suez and the South Seas have nothing to fear from the fury of this gulf, despite the contrary winds of its monsoons. Their captains and passengers no longer prepare for departure with sacrifices to placate the gods, and after returning, they don’t traipse in wreaths and gold ribbons to say thanks at the local temple.”

“Agreed,” I said. “And steam seems to have killed off all gratitude in seamen’s hearts. But since you seem to have made a special study of this sea, Captain, can you tell me how it got its name?”

“Many explanations exist on the subject, Professor Aronnax. Would you like to hear the views of one chronicler in the 14th century?”

“Gladly.”

“This fanciful fellow claims the sea was given its name after the crossing of the Israelites, when the Pharaoh perished in those waves that came together again at Moses’ command:

To mark that miraculous sequel, the sea turned a red without equal.

Thus no other course would do but to name it for its hue.”

“An artistic explanation, Captain Nemo,” I replied, “but I’m unable to rest content with it. So I’ll ask you for your own personal views.”

“Here they come. To my thinking, Professor Aronnax, this ‘Red Sea’ designation must be regarded as a translation of the Hebrew word Edrom, and if the ancients gave it that name, it was because of the unique color of its waters.”

“Until now, however, I’ve seen only clear waves, without any unique hue.”

“Surely, but as we move ahead to the far end of this gulf, you’ll note its odd appearance. I recall seeing the bay of El Tur completely red, like a lake of blood.”

“And you attribute this color to the presence of microscopic algae?”

“Yes. It’s a purplish, mucilaginous substance produced by those tiny buds known by the name trichodesmia, 40,000 of which are needed to occupy the space of one square millimeter. Perhaps you’ll encounter them when we reach El Tur.”

“Hence, Captain Nemo, this isn’t the first time you’ve gone through the Red Sea aboard the Nautilus?”

“No, sir.”

“Then, since you’ve already mentioned the crossing of the Israelites and the catastrophe that befell the Egyptians, I would ask if you’ve ever discovered any traces under the waters of that great historic event?”

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