At first glance, there appears to be little in common between the open sea and the desert—wet, salty and always in motion versus dry, dusty and slow to change. But once you get past the seemingly obvious differences, it turns out their similarities can be salient. Both are unforgiving terrain if you play the fool. Sand and dust can be as deadly to cameras (and people) as seawater. Both have life forms that can be very difficult to find, let alone approach. Trying to capture an iconic desert scenic can be just as hard as the undersea counterpart. And there’s a sameness to the seclusion one can feel when you’re immersed in their immensity. The isolation inherent in both environments has contributed greatly to the “barren wasteland” description heard often, even today. Wide-open expanses have helped produce everything from vast chemical dumping grounds to nuclear fission laboratories by virtue of their loneliness. Remoteness, in and of itself, also fosters uniqueness in the life forms that try to make a living in these harsh settings. This seems to be true whether you’re animal, vegetable or human.
The animals and plants that have found a way to eke out a living in these unforgiving habitats have had to solve some pretty big problems. The open sea has comparatively little in the way of food sources. While plankton and other underwater organisms are found virtually everywhere across the ocean, their population densities in some areas may not be suitable for adequate sustenance. Also, the seabed is probably miles below the surface, so finding an acceptable place to hide or rest isn’t likely. Just take a look at any floating junk in the open sea, and you’ll find it’s often a magnet for critters looking for refuge. Equally, the harsh dryness and lack of nutrient-rich soils in much of the open-desert regions also offer little incentive for life forms to find a home. Combined with excessive temperature variations between the seasons, and hospitable living conditions are further reduced. Two iconic organisms have achieved significant success in these seemingly unproductive living areas, however—the marine sea jellies (often erroneously called “jelly fish”) and the desert cactus plant.
Sea jellies occupy virtually every niche in the ocean, and most species travel the currents like a leaf in the wind, unable to control their direction to any significant extent. Some species do attach themselves to the bottom substrate, but these are few. As carnivores, they’re opportunistic feeders, and most depend on direct contact with their prey. Living their lives constantly on the move will sooner or later bring them into contact with food. The typical mode of securing lunch is to use venomous cnidocysts to paralyze small animals and then a series of tactile structures to bring the food to their “mouth.” The cnidocysts, or nematocysts, are very small capsules containing toxins and enzymes usually triggered by the contact. They can be located anywhere on the sea jelly, including the bell. Besides an effective tool for capturing their food, the poison is also very good for defense as anyone who has touched the wrong sea jelly washed up on a beach can tell you. Amazingly, the average sea jelly is comprised of 95% water, and yet they exist as females and males with complicated reproduction and intricate tissue development. Many can sense light, have bioluminescence, produce extremely toxic poisons and live for years. They also contribute enormously as food sources for a variety of sea turtles and fishes.
Cacti are plants that have evolved to become very successful at thriving in extremely arid and poor soil conditions. They come in all shapes and sizes, occupying high, arid mountain ecosystems down to hot valley floors below sea level. They’re relatively new to the biosphere as virtually all cacti live in the Americas and probably have existed “only” for the last 40 million years or so. Their stems have morphed into fleshy succulent storage structures while the leaves have largely formed into spines for protection and to provide shade for itself. They also have a unique form of photosynthesis. It’s called Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), which allows the plant to use the carbon dioxide in another chemical form that doesn’t require transpiration to take place during the heat of the day. This capability significantly reduces water loss during the process. Most have shallow root systems for efficient superficial water uptake and can store immense quantities of water within the stems when it suddenly becomes available. In fact, when fully hydrated, over 90 percent of a stem’s composition can be water. Many species have life spans in the hundreds of years. Cacti also are important food contributors for insects, birds, mammals and reptiles who scratch out a desert life.
There’s a whole host of animals and plants that have figured out a way to survive in the barren open sea and the lonely desert vastness; however, if you compare their numbers to healthy coral-reef or lush rain-forest ecologies, the differences will be in orders of magnitude. At the same time, humans, in great numbers, seek out the desolate beauty of places like Death Valley or yearn to cross the Seven Seas and find a deserted tropical island paradise. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Many of today’s national parks were once seen as dangerous by people who wanted to get through them as fast as possible so they could get to some promised land. And crossing an ocean was equally arduous, with scores of sea monsters waiting in ambush. While technology has caused the world to shrink and allowed civilization to flourish in less-than-ideal geography, large tracts of the planet are still off the beaten path.
Given to infrequent but brilliant displays of color, this cactus helps fix water in the arid desert landscape
There isn’t a place much lonelier than Bikini Atoll. Lost in the great expanse of the Central Pacific Ocean, for millennia this small group of islands, located in the 750,000-square-mile region known as the Marshall Islands, was suddenly thrust into the nuclear age in July 1946. The local inhabitants were removed “voluntarily,” and ships, equipment, animals and men were brought in as test subjects. Before it all ended in 1954, we threw everything we had in our atomic arsenal at this little atoll. Twenty-six explosions later, virtually all of the life was obliterated, and scores of radioactive isotopes permeated the sands of the seabed and what was left of the islands.
In 2004 and 2006, I spent 54 hours traveling on three airplanes and a boat, crossing nearly 5,000 miles of “empty” ocean, each time to visit Bikini’s sunken ships resting peacefully at the bottom of the lagoon. Their legacy of the Cold War is my good fortune. To see and feel the history of my father’s time before the sea fully reclaims the nuclear fleet and its possessions is a gift. These giants went down fully loaded with fighter planes, munitions, dishes and even personal effects. Every dive is a voyage back in time. On any occasion, there are fewer than 20 people living on the whole atoll, including the guests of the diving operation. And without TV or even reliable e-mail, the rest of the world essentially disappears.
Visiting the islands of Bikini now, you’d never suspect such a malevolent history. It’s an absolutely gorgeous coconut palm-studded landscape with miles and miles of deserted white sand beaches. Nature took pretty much all the nastiness she could dish out, and after 50 years—a blink of an eye in Earth time—she has nearly erased the destruction without our meddling.
Brittle stars flock to reefs where they can find food to sustain their simple structures. Ecosystems in challenging places are built upon an intricate pyramid of simple organisms that support ever more complex life.
The coral and fish life have returned. Background radiation is less than what you’d receive from a single transcontinental flight across the U.S. In a few more “blinks” of time, she will have reduced the Cesium-137 half-life contamination currently concentrated in the plant life to insignificant levels. The concrete rubble and rusting steel will be deconstructed to sand and ferrous compounds as the fabulous ships in the lagoon become part of the seabed. There has been little in the way of human habitation since the tests, and undoubtedly this has contributed significantly to the ongoing recovery.
While the desert is no stranger to nuclear fission, it’s more likely to suffer from extraction, dumping and plain old abuse. Desert environs typically take much more time to heal their wounds. Weathering is slow, and turnover can take enormous amounts of time. Tank tracks from General Patton’s 1st Armored Corp training (1942) still can be seen southeast of Palm Springs, Calif., in the Coachella Valley. Discarded cans and other detritus can be found in virtually every arroyo. Some of this rubble has even crossed over from trash to collector’s items by virtue of its age and condition.
Located in the 25,000-square-mile Mojave Desert are hundreds of abandoned mines. Some barely scrape the surface, while others bore their way thousands of feet through the desert floor. Virtually everything you could think of removing from the ground has been attempted. Gold, silver, copper, jade, bauxite, iron and opal, to name but a few, have been scratched out of the surrounding rock. The telltale talus mounds and scattered bits of corrugated steel usually mark the spot. Many of the derelict mines are now home to a multitude of animals and have become focus points for weekend camping jaunts. Most off-road trails are merely access roads to some forgotten grubstake.
Ocotillo cacti seen from below bear a striking resemblance to a kelp forest seen from the same perspective.
Even here in the slower timescale of the desert, nature slowly absorbs man’s efforts. Rock slides and cave-ins begin to fill the holes. Buildings and other structures collapse (sometimes with unwanted help), and the construction materials begin their journey toward rust and decomposition. The time interval is very long, but in terms of earth time, it barely registers on her clock. Even so, with each passing year, some of the access roads become impassable without help from individuals who try to repair the disorder. Animals like bats, snakes and small mammals occupy areas where men once toiled. And we, as visitors, stand gazing at what’s left of the long-ago abandoned projects, wondering what it must have been like to move all that solid rock in such remote, hostile conditions. In a few more blinks of an eye, nature will have mostly erased the evidence of our being here, too.
Despite our arrogance as a species, we won’t be able to destroy the Earth. We can and have been making a real mess of things that could potentially make it a very sad place to live, but Mother Earth will continue on. In what form, who knows? But the final destiny is largely up to us. We don’t need a plethora of draconian directives to live in harmony on this planet; we just need to think about our actions a little more carefully—kind of like what most of us were told sometime around kindergarten.
Joseph C. Dovala shoots conceptual, scientific, marine/underwater images. He has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers. He’s a contributing editor to Dive Training Magazine.