Gabriel Houck
NONFICTION
 

Point Nemo

I.

In 1539, after more than a decade of work, a Swedish diplomat named Olaus Magnus finished production on a map of Scandinavia for the Venetian court. The map included charts of the surrounding waters; the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Norwegian Sea as far west as Iceland. Cartography was, at the time, limited by the papermaking technology of renaissance Europe. The paper for Magnus’ map was made by hand, with linen pulp poured into square molds and then flattened through a mesh screen at the bottom. The resulting paper was sewn together into nine sections, upon which the author inscribed:

A Marine map and Description of the Northern Lands and of their Marvels, most carefully drawn up at Venice in the year 1539 through the generous assistance of the Most Honourable Lord and Patriarch Hieronymo Quirino.

The map itself was one of the earliest attempts to draw this part of northern Europe, although it received little fanfare and was only reproduced a handful of times before falling off the historical record. Scholars of successive generations debated the existence of Magnus’ map, and it was widely believed to be a myth until copies were rediscovered in the mid 19th Century. Like many maps of the era, navigational accuracy was only part of its intended value. Landmarks are distorted, coastlines arc in artistic flourishes, and the landscape is patterned with all sorts of illustrations, beasts and men and machines like children’s figurines scattered across a table. In one panel, a great ocean malestrom swallows a Norwegian vessel, and in another, a monstrous lobster crushes a man in its claws just south of the lost island of Thule.

Magnus’ work was cobbled together from fact and fiction. Using charts and methodologies drawn from Ptolemy’s Geographia, it was constructed as a collage of his own experiences and the local folklore of the region, including the more fantastic testimonials of ancient mariners with whom he spoke during his diplomatic travels. As an artifact of utility, the map serves little purpose. As a window into the psychology of civilizations which faced the budding possibility of whole hemispheres of undiscovered wilderness, the map is fascinating. It is a compendium of local politics, an ethnocentric view of the world and it’s uncountable others, an encyclopedia of the myths and monsters from an era in which fantasy explained reality, and in which the unknown was an essential part of the construction of belief and human purpose.

II.

In the summer of 1997, hydrophones operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration picked up two very loud and very unusual sounds in the depths of the southern Pacific Ocean. The first of these occurred in early May, roughly at the coordinates 50S 100W, which puts the source of the noise about one thousand miles due west of the coast of Chilean Patagonia. The hydrophone array that identified the phenomenon is a leftover from the Cold War, a network of surveillance technology designed to identify Soviet submarines called SOSUS. Hydrophones thousands of miles apart detected the sound, and it was extensively catalogued but never given an official explanation. It was, however, given a comically simple name: Bloop.

The head scientist at NOAA’s Acoustic Monitoring Project in Oregon at the time was Dr. Christopher Fox, a thickly-bearded man in his mid 40’s with a background in Geological Sciences and a passion for oceanic conservation and study. He was also the man in charge of naming undersea acoustic phenomena, and the monikers he created reflected the same minimalist flair that characterized Bloop. Many sounds, such as Train and Upsweep, were later established to be volcanic vents releasing gas, or small earthquakes on the ocean floor. On May 19th of 1997, however, only weeks after Bloop was first recorded, Dr. Fox was forced to name another noise captured by the hydrophone array. Slow Down, as it was called, was also located in the South Pacific, at 15S 115W, or about 2500 miles directly west of Lima, Peru. The proximity of these phenomena to each other wasn’t the only strange thing about them, and Dr. Fox came to two interesting conclusions. First, each sound’s signature was most likely biological in origin, and second, each sound was many magnitudes louder than those made by any known ocean-going species.

While Dr. Fox’s conclusions ended there, others interested in these events took to the internet with theories ranging from the probable to the fantastic. There were claims that the noises were part of a new naval technology, or even a secret sonar experiment that was meant to mimic the sound patterns of whales. Cryptozoologists argued that the noises could be made by as-of-yet-undiscovered megafauna of the deep, the most popular explanation being a species of giant squid. Marine biologists refuted these claims, noting that all cephalopods lack a gas sac and can’t make any sound of the type or volume of Bloop and Slow Down. Science Fiction writers used this mystery as inspiration for books and films about monsters from the ocean coming ashore and wreaking havoc on coastal cities. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu series wrote that the origin points for these sounds were close to the location of the mythic sunken city of R’lyeh, which the author once described as a city “…built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.” Lovecraft even offered the coordinates for his city, which, at 49.5S 128.3W, was a little more than 1000 nautical miles to the southwest of Bloop, and very near to what is known as the pacific pole of inaccessibility, meaning the furthest spot from any landmass in the ocean.

The void left behind where NOAA and hard science stopped has since been filled by the collective imaginations of a newly hyper-connected army of curious dreamers with disposable time and internet access. Bloop and Slow Down have now become property of this open-sourced mythology. It is the kind of fantasy that is a rebellion against the statistical division of the universe, even as the march of science leaves behind these blank spots of knowledge that make this fantasy possible. It lives on the science at the soft outer edges of exploration, like the work of C. G. M. Paxton, who observed in a study of new ocean species that, given our current understanding of deep ocean ecologies, there are estimated to be nearly 50 large marine species that are still unknown to mankind.

III.

My island is very far, in terms of human travel, from all of this. One thousand nautical miles to the west/southwest of Slow Down, and 2324 miles to the northwest of Bloop, my island is at the eastern tip of the French Polynesian chain, near Pitcairn Island. Pitcairn, which was previously unpopulated, was discovered first in 1767 by the HMS Swallow, a British sloop making its way through the South Pacific. 23 years later, mutineers who had taken control of the HMS Bounty cast their captain, William Bligh, and 18 loyal crewmembers into a lifeboat and set them adrift before wrecking the ship on uninhabited Pitcairn. Immortalized in literature and cinema, the mutineers, who were a mix of British sailors and Tahitian slaves, started new lives on the tiny island and most remained there until they were rediscovered in 1808. The island still has a small population today, all of whom are partly descended from this group, and while the island was hardly a utopia for its founders, it became an unlikely refuge from the traditional fates of mutineers and lost seamen.

In the bright and pixilated screen of my computer, Pitcairn is a speck in the wide blue ocean. With a roll of the mouse wheel, the island fills my screen, a wedge of granite and sand, sunlit and tiny, 47 square kilometers of blank space waiting to be colored. With another roll, it winks out like a match, the perspective zooming outward like I am trailing a rocket heading out into space, looking downward and seeing only the deep ocean spreading out to the curvature of the earth.

My island is nearby. It is also a dead volcano. More specifically, it is the caldera of that volcano, the rocky teeth that mark the rim of its ancient jaws. Its hollow mouth is filled with a lagoon and dotted with tiny bumps of land. It is a coral atoll island, which, at an altitude of a few miles, looks like the inversion of a regular island, a pencil outline that was never shaded in. While very far away from Point Nemo, the Pacific Ocean’s pole of inaccessibility, it is remote enough even from the French Polynesian chain to have avoided human discovery until the 10th century, and European colonization until the end of the 18th Century. There are hundreds of these atoll islands stretching to the northwest for over a thousand miles along an oceanic ridge. And yet with a scroll of my mouse and a zoom out, the distance one must travel in that direction before hitting the eastern edge of Russia is roughly the same distance between the tip of Alaska’s Aleutian island chain and Miami, Florida. A continent of space.

*

Google Earth tells me that my island is at 23S 134.5W. It shows me the names of the bumps of land within the jaws of my island, it shows me pictures taken from its peaks and the shores of its sandy lagoon. The satellite that made the images on my screen passed over this stretch of ocean on a sunny day. I can see the sun skipping off the waves of the deep water, and I can see the dark coral and rock in the shallows as it loops around in lighter and lighter shades of blue. I can see the watershed lines along the ridges, where rainwater flows off the peaks into scrub forest along the coast. I can see detail down to a altitude of around 700 ft, at which point the greens and browns and blues begin to smear and the limits of my virtual invasion are reached.

In other places throughout the world, Google Earth can show me the shadow of a jetliner crossing a bay. It can show me the rusting hulks of nuclear submarines in the boneyards of Russia. It can show me a brush fire in Texas and a traffic pileup in Tokyo. Here on my island, without people and the things they bring with them, the Satellite gives a long hard look, stops, and then moves on, saving the deepest zoom for the cities and the traffic and for our ever-evolving fascination with looking at ourselves. At first, I am frustrated with this casual write-off of uninhabited space. I can see the trees on my island, but I can’t move among them. I can’t see the animal trails or the sharks gathering at a break in the atoll reef. But I also realize that I am an explorer of the virtual age, and I understand that it is precisely here that I want to be, looking at that point of inaccessibility. The undiscovered country is now the space between sea level and 700 feet, an incomplete image that asks us to inhabit its gaps. And it is here, in these spaces, that I will build myself a home. I will live in huts in the trees and on the coast, settled on the rim of the caldera and the slate ocean sky. And I will listen to the sounds of the world at night, the soft hum of the land and the far off quakes of deep things awakening, searching for the probing eyes above, waiting to be brought into being.



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