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A Wonder for Mankind
Jan 1, 2007
The waves are lapping the hull of Noah’s boat. Far beneath, in stages of darkness, the ocean world lives on through the flood, for the heavy rains only make it grow in richness. It is a sublime world, vastly different from what lies upon the surface of the earth. It is the avenging world Solomon rode, the wind at his command, across his blessed dominion. It is the generous world of fishes, by which Jesus sustained a nation in endless benevolence. It is the preserving world of Jonah, his life entrusted to a creature whose haunting calls pierce the infinite deep. It is the unique world of Moses, where only by a miracle did feet touch solid ground. And it is the glorious world of pearls and corals, enticing to the wonders of the most magnificent kingdom. The ocean is a compelling witness to the manifestations God creates. Chapter 55 of the Holy Qur’an, “Ar-Rahman,” which speaks directly of the greatness of God and the inherently divine secrets of the ocean among the wonders of creation asks, “Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?”(55:13) And in the only such instance in the entire Qur’an, the simple line is repeated 30 times more in close succession, its verses becoming, like the ocean itself, a harmonious rhythm on the hulls of our hearts.

There is much to learn if we dive in, for the ocean is deeper than the earth is high, comprising all but a fraction of the planet’s habitat space, and it is three times bigger than all of its surface. At its utter depths, creatures carry on their lives 20 miles below where we carry on ours, swimming past caverns and mountains greater than any on earth. It is a world strangely devoid of insects and a forbidding place, the centre of volcanic activity, deadly waves and whirlpools, and the fuel for hurricanes and tornadoes. Yet it is also an inviting place, the main source of protein and water on our planet and the biggest supply of hydrocarbon fuel, buried deep into sediments. It is the most ideal solvent in all of creation, allowing fine organic materials to dissolve evenly, for heat to be sustained and distributed, and for precious minerals to flow in suspension-billions of ounces of gold floating, imperceptible to our eyes. It is also the most ideal conductor, carrying electric currents, sound and magnetic waves to refined organs around the sea, conveying information we ourselves cannot detect. And while the ocean renews itself through ice ages every 40,000 to 100,000 years, it somehow harbors creatures which have remained virtually unchanged for 500 million years. It is created as a garden of diverse forms of life, the source of half of all of the oxygen we breathe, and one quarter of global heat. It is, layer upon layer, a dynamic medium in which the most curious creatures dwell, from the upper zone of light, to twilight, to the eerie realm of glowing fishes, to devastating cold and pressure, to the very bottom, where eyeless creatures thrive in endless darkness, in cities atop stores of buried diamonds.

It is beyond our imaginations to fathom the scope of life forms inhabiting the ocean. In an average week, three new species are discovered-though less than one-tenth of one percent of the sea has been studied. The Census of Marine Life, involving 70 nations for a decade, counted 130,000 molluscs from 3000 species in a single three-cubic-meter zone off New Caledonia. In one tiny region near Angola, there were 1000 new species. At the very bottom of the ocean, near thermal vents, more than 300 new species were found in an area measured in inches. And in the light zone, over 50,000 different species of algae exist-the first plants on earth-as well as tiny plankton, protozoa and krill. Krill alone create, by sheer numbers, a dramatic manifestation of life, moving in masses of up to 10 metric tones-equivalent to 150 million people traveling in unison through the ocean. Alive, they nourish creatures as majestic as the blue whale, which consumes millions in a single day-as some of the smallest in the sea feed the largest animal which has ever existed on this planet. Dead, they add their microscopic carcasses to the snowfalls which descend through the ocean layers. For on the earth, water falls-but in water, it is earth that falls: organic matter, sand and pollen is gathered into blizzards, forming blankets inches deep, thousands of times richer in bacteria than anywhere else, becoming the spark by which all ocean-floor communities come to life.

As tiny as each individual is, plankton communities blossom with the season of the ocean currents which carry them, producing more carbon per square meter than a sugar cane field, and enticing waves of animal migrants to follow them in a constant cycle of life around the earth. In abject innocence, we witness the tides by which the moon’s and sun’s gravity grasp and release our liquid earth each day, and the massive tsunamis which devastate the habitats of more than half the world’s population who live close to a coastline. But most waves are actually far below the surface, away from our gaze, stirring the ocean this way and that-deflecting water in spirals to the right in the northern hemisphere, and to the left in the southern hemisphere-adding to the effect of gravity to generate and distribute food and heat. Through these hidden motions, more water is redistributed than by any surface action of water-the Gulf Stream alone moves 100 times more water than all the rivers on earth-as the engine of life on this planet is propelled far beyond man’s restricted vision.

And outside man’s scope, too, fish move from place to place, sometimes only a few kilometers, sometimes thousands, in the second biggest migration after that of birds. The leatherback turtle crosses the Pacific Ocean along invisible highways, and the spiny lobster marches across the ocean floor, his community lined in single file, navigating by means of an internal compass sense. Countless species of fish move between salt water to fresh, or between river and ocean, in precise orchestration. They gather in vast numbers thanks to a marvel of creation-the lateral line system-which allows them to sense the position of their neighbors, feel tiny differences in water pressure, and hear even the lowest frequency sounds. Spending their lives in groups-schools-they secure safety in numbers and reduce water friction on each other, easing their motion. So important is this co-operation that young fish train for it, in pairs, then in larger groups, until perfect harmony of motion is achieved. And in a refinement of the system, sharks, rays, skates, and dogfish can detect small electrical fields between body fluids and seawater, favoring them as hunters for 450 million years.

The environments sea creatures move between are as varied as the ocean is deep. There are wondrous forests of kelp-jungles beneath the waves-anchored by hold-fasts to rocks below, gas bladders holding each leaf upright, reaching dozens of meters high through the light layers. They provide the perfect home for sea cucumbers, sea stars, sea urchins, sponges, and fish-forming a complete ecosystem-and coming in countless varieties. Yet these astounding giants are surprisingly fragile, for only ten in a million reaches adulthood, and their life span is short, only half a year, death coming at the rate of half a meter per day-a bold symbol of the strength and weakness of all life.

There are also the magnificent coral reefs, the largest of which, the Great Barrier Reef-2000 km long- is the only living structure visible from outer space. Building life from death, reefs use the remains of hard corals to make homes for thousands of species of fish and hundreds of species of coral, sometimes rising more than 100 feet off the ocean floor. Reefs are sensitive to touch and delicate enough to be killed by slight temperature changes, yet they have survived as structures for millions of years, through countless ice ages. Some coral even emit a soft blue light, transforming the seascape into a surrealistic panel of brightly colored fishes swimming through a fluorescent porcelain-like forest, providing for man an inimitable example of incomprehensible beauty.

And yet, they are not the only pair of animals perfectly engineered to secure each other’s lives, for the sea harbors the most numerous and unusual partnerships. Angler fish host bioluminescent bacteria in a lure which they dangle in front of them, attracting prey. The boxer crab lives in the claws of the deadly anemone, discarding bits of food for it and enjoying the protection of the tentacles. Goby fish use their excellent vision to guard the burrow of the blind and highly toxic sea urchin, sharing the space without risk. Imperial shrimp ride on sea cucumbers like passengers on a bus, getting on and off, while the pearl fish lives in the intestines of the sea cucumber during the day, obtaining food removing parasites, coming out the anus every evening. The isopod, Cymothoa Exigua, eats the tongue of the rose snapper and becomes a replacement tongue in order to share meals. The ephemeral Portuguese- man-of-war-almost perfectly translucent to the light-forms a floating habitat for a myriad of creatures who somehow orchestrate their life as a unit. And throughout the sea, a universal color of blue (“cleaner blue”) is manifested by a huge variety of species to show that a fish is ready to clean the parasites of another- the ultimate cross-cultural communication-as temporary partnerships ensure mutual survival in the forbidding dark.

But perhaps the ability which most holds our fascination that of making light-the only light in the deep ocean. Tiny krill alone have over 10 complex lightemitting organs. Species differ greatly in the nature of the flash as complex chemicals interact in a process strangely reminiscent of photosynthesis, such that the sunnier the previous day, the brighter the glow. The color is almost always blue-the wavelength which travels farthest in water and that to which most organisms are sensitive. It is a profound reminder of the blue light that reverberates across the ocean and provides the distinctive hue by which we paint our globe. Viewed from space, the image is enough to awaken any heart. The American astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, revealed: “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.” And James Irwin, another American astronaut, echoed the sentiment: “Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God, and the love of God.”

And in this place where light is such an elusive and precious gift are the most perfect eyes in all of creation-the squid’s, refined for millions of years, and the mantis shrimp, with more than a dozen photoreceptors, light filters, and trinocular vision. Beckoning us even further to contemplation, the life forms here are surprisingly sentient, graced with uncanny abilities to learn and communicate. The octopus develops strategies for dealing with new problems and changes body color to reveal its mood, while the reef squid produces dozens of patterns, bands, stripes and spots, for communication. Killer whales have a variety of calls-some shared, some unique to the group, and even pod-specific accents, and the beluga’s hearing is a dozen times more sensitive than the human ear, with individuals having their own unique voices. In turn, the blue whale’s call carries up to 1000 kilometers through the ocean to its mates, exceeding the decibel level of a jet. Dolphins protect their snouts with sponge bits when diving among sea urchins, and they play at blowing bubbles, the “ring culture” passed from adult to novice. And in a superb demonstration of community-building, dolphins rise to the surface in pods, vocalizing to reach a consensus before any group action. Perhaps most revealing of all, orcas grieve over parents who have passed on, revisiting their favorite places in the days after the death-their lives resonating with compassion and awareness.

Let us return to the hull of Noah’s ship, for as the ocean is wide, Prophet Noah unites the People of the Book across the boundaries between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. And as the ocean is deep, Noah’s story extends through our entire lives-as the ark and its animals entice us from childhood, and the Prophet’s personal reflections on God and creation are with us as we find ourselves aging, as he did, contemplating the vast expanse of the ocean and of our existence: “Worship God! You have no other god but Him.” (Araf 7:59, Muminun 23:23) The ocean is, ultimately, both the cradle of life on this planet and an apt reminder of its end. Symbolically, the palace and temple of Cleopatra-probably the most quoted example of a person who seemingly had everything in this life-was recently discovered under water. Her entire city, Antirhodos, was buried by floods and tidal waves around 334 AD, and soon after, Cleopatra, an avowed polytheist, committed suicide. For the gifts and power we ascribe to ourselves are but a drop in the ocean of God’s greatness, and our lives are sure to come to nothing if we fail to honor our Creator and our purpose. Curiously among the ruins was a bust of a Pharaoh-perhaps her father, Ptolemy XII, or perhaps an older Pharaoh she much admired-who is now both saved in the body (Yunus 10:92) and drowned (Qasas 28:40, Zukhruf 43:55). In fact, the ocean bottom is littered with abandoned hoards and the relics of lost peoples- fitting testaments to man’s inability to control the world in which he has been placed. But far more meaningful than any sunken jewels are the pearls of knowledge which the ocean delivers. For in the deepest waters are manifested two of the highest revelations: life is a mystery beckoning our understanding, and creation is an unbounded mercy. Thus, the ocean is offered as an exquisite and accessible proof that our world is divinely orchestrated. And just as the ocean encompasses the globe to connect us all, we each have the chance to touch its bounties and surrender to faith. So, then, which of the favors of our Lord can we deny?