The Dead Zone

Surf lapped on the rocky shore, carrying with it shards of past dreams. Dreams of changing the world and fixing nature washed up along with blood-red algae, dying and decomposing as they splashed against the rocks. As the seawater rolled over the captain’s feet, he wrung his damp cap before placing it back on his uncombed head, hair stiff with salt. He glanced over the scenery, watching the setting sun illuminate the tableau of a tragic scene. He thought back to the ambition of the scientist, now defeated by the very force he set out to help. As the waves carried the remnants of the formerly white lab coat onto the jagged shoreline, the captain thought back to that very morning, which began as if it intended to emulate any other day.

***

The familiar sensation of wind brought the captain out of his morning tiredness, as the brackish air buffeted every part of his body left exposed. Peering through the early-morning mist, the looming cliffs were barely perceptible in the distance, framing the captain’s view. The captain, safe for the most part from the whipping gusts behind his flimsy plexiglass windshield, went through his motions like clockwork as his eyes traveled along the gunwale of a boat he knew better than he knew his closest friends. The wheel groaned at the urging of the captain’s hands, nudging his boat towards the remote spot in the middle of the undisturbed cove. His battered face had seen the area undergo constant change over his many years on the sea. Employers had come and gone at Thompson’s Cove; the mining companies were the first to make use of the beautiful area, but soon left after exhausting the cobalt supply beneath the waters. Various industries had left their mark on the isolated cove — now the area was overcome by those opposed to industry, with researchers similar to the hunched over man on the starboard side arriving at the remote cove by the dozen. The captain noticed the furrowed brow of his shipmate, obviously burning with a fiery focus rarely seen accompanying the monotonous daily life of water quality researchers. The man evidently possessed an uncommon passion for his subject, insisting on making the trip despite the uncomfortable and encumbering weather.

The dreariness of the weather and the uninspiring conditions would never be able to dampen the researcher’s mood. His spirit and intellectual vigor radiated from his intense countenance as he looked forward to the task ahead. The man concerned himself with marine life and habitat, and relished the opportunity to conduct research in a unique eutrophic environment. His research was promising, and the man found himself impatient with waiting for the boat to arrive at the designated zone.

“Say, captain, how much farther until the designated spot?”

“With this weather, another few minutes. Probably around ten.”

“Is there any way you can hurry up at all? This is time sensitive work, not that you would understand.”

“If I hurry her up she’ll crush the little critters you’re actually studying.”

“Just speed up. What I set out to do today will change the world, what are one or two small organisms in the grand cosmos of our beautiful life? Evolution has dictated that only the most fit organisms shall survive, and any that die must not be fit.”

With a laugh and a sarcastic shake of the head, the captain increased the speed of the small boat, pushing its bow into the choppy waters and keeping the nose trained on the scientist’s desired location. Shaking his head, the captain glanced once again at the concentrated stare of the other man on his boat. Behind the focused eyes, however, the man’s thoughts wandered. He thought about more than his stern appearance would dictate — more than merely the task at hand.

The scientist wore his starched coat with unabashed honor and pride; he knew that man’s purpose in life was to uncover the mysteries of the world and establish laws for natural occurrences. He saw science as the driving force behind nature: without the stiff vertebrae of science, nature would collapse completely. And no substance was as crucial in the overlap between science and nature as water. Chiefly dealing with the maintenance of bodies of water and creatures inside them, the man liked to fix nature’s mistakes in aquatic ecosystems. As the bright red patch of algae made its way into the scientist’s view, he took a deep breath of the salty air and began to direct his thoughts to the idea of correcting a blemish on nature’s skin, a red stain on a blue background. The area in question was eutrophic, a zone of water devoid of all animal life due to an excess of nutrients in the water spurring too much algal growth and therefore blocking the sunlight and creating a dead zone in that area of water. Eutrophication in itself was not unique; science often induced algal blooms such as the red blossom approaching rapidly on the foggy horizon.

He would change the world. This day was the product of years of work, the culmination of his entire career. The boat’s roaring engine calmed to a purr, and the man could taste his excitement. He finally had the opportunity to implement his new genetic material in the algae.

The wind skimmed across the surface of the rough sea and whistled past his ears, momentarily distracting the scientist from the task at hand. He was not the outdoors type; he had conducted all prior research within the sterile and predictable confines of the white lab room with his name on the door, in which the man spent more time than his own house. His focus was further interrupted by a shout from the stern, as the captain once again made his voice heard.

“Where do you want me to let ‘er go?”

“Have you not thought to cut the motor yet? I absolutely can’t have you jeopardizing this trial, sir. If the water becomes any more turbid, I would lose everything!”

“Relax, kid. Motor’s been cut for half a cable length. I’m just gonna go ahead and drop the anchor, you lemme know if I can do anything for your little experiment.”

“Thank you, sir, right here should be appropriate to rest the anchor.”

The skipper let loose a breathy laugh, albeit quiet, at the apparent anxiety of the young researcher. The scientist walked towards the starboard side, and grappled with his wetsuit before finally figuring out the unfamiliar piece of clothing — much to the evident amusement of the onlooking captain. Becoming impatient with the slow progress, the captain called out, “Lemme help you kid, sit tight for a second.” To the seafarer’s surprise, the scientist beckoned for his help and showed no signs of reluctance.

After he was suited up and fitted with all of his equipment, the researcher wasted no time in lowering himself into the waters, which had calmed considerably with the progression of the day. Breaking through the surface, the scientist opened his eyes and was astonished by the beauty of his surroundings. For all the time spent with two hydrogens and an oxygen, never before had he felt so immersed in water. But such thoughts were detrimental to the task at hand. Breathing through the tank strapped to his back, he began to swim over towards the area where light no longer penetrated the surface of the water (blocked by the algal growth), an expansive region looming a few hundred feet away, devoid of all sunlight or aquatic life. As he glided past breathtaking undersea landscapes, the scientist’s eyes remained trained on the dark algae at the surface, the man oblivious to any surroundings escaping his tunnel vision.

Imbued with anticipation, the scientist found his nervous energy driving him further into the darkness. He could not wait to fix this issue inherent within nature and save aquatic ecosystems. The entire concept had never been done before, but he was sure it would work. The perfection of the genetic encoding for a semi-transparent cell membrane had taken years, but it was worth it. Injecting his new DNA structure into a single cell of one alga would cause a cancerous mutation of that cell, ensuring that the entire organism became vitreous. This would, in turn, allow for the rest of the ecosystem to receive light and operate normally — all in the hope of eliminating these “dead zones.”

He had finally reached the area. Looking at the seafloor, the scientist noted a steep drop off from the coral shelf. But this was irrelevant; he was only concerned with the floating algae. As he carefully removed the watertight syringe from the inner pocket of his scuba-vest, the scientist carefully inflated his buoyancy control device (BCD) until he was at arm’s length from the surface. Guiding the needlepoint to one little organism, the scientist’s meticulousness and practice made themselves evident in his precise execution of the transfer. He repeated the process twenty or so more times, maintaining the same intense focus on his work. As the man let some air out of his BCD to avoid disrupting the algae, he began to fully comprehend what he had done. The new DNA was in! He would be famous! His mind played out scenes of fame and glory, as he imagined accepting a Nobel Prize in front of an astounded crowd. He knew he had just corrected nature’s own shortcoming, using science to redirect nature’s carelessness. With the mission complete, the scientist realized he had more than a quarter of his air left — more than enough to make the trip back to the boat. So why not take the time to enjoy the environment?

The vast sea ensconced him, and the man decided to explore his surroundings. Dropping further and further below the waves’ crests, he was fascinated by the barren area around him. The alien beauty of the dead zone enveloped his senses, and he continued to descend to the sandy bottom, illuminating what lay ahead with his pocket flashlight. In a sweeping motion to track his progress from along the shelf, the scientist could not contain his surprise when the flashlight flew from his hands, dropping at an inexplicable rate until it settled, finding its place on the ocean floor. With a new mission in mind, he made his way to the corridor of light along the sandy bed.

Retrieving the flashlight was no hard task, the light made it easily locatable. The same could not be said for the surface, with the rays of light penetrating the surface layer of algae few and far between. As the scientist began his ascent, he became disoriented, not knowing up from down in the murky darkness of the ocean. Shining his light on a discernible object, the scientist tried to reestablish his location by swimming over to a familiar crag in the rock shelf. But, even with some time spent navigating towards the illuminated crag, it was not any closer.

How could he be going nowhere? He renewed his effort to orient himself, but his searching beam fell on nothing but the empty expanse. Beam flashing left and right, the scientist’s worst fear was confirmed; he was stuck. His vest was ensnared by the rock face to his back, caught on its craggy fingers. Unable to contort his frame to discern the equipment held captive by the rock shelf clamping on to him, he flailed and struggled to free himself from his captor. To no avail.

At first his breathing became shallow; he was caught in the throes of panic. The logical part of his brain was swallowed up in the confusion that overtook his body and mind, the desperate urge to free himself blocking all other signals. He craned his neck to obtain a better view of the surface, only to encounter an unexpected sight. The beam of light emanating from his flashlight illuminated tiny red specks, cascading down in a blood-red mass. As the realization that this wave of claret was the algae he had devoted years of his life to dawned on the hapless man, the scientist’s breath hitched. He went to draw another deep breath from his regulator and was met with an incredible amount of resistance. Taking a simple breath felt like he was sucking air out of a thin coffee stirrer. His brain screamed for more. More air. More time.

But the scientist knew he could control himself. He was simply too strong to let panic overtake him. If science were to select an ideal specimen for survival, he knew he would be chosen. He trusted in logic and reason above all else and maintained a level head, even with the weight of four atmospheres pressing on his shoulders. All he needed to do was relax and solve this puzzle like a riddle. He had always been good at riddles, even when he was a young boy. But back then, the problems were much simpler; he could solve them with willpower and a little logic. In college, he made undrinkable water pure. Before that, he could save a bird in a shoebox. Before that, he just… he just could. So why… why couldn’t he now? Too hard. Way too hard.

A thick fog descended over his already cloudy vision, obscuring the brilliant red particles surrounding him. In their final push, his lungs gasped for air. The dial on the air gauge fell to zero. The bubbles of his last exhalation rose through the mass of algae.

The captain sat atop the bow of his trusty boat, and enjoyed the now beautiful day for an hour. The algal film on the surface began to disappear, replaced by the aquamarine color characteristic of Thompson’s Cove. The sun was at its zenith, and the skipper found his thoughts drifting to how much he wanted to spend the day fishing — accompanied only by his own thoughts and the eternal lapping of waves. As time passed, the old seafarer realized that the scientist would not be returning, and pointed the boat landward. A day that had started like any other would draw to a close in a familiar fashion. As it had done to the cobalt miners with their underwater treasure-digging as well as countless others, the pristine waters of the cove had swallowed up another visitor.

– Dean Manko, The Haverford School, Class of 2016

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