The Wide Sargasso Sea

There is a sea with no shores. It is bound on all sides by a gyre of ocean currents, and inside the sea it is as calm as a hurricane’s eye. So stagnant is the water that sargassum kelp chokes the surface of the ocean, giving it the appearance of a great, flat, unweeded garden. That sargassum gives it its name, the Sargasso Sea, though stories of ships becoming caught in tendrils of seaweed was pure myth. The tendency of ships to disappear in the Sargasso Sea had nothing to do with the seaweed and everything to do with the fact that there is no current and no wind, and so it earned the sort of superstitious infamy only sailors can invent: The Bermuda Triangle. The Horse Latitudes, so called because Spanish ships mired in its dead spot would jettison their war horses overboard to conserve water. The Doldrums.

Here are a few animals that thrive in The Doldrums.

This is the sargassumfish, so called for its perfect mimicry of the sargassum plants that form the ceiling of the Sargasso Sea. Its Latin name, Histrio histrio, literally means “the actor.” And the sargassumfish comes from quite a distinguished family of actors, the frogfish, each member of which resembles a different plant or animal: sea urchins, anemones, coral, or seaweed-covered rock. (One of my favorite newly-discovered species is Histiophryne psychedelica, or the Psychedelic Frogfish, whose flat face allows for excellent depth perception and whose trippy, cryptic coloration resembles both a local coral and a Frank Zappa poster.) Frogfish rely on stealth and subterfuge to catch prey, and as such they don’t move quick, but can suck fish into their mouths in an action that is one of the fastest in the animal kingdom. And while most frogfish’s pelvic fins have been adapted into primitive feet, the sargassumfish’s fins have become prehensile hands with simple fingers, the better to crawl through and grasp the seaweed with.

Another peculiar aspect about this peaceful sea is that it is the breeding ground for both the American and the European Eel. Freshwater fish, eels are catadromous, meaning that they live in rivers and breed in the ocean (the opposite of the anadromous salmon), embarking from the Chesapeake and Mississippi, the Danube and the Rhein, and slithering across the Atlantic ocean to the placid water of the Sargasso to lay their eggs together. The larval young instinctively know whether they should journey West or Northeast with the prevailing currents, and how to sniff out their ancestral rivers. In this way, the Sargasso becomes a sort of U.N. of eels. In another way, it’s a writhing, Medusa-like tangle of weeds and serpentine fish.

The Sargasso Sea remains a paradox to humanity. For the animals that are adapted to it, the Sargasso’s stagnant water is a source of stability. For humankind, it is an expanse of silent horror, an oceanic quicksand in which ships are swallowed and escape is difficult. We are creatures of movement, a nomadic species for whom cities are a modern invention. But there are quagmires and sinkholes on Earth, quiet places, that are deadly to us and paradise for others. There are places so still that the only motion is made by life. There are shipwreck cemeteries that have become coral reefs, and deserts where sidewinders take shade under dead cars. Life finds a way here, too. In the graveyards of the world, the ghosts find a way to become flesh.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

One response to “The Wide Sargasso Sea

  • Phyllis Klarmann

    And juvenile sea turtles call it home for the first few years of their life.

    So, d’you know why your video links might not work? I can’t see any of them.

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