17: From Cape Horn to the Amazon
How I got into the platform I’m unable to say. Perhaps the Canadian transferred me there. But I could breathe, I could inhale the life–giving sea air. Next to me my two companions were getting tipsy on the fresh oxygen particles. Poor souls who have suffered from long starvation mustn’t pounce heedlessly on the first food given them. We, on the other hand, didn’t have to practice such moderation: we could suck the atoms from the air by the lungful, and it was the breeze, the breeze itself, that poured into us this luxurious intoxication!
“Ahhh!” Conseil was putting in. “What fine oxygen! Let Master have no fears about breathing. There’s enough for everyone.”
As for Ned Land, he didn’t say a word, but his wide–open jaws would have scared off a shark. And what powerful inhalations! The Canadian “drew” like a furnace going full blast.
Our strength returned promptly, and when I looked around, I saw that we were alone on the platform. No crewmen. Not even Captain Nemo. Those strange seamen on the Nautilus were content with the oxygen circulating inside. Not one of them had come up to enjoy the open air.
The first words I pronounced were words of appreciation and gratitude to my two companions. Ned and Conseil had kept me alive during the final hours of our long death throes. But no expression of thanks could repay them fully for such devotion.
“Good lord, Professor,” Ned Land answered me, “don’t mention it! What did we do that’s so praiseworthy? Not a thing. It was a question of simple arithmetic. Your life is worth more than ours. So we had to save it.”
“No, Ned,” I replied, “it isn’t worth more. Nobody could be better than a kind and generous man like yourself!”
“All right, all right!” the Canadian repeated in embarrassment.
“And you, my gallant Conseil, you suffered a great deal.”
“Not too much, to be candid with Master. I was lacking a few throatfuls of air, but I would have gotten by. Besides, when I saw Master fainting, it left me without the slightest desire to breathe. It took my breath away, in a manner of . . .”
Confounded by this lapse into banality, Conseil left his sentence hanging.
“My friends,” I replied, very moved, “we’re bound to each other forever, and I’m deeply indebted to you—”
“Which I’ll take advantage of,” the Canadian shot back.
“Eh?” Conseil put in.
“Yes,” Ned Land went on. “You can repay your debt by coming with me when I leave this infernal Nautilus.”
“By the way,” Conseil said, “are we going in a favorable direction?”
“Yes,” I replied, “because we’re going in the direction of the sun, and here the sun is due north.”
“Sure,” Ned Land went on, “but it remains to be seen whether we’ll make for the Atlantic or the Pacific, in other words, whether we’ll end up in well–traveled or deserted seas.”
I had no reply to this, and I feared that Captain Nemo wouldn’t take us homeward but rather into that huge ocean washing the shores of both Asia and America. In this way he would complete his underwater tour of the world, going back to those seas where the Nautilus enjoyed the greatest freedom. But if we returned to the Pacific, far from every populated shore, what would happen to Ned Land’s plans?
We would soon settle this important point. The Nautilus traveled swiftly. Soon we had cleared the Antarctic Circle plus the promontory of Cape Horn. We were abreast of the tip of South America by March 31 at seven o’clock in the evening.
By then all our past sufferings were forgotten. The memory of that imprisonment under the ice faded from our minds. We had thoughts only of the future. Captain Nemo no longer appeared, neither in the lounge nor on the platform. The positions reported each day on the world map were put there by the chief officer, and they enabled me to determine the Nautilus’s exact heading. Now then, that evening it became obvious, much to my satisfaction, that we were returning north by the Atlantic route.
I shared the results of my observations with the Canadian and Conseil.
“That’s good news,” the Canadian replied, “but where’s the Nautilus going?”
“I’m unable to say, Ned.”
“After the South Pole, does our captain want to tackle the North Pole, then go back to the Pacific by the notorious Northwest Passage?”
“I wouldn’t double dare him,” Conseil replied.
“Oh well,” the Canadian said, “we’ll give him the slip long before then.”
“In any event,” Conseil added, “he’s a superman, that Captain Nemo, and we’ll never regret having known him.”
“Especially once we’ve left him,” Ned Land shot back.
The next day, April 1, when the Nautilus rose to the surface of the waves a few minutes before noon, we raised land to the west. It was Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, a name given it by early navigators after they saw numerous curls of smoke rising from the natives’ huts. This Land of Fire forms a huge cluster of islands over thirty leagues long and eighty leagues wide, extending between latitude 53° and 56° south, and between longitude 67° 50′ and 77° 15′ west. Its coastline looked flat, but high mountains rose in the distance. I even thought I glimpsed Mt. Sarmiento, whose elevation is 2,070 meters above sea level: a pyramid–shaped block of shale with a very sharp summit, which, depending on whether it’s clear or veiled in vapor, “predicts fair weather or foul,” as Ned Land told me.
“A first–class barometer, my friend.”
“Yes, sir, a natural barometer that didn’t let me down when I navigated the narrows of the Strait of Magellan.”
Just then its peak appeared before us, standing out distinctly against the background of the skies. This forecast fair weather. And so it proved.
Going back under the waters, the Nautilus drew near the coast, cruising along it for only a few miles. Through the lounge windows I could see long creepers and gigantic fucus plants, bulb–bearing seaweed of which the open sea at the pole had revealed a few specimens; with their smooth, viscous filaments, they measured as much as 300 meters long; genuine cables more than an inch thick and very tough, they’re often used as mooring lines for ships. Another weed, known by the name velp and boasting four–foot leaves, was crammed into the coral concretions and carpeted the ocean floor. It served as both nest and nourishment for myriads of crustaceans and mollusks, for crabs and cuttlefish. Here seals and otters could indulge in a sumptuous meal, mixing meat from fish with vegetables from the sea, like the English with their Irish stews.
The Nautilus passed over these lush, luxuriant depths with tremendous speed. Near evening it approached the Falkland Islands, whose rugged summits I recognized the next day. The sea was of moderate depth. So not without good reason, I assumed that these two islands, plus the many islets surrounding them, used to be part of the Magellan coastline. The Falkland Islands were probably discovered by the famous navigator John Davis, who gave them the name Davis Southern Islands. Later Sir Richard Hawkins called them the Maidenland, after the Blessed Virgin. Subsequently, at the beginning of the 18th century, they were named the Malouines by fishermen from Saint–Malo in Brittany, then finally dubbed the Falklands by the English, to whom they belong today.
In these waterways our nets brought up fine samples of algae, in particular certain fucus plants whose roots were laden with the world’s best mussels. Geese and duck alighted by the dozens on the platform and soon took their places in the ship’s pantry. As for fish, I specifically observed some bony fish belonging to the goby genus, especially some gudgeon two decimeters long, sprinkled with whitish and yellow spots.
I likewise marveled at the numerous medusas, including the most beautiful of their breed, the compass jellyfish, unique to the Falkland seas. Some of these jellyfish were shaped like very smooth, semispheric parasols with russet stripes and fringes of twelve neat festoons. Others looked like upside–down baskets from which wide leaves and long red twigs were gracefully trailing. They swam with quiverings of their four leaflike arms, letting the opulent tresses of their tentacles dangle in the drift. I wanted to preserve a few specimens of these delicate zoophytes, but they were merely clouds, shadows, illusions, melting and evaporating outside their native element.
When the last tips of the Falkland Islands had disappeared below the horizon, the Nautilus submerged to a depth between twenty and twenty–five meters and went along the South American coast. Captain Nemo didn’t put in an appearance.
We didn’t leave these Patagonian waterways until April 3, sometimes cruising under the ocean, sometimes on its surface. The Nautilus passed the wide estuary formed by the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, and on April 4 we lay abreast of Uruguay, albeit fifty miles out. Keeping to its northerly heading, it followed the long windings of South America. By then we had fared 16,000 leagues since coming on board in the seas of Japan.
Near eleven o’clock in the morning, we cut the Tropic of Capricorn on the 37th meridian, passing well out from Cape Frio. Much to Ned Land’s displeasure, Captain Nemo had no liking for the neighborhood of Brazil’s populous shores, because he shot by with dizzying speed. Not even the swiftest fish or birds could keep up with us, and the natural curiosities in these seas completely eluded our observation.
This speed was maintained for several days, and on the evening of April 9, we raised South America’s easternmost tip, Cape São Roque. But then the Nautilus veered away again and went looking for the lowest depths of an underwater valley gouged between this cape and Sierra Leone on the coast of Africa. Abreast of the West Indies, this valley forks into two arms, and to the north it ends in an enormous depression 9,000 meters deep. From this locality to the Lesser Antilles, the ocean’s geologic profile features a steeply cut cliff six kilometers high, and abreast of the Cape Verde Islands, there’s another wall just as imposing; together these two barricades confine the whole submerged continent of Atlantis. The floor of this immense valley is made picturesque by mountains that furnish these underwater depths with scenic views. This description is based mostly on certain hand–drawn charts kept in the Nautilus’s library, charts obviously rendered by Captain Nemo himself from his own personal observations.
For two days we visited these deep and deserted waters by means of our slanting fins. The Nautilus would do long, diagonal dives that took us to every level. But on April 11 it rose suddenly, and the shore reappeared at the mouth of the Amazon River, a huge estuary whose outflow is so considerable, it desalts the sea over an area of several leagues.
We cut the Equator. Twenty miles to the west lay Guiana, French territory where we could easily have taken refuge. But the wind was blowing a strong gust, and the furious billows would not allow us to face them in a mere skiff. No doubt Ned Land understood this because he said nothing to me. For my part, I made no allusion to his escape plans because I didn’t want to push him into an attempt that was certain to misfire.
I was readily compensated for this delay by fascinating research. During those two days of April 11–12, the Nautilus didn’t leave the surface of the sea, and its trawl brought up a simply miraculous catch of zoophytes, fish, and reptiles.
Some zoophytes were dredged up by the chain of our trawl. Most were lovely sea anemone belonging to the family Actinidia, including among other species, the Phyctalis protexta, native to this part of the ocean: a small cylindrical trunk adorned with vertical lines, mottled with red spots, and crowned by a wondrous blossoming of tentacles. As for mollusks, they consisted of exhibits I had already observed: turret snails, olive shells of the “tent olive” species with neatly intersecting lines and russet spots standing out sharply against a flesh–colored background, fanciful spider conchs that looked like petrified scorpions, transparent glass snails, argonauts, some highly edible cuttlefish, and certain species of squid that the naturalists of antiquity classified with the flying fish, which are used chiefly as bait for catching cod.
As for the fish in these waterways, I noted various species that I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to study. Among cartilaginous fish: some brook lamprey, a type of eel fifteen inches long, head greenish, fins violet, back bluish gray, belly a silvery brown strewn with bright spots, iris of the eye encircled in gold, unusual animals that the Amazon’s current must have swept out to sea because their natural habitat is fresh water; sting rays, the snout pointed, the tail long, slender, and armed with an extensive jagged sting; small one–meter sharks with gray and whitish hides, their teeth arranged in several backward–curving rows, fish commonly known by the name carpet shark; batfish, a sort of reddish isosceles triangle half a meter long, whose pectoral fins are attached by fleshy extensions that make these fish look like bats, although an appendage made of horn, located near the nostrils, earns them the nickname of sea unicorns; lastly, a couple species of triggerfish, the cucuyo whose stippled flanks glitter with a sparkling gold color, and the bright purple leatherjacket whose hues glisten like a pigeon’s throat.
I’ll finish up this catalog, a little dry but quite accurate, with the series of bony fish I observed: eels belonging to the genus Apteronotus whose snow–white snout is very blunt, the body painted a handsome black and armed with a very long, slender, fleshy whip; long sardines from the genus Odontognathus, like three–decimeter pike, shining with a bright silver glow; Guaranian mackerel furnished with two anal fins; black–tinted rudderfish that you catch by using torches, fish measuring two meters and boasting white, firm, plump meat that, when fresh, tastes like eel, when dried, like smoked salmon; semired wrasse sporting scales only at the bases of their dorsal and anal fins; grunts on which gold and silver mingle their luster with that of ruby and topaz; yellow–tailed gilthead whose flesh is extremely dainty and whose phosphorescent properties give them away in the midst of the waters; porgies tinted orange, with slender tongues; croakers with gold caudal fins; black surgeonfish; four–eyed fish from Surinam, etc.
This “et cetera” won’t keep me from mentioning one more fish that Conseil, with good reason, will long remember.
One of our nets had hauled up a type of very flat ray that weighed some twenty kilograms; with its tail cut off, it would have formed a perfect disk. It was white underneath and reddish on top, with big round spots of deep blue encircled in black, its hide quite smooth and ending in a double–lobed fin. Laid out on the platform, it kept struggling with convulsive movements, trying to turn over, making such efforts that its final lunge was about to flip it into the sea. But Conseil, being very possessive of his fish, rushed at it, and before I could stop him, he seized it with both hands.
Instantly there he was, thrown on his back, legs in the air, his body half paralyzed, and yelling:
“Oh, sir, sir! Will you help me!”
For once in his life, the poor lad didn’t address me “in the third person.”
The Canadian and I sat him up; we massaged his contracted arms, and when he regained his five senses, that eternal classifier mumbled in a broken voice:
“Class of cartilaginous fish, order Chondropterygia with fixed gills, suborder Selacia, family Rajiiforma, genus electric ray.”
“Yes, my friend,” I answered, “it was an electric ray that put you in this deplorable state.”
“Oh, Master can trust me on this,” Conseil shot back. “I’ll be revenged on that animal!”
“I’ll eat it.”
Which he did that same evening, but strictly as retaliation. Because, frankly, it tasted like leather.
Poor Conseil had assaulted an electric ray of the most dangerous species, the cumana. Living in a conducting medium such as water, this bizarre animal can electrocute other fish from several meters away, so great is the power of its electric organ, an organ whose two chief surfaces measure at least twenty–seven square feet.
During the course of the next day, April 12, the Nautilus drew near the coast of Dutch Guiana, by the mouth of the Maroni River. There several groups of sea cows were living in family units. These were manatees, which belong to the order Sirenia, like the dugong and Steller’s sea cow. Harmless and unaggressive, these fine animals were six to seven meters long and must have weighed at least 4,000 kilograms each. I told Ned Land and Conseil that farseeing nature had given these mammals a major role to play. In essence, manatees, like seals, are designed to graze the underwater prairies, destroying the clusters of weeds that obstruct the mouths of tropical rivers.
“And do you know,” I added, “what happened since man has almost completely wiped out these beneficial races? Rotting weeds have poisoned the air, and this poisoned air causes the yellow fever that devastates these wonderful countries. This toxic vegetation has increased beneath the seas of the Torrid Zone, so the disease spreads unchecked from the mouth of the Rio de la Plata to Florida!”
And if Professor Toussenel is correct, this plague is nothing compared to the scourge that will strike our descendants once the seas are depopulated of whales and seals. By then, crowded with jellyfish, squid, and other devilfish, the oceans will have become huge centers of infection, because their waves will no longer possess “these huge stomachs that God has entrusted with scouring the surface of the sea.”
Meanwhile, without scorning these theories, the Nautilus’s crew captured half a dozen manatees. In essence, it was an issue of stocking the larder with excellent red meat, even better than beef or veal. Their hunting was not a fascinating sport. The manatees let themselves be struck down without offering any resistance. Several thousand kilos of meat were hauled below, to be dried and stored.
The same day an odd fishing practice further increased the Nautilus’s stores, so full of game were these seas. Our trawl brought up in its meshes a number of fish whose heads were topped by little oval slabs with fleshy edges. These were suckerfish from the third family of the subbrachian Malacopterygia. These flat disks on their heads consist of crosswise plates of movable cartilage, between which the animals can create a vacuum, enabling them to stick to objects like suction cups.
The remoras I had observed in the Mediterranean were related to this species. But the creature at issue here was an Echeneis osteochara, unique to this sea. Right after catching them, our seamen dropped them in buckets of water.
Its fishing finished, the Nautilus drew nearer to the coast. In this locality a number of sea turtles were sleeping on the surface of the waves. It would have been difficult to capture these valuable reptiles, because they wake up at the slightest sound, and their solid carapaces are harpoon–proof. But our suckerfish would effect their capture with extraordinary certainty and precision. In truth, this animal is a living fishhook, promising wealth and happiness to the greenest fisherman in the business.
The Nautilus’s men attached to each fish’s tail a ring that was big enough not to hamper its movements, and to this ring a long rope whose other end was moored on board.
Thrown into the sea, the suckerfish immediately began to play their roles, going and fastening themselves onto the breastplates of the turtles. Their tenacity was so great, they would rip apart rather than let go. They were hauled in, still sticking to the turtles that came aboard with them.
In this way we caught several loggerheads, reptiles a meter wide and weighing 200 kilos. They’re extremely valuable because of their carapaces, which are covered with big slabs of horn, thin, brown, transparent, with white and yellow markings. Besides, they were excellent from an edible viewpoint, with an exquisite flavor comparable to the green turtle.
This fishing ended our stay in the waterways of the Amazon, and that evening the Nautilus took to the high seas once more.