19: The Gulf Stream
This dreadful scene on April 20 none of us will ever be able to forget. I wrote it up in a state of intense excitement. Later I reviewed my narrative. I read it to Conseil and the Canadian. They found it accurate in detail but deficient in impact. To convey such sights, it would take the pen of our most famous poet, Victor Hugo, author of The Toilers of the Sea.
As I said, Captain Nemo wept while staring at the waves. His grief was immense. This was the second companion he had lost since we had come aboard. And what a way to die! Smashed, strangled, crushed by the fearsome arms of a devilfish, ground between its iron mandibles, this friend would never rest with his companions in the placid waters of their coral cemetery!
As for me, what had harrowed my heart in the thick of this struggle was the despairing yell given by this unfortunate man. Forgetting his regulation language, this poor Frenchman had reverted to speaking his own mother tongue to fling out one supreme plea! Among the Nautilus’s crew, allied body and soul with Captain Nemo and likewise fleeing from human contact, I had found a fellow countryman! Was he the only representative of France in this mysterious alliance, obviously made up of individuals from different nationalities? This was just one more of those insoluble problems that kept welling up in my mind!
Captain Nemo reentered his stateroom, and I saw no more of him for a good while. But how sad, despairing, and irresolute he must have felt, to judge from this ship whose soul he was, which reflected his every mood! The Nautilus no longer kept to a fixed heading. It drifted back and forth, riding with the waves like a corpse. Its propeller had been disentangled but was barely put to use. It was navigating at random. It couldn’t tear itself away from the setting of this last struggle, from this sea that had devoured one of its own!
Ten days went by in this way. It was only on May 1 that the Nautilus openly resumed its northbound course, after raising the Bahamas at the mouth of Old Bahama Channel. We then went with the current of the sea’s greatest river, which has its own banks, fish, and temperature. I mean the Gulf Stream.
It is indeed a river that runs independently through the middle of the Atlantic, its waters never mixing with the ocean’s waters. It’s a salty river, saltier than the sea surrounding it. Its average depth is 3,000 feet, its average width sixty miles. In certain localities its current moves at a speed of four kilometers per hour. The unchanging volume of its waters is greater than that of all the world’s rivers combined.
As discovered by Commander Maury, the true source of the Gulf Stream, its starting point, if you prefer, is located in the Bay of Biscay. There its waters, still weak in temperature and color, begin to form. It goes down south, skirts equatorial Africa, warms its waves in the rays of the Torrid Zone, crosses the Atlantic, reaches Cape São Roque on the coast of Brazil, and forks into two branches, one going to the Caribbean Sea for further saturation with heat particles. Then, entrusted with restoring the balance between hot and cold temperatures and with mixing tropical and northern waters, the Gulf Stream begins to play its stabilizing role. Attaining a white heat in the Gulf of Mexico, it heads north up the American coast, advances as far as Newfoundland, swerves away under the thrust of a cold current from the Davis Strait, and resumes its ocean course by going along a great circle of the earth on a rhumb line; it then divides into two arms near the 43rd parallel; one, helped by the northeast trade winds, returns to the Bay of Biscay and the Azores; the other washes the shores of Ireland and Norway with lukewarm water, goes beyond Spitzbergen, where its temperature falls to 4° centigrade, and fashions the open sea at the pole.
It was on this oceanic river that the Nautilus was then navigating. Leaving Old Bahama Channel, which is fourteen leagues wide by 350 meters deep, the Gulf Stream moves at the rate of eight kilometers per hour. Its speed steadily decreases as it advances northward, and we must pray that this steadiness continues, because, as experts agree, if its speed and direction were to change, the climates of Europe would undergo disturbances whose consequences are incalculable.
Near noon I was on the platform with Conseil. I shared with him the relevant details on the Gulf Stream. When my explanation was over, I invited him to dip his hands into its current.
Conseil did so, and he was quite astonished to experience no sensation of either hot or cold.
“That comes,” I told him, “from the water temperature of the Gulf Stream, which, as it leaves the Gulf of Mexico, is barely different from your blood temperature. This Gulf Stream is a huge heat generator that enables the coasts of Europe to be decked in eternal greenery. And if Commander Maury is correct, were one to harness the full warmth of this current, it would supply enough heat to keep molten a river of iron solder as big as the Amazon or the Missouri.”
Just then the Gulf Stream’s speed was 2.25 meters per second. So distinct is its current from the surrounding sea, its confined waters stand out against the ocean and operate on a different level from the colder waters. Murky as well, and very rich in saline material, their pure indigo contrasts with the green waves surrounding them. Moreover, their line of demarcation is so clear that abreast of the Carolinas, the Nautilus’s spur cut the waves of the Gulf Stream while its propeller was still churning those belonging to the ocean.
This current swept along with it a whole host of moving creatures. Argonauts, so common in the Mediterranean, voyaged here in schools of large numbers. Among cartilaginous fish, the most remarkable were rays whose ultra slender tails made up nearly a third of the body, which was shaped like a huge diamond twenty–five feet long; then little one–meter sharks, the head large, the snout short and rounded, the teeth sharp and arranged in several rows, the body seemingly covered with scales.
Among bony fish, I noted grizzled wrasse unique to these seas, deep–water gilthead whose iris has a fiery gleam, one–meter croakers whose large mouths bristle with small teeth and which let out thin cries, black rudderfish like those I’ve already discussed, blue dorados accented with gold and silver, rainbow–hued parrotfish that can rival the loveliest tropical birds in coloring, banded blennies with triangular heads, bluish flounder without scales, toadfish covered with a crosswise yellow band in the shape of a Τ, swarms of little freckled gobies stippled with brown spots, lungfish with silver heads and yellow tails, various specimens of salmon, mullet with slim figures and a softly glowing radiance that Lacépède dedicated to the memory of his wife, and finally the American cavalla, a handsome fish decorated by every honorary order, bedizened with their every ribbon, frequenting the shores of this great nation where ribbons and orders are held in such low esteem.
I might add that during the night, the Gulf Stream’s phosphorescent waters rivaled the electric glow of our beacon, especially in the stormy weather that frequently threatened us.
On May 8, while abreast of North Carolina, we were across from Cape Hatteras once more. There the Gulf Stream is seventy–five miles wide and 210 meters deep. The Nautilus continued to wander at random. Seemingly, all supervision had been jettisoned. Under these conditions I admit that we could easily have gotten away. In fact, the populous shores offered ready refuge everywhere. The sea was plowed continuously by the many steamers providing service between the Gulf of Mexico and New York or Boston, and it was crossed night and day by little schooners engaged in coastal trade over various points on the American shore. We could hope to be picked up. So it was a promising opportunity, despite the thirty miles that separated the Nautilus from these Union coasts.
But one distressing circumstance totally thwarted the Canadian’s plans. The weather was thoroughly foul. We were approaching waterways where storms are commonplace, the very homeland of tornadoes and cyclones specifically engendered by the Gulf Stream’s current. To face a frequently raging sea in a frail skiff was a race to certain disaster. Ned Land conceded this himself. So he champed at the bit, in the grip of an intense homesickness that could be cured only by our escape.
“Sir,” he told me that day, “it’s got to stop. I want to get to the bottom of this. Your Nemo’s veering away from shore and heading up north. But believe you me, I had my fill at the South Pole and I’m not going with him to the North Pole.”
“What can we do, Ned, since it isn’t feasible to escape right now?”
“I keep coming back to my idea. We’ve got to talk to the captain. When we were in your own country’s seas, you didn’t say a word. Now that we’re in mine, I intend to speak up. Before a few days are out, I figure the Nautilus will lie abreast of Nova Scotia, and from there to Newfoundland is the mouth of a large gulf, and the St. Lawrence empties into that gulf, and the St. Lawrence is my own river, the river running by Quebec, my hometown—and when I think about all this, my gorge rises and my hair stands on end! Honestly, sir, I’d rather jump overboard! I can’t stay here any longer! I’m suffocating!”
The Canadian was obviously at the end of his patience. His vigorous nature couldn’t adapt to this protracted imprisonment. His facial appearance was changing by the day. His moods grew gloomier and gloomier. I had a sense of what he was suffering because I also was gripped by homesickness. Nearly seven months had gone by without our having any news from shore. Moreover, Captain Nemo’s reclusiveness, his changed disposition, and especially his total silence since the battle with the devilfish all made me see things in a different light. I no longer felt the enthusiasm of our first days on board. You needed to be Flemish like Conseil to accept these circumstances, living in a habitat designed for cetaceans and other denizens of the deep. Truly, if that gallant lad had owned gills instead of lungs, I think he would have made an outstanding fish!
“Well, sir?” Ned Land went on, seeing that I hadn’t replied.
“Well, Ned, you want me to ask Captain Nemo what he intends to do with us?”
“Even though he has already made that clear?”
“Yes. I want it settled once and for all. Speak just for me, strictly on my behalf, if you want.”
“But I rarely encounter him. He positively avoids me.”
“All the more reason you should go look him up.”
“I’ll confer with him, Ned.”
“When?” the Canadian asked insistently.
“When I encounter him.”
“Professor Aronnax, would you like me to go find him myself?”
“No, let me do it. Tomorrow—”
“Today,” Ned Land said.
“So be it. I’ll see him today,” I answered the Canadian, who, if he took action himself, would certainly have ruined everything.
I was left to myself. His request granted, I decided to dispose of it immediately. I like things over and done with.
I reentered my stateroom. From there I could hear movements inside Captain Nemo’s quarters. I couldn’t pass up this chance for an encounter. I knocked on his door. I received no reply. I knocked again, then tried the knob. The door opened.
I entered. The captain was there. He was bending over his worktable and hadn’t heard me. Determined not to leave without questioning him, I drew closer. He looked up sharply, with a frowning brow, and said in a pretty stern tone:
“Oh, it’s you! What do you want?”
“To speak with you, Captain.”
“But I’m busy, sir, I’m at work. I give you the freedom to enjoy your privacy, can’t I have the same for myself?”
This reception was less than encouraging. But I was determined to give as good as I got.
“Sir,” I said coolly, “I need to speak with you on a matter that simply can’t wait.”
“Whatever could that be, sir?” he replied sarcastically. “Have you made some discovery that has escaped me? Has the sea yielded up some novel secret to you?”
We were miles apart. But before I could reply, he showed me a manuscript open on the table and told me in a more serious tone:
“Here, Professor Aronnax, is a manuscript written in several languages. It contains a summary of my research under the sea, and God willing, it won’t perish with me. Signed with my name, complete with my life story, this manuscript will be enclosed in a small, unsinkable contrivance. The last surviving man on the Nautilus will throw this contrivance into the sea, and it will go wherever the waves carry it.”
The man’s name! His life story written by himself! So the secret of his existence might someday be unveiled? But just then I saw this announcement only as a lead–in to my topic.
“Captain,” I replied, “I’m all praise for this idea you’re putting into effect. The fruits of your research must not be lost. But the methods you’re using strike me as primitive. Who knows where the winds will take that contrivance, into whose hands it may fall? Can’t you find something better? Can’t you or one of your men—”
“Never, sir,” the captain said, swiftly interrupting me.
“But my companions and I would be willing to safeguard this manuscript, and if you give us back our freedom—”
“Your freedom!” Captain Nemo put in, standing up.
“Yes, sir, and that’s the subject on which I wanted to confer with you. For seven months we’ve been aboard your vessel, and I ask you today, in the name of my companions as well as myself, if you intend to keep us here forever.”
“Professor Aronnax,” Captain Nemo said, “I’ll answer you today just as I did seven months ago: whomever boards the Nautilus must never leave it.”
“What you’re inflicting on us is outright slavery!”
“Call it anything you like.”
“But every slave has the right to recover his freedom! By any worthwhile, available means!”
“Who has denied you that right?” Captain Nemo replied. “Did I ever try to bind you with your word of honor?”
The captain stared at me, crossing his arms.
“Sir,” I told him, “to take up this subject a second time would be distasteful to both of us. So let’s finish what we’ve started. I repeat: it isn’t just for myself that I raise this issue. To me, research is a relief, a potent diversion, an enticement, a passion that can make me forget everything else. Like you, I’m a man neglected and unknown, living in the faint hope that someday I can pass on to future generations the fruits of my labors—figuratively speaking, by means of some contrivance left to the luck of winds and waves. In short, I can admire you and comfortably go with you while playing a role I only partly understand; but I still catch glimpses of other aspects of your life that are surrounded by involvements and secrets that, alone on board, my companions and I can’t share. And even when our hearts could beat with yours, moved by some of your griefs or stirred by your deeds of courage and genius, we’ve had to stifle even the slightest token of that sympathy that arises at the sight of something fine and good, whether it comes from friend or enemy. All right then! It’s this feeling of being alien to your deepest concerns that makes our situation unacceptable, impossible, even impossible for me but especially for Ned Land. Every man, by virtue of his very humanity, deserves fair treatment. Have you considered how a love of freedom and hatred of slavery could lead to plans of vengeance in a temperament like the Canadian’s, what he might think, attempt, endeavor . . . ?”
I fell silent. Captain Nemo stood up.
“Ned Land can think, attempt, or endeavor anything he wants, what difference is it to me? I didn’t go looking for him! I don’t keep him on board for my pleasure! As for you, Professor Aronnax, you’re a man able to understand anything, even silence. I have nothing more to say to you. Let this first time you’ve come to discuss this subject also be the last, because a second time I won’t even listen.”
I withdrew. From that day forward our position was very strained. I reported this conversation to my two companions.
“Now we know,” Ned said, “that we can’t expect a thing from this man. The Nautilus is nearing Long Island. We’ll escape, no matter what the weather.”
But the skies became more and more threatening. There were conspicuous signs of a hurricane on the way. The atmosphere was turning white and milky. Slender sheaves of cirrus clouds were followed on the horizon by layers of nimbocumulus. Other low clouds fled swiftly. The sea grew towering, inflated by long swells. Every bird had disappeared except a few petrels, friends of the storms. The barometer fell significantly, indicating a tremendous tension in the surrounding haze. The mixture in our stormglass decomposed under the influence of the electricity charging the air. A struggle of the elements was approaching.
The storm burst during the daytime of May 13, just as the Nautilus was cruising abreast of Long Island, a few miles from the narrows to Upper New York Bay. I’m able to describe this struggle of the elements because Captain Nemo didn’t flee into the ocean depths; instead, from some inexplicable whim, he decided to brave it out on the surface.
The wind was blowing from the southwest, initially a stiff breeze, in other words, with a speed of fifteen meters per second, which built to twenty–five meters near three o’clock in the afternoon. This is the figure for major storms.
Unshaken by these squalls, Captain Nemo stationed himself on the platform. He was lashed around the waist to withstand the monstrous breakers foaming over the deck. I hoisted and attached myself to the same place, dividing my wonderment between the storm and this incomparable man who faced it head–on.
The raging sea was swept with huge tattered clouds drenched by the waves. I saw no more of the small intervening billows that form in the troughs of the big crests. Just long, soot–colored undulations with crests so compact they didn’t foam. They kept growing taller. They were spurring each other on. The Nautilus, sometimes lying on its side, sometimes standing on end like a mast, rolled and pitched frightfully.
Near five o’clock a torrential rain fell, but it lulled neither wind nor sea. The hurricane was unleashed at a speed of forty–five meters per second, hence almost forty leagues per hour. Under these conditions houses topple, roof tiles puncture doors, iron railings snap in two, and twenty–four–pounder cannons relocate. And yet in the midst of this turmoil, the Nautilus lived up to that saying of an expert engineer: “A well–constructed hull can defy any sea!” This submersible was no resisting rock that waves could demolish; it was a steel spindle, obediently in motion, without rigging or masting, and able to brave their fury with impunity.
Meanwhile I was carefully examining these unleashed breakers. They measured up to fifteen meters in height over a length of 150 to 175 meters, and the speed of their propagation (half that of the wind) was fifteen meters per second. Their volume and power increased with the depth of the waters. I then understood the role played by these waves, which trap air in their flanks and release it in the depths of the sea where its oxygen brings life. Their utmost pressure—it has been calculated—can build to 3,000 kilograms on every square foot of surface they strike. It was such waves in the Hebrides that repositioned a stone block weighing 84,000 pounds. It was their relatives in the tidal wave on December 23, 1854, that toppled part of the Japanese city of Tokyo, then went that same day at 700 kilometers per hour to break on the beaches of America.
After nightfall the storm grew in intensity. As in the 1860 cyclone on Réunion Island, the barometer fell to 710 millimeters. At the close of day, I saw a big ship passing on the horizon, struggling painfully. It lay to at half steam in an effort to hold steady on the waves. It must have been a steamer on one of those lines out of New York to Liverpool or Le Havre. It soon vanished into the shadows.
At ten o’clock in the evening, the skies caught on fire. The air was streaked with violent flashes of lightning. I couldn’t stand this brightness, but Captain Nemo stared straight at it, as if to inhale the spirit of the storm. A dreadful noise filled the air, a complicated noise made up of the roar of crashing breakers, the howl of the wind, claps of thunder. The wind shifted to every point of the horizon, and the cyclone left the east to return there after passing through north, west, and south, moving in the opposite direction of revolving storms in the southern hemisphere.
Oh, that Gulf Stream! It truly lives up to its nickname, the Lord of Storms! All by itself it creates these fearsome cyclones through the difference in temperature between its currents and the superimposed layers of air.
The rain was followed by a downpour of fire. Droplets of water changed into exploding tufts. You would have thought Captain Nemo was courting a death worthy of himself, seeking to be struck by lightning. In one hideous pitching movement, the Nautilus reared its steel spur into the air like a lightning rod, and I saw long sparks shoot down it.
Shattered, at the end of my strength, I slid flat on my belly to the hatch. I opened it and went below to the lounge. By then the storm had reached its maximum intensity. It was impossible to stand upright inside the Nautilus.
Captain Nemo reentered near midnight. I could hear the ballast tanks filling little by little, and the Nautilus sank gently beneath the surface of the waves.
Through the lounge’s open windows, I saw large, frightened fish passing like phantoms in the fiery waters. Some were struck by lightning right before my eyes!
The Nautilus kept descending. I thought it would find calm again at fifteen meters down. No. The upper strata were too violently agitated. It needed to sink to fifty meters, searching for a resting place in the bowels of the sea.
But once there, what tranquility we found, what silence, what peace all around us! Who would have known that a dreadful hurricane was then unleashed on the surface of this ocean?