Dec242009
Arthur C. Clarke and The Grand Banks
Written by Peggy

"A ray, looking like some fantastic black butterfly, flapped its way across the sand, balancing itself with its long, whiplike tail. The sensitive feelers of a crayfish waved cautiously from a crack in the coral; the exploring gestures reminded Harry of a soldier testing for snipers with his hat on a stick. There was so much life, of so many kinds, crammed in this single spot that it would take years of study to recognise it all."

~ "The Man Who Ploughed The Sea", Arthur C. Clarke, 1957

Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his hard science fiction stories featuring alien monoliths, space elevators, interstellar travel and stories set in the distant future. Less well known is the fact that Clarke was an avid scuba diver, and he moved to Sri Lanka in the mid-1950s in order to dive the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean.

As Clarke explains: "Underwater was the closest I could come to the weightlessness of space."

Clarke wrote about his explorations in a series of three non-fiction books: Coast of Coral (Australia's Great Barrier Reef), The Reefs of Taprobane ("the romantic seas surrounding Ceylon"), and The Treasure of the Great Reef ("a real-life underwater treasure hunt"). The books were illustrated by the underwater photography of Mike Wilson, who later played a prominent role in the Sinhala film industry and became a Swami.

It's not surprising, then, that Clarke's underwater experiences found their way into his fiction. In his short story "The Man Who Ploughed The Sea" ocean life is vividly described in the tale of a man who invents a way to extract uranium from seawater. But his experiences really came into play in three of his novels, The Deep Range, Dolphin Island and The Ghost from the Grand Banks.
The Deep Range, published in 1957, is about a former spaceman who is reassigned to a sea farm off the coast of Australia. The sea farms are essential for producing enough food for terrestrial humans, and the farmers are as brave and heroic as any space explorer. They even capture a giant squid! It's a classic SF adventure. In novel's preface, Clarke explains that his story is set on a fictionalized Heron Island and refers the reader to The Coast of Coral for background information. He also cites his credentials as a diver in support of some of his biologically improbable creatures:

In this I have made certain assumptions about the maximum size of various marine animals which may be challenged by some biologists. I do not think, however that they will meet much criticism from underwater explorers, who have often encountered fish several times the size of the largest recorded specimens.
Of course, if the divers had written about their findings, wouldn't those larger creatures have become the largest recorded specimens? Or is it more complicated than than that?

 

Anyway, more that 30 years later, Clarke published The Ghost From the Grand Banks, which is about two groups trying to raise the wreck of the Titanic in time for the centennial of its sinking in 2012. There is a motley cast of characters, including a diving consultant who was famous for having banished a giant octopus from an oil rig, a rich inventor, a mathematical genius, and a computer graphics expert. While the novel doesn't have as much undersea scenery as The Deep Range - and delves heavily into mathematics - Clarke still worked hard to get the details right. In his afterword he cites some of his sources and even takes a bit of a jab at Jacques Cousteau:

The useful hint on octopus allergies (e.g., what to do if you find one in the toilet) comes from Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Philippe Diole's Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence (Cassell, 1973).
And here I must put on record something that has mystified me for many years. In this book, Jacques asserts that though his divers have played with octopuses (very well: octopodes) hundreds of times, they have never once been bitten - and have never heard of such an incident. Well . . . the only time I caught one, off the eastern coast of Australia, it bit me! (see The Coast of Coral, Harper & Row, 1956). I am quite unable to explain this total breakdown of the laws of probability.

Dolphin Island is a bit different sort of story. Teenaged Johnny is abandoned in the Pacific Ocean when the hovercraft he has stowed away on crashes into the sea. Johnny's life is saved by the "People of the Sea" - a school of dolphins. They bring him to an island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef where he becomes involved in research in dolphin communication. The novel was published in 1963, shortly after Clarke became partially paralyzed after an attack polio. He thought he would never dive again, and he wrote Dolphin as a sort of farewell to the sea.

Fortunately Clarke's health improved and was able to dive again, and made his discovery of treasure off the coast of Sri Lanka shortly thereafter. However, the effects of polio remained, and post-polio syndrome contributed to his death at the age of 90 in 2008. He spent his life exploring the oceans and imagining the stars.


Peggy Kolm is the creator of Biology in Science Fiction, a blog that covers the marine world as well as other biology-related topics in science fiction, including engineering, cloning, and aliens.  Peggy has kindly offered to write a series of special marine-related blog entries related to science fiction for The Reef Tank.

 

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