NIGHT FELL. I went to bed. I slept pretty poorly. Man–eaters played a major role in my dreams. And I found it more or less appropriate that the French word for shark, requin, has its linguistic roots in the word requiem.
The next day at four o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by the steward whom Captain Nemo had placed expressly at my service. I got up quickly, dressed, and went into the lounge.
Captain Nemo was waiting for me.
“Professor Aronnax,” he said to me, “are you ready to start?”
“Kindly follow me.”
“What about my companions, Captain?”
“They’ve been alerted and are waiting for us.”
“Aren’t we going to put on our diving suits?” I asked.
“Not yet. I haven’t let the Nautilus pull too near the coast, and we’re fairly well out from the Mannar oysterbank. But I have the skiff ready, and it will take us to the exact spot where we’ll disembark, which will save us a pretty long trek. It’s carrying our diving equipment, and we’ll suit up just before we begin our underwater exploring.”
Captain Nemo took me to the central companionway whose steps led to the platform. Ned and Conseil were there, enraptured with the “pleasure trip” getting under way. Oars in position, five of the Nautilus’s sailors were waiting for us aboard the skiff, which was moored alongside. The night was still dark. Layers of clouds cloaked the sky and left only a few stars in view. My eyes flew to the side where land lay, but I saw only a blurred line covering three–quarters of the horizon from southwest to northwest. Going up Ceylon’s west coast during the night, the Nautilus lay west of the bay, or rather that gulf formed by the mainland and Mannar Island. Under these dark waters there stretched the bank of shellfish, an inexhaustible field of pearls more than twenty miles long.
Captain Nemo, Conseil, Ned Land, and I found seats in the stern of the skiff. The longboat’s coxswain took the tiller; his four companions leaned into their oars; the moorings were cast off and we pulled clear.
The skiff headed southward. The oarsmen took their time. I watched their strokes vigorously catch the water, and they always waited ten seconds before rowing again, following the practice used in most navies. While the longboat coasted, drops of liquid flicked from the oars and hit the dark troughs of the waves, pitter–pattering like splashes of molten lead. Coming from well out, a mild swell made the skiff roll gently, and a few cresting billows lapped at its bow.
We were silent. What was Captain Nemo thinking? Perhaps that this approaching shore was too close for comfort, contrary to the Canadian’s views in which it still seemed too far away. As for Conseil, he had come along out of simple curiosity.
Near 5:30 the first glimmers of light on the horizon defined the upper lines of the coast with greater distinctness. Fairly flat to the east, it swelled a little toward the south. Five miles still separated it from us, and its beach merged with the misty waters. Between us and the shore, the sea was deserted. Not a boat, not a diver. Profound solitude reigned over this gathering place of pearl fishermen. As Captain Nemo had commented, we were arriving in these waterways a month too soon.
At six o’clock the day broke suddenly, with that speed unique to tropical regions, which experience no real dawn or dusk. The sun’s rays pierced the cloud curtain gathered on the easterly horizon, and the radiant orb rose swiftly.
I could clearly see the shore, which featured a few sparse trees here and there.
The skiff advanced toward Mannar Island, which curved to the south. Captain Nemo stood up from his thwart and studied the sea.
At his signal the anchor was lowered, but its chain barely ran because the bottom lay no more than a meter down, and this locality was one of the shallowest spots near the bank of shellfish. Instantly the skiff wheeled around under the ebb tide’s outbound thrust.
“Here we are, Professor Aronnax,” Captain Nemo then said. “You observe this confined bay? A month from now in this very place, the numerous fishing boats of the harvesters will gather, and these are the waters their divers will ransack so daringly. This bay is felicitously laid out for their type of fishing. It’s sheltered from the strongest winds, and the sea is never very turbulent here, highly favorable conditions for diving work. Now let’s put on our underwater suits, and we’ll begin our stroll.”
I didn’t reply, and while staring at these suspicious waves, I began to put on my heavy aquatic clothes, helped by the longboat’s sailors. Captain Nemo and my two companions suited up as well. None of the Nautilus’s men were to go with us on this new excursion.
Soon we were imprisoned up to the neck in india–rubber clothing, and straps fastened the air devices onto our backs. As for the Ruhmkorff device, it didn’t seem to be in the picture. Before inserting my head into its copper capsule, I commented on this to the captain.
“Our lighting equipment would be useless to us,” the captain answered me. “We won’t be going very deep, and the sun’s rays will be sufficient to light our way. Besides, it’s unwise to carry electric lanterns under these waves. Their brightness might unexpectedly attract certain dangerous occupants of these waterways.”
As Captain Nemo pronounced these words, I turned to Conseil and Ned Land. But my two friends had already encased their craniums in their metal headgear, and they could neither hear nor reply.
I had one question left to address to Captain Nemo.
“What about our weapons?” I asked him. “Our rifles?”
“Rifles! What for? Don’t your mountaineers attack bears dagger in hand? And isn’t steel surer than lead? Here’s a sturdy blade. Slip it under your belt and let’s be off.”
I stared at my companions. They were armed in the same fashion, and Ned Land was also brandishing an enormous harpoon he had stowed in the skiff before leaving the Nautilus.
Then, following the captain’s example, I let myself be crowned with my heavy copper sphere, and our air tanks immediately went into action.
An instant later, the longboat’s sailors helped us overboard one after the other, and we set foot on level sand in a meter and a half of water. Captain Nemo gave us a hand signal. We followed him down a gentle slope and disappeared under the waves.
There the obsessive fears in my brain left me. I became surprisingly calm again. The ease with which I could move increased my confidence, and the many strange sights captivated my imagination.
The sun was already sending sufficient light under these waves. The tiniest objects remained visible. After ten minutes of walking, we were in five meters of water, and the terrain had become almost flat.
Like a covey of snipe over a marsh, there rose underfoot schools of unusual fish from the genus Monopterus, whose members have no fin but their tail. I recognized the Javanese eel, a genuine eight–decimeter serpent with a bluish gray belly, which, without the gold lines over its flanks, could easily be confused with the conger eel. From the butterfish genus, whose oval bodies are very flat, I observed several adorned in brilliant colors and sporting a dorsal fin like a sickle, edible fish that, when dried and marinated, make an excellent dish known by the name “karawade”; then some sea poachers, fish belonging to the genus Aspidophoroides, whose bodies are covered with scaly armor divided into eight lengthwise sections.
Meanwhile, as the sun got progressively higher, it lit up the watery mass more and more. The seafloor changed little by little. Its fine–grained sand was followed by a genuine causeway of smooth crags covered by a carpet of mollusks and zoophytes. Among other specimens in these two branches, I noted some windowpane oysters with thin valves of unequal size, a type of ostracod unique to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, then orange–hued lucina with circular shells, awl–shaped auger shells, some of those Persian murex snails that supply the Nautilus with such wonderful dye, spiky periwinkles fifteen centimeters long that rose under the waves like hands ready to grab you, turban snails with shells made of horn and bristling all over with spines, lamp shells, edible duck clams that feed the Hindu marketplace, subtly luminous jellyfish of the species Pelagia panopyra, and finally some wonderful Oculina flabelliforma, magnificent sea fans that fashion one of the most luxuriant tree forms in this ocean.
In the midst of this moving vegetation, under arbors of water plants, there raced legions of clumsy articulates, in particular some fanged frog crabs whose carapaces form a slightly rounded triangle, robber crabs exclusive to these waterways, and horrible parthenope crabs whose appearance was repulsive to the eye. One animal no less hideous, which I encountered several times, was the enormous crab that Mr. Darwin observed, to which nature has given the instinct and requisite strength to eat coconuts; it scrambles up trees on the beach and sends the coconuts tumbling; they fracture in their fall and are opened by its powerful pincers. Here, under these clear waves, this crab raced around with matchless agility, while green turtles from the species frequenting the Malabar coast moved sluggishly among the crumbling rocks.
Near seven o’clock we finally surveyed the bank of shellfish, where pearl oysters reproduce by the millions. These valuable mollusks stick to rocks, where they’re strongly attached by a mass of brown filaments that forbids their moving about. In this respect oysters are inferior even to mussels, to whom nature has not denied all talent for locomotion.
The shellfish Meleagrina, that womb for pearls whose valves are nearly equal in size, has the shape of a round shell with thick walls and a very rough exterior. Some of these shells were furrowed with flaky, greenish bands that radiated down from the top. These were the young oysters. The others had rugged black surfaces, measured up to fifteen centimeters in width, and were ten or more years old.
Captain Nemo pointed to this prodigious heap of shellfish, and I saw that these mines were genuinely inexhaustible, since nature’s creative powers are greater than man’s destructive instincts. True to those instincts, Ned Land greedily stuffed the finest of these mollusks into a net he carried at his side.
But we couldn’t stop. We had to follow the captain, who headed down trails seemingly known only to himself. The seafloor rose noticeably, and when I lifted my arms, sometimes they would pass above the surface of the sea. Then the level of the oysterbank would lower unpredictably. Often we went around tall, pointed rocks rising like pyramids. In their dark crevices huge crustaceans, aiming their long legs like heavy artillery, watched us with unblinking eyes, while underfoot there crept millipedes, bloodworms, aricia worms, and annelid worms, whose antennas and tubular tentacles were incredibly long.
Just then a huge cave opened up in our path, hollowed from a picturesque pile of rocks whose smooth heights were completely hung with underwater flora. At first this cave looked pitch–black to me. Inside, the sun’s rays seemed to diminish by degrees. Their hazy transparency was nothing more than drowned light.
Captain Nemo went in. We followed him. My eyes soon grew accustomed to this comparative gloom. I distinguished the unpredictably contoured springings of a vault, supported by natural pillars firmly based on a granite foundation, like the weighty columns of Tuscan architecture. Why had our incomprehensible guide taken us into the depths of this underwater crypt? I would soon find out.
After going down a fairly steep slope, our feet trod the floor of a sort of circular pit. There Captain Nemo stopped, and his hand indicated an object that I hadn’t yet noticed.
It was an oyster of extraordinary dimensions, a titanic giant clam, a holy–water font that could have held a whole lake, a basin more than two meters wide, hence even bigger than the one adorning the Nautilus’s lounge.
I approached this phenomenal mollusk. Its mass of filaments attached it to a table of granite, and there it grew by itself in the midst of the cave’s calm waters. I estimated the weight of this giant clam at 300 kilograms. Hence such an oyster held fifteen kilos of meat, and you’d need the stomach of King Gargantua to eat a couple dozen.
Captain Nemo was obviously familiar with this bivalve’s existence. This wasn’t the first time he’d paid it a visit, and I thought his sole reason for leading us to this locality was to show us a natural curiosity. I was mistaken. Captain Nemo had an explicit personal interest in checking on the current condition of this giant clam.
The mollusk’s two valves were partly open. The captain approached and stuck his dagger vertically between the shells to discourage any ideas about closing; then with his hands he raised the fringed, membrane–filled tunic that made up the animal’s mantle.
There, between its leaflike folds, I saw a loose pearl as big as a coconut. Its globular shape, perfect clarity, and wonderful orient made it a jewel of incalculable value. Carried away by curiosity, I stretched out my hand to take it, weigh it, fondle it! But the captain stopped me, signaled no, removed his dagger in one swift motion, and let the two valves snap shut.
I then understood Captain Nemo’s intent. By leaving the pearl buried beneath the giant clam’s mantle, he allowed it to grow imperceptibly. With each passing year the mollusk’s secretions added new concentric layers. The captain alone was familiar with the cave where this wonderful fruit of nature was “ripening”; he alone reared it, so to speak, in order to transfer it one day to his dearly beloved museum. Perhaps, following the examples of oyster farmers in China and India, he had even predetermined the creation of this pearl by sticking under the mollusk’s folds some piece of glass or metal that was gradually covered with mother–of–pearl. In any case, comparing this pearl to others I already knew about, and to those shimmering in the captain’s collection, I estimated that it was worth at least ₣10,000,000. It was a superb natural curiosity rather than a luxurious piece of jewelry, because I don’t know of any female ear that could handle it.
Our visit to this opulent giant clam came to an end. Captain Nemo left the cave, and we climbed back up the bank of shellfish in the midst of these clear waters not yet disturbed by divers at work.
We walked by ourselves, genuine loiterers stopping or straying as our fancies dictated. For my part, I was no longer worried about those dangers my imagination had so ridiculously exaggerated. The shallows drew noticeably closer to the surface of the sea, and soon, walking in only a meter of water, my head passed well above the level of the ocean. Conseil rejoined me, and gluing his huge copper capsule to mine, his eyes gave me a friendly greeting. But this lofty plateau measured only a few fathoms, and soon we reentered Our Element. I think I’ve now earned the right to dub it that.
Ten minutes later, Captain Nemo stopped suddenly. I thought he’d called a halt so that we could turn and start back. No. With a gesture he ordered us to crouch beside him at the foot of a wide crevice. His hand motioned toward a spot within the liquid mass, and I looked carefully.
Five meters away a shadow appeared and dropped to the seafloor. The alarming idea of sharks crossed my mind. But I was mistaken, and once again we didn’t have to deal with monsters of the deep.
It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time. I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head. He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cut in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more quickly to the ocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment. Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random. Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.
This diver didn’t see us. A shadow cast by our crag hid us from his view. And besides, how could this poor Indian ever have guessed that human beings, creatures like himself, were near him under the waters, eavesdropping on his movements, not missing a single detail of his fishing!
So he went up and down several times. He gathered only about ten shellfish per dive, because he had to tear them from the banks where each clung with its tough mass of filaments. And how many of these oysters for which he risked his life would have no pearl in them!
I observed him with great care. His movements were systematically executed, and for half an hour no danger seemed to threaten him. So I had gotten used to the sight of this fascinating fishing when all at once, just as the Indian was kneeling on the seafloor, I saw him make a frightened gesture, stand, and gather himself to spring back to the surface of the waves.
I understood his fear. A gigantic shadow appeared above the poor diver. It was a shark of huge size, moving in diagonally, eyes ablaze, jaws wide open!
I was speechless with horror, unable to make a single movement.
With one vigorous stroke of its fins, the voracious animal shot toward the Indian, who jumped aside and avoided the shark’s bite but not the thrashing of its tail, because that tail struck him across the chest and stretched him out on the seafloor.
This scene lasted barely a few seconds. The shark returned, rolled over on its back, and was getting ready to cut the Indian in half, when Captain Nemo, who was stationed beside me, suddenly stood up. Then he strode right toward the monster, dagger in hand, ready to fight it at close quarters.
Just as it was about to snap up the poor fisherman, the man–eater saw its new adversary, repositioned itself on its belly, and headed swiftly toward him.
I can see Captain Nemo’s bearing to this day. Bracing himself, he waited for the fearsome man–eater with wonderful composure, and when the latter rushed at him, the captain leaped aside with prodigious quickness, avoided a collision, and sank his dagger into its belly. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A dreadful battle was joined.
The shark bellowed, so to speak. Blood was pouring into the waves from its wounds. The sea was dyed red, and through this opaque liquid I could see nothing else.
Nothing else until the moment when, through a rift in the clouds, I saw the daring captain clinging to one of the animal’s fins, fighting the monster at close quarters, belaboring his enemy’s belly with stabs of the dagger yet unable to deliver the deciding thrust, in other words, a direct hit to the heart. In its struggles the man–eater churned the watery mass so furiously, its eddies threatened to knock me over.
I wanted to run to the captain’s rescue. But I was transfixed with horror, unable to move.
I stared, wild–eyed. I saw the fight enter a new phase. The captain fell to the seafloor, toppled by the enormous mass weighing him down. Then the shark’s jaws opened astoundingly wide, like a pair of industrial shears, and that would have been the finish of Captain Nemo had not Ned Land, quick as thought, rushed forward with his harpoon and driven its dreadful point into the shark’s underside.
The waves were saturated with masses of blood. The waters shook with the movements of the man–eater, which thrashed about with indescribable fury. Ned Land hadn’t missed his target. This was the monster’s death rattle. Pierced to the heart, it was struggling with dreadful spasms whose aftershocks knocked Conseil off his feet.
Meanwhile Ned Land pulled the captain clear. Uninjured, the latter stood up, went right to the Indian, quickly cut the rope binding the man to his stone, took the fellow in his arms, and with a vigorous kick of the heel, rose to the surface of the sea.
The three of us followed him, and a few moments later, miraculously safe, we reached the fisherman’s longboat.
Captain Nemo’s first concern was to revive this unfortunate man. I wasn’t sure he would succeed. I hoped so, since the poor devil hadn’t been under very long. But that stroke from the shark’s tail could have been his deathblow.
Fortunately, after vigorous massaging by Conseil and the captain, I saw the nearly drowned man regain consciousness little by little. He opened his eyes. How startled he must have felt, how frightened even, at seeing four huge, copper craniums leaning over him!
And above all, what must he have thought when Captain Nemo pulled a bag of pearls from a pocket in his diving suit and placed it in the fisherman’s hands? This magnificent benefaction from the Man of the Waters to the poor Indian from Ceylon was accepted by the latter with trembling hands. His bewildered eyes indicated that he didn’t know to what superhuman creatures he owed both his life and his fortune.
At the captain’s signal we returned to the bank of shellfish, and retracing our steps, we walked for half an hour until we encountered the anchor connecting the seafloor with the Nautilus’s skiff.
Back on board, the sailors helped divest us of our heavy copper carapaces.
Captain Nemo’s first words were spoken to the Canadian.
“Thank you, Mr. Land,” he told him.
“Tit for tat, Captain,” Ned Land replied. “I owed it to you.”
The ghost of a smile glided across the captain’s lips, and that was all.
“To the Nautilus,” he said.
The longboat flew over the waves. A few minutes later we encountered the shark’s corpse again, floating.
From the black markings on the tips of its fins, I recognized the dreadful Squalus melanopterus from the seas of the East Indies, a variety in the species of sharks proper. It was more than twenty–five feet long; its enormous mouth occupied a third of its body. It was an adult, as could be seen from the six rows of teeth forming an isosceles triangle in its upper jaw.
Conseil looked at it with purely scientific fascination, and I’m sure he placed it, not without good reason, in the class of cartilaginous fish, order Chondropterygia with fixed gills, family Selacia, genus Squalus.
While I was contemplating this inert mass, suddenly a dozen of these voracious melanoptera appeared around our longboat; but, paying no attention to us, they pounced on the corpse and quarreled over every scrap of it.
By 8:30 we were back on board the Nautilus.
There I fell to thinking about the incidents that marked our excursion over the Mannar oysterbank. Two impressions inevitably stood out. One concerned Captain Nemo’s matchless bravery, the other his devotion to a human being, a representative of that race from which he had fled beneath the seas. In spite of everything, this strange man hadn’t yet succeeded in completely stifling his heart.
When I shared these impressions with him, he answered me in a tone touched with emotion:
“That Indian, professor, lives in the land of the oppressed, and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a native of that same land!”
DURING THE DAY of January 29, the island of Ceylon disappeared below the horizon, and at a speed of twenty miles per hour, the Nautilus glided into the labyrinthine channels that separate the Maldive and Laccadive Islands. It likewise hugged Kiltan Island, a shore of madreporic origin discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1499 and one of nineteen chief islands in the island group of the Laccadives, located between latitude 10° and 14° 30′ north, and between longitude 50° 72′ and 69° east.
By then we had fared 16,220 miles, or 7,500 leagues, from our starting point in the seas of Japan.
The next day, January 30, when the Nautilus rose to the surface of the ocean, there was no more land in sight. Setting its course to the north–northwest, the ship headed toward the Gulf of Oman, carved out between Arabia and the Indian peninsula and providing access to the Persian Gulf.
This was obviously a blind alley with no possible outlet. So where was Captain Nemo taking us? I was unable to say. Which didn’t satisfy the Canadian, who that day asked me where we were going.
“We’re going, Mr. Ned, where the Captain’s fancy takes us.”
“His fancy,” the Canadian replied, “won’t take us very far. The Persian Gulf has no outlet, and if we enter those waters, it won’t be long before we return in our tracks.”
“All right, we’ll return, Mr. Land, and after the Persian Gulf, if the Nautilus wants to visit the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb is still there to let us in!”
“I don’t have to tell you, sir,” Ned Land replied, “that the Red Sea is just as landlocked as the gulf, since the Isthmus of Suez hasn’t been cut all the way through yet; and even if it was, a boat as secretive as ours wouldn’t risk a canal intersected with locks. So the Red Sea won’t be our way back to Europe either.”
“But I didn’t say we’d return to Europe.”
“What do you figure, then?”
“I figure that after visiting these unusual waterways of Arabia and Egypt, the Nautilus will go back down to the Indian Ocean, perhaps through Mozambique Channel, perhaps off the Mascarene Islands, and then make for the Cape of Good Hope.”
“And once we’re at the Cape of Good Hope?” the Canadian asked with typical persistence.
“Well then, we’ll enter that Atlantic Ocean with which we aren’t yet familiar. What’s wrong, Ned my friend? Are you tired of this voyage under the seas? Are you bored with the constantly changing sight of these underwater wonders? Speaking for myself, I’ll be extremely distressed to see the end of a voyage so few men will ever have a chance to make.”
“But don’t you realize, Professor Aronnax,” the Canadian replied, “that soon we’ll have been imprisoned for three whole months aboard this Nautilus?”
“No, Ned, I didn’t realize it, I don’t want to realize it, and I don’t keep track of every day and every hour.”
“But when will it be over?”
“In its appointed time. Meanwhile there’s nothing we can do about it, and our discussions are futile. My gallant Ned, if you come and tell me, ‘A chance to escape is available to us,’ then I’ll discuss it with you. But that isn’t the case, and in all honesty, I don’t think Captain Nemo ever ventures into European seas.”
This short dialogue reveals that in my mania for the Nautilus, I was turning into the spitting image of its commander.
As for Ned Land, he ended our talk in his best speechifying style: “That’s all fine and dandy. But in my humble opinion, a life in jail is a life without joy.”
For four days until February 3, the Nautilus inspected the Gulf of Oman at various speeds and depths. It seemed to be traveling at random, as if hesitating over which course to follow, but it never crossed the Tropic of Cancer.
After leaving this gulf we raised Muscat for an instant, the most important town in the country of Oman. I marveled at its strange appearance in the midst of the black rocks surrounding it, against which the white of its houses and forts stood out sharply. I spotted the rounded domes of its mosques, the elegant tips of its minarets, and its fresh, leafy terraces. But it was only a fleeting vision, and the Nautilus soon sank beneath the dark waves of these waterways.
Then our ship went along at a distance of six miles from the Arabic coasts of Mahra and Hadhramaut, their undulating lines of mountains relieved by a few ancient ruins. On February 5 we finally put into the Gulf of Aden, a genuine funnel stuck into the neck of Bab el Mandeb and bottling these Indian waters in the Red Sea.
On February 6 the Nautilus cruised in sight of the city of Aden, perched on a promontory connected to the continent by a narrow isthmus, a sort of inaccessible Gibraltar whose fortifications the English rebuilt after capturing it in 1839. I glimpsed the octagonal minarets of this town, which used to be one of the wealthiest, busiest commercial centers along this coast, as the Arab historian Idrisi tells it.
I was convinced that when Captain Nemo reached this point, he would back out again; but I was mistaken, and much to my surprise, he did nothing of the sort.
The next day, February 7, we entered the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, whose name means “Gate of Tears” in the Arabic language. Twenty miles wide, it’s only fifty–two kilometers long, and with the Nautilus launched at full speed, clearing it was the work of barely an hour. But I didn’t see a thing, not even Perim Island where the British government built fortifications to strengthen Aden’s position. There were many English and French steamers plowing this narrow passageway, liners going from Suez to Bombay, Calcutta, Melbourne, Réunion Island, and Mauritius; far too much traffic for the Nautilus to make an appearance on the surface. So it wisely stayed in midwater.
Finally, at noon, we were plowing the waves of the Red Sea.
The Red Sea: that great lake so famous in biblical traditions, seldom replenished by rains, fed by no important rivers, continually drained by a high rate of evaporation, its water level dropping a meter and a half every year! If it were fully landlocked like a lake, this odd gulf might dry up completely; on this score it’s inferior to its neighbors, the Caspian Sea and the Dead Sea, whose levels lower only to the point where their evaporation exactly equals the amounts of water they take to their hearts.
This Red Sea is 2,600 kilometers long with an average width of 240. In the days of the Ptolemies and the Roman emperors, it was a great commercial artery for the world, and when its isthmus has been cut through, it will completely regain that bygone importance that the Suez railways have already brought back in part.
I would not even attempt to understand the whim that induced Captain Nemo to take us into this gulf. But I wholeheartedly approved of the Nautilus’s entering it. It adopted a medium pace, sometimes staying on the surface, sometimes diving to avoid some ship, and so I could observe both the inside and topside of this highly unusual sea.
On February 8, as early as the first hours of daylight, Mocha appeared before us: a town now in ruins, whose walls would collapse at the mere sound of a cannon, and which shelters a few leafy date trees here and there. This once–important city used to contain six public marketplaces plus twenty–six mosques, and its walls, protected by fourteen forts, fashioned a three–kilometer girdle around it.
Then the Nautilus drew near the beaches of Africa, where the sea is considerably deeper. There, through the open panels and in a midwater of crystal clarity, our ship enabled us to study wonderful bushes of shining coral and huge chunks of rock wrapped in splendid green furs of algae and fucus. What an indescribable sight, and what a variety of settings and scenery where these reefs and volcanic islands leveled off by the Libyan coast! But soon the Nautilushugged the eastern shore where these tree forms appeared in all their glory. This was off the coast of Tihama, and there such zoophyte displays not only flourished below sea level but they also fashioned picturesque networks that unreeled as high as ten fathoms above it; the latter were more whimsical but less colorful than the former, which kept their bloom thanks to the moist vitality of the waters.
How many delightful hours I spent in this way at the lounge window! How many new specimens of underwater flora and fauna I marveled at beneath the light of our electric beacon! Mushroom–shaped fungus coral, some slate–colored sea anemone including the species Thalassianthus aster among others, organ–pipe coral arranged like flutes and just begging for a puff from the god Pan, shells unique to this sea that dwell in madreporic cavities and whose bases are twisted into squat spirals, and finally a thousand samples of a polypary I hadn’t observed until then: the common sponge.
First division in the polyp group, the class Spongiaria has been created by scientists precisely for this unusual exhibit whose usefulness is beyond dispute. The sponge is definitely not a plant, as some naturalists still believe, but an animal of the lowest order, a polypary inferior even to coral. Its animal nature isn’t in doubt, and we can’t accept even the views of the ancients, who regarded it as halfway between plant and animal. But I must say that naturalists are not in agreement on the structural mode of sponges. For some it’s a polypary, and for others, such as Professor Milne–Edwards, it’s a single, solitary individual.
The class Spongiaria contains about 300 species that are encountered in a large number of seas and even in certain streams, where they’ve been given the name freshwater sponges. But their waters of choice are the Red Sea and the Mediterranean near the Greek Islands or the coast of Syria. These waters witness the reproduction and growth of soft, delicate bath sponges whose prices run as high as ₣150 apiece: the yellow sponge from Syria, the horn sponge from Barbary, etc. But since I had no hope of studying these zoophytes in the seaports of the Levant, from which we were separated by the insuperable Isthmus of Suez, I had to be content with observing them in the waters of the Red Sea.
So I called Conseil to my side, while at an average depth of eight to nine meters, the Nautilus slowly skimmed every beautiful rock on the easterly coast.
There sponges grew in every shape, globular, stalklike, leaflike, fingerlike. With reasonable accuracy, they lived up to their nicknames of basket sponges, chalice sponges, distaff sponges, elkhorn sponges, lion’s paws, peacock’s tails, and Neptune’s gloves—designations bestowed on them by fishermen, more poetically inclined than scientists. A gelatinous, semifluid substance coated the fibrous tissue of these sponges, and from this tissue there escaped a steady trickle of water that, after carrying sustenance to each cell, was being expelled by a contracting movement. This jellylike substance disappears when the polyp dies, emitting ammonia as it rots. Finally nothing remains but the fibers, either gelatinous or made of horn, that constitute your household sponge, which takes on a russet hue and is used for various tasks depending on its degree of elasticity, permeability, or resistance to saturation.
These polyparies were sticking to rocks, shells of mollusks, and even the stalks of water plants. They adorned the smallest crevices, some sprawling, others standing or hanging like coral outgrowths. I told Conseil that sponges are fished up in two ways, either by dragnet or by hand. The latter method calls for the services of a diver, but it’s preferable because it spares the polypary’s tissue, leaving it with a much higher market value.
Other zoophytes swarming near the sponges consisted chiefly of a very elegant species of jellyfish; mollusks were represented by varieties of squid that, according to Professor Orbigny, are unique to the Red Sea; and reptiles by virgata turtles belonging to the genus Chelonia, which furnished our table with a dainty but wholesome dish.
As for fish, they were numerous and often remarkable. Here are the ones that the Nautilus’s nets most frequently hauled on board: rays, including spotted rays that were oval in shape and brick red in color, their bodies strewn with erratic blue speckles and identifiable by their jagged double stings, silver–backed skates, common stingrays with stippled tails, butterfly rays that looked like huge two–meter cloaks flapping at middepth, toothless guitarfish that were a type of cartilaginous fish closer to the shark, trunkfish known as dromedaries that were one and a half feet long and had humps ending in backward–curving stings, serpentine moray eels with silver tails and bluish backs plus brown pectorals trimmed in gray piping, a species of butterfish called the fiatola decked out in thin gold stripes and the three colors of the French flag, Montague blennies four decimeters long, superb jacks handsomely embellished by seven black crosswise streaks with blue and yellow fins plus gold and silver scales, snooks, standard mullet with yellow heads, parrotfish, wrasse, triggerfish, gobies, etc., plus a thousand other fish common to the oceans we had already crossed.
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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“No, professor, and for an excellent reason.”
“It’s because that same locality where Moses crossed with all his people is now so clogged with sand, camels can barely get their legs wet. You can understand that my Nautilus wouldn’t have enough water for itself.”
“And that locality is . . . ?” I asked.
“That locality lies a little above Suez in a sound that used to form a deep estuary when the Red Sea stretched as far as the Bitter Lakes. Now, whether or not their crossing was literally miraculous, the Israelites did cross there in returning to the Promised Land, and the Pharaoh’s army did perish at precisely that locality. So I think that excavating those sands would bring to light a great many weapons and tools of Egyptian origin.”
“Obviously,” I replied. “And for the sake of archaeology, let’s hope that sooner or later such excavations do take place, once new towns are settled on the isthmus after the Suez Canal has been cut through—a canal, by the way, of little use to a ship such as the Nautilus!”
“Surely, but of great use to the world at large,” Captain Nemo said. “The ancients well understood the usefulness to commerce of connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, but they never dreamed of cutting a canal between the two, and instead they picked the Nile as their link. If we can trust tradition, it was probably Egypt’s King Sesostris who started digging the canal needed to join the Nile with the Red Sea. What’s certain is that in 615 B.C. King Necho II was hard at work on a canal that was fed by Nile water and ran through the Egyptian plains opposite Arabia. This canal could be traveled in four days, and it was so wide, two triple–tiered galleys could pass through it abreast. Its construction was continued by Darius the Great, son of Hystaspes, and probably completed by King Ptolemy II. Strabo saw it used for shipping; but the weakness of its slope between its starting point, near Bubastis, and the Red Sea left it navigable only a few months out of the year. This canal served commerce until the century of Rome’s Antonine emperors; it was then abandoned and covered with sand, subsequently reinstated by Arabia’s Caliph Omar I, and finally filled in for good in 761 or 762 A.D. by Caliph Al–Mansur, in an effort to prevent supplies from reaching Mohammed ibn Abdullah, who had rebelled against him. During his Egyptian campaign, your General Napoleon Bonaparte discovered traces of this old canal in the Suez desert, and when the tide caught him by surprise, he wellnigh perished just a few hours before rejoining his regiment at Hadjaroth, the very place where Moses had pitched camp 3,300 years before him.”
“Well, Captain, what the ancients hesitated to undertake, Mr. de Lesseps is now finishing up; his joining of these two seas will shorten the route from Cadiz to the East Indies by 9,000 kilometers, and he’ll soon change Africa into an immense island.”
“Yes, Professor Aronnax, and you have every right to be proud of your fellow countryman. Such a man brings a nation more honor than the greatest commanders! Like so many others, he began with difficulties and setbacks, but he triumphed because he has the volunteer spirit. And it’s sad to think that this deed, which should have been an international deed, which would have insured that any administration went down in history, will succeed only through the efforts of one man. So all hail to Mr. de Lesseps!”
“Yes, all hail to that great French citizen,” I replied, quite startled by how emphatically Captain Nemo had just spoken.
“Unfortunately,” he went on, “I can’t take you through that Suez Canal, but the day after tomorrow, you’ll be able to see the long jetties of Port Said when we’re in the Mediterranean.”
“In the Mediterranean!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, professor. Does that amaze you?”
“What amazes me is thinking we’ll be there the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, captain, although since I’ve been aboard your vessel, I should have formed the habit of not being amazed by anything!”
“But what is it that startles you?”
“The thought of how hideously fast the Nautilus will need to go, if it’s to double the Cape of Good Hope, circle around Africa, and lie in the open Mediterranean by the day after tomorrow.”
“And who says it will circle Africa, professor? What’s this talk about doubling the Cape of Good Hope?”
“But unless the Nautilus navigates on dry land and crosses over the isthmus—”
“Or under it, Professor Aronnax.”
“Surely,” Captain Nemo replied serenely. “Under that tongue of land, nature long ago made what man today is making on its surface.”
“What! There’s a passageway?”
“Yes, an underground passageway that I’ve named the Arabian Tunnel. It starts below Suez and leads to the Bay of Pelusium.”
“But isn’t that isthmus only composed of quicksand?”
“To a certain depth. But at merely fifty meters, one encounters a firm foundation of rock.”
“And it’s by luck that you discovered this passageway?” I asked, more and more startled.
“Luck plus logic, professor, and logic even more than luck.”
“Captain, I hear you, but I can’t believe my ears.”
“Oh, sir! The old saying still holds good: Aures habent et non audient!* Not only does this passageway exist, but I’ve taken advantage of it on several occasions. Without it, I wouldn’t have ventured today into such a blind alley as the Red Sea.”
“Is it indiscreet to ask how you discovered this tunnel?”
“Sir,” the captain answered me, “there can be no secrets between men who will never leave each other.”
I ignored this innuendo and waited for Captain Nemo’s explanation.
“Professor,” he told me, “the simple logic of the naturalist led me to discover this passageway, and I alone am familiar with it. I’d noted that in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean there exist a number of absolutely identical species of fish: eels, butterfish, greenfish, bass, jewelfish, flying fish. Certain of this fact, I wondered if there weren’t a connection between the two seas. If there were, its underground current had to go from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean simply because of their difference in level. So I caught a large number of fish in the vicinity of Suez. I slipped copper rings around their tails and tossed them back into the sea. A few months later off the coast of Syria, I recaptured a few specimens of my fish, adorned with their telltale rings. So this proved to me that some connection existed between the two seas. I searched for it with my Nautilus, I discovered it, I ventured into it; and soon, professor, you also will have cleared my Arabic tunnel!”