On a cold December afternoon, Culley and I were eighty feet down, scraping barnacles and plants off concrete columns of the North California Steinbeck Bridge to check for cracks and corrosion.
“Tess,” he called through the communication system in his full-face mask, “C'mere, I want to show you something.”
The visibility was poor and the outgoing tide had begun its inexorable pull to the open sea.
“Now, Culley?” He knew what I meant. Our bottom time was limited with the swift tide and a decompression stop on our way up. The frigid water had me shivering in my wet suit and I looked forward to finishing our work and heading topside.
Culley’s a commercial diver. One of the best in the field. But if you tell him that, he lowers his head, kicks dirt, and says Ah, shucks. Ya think? But I knew he took his underwater work and safety very seriously. I swam to where he was shining his light on a bridge column.
“This one needs a marine biologist,” he said and backed away so I could get a clear view. When I did, I held my breath. It’s a thing we’re trained never to do underwater.
“I want to see bubbles, Tess.” I breathed again. The column had been burned open to make a four-foot high narrow den.
Within that den I saw things that had no place in the known world of marine life.
“What do you make of it?” Culley asked in his deceptively casual tone.
My God, I thought. What do I make of clusters of five-inch-long octopus eggs? The average egg of the Giant Pacific octopus, the largest known species, is the size of a grain of rice.
The babies hung in their egg sacs like bunches of elongated brown speckled grapes, swaying in the current that kept them aerated, which is usually the mother octopus’ job. Within each sac a pair of developed eyes stared out. The larvae pulsed and were turning.
“My God, Culley, they’re ready to hatch!” “That’s what I was afraid of.” “They’ll be monsters.” “Oh, yeah. There could be other dens in the columns, too.” Enough dens, I thought, could compromise the bridge and cause it to collapse. The outgoing tide was stronger. The eggs leaned in that direction, as though the hatchlings knew their seaward destiny. “You see what the mother did?” I asked. “Now, Tess, no need for swearing.” “The real mother, you klutz. She left her eggs for the tides to aerate, instead of starving to death in an effort to keep them oxygenated." “Kudos for the mother.” He checked his dive computer and looked up. “I’m going to take some specimens.” I unsheathed my dive knife. “Wait a minute. If the mother -- “
I grabbed one cluster in my gloved hand and cried out as something burned my palm. Acid was eating through the neoprene glove! Culley ripped it off my hand. By the time it swirled into the depths, the fingers of the glove were gone. I held my burned hand.
“Let me see it.” Culley took my hand in his and shined his light on it. A red slash ran across my palm.
“Tess, if the mother burned through concrete to make this cradle, you think her offspring might use acid, no?”
“Let’s go home!” I shook off his hand and followed the anchor line to our decompression stop. A fresh tank hung on the line for emergencies.
I was chilled to the bone and the outgoing tide was trying to take me with it. My hand burned in salt water, but these were the least of my concerns. “Culley, what if these creatures have laid their eggs on the hulls of ships? They could be all over the world.” My voice was shaky, not only from the cold.
“Ships, bridges, oil platforms, and docks.” He rubbed my arm to add some warmth. “So where do you think they came from?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a genetic twist from the radiation leaking out of the Japanese power plants thirty years ago. Maybe a quantum leap in their evolution. Maybe..."
“Maybe they’ve been down in the depths for millions of years and we never knew it. Maybe for some reason the warming seas brought them up. I wish I could have taken some specimens.”
Boats rumbled by overhead as we started toward the surface. Jellyfish drifted in the current.
“Would be nice,” I added, “if the mother’s just a mutation, you know, one of a kind that doesn’t breed true. The babies might not live or breed."
“You think? Those critters looked pretty healthy to me. I think they were sizing us up for future meals. But what do I know.”
We were quiet as we climbed into Shearwater, Culley’s sixteen-foot Boston Whaler. Ice, my white, blue-eyed Siberian husky, ran across the deck to greet us, but when I reached out with my ungloved hand to touch his head, he sniffed it and ducked away.
Culley stripped off his gear but stayed suited up. His brown hair was plastered to his angular face and his neck. He has the look of a poet, with his pensive dark eyes, his hooked nose and sensitive lips, his loose-jointed ambling walk, but he has the soul of a field marshal. He sat down and contacted Alex “Ace” Foley, the harbormaster, on the boat’s radio, and told him what we’d encountered.
“Get a pontoon shaver out here, Ace,” Culley said, “and block off the harbor mouth before it’s too late. Tess said the eggs are ready to hatch. And hang a fishing net from the pontoons so the little bastards can’t go under the pontoon.”
“Culley,” I said, “Culley, tell him the mother could be a hundred feet long.”
Culley swiveled in his captain's chair to look at me. “That’s feet?” The fear in his eyes was a rare thing. I’m sure he had his quota of anxiety, but in the two years we’d known each other, he'd usually masked his feelings with glib remarks.
“Tess says,” he told Ace in a strained voice, “the mother could be a hundred feet long.” His lips were pressed as he peered out at the harbor.
Colored lights from land and boats shimmered in black water. I couldn’t believe it when Ace chuckled over the radio. “Hundred-foot-long octopussey? You guys get nitrogen narcosis down there?” Culley has a way of convincing people when he knows he’s right. He yells louder than they do and finds just the right swear words to fit the occasion. People usually give in just to shut him up.
I stripped off my gear and wet suit. My hair is thick and long, and hard to dry with just a towel. I did my best and got into a woolen shirt and pants.
“OK. Awright!” Ace finally agreed to get in touch with the offshore patrol boats, the Coast Guard, the town government, a local dive company, and the Pacifica National Laboratory, where I work. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“See what you can do now, Ace,” Culley said. “This is going to make international news. You want to be a hero or a do-nothing-dumb-shit-sat-on- your-hands?”
“I said I’ll see what I can do!”
Culley slammed the mic onto its holder. “Only thing he’ll do is figure out the best way to cover his ass.”
I got on my Apple Q-Tree, a quantum device that does everything except read your mind, and contacted Brad Bellows, my boss at the Pacifica Lab. As I waited for Brad to answer, I scanned the surface for hatchlings or their mother. Night is the time when baby octopuses hatch and make their way to the surface for protection from predators. In the distance, seagulls cawed.
What would happen to seabirds, I thought, if they tried to eat the acid-coated hatchlings? This was becoming more of a nightmare with every turn.
“Hi, Tess,” Brad said. “Where are you?” “On the Whaler. Listen, Brad -- “ “Are you still helping Mr. Self-contained-underwater-breathing android instead of doing your real work here?” “Will you listen, Brad? We have -- " “Tell Mr. Nice Guy,” Culley threw over his shoulder, “to go fuck himself.” “What did he say?” Brad asked. ”Brad! We have a problem.” I told him about our encounter with the octopus nursery. He was quiet for a moment, then he said “Do you think they’re ready to hatch?” “They were already turning in their sacs. I’m looking for hatchlings on the surface now, but it’s dark." “Good God, what have we done to the oceans this time?” Brad said. I drew in a cold breath “Oh, no.” Around the boat five-inch baby octopuses surfaced and lit their wakes with streams of stirred phosphorescence as they pulsed toward the open sea and avoided the jellies who were on the same voyage. The babies had a shiny brown coating. I'd never seen that on any octopus. I suspected that it was the source of the acid.
My knees weakened and I sat down. “They’re hatching.” I chewed a fingernail.
Culley turned in his chair. “Tess?” Brad called. I held the Q-Tree limply. Culley looked over the side of the boat and I saw his body stiffen. “What’s happening?” Brad asked
“They’re hatching,” I said.
“Oh, shit! I’ve got to get the staff together for a meeting. We’ve got to put our heads together on this one.” A seagull swooped out of the sky and scooped up a hatchling. He squawked and dropped it. He continued to squawk as he flew away in an erratic path that dipped into the water.
Culley watched him disappear into the sky.
“Yes, Brad,” I said, “put your heads together. Good luck.” I broke the contact.
I opened my mesh bug bag, dipped it over the side, and scooped up two hatchlings. They burned through the bag before I got them into the boat and flopped back into the water. “Dammit!” I muttered. “The fishing net won’t hold them.”
It seemed that as with some vipers that are born with a full complement of poison, these giant octopus babies were born with full sacs of acid.
Culley strapped his buoyancy compensator onto a fresh tank.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “The mother might have returned to stimulate her eggs to hatch.”
“I’m counting on it.” He sat on the gunnel and strapped on his fins.
“Culley, let the Coast Guard stop the hatchlings with pontoons and that surface scraper. You told me yourself the mother could use acid for defense.”
Culley patted the underwater torch he'd clipped to his weight belt. “I’ve got some acid right here. How many of these little horrors does an octopus lay?”
“I’m not sure. Mollusks aren’t my specialty. Maybe fifty thousand.” I knew I was underestimating. “But usually only a few survive.”
I swear Culley turned pale in the dark boat. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess we better hang out while the Coast Guard tells the government this isn’t their area of expertise. After all, the pontoons and sea scrapers are for oil spills.” He fitted the full-face mask over his head. “Then the politicians can blame the other guy's party for not taking action while the world’s ocean structures go to hell.”
He stared at me through the mask. I couldn’t read his expression but I felt that he was imprinting my features on his mind in a last goodbye. It scared me.
“Take care of yourself, Tess. And take care of my boat.” He unclipped his light and went over the side.
I shivered even with the woolen pants and shirt as I watched his light fade into murky water. I rubbed the white, shriveled tips of my fingers and scanned the water. More hatchlings pulsed to the surface and were swept past the boat with the outgoing tide.
Ice licked my foot and sat next to me. I scratched him behind his ear. “I can’t just sit on my hands, either,” I said.
I stripped down in the cold night air, put on my clammy wet suit, and got into my gear, with fresh gloves. “Take care of the boat, baby.” I kissed Ice’s snout, put on my mask, took a torch, a light, and went over the side.
I swam down quickly to avoid the baby octopuses who might brush by me. My burned hand hurt again in the salt water but I gripped the anchor line to hold myself against the full-running tide. Visibility was down to three feet. Water seeped like fingers of ice into my suit.
There is no night like night in the ocean. Here, real dangers might lurk just beyond your narrow beam of light. I love the sea, that wise and brutal unconscious of the planet where life probably first stirred, but we are creatures of light and we embellish the dark with monsters of our own creation.
Below, my light lit a circle of brown, swirling particles and jellies. I reached the den and watched baby octopuses pour out and join their siblings from other dens. They avoided me in their quest for the open sea. Out there, they could sink into rocky crevices for cover, and grow.
Into what? Here, there were creatures that needed no added horrors of the id.
“Culley!” Only my bubbles and the silence of the sea. My heart was a fist that beat against my chest as I clung to the anchor line and scanned with the light. Culley’s always a bit negatively weighted. If he were...I mean, if something happened to him, he would slowly sink to the bottom. I didn’t want to go down there to look. I was breathing much too heavily, with the danger of hyperventilating. I knew I was on the verge of panic. I wanted only to get back into the solid boat, the world of air, sharp colors, my warm clothes, and sounds besides my own breathing.
“Culley!” I shouted hoarsely into the mask
Only the black water and the octopuses. Panic is one of the biggest killers of scuba divers. I felt it well up in my throat as lashes of heat flashed through my suit from hundreds of baby octopuses that jostled each other and slid across my body. “Culley!” If I stayed much longer, I’d have to decompress.
I took long, slow breaths to calm my thoughts and my shaking body. I owed Culley more than just scrambling to the surface for my own safety. I started down the anchor line. With low visibility I came to the muddy bottom at ninety-six feet very suddenly. A crab snapped open his claws and scuttled away.
“Culley,” I called. I squeezed away tears that I couldn’t wipe from my eyes.
Something huge, white, and blurry moved just beyond my light. I swung it in that direction. And then I panicked. I clung to the anchor line. “Please, God,” I whimpered, “don’t let me die alone down here.”
A white tentacle, thick around as a column itself, uncurled in my direction.
“Breathe. Breathe!” I told myself as I started up the anchor line. I screamed and hid behind the column as the tentacle tried to catch me. With my heart slamming in my chest and my teeth chattering, I unclipped my torch, made it hot, and held the line as I went toward the tentacle. It jerked back before I could burn it and disappeared in a cloud of black ink and stirred mud. I backed off quickly and rose. That ink could well be caustic.
“I tried, Culley,” I called dismally as I rose to the surface. I had one last hope. He might be in the boat. But only Ice greeted me with whines and wags of his tail. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I climbed onto the deck. The tank, the weight belt, seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. The wet suit was clammy against my skin. I sank to the deck and Ice licked my face, thinking I wanted to play.
I got out of my gear, stripped off my wet suit, my bathing suit, and got into the woolen shirt and pants, then wrapped myself in a blanket. I sat in the captain’s chair, Culley’s chair, and poured a cup of hot coffee from the thermos. The coffee spilled in my shaking hands. I kept the unlit torch tucked in my lap. I would wait. Culley was not an easy man to kill. A couple of sharks had tried it over the years. Their whitened jaws hang in the Pine Coast Museum.
I patted the torch. “I’ve got some acid right here.”
Ice sat next to me, then yawned and curled up, as though he knew we were in for a long night. I chewed a fingernail.
He was right.