Friday, October 31, 2014

An Unexpected Death

Last night I gave a Twilight Zone talk at Creatures of the NightLife, part of the Bay Area Science Festival. It was a lovely experience, thanks to organizers Kishore Hari and Arne Bakker and our hosts at the California Academy of Sciences. The other speakers and I were asked to tell "spooky science stories" based on our research; here's the script I came up with. Happy Halloween!


I am a Humboldt squid.

I heard the deadly click-click-click of a hunting sperm whale. I dropped the fish I’d been chewing and swam for my life. Sperm whales are fast. And no camouflage will save you—they just listen for the echoes of their clicks, bouncing off your body. They have teeth, sharp teeth, but that’s not how you die—it’s the suction when they slurp you down whole.

This time, I escaped. But the sperm whale’s terrible yawn closed on a squid right next to me, and I felt certain I’d meet the same fate one day.

This is the story of how I found a different way to die.

I never knew my parents. I hatched in the open ocean, amidst hundreds of thousands of siblings. Our eyes barely worked, and we were so small that the water felt like thick molasses as we swam.

Every little fish, every drifting jelly, every slightly bigger squid wanted to eat us. I was lucky: I’m the only one of half a million who survived to grow up.

And no matter how much I grew, someone always wanted to eat me. Bigger fish, bigger squids. Dolphins and whales. There was just one safe haven: the breathless deep, a layer of water far below the surface with very little oxygen. Big fish, like tuna and sharks, couldn’t breathe there. But I could.

And so could the little lanternfish, who lived there in huge delicious swarms. It was a buffet, although one that I had to share with all the other squid who’d found the same refuge. I didn’t mind too much—some of the males were very attractive. I began to collect and store sperm for the day when I might lay half a million eggs of my own.

The breathless deep was our playground. It seemed like a great idea to follow as far as it went, so we headed out on migration. We were young and hungry—the world was ours.

We didn’t stay at depth twenty-four hours a day, of course. We followed the lanternfish when they swam up to the surface at night, looking for their own food. And as we migrated north, night by night we noticed the surface water getting colder and colder.

At first this didn’t bother me. The deep water had always been cold, and once I was no longer a baby I didn’t care. But then I began to worry for my eggs. Would I be able to find warm water to spawn ahead, or would I have to turn around?

I pushed the concern aside, because the cold water brought a welcome relief from being constantly hunted. We’d left most of the sperm whales behind, as well as the little boats with glowing lures. And we’d found new food: crunchy rockfish and sweet salmon.

Was it the long exposure to low temperatures that eventually muddled our minds? Or was there poison in the water? I’d heard that algae can sometimes grow toxic, and the shrimp who graze on them become toxic, and if you eat the fish who eat the shrimp then you go crazy and swim out of the ocean to your death.

Or maybe we were simply too eager to sate our hunger. We had been chasing a new kind of small fish. I don’t say they deliberately led us to destruction, but surely they knew better than we how to survive the crashing surf, the shallow beach.

Tumbling and pummeling, hard rocks and rough sand—these were like nothing I had ever felt before. It was all over in minutes, the last waves sucking away from my skin, leaving me stranded.

My powerful body deflated on land. My arms became tangled in seaweed. My gills collapsed. A seagull came to gouge chunks of flesh from my fins. Our eyes met, and I saw him consider how mine would taste. But before he could try a beakful, he was spooked into the air by a long shadow on the beach.

It was a human. The same creature that had caught so many of my kin back in the warm water where I’d been born, and even a few of my companions here in the cold water—for humans, I had learned, are more ubiquitous than sperm whales, and more clever at tracking us wherever we may go.

But this human had no deadly lure, no boat. It stood for a short time, shading my body from the hot sun, probably fascinated by the colors of death rippling across my skin. Then it waved its arms, and another human joined it.

They picked me up, one holding my pecked-apart fins and the other cradling my head. They waded into the surf. And they threw me out into the water.

Survival was no longer an option. I was too damaged by sand and sun, seaweed and seagull. I spent the last minutes of my life rocked by the sea, my vision as blurry as when I was a baby, my broken body as challenged to swim. And I felt something like peace.


  1. The site lost my sob, I guess it didn't like the brackets

    1. Thank you! An audience member found me after the talks and said, "Your story was heartbreaking, I loved it," which made me feel pretty good. Usually I don't write sad endings, but this one seemed right. (And yes, I think stuff in brackets gets interpreted as tags rather than text.)

  2. A life and death lived out underwater summed up as I would have felt it. My sister from another phylum.

    1. Beautifully stated, and thank you!

    2. Dearest Danna, In the past two days I have lost (unexpectedly) two of my closest friends. I am devastated. Mindy sent me your link and I read your story. It is beautiful and I hope Gail and Betty were gently rocked to their future life. Thanks.

    3. I'm so, so sorry for your losses! But glad that this story spoke to you at such a sad and difficult time. Wishing you and your friends true peace.

  3. Hello, Sallie shared the gift of you with many of us. I have enjoyed your writing through her. She was a wonderful gift to me also. I enjoyed greatly both of your wonderful adventures. Please continue to share your wonderful gift of words. I will keep Sallie in my heart always. I look forward to reading more by you very soon. Good Luck with all of your future adventures. Hugs for now Bonnie Simpson

    1. Hi Bonnie, thanks so much for your comment. I love finding out how many connections Gram made, and how many lives she touched. Although I've gotten a bit slow at updating this blog, I will always keep writing!


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