The Sea’s Deep Thinkers: Life in the Deep



Now know the ocean’s cities, suburbs, and rural zones. But everywhere has a place where the deep thinkers with strange ideas gather. Paris’s Latin Quarter, New York’s East Village, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, or the strange communes that pop up in remote areas. A combination of weird ideas, experimental technology, idealists dreaming up ways to reinvent society, and other weirdos thrive here. And yes, the ocean’s got the same counterculture thing. You’ll have to be a deep thinker, because it happens in the depths. Here’s what life is like in the ocean’s bohemian zone.

Dumpster Divers
Food in the depths comes mostly from the oceanic equivalent of dumpster diving. Like the odd combination of “re-use everything” advocates, free spirits, and desperate hunger that leads to dumpster diving, deep-sea fish rely on the leftovers from above. It’s called “detrital rain”: the slow trickle of organic material from the surface that makes up the base of the deep-ocean food chain. Plankton, decaying matter from river mouths, detached seaweed, and dead marine life from the surface sinks to the floor. Dumpster divers below wait for it, and fight over it.

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me
The dominant factor in the deep sea is pressure: the massive weight of a mile or more of seawater above you. Creatures from above can’t stand the pressure, and those adapted to the depths can’t survive above. Much of how they handle the pressure is poorly understood.

Be Stinky
One of the pressure adaptation is to be stinky as an unwashed hippie. Many deep sea creatures’ cells contain a molecule called trimethylamine oxide, which somehow prevents large molecules from being distorted by pressure. It’s also responsible for the fishy smell we’re familiar with, but it’s present in massive amounts in deep-sea fish.

Don’t Go to The Gym
Deep-sea bohemians don’t work out. Being muscular and strong is an advantage when you’re a surface feeder cruising around and chasing prey as many shallow-water fish do. But under pressure, the amount of metabolic energy it takes to build and maintain strong muscles is much higher. The protein content of muscle in deep sea fish like viperfish is often only 1/5 that of tuna, giving their muscles a flaccid squishy texture that’s less powerful but easy to maintain. The tradeoff is that it inhibits athletic ability. They’re also far less tasty to us humans.

Don’t Look for A Job, Wait for Inspiration
In a dark environment with detrital rain and soft muscles, going out to look for food makes little sense. Most creatures wait for food to come to them. Some eat detritus that drifts down from above or scavenge through the soft seafloor. The rest are ambush predators: drifting inertly or burying themselves in the until an unsuspecting meal to happens by. This saves the futility of searching in the dark, or the metabolic costs of maintaining muscle all that for hunting.

Grab It When You Can
And since most food is sporadic, deep sea creatures are ready to grab a meal when they can. Gulper eels or longnose lancetfish have enormous mouths. Anglerfish and viperfish also have rows of inward-facing teeth so that captured prey can’t escape.

Find Your Own Way
Our undersea bohemians have three different ways of dealing with the darkness. One is to simply give up your eyes and find food and mates by smell, like a hagfish. The other is to develop massive eyes, like the giant squid or lancetfish, that work in the near-total darkness. A third strategy is to make your own light: many deep sea creatures like anglerfish, lanternfish and firefly squid, contain photophores that emit light. Many can control it, illuminating themselves when a mate might be near but going dark when they suspect a predator. The anglerfish is famous for its light lure on the “fishing rod” attached to its head, which lures prey in to be snatched up by waiting jaws.

Join a Commune
But the real bohemians don’t just hang out in Haight-Asbury or the East Village: they go off to ashrams or communes. Those exist in the depths too, around deep-sea vents. Whole ecosystems flourish near these vents, where they feed off the heat and gases—that emanate from thin spots in the seafloor. Many, like the giant 6-foot tall tubeworms, are chemoautotrophs. They use a large sac of bacteria in place of a digestive system to convert toxic hydrogen sulfide (the rotten-egg gas that emits from many vents) into sugars. A host of strange and often giant, worms, snails, shrimp, and mussels hang out near these vents and mid-ocean ridges, away from the rest of society, living by their own rules.

It’s Not Just a Phase
We often expect folks who explore alternative lifestyles to eventually get a job and settle down like the rest of us. Not so in the deep sea. Life down here is dark, pressure-filled, cold, and weird. But it’s something else: stable. It’s always night and its always winter, and it has been for millions of years. There are no changes in weather, currents, or seasons. So life has been getting weirder and weirder by the generation for eons, evolving continuously to fit this weird world better. Weirdness is a way of life down here. The rest of the ocean wouldn’t understand.

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