There are many hidden mysteries and dilemmas in the book, some obvious, many not obvious. Here’s a list to get you thinking. You need to read the entire book to solve most of them. E-mail me with your questions and discoveries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tutu’s last words: “Look to the waters, my child, for they are sacred. Listen for them, for the ʻāina is singing her song. Who is the ʻāina in the story?
At her tutu’s funeral, how was Procyon beckoning to Sage?
What does Sage’s Déjà vu moment when she first stands on Thalassa mean?
What is the significance of 11.46 light-years?
What did Sage’s dreams of facing giant waves mean in the context of her life?
Why couldn’t Sage see the woman in the light?
Why did Maka save Sage?
What is the significance of Nesoi markings on the cave walls?
Where did the cetaceans of Thalassa come from?
Who is the volcano? What does it mean?
Did Sage discover the connection between her ancestors and the Koholā?
As a marine biologist I am always spellbound watching whales on the open sea. Witnessing their majestic movements, they are the most marine of all creatures, but I never fully appreciated their origins until I researched the topic before writing SOT. I focused on the ancestors of cetaceans because they are super-cool and are a great hook to get people to read my book. They also use sonar and sing songs and thus are perfect to play a major part of the “songs” of Thalassa (but they are not the only ones).
Modern whales also play an important role in Polynesian (and Hawaiian) culture and have a tragic history of exploitation. For all of these reasons I used the Nesoi, Ceti, and Baleena as central figures in SOT. Please remember that these are not the same as their counterparts on earth for two reasons: first, they are of uncertain origin; and second, they have evolved on Thalassa for millions of years. For more on these amazing creatures you’ll have to wait for my next book, Songs of Hina.
So to begin, imagine an ocean with no whales, no dolphins, and no porpoises. If you could travel through time and swim in Earth’s warm Tethys Sea of 50 million years ago (mya) you’d by startled by the early ancestors of whales — the walking whales; the model for the Nesoi.
Whales and their relatives, the cetaceans, are related to terrestrial (even-toed) ungulates like the hippopotamus. They are all descendants of semi-aquatic animals that invaded the empty sea in Eocene times to prey on rich marine resources (and the absence of marine reptiles). To truly understand the story of cetaceans we need to place their ancestors, deduced from fossil evidence, in the context of continental drift and the formation and fate of the Tethys, and (natural) long-term climate change. For the full story, go here.
Drivers of Whale Evolution: Continental Drift and Climate
Fossils of the walking whales show they evolved in the Tethys’ swamp-like seas then spread through what would become the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas and eventually to the Pacific coasts and worldwide oceans. Much of their success was driven by climate. In the beginning, when the ancestors of whales invaded the sea, it was super warm –the warmest seen in the last 65 million years. But 15 million years later, Earth shifted to a cool, ocean-rich ice age. It was the perfect climatic driver for the success and spread of early cetaceans.
To help you understand the evolution of cetaceans, and the appearance of the major species in SOT, I’ve included a brief illustrated description of their journey to global prominence on earth.
Pakicetus — the first cetacean on Earth (49 mya)
Pakicetus was a dog-sized, mostly terrestrial mammal that occasionally hunted fish in the shallow Tethys sea. It had several unique characteristics adapted to a partial aquatic existence: upward looking eyes, thick bones (which assist in floating), and a thickened skull bone to improve underwater hearing. This species was hugely successful in exploiting the rich marine resources of the shallow seas. As it became adapted to a more aquatic existence, over a million years it gave rise to another more ocean-oriented species.
Ambulocetus — the walking whales (48 mya), the model for the Nesoi
Fossils of Ambulocetus were first found in Pakistan in 1994 and made headlines as the “walking whale” due to its combined aquatic and terrestrial features. Why Pakistan you might ask? If you go back to the Eocene, the continent that would become India was surrounded by ocean and was slowly rafting towards Asia. As got close it created the warm, shallow, island-rich Tethys Sea which persisted for millions of years. It was the perfect setting for a mammal to invade the sea. Today, the fossils of early cetaceans are found in the continental shelves of the former Tethys, which are exposed in modern day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in even in the Himalaya mountains; all former seafloor that was created by India’s collision with Asia.
Ambulocetus were up to 10 feet long and it’s crocodile-like shape included an elongated snout with upward-facing eyes. Studies suggest it was mostly aquatic, using it’s front and hind legs and tail to swim, but occasionally walked on land to drink freshwater and give birth. It was a big change from Pakicetus and one that supported the eventual spread of its descendants out of the Tethys corridor.
The Neoi in SOT are based mostly on these walking whales with a few modifications. Unlike what we know about these ancestral species , the Nesoi were capable of a unique set of traits due to their millions of years of evolution on Thalassa: 1) sonar for navigation (their “clicks:” and “creaks”); 2) the ability to communicate by whistling in air; and 3) the ability to sing beautiful songs like baleen whales to communicate to each other and to other creatures on the planet (they could even be heard in space). Given these abilities their heads would have different morphology than Ambulocetus to be able to create and receive sonar, whistles, and songs. Their whistles are based on Silbo Gomero, a whistling language used by humans of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate by whistles across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate throughout the island. Their sounds can be heard up to a distance of 3 miles (Wikipedia)
Procetids spread across the Tethys (47-39 mya), the model for the Ceti
Procetids were a big step towards a more aquatic existence than the walking whales but with their hind legs they could still walk (and give birth) on land. But over 8 million years on earth multiple adaptations arose to a more-marine existence with some species walking on land and others being fully aquatic. Major changes include their eyes shifting to the side for better aquatic vision, their nasal openings moved closer to their eyes, and their ears became more adapted to underwater hearing. These major adaptations were key to the ultimate success of these cetaceans.
I used the procetids as a model for the Ceti on Thalassa, the first one Sage encounters in the cave of light. Part of including the Ceti was to show that the ancestors of the Nesoi had diversified on Thalassa, as they would have across an ocean mostly devoid of large animals. Based on what we know on Earth, over millions of years on Thalassa I believed the Ceti would exploit large mantis squid in the deep seas and submarine canyons of Thalassa. As such, they would move away from a land-based existence and become more fully aquatic and give rise to critters more similar to our modern whales, but with a twist (no pun intended). Expect more about the Ceti in the next book.
Modern whales emerge as Climate Shifts– (33-28 mya), Model for the Effects of Hina
On earth, the ancestors of toothed and baleen whales diversified and eventually diverged as the world’s climate cooled and opened up new opportunities for their ancestors, the basilosaurids, the descendants of procetids. Shifting continents 34 mya on earth created large-scale changes in ocean currents and temperatures that coincided with this diversification. Principle among them was the isolation of Antarctica and the openings of the Tasmanian Seaway and the Drake Passage resulted in the largest current on the planet, global cooling, and the Antarctic circumpolar current that created the richest marine resources on earth.
I included the same process in the history of Thalassa where the arrival of Hina warmed the planet from increased volcanism, which raised sea level , and opened up two circumpolar currents, just as did on earth. As discussed in the book, the new currents created the perfect whale feeding grounds: Cetacean heaven! These changes helped create the next phase of diversification for the ceti and new species on Thalassa, as it occurred on Earth.
Baleen whales tap the world’s plankton (36 mya-present), the model for the Baleena (and others to come)
On earth, the emergence of crown-shaped teeth 30 mya show an early transition from teeth to baleen, the filter-feeding system inside the mouths of all modern baleen whales. Filter feeding is beneficial and allowed baleen whales to tap huge planktonic energy resources, such as Antarctic krill, which eventually resulted in the massive body size of modern species.
Early species were suction feeders, and may have used their serrated teeth to feed on plankton. As the planet cooled even further, baleen, sheets of fingernail-like teeth hanging from the roofs of their mouths, evolved and baleen whales diversified into many species, including the modern day skimmers (e.g., right whales), bottom feeders (e.g., Gray whales), and the roqual whales, which are lunge feeders (e.g., humpback and blue whales). Their hearing organs became adapted to send and receive long-range sounds, which became the basis for the melodic songs of modern species used for communication.
Toothed whales exploit the deep sea (34 mya-present), the Model for Other Thalassa Cetaceans
As baleen whales evolved ways to tap into the ocean’s abundant plankton, the ancestors of toothed whales developed sonar (echolocation) and became the largest predators on the planet. Echolocation involves emitting a series of clicks at varying frequency using an expansion of the head to send sound waves, bounce them off potential prey or surroundings, and receive the signals with their elongated lower jaw. This key adaptation made them more efficient predators and allowed them to dive deeper in search of food which opened up the rich resources of the deep sea on earth (e.g, squid).
On earth, the success of these early species eventually gave rise to dolphins and porpoises, sperm whales, killer whales, and beaked whales. On Thalassa, recall that the team from the Duke only had a short period of time (and one submersible dive) to explore its oceans. The open ocean, the deep sea, and the mysterious nearshore splashes Sage observed, are all potential sources of new species to be found in the next book, Songs of Hina.
Interestingly, early sperm whales on earth, such as Livyatan, hunted other whales with their monster teeth. Could be a cool critter to include in the next book. Let me know what you think.
Cetaceans Status and Conservation on Earth
Clearly, cetaceans have a spectacular evolutionary history of successfully invading the sea. Within 15 million years they went from a terrestrial lifestyle to a fully marine existence and are now the most aquatic and widely distributed of all marine mammals. Similar invasions of the sea by the marine, but coastal, manatees and dugongs (40 mya), the semi-aquatic seals and sea lions (24 mya), and the coastal sea otters (2 mya) and polar bears (130k) occurred but with less success.
Tragically, these magnificent animals, have a dark history of human exploitation and most all are on the UN’s endangered species list. Pre-human global cetacean populations were…well, we don’t know and never truly will. Based on genetics, current populations of the remaining great whales are estimated at >10% of their pre-contact populations sizes in most species. Prior to whaling, Antarctic blue whales were thought to number about 250,000 individuals but were reduced to fewer than 400 animals by 1972 — about 1% of its former populations size (Roman et al., 2014). As quoted by Halina in SOT, researchers estimate that in the 20th century alone, three million whales were killed by the whaling industry (Cressey, 2015).
Without a doubt, these magnificent, intelligent animals with their beautiful songs, amazing sonar capabilities, and role as ecosystem engineers which enhance the productivity of the world’s oceans, deserve our utmost respect and the highest level of protection. In an effort to promote their conservation, this is the principle reason they were included in SOT. Is Milo and Moshe’s treatment of the Nesoi typical of what we would expect after we discover a new species on a virgin planet? I leave you with this question and ask you to ponder the wisdom in Sage’s talk at the Oceanarium.
References and further reading:
Cressey, D. 2015. World’s whaling slaughter tallied. Nature 519: 140-141.
Gingerich, P. 2012. Evolution of Whales from Land to Sea. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 2012 vol: 156 (3)
Lambert, O. et al. 2019. An Amphibious Whale from the Middle Eocene of Peru Reveals Early South Pacific Dispersal of Quadrupedal Cetaceans. Current Biology 29, 1–8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.02.050.
Lubis, M. Z. 2016. Behavior and echolocation of male Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins. In: Male Info-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins Captive
in Indonesia. Chapter: 3, Publisher: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, Editor: C. Evans.
Marx F, Fordyce R. 2015. Baleen boom and bust: A synthesis of mysticete phylogeny, diversity and disparity. Royal Society Open Science, 2015 vol: 2 (4)
Marx F., Hocking D, Park T, Ziegler T, Evans A, Fitzgerald E. 2016. Suction feeding preceded filtering in baleen whale evolution. Memoirs of Museum Victoria vol: 75 pp: 1447-2554.
Marx, F., O. Lambert, and M.D. Uhen, editors. 2016..Cetacean Paleobiology (TOPA Topics in Paleobiology). Wiley Blackwell. 319 pp.
Roman et al. 2014 Whales as ecosystem engineers. Front Ecol. Environ. 12(7): 377–385, doi:10.1890/130220.
Steeman M, Hebsgaard M, Fordyce R, Ho S, Rabosky D, Nielsen R, Rahbek C, Glenner H, Sørensen M, Willerslev E. 2009. Radiation of extant cetaceans driven by restructuring of the oceans. Systematic Biology. vol: 58 (6) pp: 573-585
Thewissen, J. G. M. 2014. The Walking Whales: from land to sea in eight million years. University of California Press. 245 pp.
Uhen, M. 2010. The Origin(s) of Whales. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, vol: 38 (1) pp: 189-219.
First contact! What might life look like on other planets? We may not be far away from that experience. Although we have discovered thousands of exoplanets in the last decades we know of only one planet with life: Earth. So, as a marine biologist, life on Thalassa was created using the scientific foundations and evolutionary history of what we know about primitive life on Earth, with some added twists.
Since we don’t know what life might look like on another planet, it is possible some alien life will be similar to earth’s life in overall appearance and form due to the constraints of an organism’s functional anatomy, physiology, and its cellular and genetic foundations, which I assume is based on something like DNA and RNA. My bias and that of almost all science fiction writers, is that we tend to look at life on other worlds through a water-borne, carbon-based lens and life on other planets may be fundamentally different than Earth (see Irwin and Schulze-Makuch, 2011). At any rate, I surmised life on an ocean planet would be similar to our planet in basic life forms, but ecologically unique due to the differences of a younger, ecologically different setting.
Primitive Life : the “fronds”
The earth is very old, 4.6 billion years to be precise: an immense amount of time that is difficult to comprehend. The truth is that after the earth had a chance to settle down from its violent birth, which included coalescing from planetesimals, violent volcanic eruptions, a collision with a Mars-sized object that created the moon, and 300 hundred millions of years of bombardment by massive asteroids and comets, primitive life evolved relatively quickly and appeared after 1.1 billion years. However, it took another 3 billion years for multicellular life to begin. Thus, most of our planet’s history has been dominated by single-celled organisms such as archaea, bacteria, including cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), and single-celled creatures (eukaryotes). I imagine that Thalassa had a similar early history but an accelerated rate of evolution.
Depiction of Ediacaran Fauna, showing rangeomorphs and other multicellular species which was model for life on Thalassa.
Most scientists look to the “Cambrian Explosion” for the beginning of multi-cellular animal life, and rightfully so. It was at that time, about 540 million years ago (mya), that an amazing diversity of animals appeared to explode on the scene, or at least in the fossil record. First documented in the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia and discussed in Stephen J. Gould’s incredible book Wonderful Life, complex animals appeared to burst onto the planet in an unparalleled record of animal diversity with most of the modern animal groups intact. But there is an older, and more recently discovered era, the Ediacaran, that actually represents the earliest appearance of complex life. And it’s a fascinating era with many puzzles. Chief among them are the Rangeomorphs, an enigmatic group of organisms that were ubiquitous in fossil assemblages over 580 mya, 40 million years before the “Cambrian explosion.” The rangeomorphs were the basis for the “fronds” on Thalassa.
Ediacaran fossil assemblages are common at only a few places: Newfoundland, Arkhangelsk Russia, Namibia, Charnwood Forest in England, and at their namesake in the Ediacaran Hills in South Australia. Although there are differences, each site shows a common architectural organization of a group of primitive critters that lived for over 30 million years. To call them invertebrates is probably presumptive; they may not even be animals. Their unique frond-like fractal body plan consisting of petals branching off a central axis and occurs across dozens of taxa.
Although they were found in shallow water environments, their structure precludes filter feeding and they were widespread in deep water indicating they may have fed on dissolved organic matter which was common in the microbial-dominated Ediacaran seas and possibly in the early evolutionary history of any ocean planer. In some cases, they occurred at densities and distributions similar to modern-day invertebrate communities with major diversity patterns that exploited resources at different levels above the seafloor. Early forms were simple and prostrate while more derived forms showed a complex, fractal-based structure elevated successively elevated above the substrate. These patterns indicate species may have been adapted to variation in water flow.
In a recent review, (Liu et al., 2015) examined the ecology of the Ediacaran organisms, including the Rangeomorphs. Their conclusion: We don’t really know what they were or how they functioned. Here’s what they concluded:
They probably aren’t related to any modern marine life: they are likely an early evolutionary experiment in multicellular life and a stem-group branching off just before or after the divergence of animals and fungi (Erwin and Valentine, 2013).
Their frond-like morphology is unique: their fractal-based segmented morphology suggests their surface area: volume ratio was constant, unlike modern animals where it decreases with size. Thus, their bodies may have been filled with inert substance such as water or sediment to maintain thin tissue contact with the environment (Laflamme et al., 2009).
They were common in both shallow- and deep-sea environments: therefore, they could not have used photosynthesis and had no obvious structures for filter-feeding so their feeding strategy was enigmatic.
They may have fed passively: one hypothesis is they feed by osmotrophy (Laflamme et al., 2009) which involves simple absorption of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from seawater. DOC may have been 2-3 orders of magnitude higher in the microbial-dominates seas of the Ediacaran and a common source of energy. Their constant surface area: volume area supports this possibility.
They may not have been animals: one hypothesis suggests they were fungi (Erwin and Valentine, 2013), perhaps even lichens (Retallack, 2014), and these were early adaptations to primordial seas and shores.
In a more recent study (Lui and Dunn, 2020) colonies of rangeomorphs have been found to be connected by small filaments, and hence were colonial.
Based on this science, I created the “fronds” on Thalassa which varied from small shallow-water balloon-like structures to deeper-water, more complex kelp forest-like structures. When touched, they quickly disintegrate into sand, which is one hypothesis for the anatomy of the rangeomorphs. But as with all life on Thalassa, I created them to be symbiotic with bacteria which helped them live off both sunlight (in shallow water) and DOC (in deeper water). Although not stated in the book, I believed the fronds shared the same cellular components as the lichens and hence were both fungi and algae, which is why they dominated the seas.
The Jellies, Sheets, and “Anemones”
Jellyfish, or the medusa-like life phase of cnidarians (like anemones and coral, are primitive and ancient animals so I included them in Thalassa’s seas. However, unlike Earth’s jellies, I created the “sheets” as large simple animals that used stinging cells, like the cnidocytes of jellyfish, as protection and a way to capture prey. Among the Cnidaria, cnidocytes can induce a range of responses from deadly stings, to stickiness, to slight numbing.
I decided to create a species that slowly becomes more deadly over time, allowing a prey item to not pull back at first encounter but eventually become immobilized and then consumed. The teachings of the Nesoi shows that they have had past encounters and remember their lessons. Sage tried to avoid the sheets based on her first encounter with a small one (which stung hard, like on Earth) but was helpless against the all encompassing larger ones. On Earth many species of jellyfish bloom during certain times to become very abundant and cover the surface of the ocean.
I limited the distribution of the sheets to calm, inland waters as their simple structure would be easily torn apart in waves and during extreme tides, hence their absence after Thalassa’s tidefall. As like jellies on Earth, the sheets can harbor symbiotic bio-luminescence organisms which cause them to “glow” in the night.
Anemones are early life forms related to the sheets but I used their appearance to trick Sage into thinking that because they looked like anemones, they were the normally harmless anemone. Instead, they were a worm-like animal similar to the Bobbit Worm. These worms are notorious for their vicious and lighting-fast predatory attacks, as seen in the book.
A tube anemone I(left) and (right) a Bobbit worm in action.
Complex Life: Blobs, Marble Sponges, Pika, and Mantis Shrimp
During the Ediacaran, we also saw the appearance of species that indicate the ancestors of modern animals were clearly present, including the ancestors of amoeba, sponges and ctenophores. All of these are in SOT as the floating amoeba-like “blobs,” marble sponges, and the drifting white marbles. Our sponges are composed of millions of cells with tails (flagella) that drive water through their bodies for feeding and are related to free-living, single-celled choanoflagellates. One hypothesis is that choanoflagellates aggregated to form sponges. Based on that, I created the white marbles and marble sponges to be related, with marble sponges being an aggregation of white marbles, another example of symbiosis.
The floating amoeba-like red-orange “blobs” Georgia observes in the submersible were based on a symbiosis between shell-less snails, or sea slugs, and their internal chloroplasts they contain from eating plants. They are an animals that can live off sunlight. In their lab on the Duke, Sage and Georgia observe one transform from a single-celled amoeba to a slug-like animal with a head.
On Earth during the Ediacaran there were other invertebrates, such as Kimberella, a putative ancestral mollusk, indicating that bilaterally symmetric animals were likely on the scene, so they also appear in the book. These species eventually gave rise to our vertebrate ancestors in the Cambrian period 20 million years later. Early primitive ancestors of vertebrates (like fish) include Pikaia and our modern-day lancelets, like Amphioxus.
Pikaia is, of course, is the namesake for “Pika” in SOT, the principal dietary source for humans and the Nesoi. Lancelets feed using a ring of small projections (cirri) around the mouth which drive plankton-laden water over their gills slits and trap food for consumption, I created Pika to be similar but instead have a row of pores and cirri spirally arranged along their body that drive food-laden water through their pores and into their bodies. I created their (and other animals) spiral motion to be unique to Thalassa and a consequence of spirally-organized plankton in the water column. Ultimately the spiral motion in many animals is due to Thalassa’s small size, high rate of rotation (18 hr days) which results in a high Coriolis force.
Mantis squid were created as the principal indigenous marine predator. Their morphology was based on a combination of several creatures on Earth: 1) a crustacean-like segmented head with antennae, eyes, mouthparts, and lighting-fast appendages like a mantis shrimp; 2) a body and tentacles (including light organs) of a deep-water giant squid. Their behavior as sit-and-wait predators is consistent with many octopus, as is their use of blinking lights and camouflage to help them blend in with their surroundings.
Lichens on Earth are a symbiosis between fungi, which live on organic matter, and algae which live off of sunlight through photosynthesis. Because they are among the oldest living symbiotic organisms, perhaps older than 400 million years and extending back into the Ediacaran, I used them as a model for the primary organisms dominating land on Thalassa. Another reason is that lichens are super-tough and live in extreme environments like the freezing tundra, hot deserts, and even in toxic waster dumps. They can even live inside solid rock, growing between the grains (Wikipedia). Amazingly, a European Space Agency experiment discovered that they can survive in the harsh conditions of space.
Thus, it is possible they would have evolved in a similar but somewhat different form on a planet like Thalassa and have colonized land. Given their extreme habitats on Earth, they could survive Procyon’s glare because it is a larger, brighter F-type star that emits higher levels of cell-damaging (UV) ultraviolet light. A study showed that DNA molecules under the glare of an F-type star such as Procyon would suffer 2 to 7 times more damage from UV light compared to that inflicted by our Sun, something a symbiotic lichen might survive.
I based the growth forms of lichens on Thalassa on those found on Earth. Most were encrusting, and covering the rocks, but some were also crustose (which Sage tried to eat) or branching. Because they were photosynthetic I created them to be red, orange, or yellow because Procyon’s light output would be in higher wavelengths and their pigments may be different than our green plants (Kiang, 2008). The base of the slug-bug-chimera food chain were the fruiting bodies of lichens, which occur when they reproduce.
Slugs, and Bugs, and chimera, oh my!
One of the hardest parts of the books was coming up with an idea of what life would be like on land on Thalassa. As the ocean buffers extreme temperatures and UV light it was more likely to have rich life, as it does in SOT. But land is much harsher and the first colonizers of land on Earth failed several times before they were successful (McGee, 2013). But when the cycles came into the plot, along with clouds and rain, I developed an idea based on periodic cicada life cycles. Although they are different, period cicadas emerge from the ground every 13-17 years in a population explosion that swamp out predators so enough survive to make it to the next generation. I hypothesized that a similar adaption could occur during the two-year rain cycles resulting from Hina’s orbit.
Every food chain needs a base, a source of primary production. In SOT I used the fruiting bodies of lichens , which contain algae, as that source. From there other animals consume them, and then their predators eat them, and so on up the chimera. The slugs and bugs were based on primitive invertebrates from the Cambrian period. Here’s some of the primitive species (mostly Cambrian) that inspired the slugs and bugs in SOT.
Chimeras had another origin and were inspired by the “Grendel” in Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes Legacy of Heorot (1987) and the POV they used in the book. If you haven’t read the book you should as it is fascinated to look at how the first colonizers of a planet might deal with an alien life form. In SOT, the chimera, which by definition is a “mix” of several different features, was constructed using several Earth-based life forms including an arthropod and squid. It was designed to be a relative of the mantis squid that invaded land by colonizing rivers and burrowing the in the mud until the massive rain events. On Earth, most animals that colonized land first adapted to lakes, ponds, and rivers, then migrated onto land. Like the Grendel, chimeras can only survive out of water for a short period of time and must return to their river lair to survive. From there, they launch horrendous attacks on the early human explorers from the Proteus and the Duke, threatening their existence. Although, as you can see on the cover of the book, the Grendel looks quite different than a chimera as envisioned in SOT, the general idea of a river-based creature attacking the first explorers of Thalassa is a major feature of the plot.
The idea of burrowing in the mud for long periods of time then emerging with the rains follows the typical lifestyle of many desert animals, like the spade foot toad. They are adapted to dehydrating during long periods of intense heat and lack of moisture and rehydrating when the rains return, just like the chimera.
In summary, this is some of the science behind the basis for life on Thalassa. I document the cetacean-like animals in another section. Most all life is based on earth ecology and evolution with changes due to the unique environment and age of Thalassa. There is plenty more to learn, just check out the references here and explore the overall reference list.
So, you might ask, can we really surf on a planet like Thalassa? What does the science say? Believe it or not, this question has been studied and the answer is yes! But as a surfer a better question is what kind of waves would we find? In SOT I based the waves at the Slab and Colossus on the science from Mars’ oceans, since this is the only extraterrestrial ocean that has been studied. For this reason, and because small ocean planets will create monster waves, I made Thalassa close to the size of Mars (it’s actually 21% smaller).
Here I expand on three things:
1) How would waves on a planet like Thalassa behave? 2) Is the quest for big wave records really a thing? 3) Can we ride a 200 foot wave?
We’ll begin by an examination of what the waves on Mars might have looked like.
Surfing on Mars
Scientific research over the last 15 years has shown quite convincingly that Mars at one time had an ocean. Although there is still some debate you would have to go back 3-4 billion years but at that time there was likely an ocean, Oceanus Borealis, that covered about a third of the planet; about the size of the Arctic Ocean (see NASA, 2015). It occupied most of the northern hemisphere of the planet and was an average of 450 feet deep, but a mile in some places. Recent research by Dr. John Banfield at Cornell and his colleagues (Banfield et al., 2015) demonstrated that wind blowing across the surface of that ocean almost certainly produced wind waves, although the atmosphere back then was mostly carbon dioxide.
But what would the waves have looked like? According to Banfield (see Choir, 2015) they were likely large and moved significantly slower when compared to Earth. Since Mars has only 10.7% of the mass of the Earth its gravitational field is only 38% of Earth’s so it is easier to generate large ocean waves. However, gravity also acts to push waves along and determine their speed. Thus less gravity also means slower waves. Importantly, Mars also had more of an atmosphere at that time so it was both significantly warmer than today and perhaps more oxygen-rich (Astrobiology, 2013). Most likely all you would have needed is a good wet suit — not a space suit — and an oxygen supply, something like a rebreather. Given the reduced gravity of Mars, maneuvering would be awesome and aerials would be incredibly easy and unbelievably high (check out John Carter on Mars to get an idea).
This scientific research is the basis for the waves on Thalassa. In addition to being smaller than Mars it was almost entirely ocean, so the planet had a potential to generate monster-size waves; so yes I believe 200 foot waves would be possible but they would be slow moving and might double or triple up as they encountered a shallow reef. Additional factors, such as climate, the effects of tides (which include both Procyon and Hina effects), depth of the ocean basins, bathymetry, and the shape of the shoreline are likely to also be equally important. All these are described in the book. Here’s what I envision the waves to look like:
Another fact to ponder is that Mars was geologically young when there were oceans so you need to imagine a turbulent, more dynamic world, with lots of volcanism, flooding, and frequent bombardment by asteroids. The Procyon system, including Thalassa, is based on an early era in our solar system which is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment period when a disproportionate number of asteroids collided with the inner terrestrial planets, including Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Estimates are that serious environmental damage on these planets would occur about every 100 years.
Modeling of these impacts has estimated that tsunamis generated in the Martian ocean could have been as high as 400 feet and moved at rates up to 35 miles/hr in coastal areas (Iijima et al., 2014). So if you were surfing on Mars it could get very interesting, as it was on Thalassa. Although Thalassa was the age of Procyon A (1.7 billion years) the collapse of the Procyon B red giant 1.2 billion years earlier would have created a bombardment period that lasted to the present time. There’s more on that here.
The Quest to Ride Monster Waves
So is Sage and Milo’s competition to set a big wave record a thing? Most definitely yes! When you think of surfing you may envision the leisure sport of Hawaiian kings. Picture surfers floating peacefully offshore, riding gentle breakers to the beach. True. But the real action these days isn’t just surfing, it’s big-wave surfing, riding monster life-threatening waves. It is the apex of extreme sports and surfers are risking their lives pushing the limits to ride the biggest wave possible, every day. But is riding a 100 foot wave on Earth (or a 200 foot wave on Thalassa) possible? Let’s check it out and while we’re at it review how we got here.
You may have heard their names: Jaws, Killers, Waimea Bay, Cortes Bank, Mavericks, Nazaré. The epic waves at these surf breaks really are the holy grail of big-wave surfing. They’re like conquering the highest peaks of the Himalayas and just as dangerous. Over the last decades dozens have died from getting slammed on the bottom, drowned, or crushed by mountains of water for the slightest mistake. Everyone’s trying to set a new big wave record by pushing the physical limits of wave riding. It’s extremely dangerous, and the world is watching to see who will set the next record, currently at 80 feet. It’s a sport where you can make a career out of a single giant wave. Many have tried. But many more have failed.
So here’s a brief chronology of recent big-wave riding, the tech they use, and the escalating size records of waves surfers have set up to the present record (for the full history go here). It should be noted that given the imprecise calculus of wave-size measurement, comparisons of wave size, at least until recently, are difficult to make and often remain inconclusive. Most feel the official estimates of current size records are conservative. And maybe we’ll never know the true size of these monsters. In the past they were measured in increments of fear. In SOT they are measured precisely with a hand-held laser.
The Invention of tow boarding changes big wave surfing
In 1992 Buzzy Kerbox convinced Laird Hamilton to try tow boarding and big wave surfing has never been the same. Paddling into waves larger than 30 feet was always challenging and held many back from riding truly large swells. At that time, many felt some waves were too big, too fast, and too dangerous to ride. Tow boarding, which was invented and pioneered by Hamilton, Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and David Kalama, revolutionized the sport. Towing early into a building swell at 40 mph gave the rider a tremendous advantage. Hamilton refined the sport using custom small boards with foot straps and tackled Jaws, a famous big-wave spot on Maui.
Tow-boarding was the inspiration for moto-boards in SOT. In the book, due to scientific advances, they are tiny, light, and capable of pushing a surfboard along at 40-50 mph. Are motor-powered surfboards a thing now? Yes, there are many companies pioneering so called “jet boards.” However, they are primarily used to cruise around and because of their motors are too heavy to ride waves of any appreciable size. But, in the future it is reasonable to assume these can be made light and super fast, just like in SOT, and will revolutionize big wave surfing.
Jaws Becomes A Monster Wave Site
Record = 70 feet at Jaws (Peahi), Maui. Thanks to tow-boarding, everything changed in big wave surfing competition in 2002 when Billabong created the XXL big wave awards and assembled a professional judging committee with guidelines in measuring wave height. In addition to stimulating a horde of big-wave seekers to enter the fray, the shift to estimating wave faces using standardized methods made it difficult to compare waves to the past records because there was no official scorekeeper (Guinness stepped up with Cabrina’s wave in 2004). Even so, Peter Cabrina pushed the limit during the “swell of the decade” at Jaws and won the Billabong XXL award with a 70 ft. monster
As Cabrina famously said:
From the first day of tow surfing at Jaws, one thing became crystal clear to everyone. By towing ourselves into these waves with a jet ski, we could catch, and hopefully ride, any sized wave that the ocean would send our way.
With seemingly no limits, and with the media and financial backers firmly committed to filming monster waves, the race was on to push the envelope and ride the largest waves on the planet.
Cortes Bank emerges as the ultimate challenge
Record = 77 feet in 2008 at Cortes Bank, California. The mythical surf spot that is Cortes Bank, a rocky shoal located in the deep ocean 100 miles off southern California. In the 1990s a new spot was found and pioneered that could potentially hold the largest swell on Earth. It’s location and shape both contribute to its unique ability to converge and focus wave energy from the North Pacific. Importantly, the shape of the bank captures and focuses wave energy along the length of it’s gradual stair-stepping shoal, channeling the energy into the shallowest areas of the reef. Given the bathymetry, a 15-ft, 20-s period wave could easily grow to 4-5 times its height creating a 60-75 ft wave (Dixon, 2011). In a big swell, a perfectly shaped 100 ft wave could be generated; during a once-in-a-century El Niño-type swell, a 1,000 ft wave is possible. All the other big wave spots, such as Jaws, Maverick’s and Todos Santos, begin closing out at 50-100 foot heights into a huge, unrideable wave. In SOT, Cortes Bank is the model for the offshore shoals on the Bulge, although the actual wave is modeled after Nazaré.
In January of 2008, Parsons rode a wave from a monster storm which generated giant swells and buoy readings of 80-100 ft. With a second major storm bearing down, four of the most experienced big-wave surfers in the world — Mike Parsons, Greg Long, Grant Baker, and Brad Gerlach — jumped in a boat with two Jet Skis and headed toward the Bank. Slingshotting in at high speeds with weighted boards and flotation vests, the team endured horrific wipeouts and risked being lost in the mountains of white water before Parsons caught his epic wave (sound familar?). The surf session was so spectacular it made the New York Times. Greg Long describes the extreme conditions:
I’ve made some heavy missions out to Cortes Bank. But this time, it was all on the line: The biggest storm. The biggest swell. The biggest buoy readings ever seen. And as far as the risk factor, it was off the charts
Greg Long, New York Times (Jan. 2008)
As surfers watch Cortes Bank for the swell of the century, another surf spot became the new challenge.
Nazaré emerges as the largest wave on the planet
Record = 78 feet at Nazaré, Portugal in 2011. Enter Nazaré, possibly one of the largest surf breaks on the planet and the location of the current big-wave records. It’s a rocky point with a offshore submarine canyon that runs for nearly 100 miles. As waves approach the shore they move fast in the deep canyon and like a funnel are focused onto a shallow sandy bottom where they double up to create monster waves, many estimated at over 100 feet. In SOT, Colossus is modeled after this break but with two submarine canyons and a jagged rock reef (for added effect).
Garrett McNamara (or “GMAC”) spent years training and suffering injuries at Jaws, Mavericks, and Teahupo’o to set a new record; he even sought a tsunami from calving glaciers in Alaska. In 2011 he traveled to Nazaré and pioneered the unknown and seemingly unrideable break at that time with tow-ins, custom weighted boards, flotation vests, and an emergency air supply. In his autobiography, Hound of the Sea, he describes the epic wave that stunned the world:
The drop down the face is long. it feels endless. I rocket on down. The face is choppy, the wind is fierce. I can hear, as well as feel, the roar of moving water beneath me. … I breathe deep, stay present.
Garrett McNamara, in Hound of the Sea.
Many of these innovations and experiences at Nazaré were the basis for the surfing and surfboards in SOT. Due to its lesser gravity, a weighted board would be essential to ride big waves on Thalassa. Similarly, the use of flotation devices and emergency air are common now so would also be useful in the future but with innovations to keep them lighter and last longer, especially the re-breather. There are re-breathers now, like the Triton, but it has failed to function in any useful capacity due to the physics of supplying enough oxygen. In the future I assume they have these details all worked out.
Importantly, McNamara’s pioneering efforts attracted other big wave surfers to the massive and dangerous break at Nazaré and it soon became the go-to spot for new big wave records.
The current monster wave record is set at Nazaré
Record = 80 feet at Nazaré, Portugal. On November 8, 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Coxa set a new record three years after a near-fatal wipeout that forced him to stay away from the monster break for months. As reported in Smithsonian magazine: “Plagued by nightmares of being dashed on the rocks below Nazaré’s lighthouse, Koxa says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his sponsor. He had wanted to be a “big rider” since reading about the greats in surfing magazines as a boy, but Nazaré’s big waves had seemingly defeated him.”
It was only after surfing his mountainous wave that he realized he broke McNamara’s record by two feet according to Guinness and the World Surf League (WSL). But he set the new record at great personal cost and many others surfers have risked debilitating injuries, and their lives, chasing a potentially impossible dream . After several surfers expressed doubts about returning to WSL’s 2018 big wave event at Nazaré, the WSL had this to to say about the dangers of Nazaré
… wiping out at Nazaré can be life or death. Waves there can reach heights of up to 70 feet on the face, at which point they weigh 1,000 tons. It’s a place where breath-hold training, aerobic stamina and safety systems are essential for survival. But all of that also adds up to something else: a place where some of surfing’s most incredible achievements can unfold.
Coxa’s 80 foot wave at Nazaré
The Future of Big Wave Surfing
As to the question of whether a surfer could push the limits and eventually ride a 100 foot wave on Earth, the jury is still out. Although several surfers may have ridden one that big, including Tom Butler and McNamara, so far these have not been listed as world records. Maybe it will be Nazaré or Cortes Bank, or even some undiscovered surf break. Maybe it will be a woman such as Maya Gabeira who rode a 68 foot wave at Nazaré, five years after a disastrous wipeout.
The truth is, a 100 foot wave on Earth may simply be too fast and too big for someone to actually ride it. Of course, surfers have been down that road before: that’s what they said about Waimea Bay for years before Noll pioneered it in 1957. The truth is there is no limit to the courage of surfers, whether they can survive a wave that size or not. On Earth, we will see. On Thalassa we know the outcome.
The geology of Thalassa was created based on real-world examples of planetary dynamics on Earth and other planets, especially Mars. Here I present the research concepts I used to create the geology, geography, and oceanography of the planet. To begin, let’s travel back in time about 100 million years ago to the planet Thalassa…
At that time the planet had a hot, molten inner core that supported active continental drift across the planet. Oceanic plates, driven by underwater spreading centers in the middle of the ocean, created collisions with other plates and subsequent subduction zones with deep-sea trenches. As ocean seafloor was subducted below the surface it created molten magma which rose to the surface creating an active chain of volcanoes. Over time, these volcanoes created islands, which were the forebears of the western chain of islands off Thalassa’s continent.
But small planets like Thalassa, which is only 10% the mass of Earth, cool rapidly. Without internal heat to drive tectonics, plates movement ceases, the planet’s core cools, and it loses its magnetic field. In the absence of this protective field, solar wind boils off the atmosphere and then the ocean. This process is accelerated on Thalassa as it is a smaller planet with has less gravity to hold on to its air and water. This happened on Mars three billion years ago, which is why it is largely a dead planet. Before that time it had extensive oceans covering its surface.
But over time, in the absence of continued volcanism, the line of islands was eroded into the sand and rocky cores of the islands the Duke mission discovered on their journey. Because they were formerly volcanic, the rocky cores had lava tubes both above and below the water which served as caves for the Nesoi.
Rise of the Bulge
As plate tectonics on Thalassa ceased, residual heat in the planet’s core still pushed some magma to the surface. But in the absence of plate movement, inted of islands volcanism created a large, stationary volcano that became the bulge. The idea for a giant shield volcano on Thalassa is modeled after mound volcanoes on the Tharsis Bulge on Mars such as Olympus Mons.
The bulge, however, is different from Tharsis volcanoes in two important ways. One, the bulge is smaller, only 25-30 miles across while volcanoes on Mars range from 43-370 miles across. Second, after it was formed and volcanism stopped, wind and rain eroded the bulge forming canyons because Thalassa still had an atmosphere (and weather). Third, as sea levels rose the bulge was covered with water and canyons became submarine canyons; the perfect condition for large waves.
When the team arrived in 2090 they discovered the geological processes of volcanism and erosion had created the perfect surfing spot. As in the book, two submarine canyons formed in proximity to a thumb-shaped reef Milo named Colossus. Based on Nazaré Portugal, one of the top big wave surf spots in the world, Colossus is a rocky reef surrounded by two submarine canyons. The waves move fast in the deep water and are focused by the submarine canyon walls where they focus their energy, along with the incoming swells, up on a sharp, jagged reef to create monster waves. This tripling of swell energy results in waves over 150 feet.
But after formation of the islands and the bulge, volcanism ceased for 50 million years. And if nothing changed Thalassa would have gone the way of Mars and become a dead planet. But 10 million years ago, an event happened that had a profound effect on the future of Thalassa. Something, perhaps a star-less rogue planet ejected from a distant solar system, moved through the Procyon system and obliquely collided with the small ocean planet and was captured as Thalassa’s second moon — Hina. The new satellite began a highly elliptical orbit around the planet that cast it far out in space then perilously close to the planet over a two-year period, causing considerable havoc on the planet. Significantly, it created a renewal of volcanism on Thalassa which created a new second line of massive volcanoes.
Geological Terrain of Thalassa
Given it’s volcanic origins I based the description of Thalassa’s continent on volcanic land forms in Hawaii, the Canary Islands, and other locations around the world. Here’s a few to help you imagine the landscape of Thalassa.
Sage’s story, like many in modern fiction, was modeled after Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey but adapted for a woman to the Heroine’s journey. To develop her story I used several books to guide me as well as feedback from female reviewers. These include Campbell’s book (1949), The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness by Maureen Murdock (1990), and The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. By Christopher Vogler (2007). I used these books to develop the structure of the plot and elements of Sage’s experiences, such as her dreams and visions. Some of the dreams used in the book were my own, experienced while on a NatureFast in isolated places.
Mythology of the Hero’s’ Journey
Joseph Campbell taught us that mythology is a projection of the unconscious, manifested in stories we repeat in our lives as legend, folklore, and ideology. These myths take their specific shapes from the individual’s cultural environment but certain images are found to recur in people widely separated in time and space, images that have a common meaning or elicit comparable psychological responses. As such, they serve similar cultural functions.
For example, Sage’s Hawaiian culture and her tutu’s religious beliefs serve as a guide for her throughout the story as do her ancestral spirits, or ʻaumākua. Because they had no written language, Hawaiian mythology and beliefs have been passed down through generations in chants, music (mele), and dancing (hula) in Polynesia and Hawaii.
The Hero’s Journey is an oft-repeated familiar story. It is where we venture forth to kill our Dragon — a metaphorical battle between heaven (a bird) and hell (a serpent), the light and dark sides within us all — and return victorious to enlighten humankind with our new-found knowledge. In modern culture this is Luke in Star Wars, facing his greatest fear in the cave on Dagobah, which is not Darth Vader, but his fear of turning into Vader, turning to the dark side. This is also Frodo in Lord of the Rings, his greatest fear of succumbing to the ring of power, yet he carries it towards its destruction. Each man on an impossible journey but ultimately only fighting their inner desires to gain power by denying power for themselves. The Hero’s Journey is one we all take in our lives and it is a search for our soul which is at the heart of Sage’s path in SOT.
The Heroine’s Journey
But Maureen Murdock recognized that the hero’s quest does not adequately address the journey of a woman, the Heroine’s Journey. For women, the journey involves the healing of the wounding of the feminine that exists deep within all women, manifested both mentally and physically. Early on, Sage rejected her mother and bonded with her father, the first step in her journey. Thus, his death had a strong influence on her life and resulted in her extreme focus on competitive surfing and the masculine characteristics of strength, aggression, and assertiveness. The shift helped create her world-renowned career but distanced her from her close-knit (feminine) ‘ohana (family) and her Hawaiian culture and the values of aloha, pono, and mālama ʻaina, which are decidedlyfeminine in nature.
As you read what Murdock (1990) wrote, think how this scenario plays out in Sage’s life:
The heroine must become a spiritual warrior. This demands that she learn the delicate art of balance and have the patience for the slow, subtle integration of the feminine and masculine aspects of her nature. She first hungers to lose her feminine self and merge with the masculine, and once she has done this, she begins to realize this is neither the answer nor the objective. She must not discard nor give up what she has learned throughout her heroic quest, but view her hard-earned skills and successes not so much as the goal but as one part of the entire journey. This focus on integration and the resulting awareness of interdependence is necessary for each of us at this time as we work together to preserve the health and balance of life on earth.
As you move through the plot of SOT, identify the following parts of the Heroine’s journey as Sage’s struggles to find balance in her life: The elements occur at multiple places in the story, sometimes in her journey or in her dreams. For example, who does Dina represent in the story? What is the significance of searching for a way out of barren caves and finding red on her hands as she remembered her father?
Elements of the Heroine’s Journey
Plot elements to consider
Shift From Feminine to Masculine
Death of her father; role of competitive surfing; relationship with Dina and Halina; differences between Kalena and Nani
The Road of Trials
Traveling to Thalassa; riding big waves on Colossus; travels on Thalassa’s islands and barriers to her journey
Crossing between islands; Syzygy; searching Nesoi caves; facing the precipice
Meeting with the Goddess
The woman in her dreams: Hōkūlani e hoʻāla i ka moana; connections with lichens; experiences in cavern of light; connecting with the Ceti
Reconciliation With the Feminine
Pono; mālama ʻaina;; ‘ohana; appreciation for Earth; reconnecting with Nani
Reincorporation of the Masculine
Facing Milo; becoming a Kumu; meeting the Koholā
becoming the message; her lecture; her dance with Maka; hearing songs
As the story progresses it is also useful to identify the female archetypes Sage identifies with and the characters she encounters that influence her life. The archetypes are a useful way to understand a woman’s journey to wholeness and are typically identified as the maiden, mother, crone, queen. Each stage is a symbol of a distinct time in a woman’s life and has particular tasks that are accomplished which lays the foundation for the next stage, with both positive and negative aspects of each archetype. For example, Sage at age 13 before her father’s death is a strong embodiment of the maiden: she is pure of heart, full of love and curiosity. Anything is possible and she is in love with the mystery of life (Windhiuges.com). But largely due to her father’s death and her obsession with big wave surfing she shows the dark side of a queen: the holoscreeen and her fans give her power which she directs back to herself and becomes consumed with acquiring more fans. As a result, she withdraws from her family connections and feels drained and becomes resentful and full of anger.
Sage’s journey is to seek balance among the archetypes and become a whole woman such that the Queen’s power is tempered by the Maiden’s compassion, and so on. Balance both within and among archetypes leads to a mature woman who channels her power to help others, to protect the defenseless, to love the loveless, and uses her leadership and intellect to set an example for others (Windhiuges.com). I’ll leave it to you to identify that moment in the story.
Earth is teeming with life, all literally bursting with sound. On land we hear these sounds every day and most people are familiar with the noises of the forest: the hooting, chirping, moaning, howling, tweeting, clucking, whistling, squawking and hooting that creates a complex sonic melody. The sound of nature is everywhere but we don’t always take the time to listen.
Music in Nature
Writing SOT I was inspired by Bernie Krause’s fascinating book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. Krause describes the sounds of the natural world as being as carefully orchestrated as the most beautiful classical score. Each song, each voice, is created in a way so they can be heard distinctly; so the animals can hear and distinguish one from the other. They do this against a backdrop of waves, water and wind. These are ancient sounds, as old as the universe, as old as time. There are also sounds underwater made by a great number of animals. While snorkeling or diving on a coral reef you can hear the music generated by the myriad sounds of parrot fish biting the rocks, butterfly fish nibbling on coral, trigger fish munching on plankton, the snapping of shrimp, and the gurgle of anemones.
Bernie Krause refers to the collective sounds that animals make as a Biophony, which is unique for each environment and changes with the weather, time of day, and season. Partitioning of sounds occurs across the acoustic bandwidth as animals adjust their vocalizations to avoid overlap with the vocal territory occupied by other creatures. It is similar to different band member playing different instruments that occupy different note ranges. Actually these similarities may not be a coincidence.
An epiphany from his observations was that the biophony is a proto-orchestra: an ordered soundscape that may have been the inspiration for the origin of human music. As Krause writes in his book (P. 104-105) —
Close links between humanity and the soundscape have always been an essential lens through which we understand the world. … Those of us living close to the natural world have learned the permutations of these dynamics well. It is likely that buried deep within the human limbic brain is ancient wiring that springs to life every time we reconnect with these delicate webs of acoustic finery. It didn’t take early humans long to find useful ways of incorporating biophonic information into hunts, ceremonies, language, and the dialoguing exchanges of music — our first organization of sound.
These sounds should be appreciated for the music they make, the symphonies they conduct, they way they resonate with our souls. in SOT I made natural music the centerpiece of the book and a key component of how Sage’s connects with the planet and discoveries music role in the universe.
Music in Songs of Thalassa
The sounds of the Nesoi and other Thalassa creatures were inspired largely by Earth’s cetaceans. However, unlike on our planet, I endowed the Nesoi with sounds in three different ways: whistles, clicks and creaks, and songs. The whistles were used to communicate in air, the clicks and creaks were used to navigate underwater, and the songs were used to communicate underwater. On Earth, these traits are generally only found in a single group at a time but the Nesoi are special and are highly evolved on their homeworld.
Their creaks and clicks of the Nesoi were similar to the the sperm whale and used for echolocation.
Their beautiful underwater songs were like male humpback whales during their underwater swims.
The Ceti were envisioned using to use sounds like blue and fin whales.
While, the Baleena sounded more like Humpbacks.
When the Nesoi, Ceti and Baleena all joined in a chorus I imagined they would sound something like this, although much more beautiful.
But many living things make sound, indeed a mixture of well-blended music is typical for healthy ecosystems. Listen to the a recording of a living coral reef in Fiji that Krause captured with a hydrophone.
I imagined the Nesoi whistles sounded like Beluga whales.
However, Nesoi whistling is a form of sophisticated communication which I base on Silbo Gomero in the Canary islands. It was created to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island over a distance of up to 3 miles. Similarly, it would work on Thalassa in the cave systems and among nearby islands. Of course, Beluga’s may be communicating too but we just don’t understand it yet. Check out Silbo Gomero:
Au, W. W. L. et al. 2006. Acoustic properties of humpback whale songs. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 120, 1103–1110.
Glotin, P. H. et al. 2018. From biosonar coda to whales’ songs phylogeny Scaled AcoustPartie du Biodiversity Mission Interdisciplinaire du CNRS. Online presentation Accessed 2018. http://glotin.univ-tln.fr.
Krause, Bernie, 2016. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. Back Bay Books, 304. pp
Parsons, E. C. M., Wright, A. J. & Gore, M. A. 2008. The Nature of Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Song. .
A large part of SOT involves Sage’s cultural upbringing and her embracing of Hawaiian culture, and eventually a new worldview. Here I explore aspects of Hawaiian mythology and culture including in the book in more detail. I also explore the concept of Pantheism.
Hanau ka po The night gave birth
Hanau Kumulipo i ka po, he kane Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male
Hanau Po‘ele i ka po, he wahine Born was Po‘ele in the night, a female
Hanau ka ‘Uku-ko‘ako‘a, hanau kana, he ‘Ako‘ako‘a, puka Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth
Hawaiian religion is focused on four main gods, prominently Kāne, Kū, Lono and Kanaloa plus several other deities (Wikipedia). Ku was the god of war and prosperity. Kāne represents the god of procreation and was an ancestor of chiefs and commoners. Lono is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music and peace. And Kanaloa was considered to be a god of the sea, the Underworld and a teacher of magic.
The Hawaiian creation myth, the Kumulipo, is a chant linking the gods to royalty, the aliʻi, to humans, and to all natural things. Through the gods, mana — spiritual energy — flowed, and memorizing a family’s genealogy was a away to establish the connection between an individuals and the gods. Accordingly, in many families children were taught all of the families ancestors. Since there was no written language, traditionally they had to memorized. In addition, each family is considered to have one or more guardian spirits known as ʻaumākua that protected the family. In SOT, Sage’sʻaumākua play an important role in the story and appear at several key junctures in her life.
SOT primarily focuses on Kanaloa as most of the story takes places in the ocean. Sage’s tutu’s belief in Kanaloa’s revenge is one of the factors motivating her to go to Thalassa. Kanaloa is seen as an enforcer in the belief that her inoa pō, the name tutu’s saw in her dream, should be used and followed. As discussed in Look to the Source (Pukui et al. (1972), inoa pō are often chosen by a child’s family aumakua and were seen as both a gift and a command. The name must be used; refusal could result in crippling or death and the names were seen as casting a role for the individual’s life. in the book, Sage’s tutu names her granddaughter Hōkūlani e hoʻāla i ka moana: a heavenly star that awakens the ocean. Does she accept this name?
Through her experiences on Thalassa Sage begins to develop a new philosophy outside of Hawaiian religion which embraces the belief that all things, the physical, biological, and the spiritual, are connected. These are elements of Pantheism. The philosophy of Pantheism believes that all things are linked in a profound unity. It believes that all things are interconnected and interdependent and that both in life and in death humans are an integral part of this unity which encompasses the cosmos (Harrison, 2016).
Pantheism is an ancient religious belief that is not focused on a supernatural creator, such as a single God or Gods, but rather is based on a profound respect for nature and the universe. God is the Universe and spirit is present in everything. Rock, water, wind, lichens, Neosi, and Sage. All are bound up and connected in the universe. Pantheism was the dominant belief of many philosophers and poets from Wordsworth to Whitman.
In the book the land is covered with red, orange, and yellow lichen-like organisms (let’s call them lichens for now but they are unique). Everything has spirit so lichens do as well and they are all connected across the landscape and seascape of Thalassa. Celtic animism believed the world was dominated by many spirits that occupied the land, the water, the trees, and animals. As such, like Pantheists, they respected and worshiped the natural world and in turn protected their sacred places. Sage’s experiences lead her to believe that all life is connected, even across the universe, a belief consistent with Pantheism. She also discovered several sacred places on the planet which she perceived as unusual.
Cultural Practices: Mālama ʻĀina
The concept of Mālama ʻĀina, which Sage embraces on Thalassa, means to care and nurture the land, both because you love it, but also so it can give back what we need to sustain ourselves and our future generations. It is both a physical and spiritual Hawaiian value. It acknowledges a symbiotic relationship between kānaka (man) and ʻāina (land), and to understand that ʻāina has mana, spirit, and intrinsic value beyond its economic value (blackkoa.com). This is an extremely important concept that needs to be incorporated into our everyday ethics and our natural resource policies and management practices. It is also how Sage practices in her relationship with Thalassa.
I write about Hawaiian culture and religion with great respect and humility. I use this worldview because I believe many traditional Hawaiian values and practices are rich with purpose with much to offer to the modern world. However, my writings are based on my limited knowledge of the subject and a brief time living in Hawaii and hence are not written using a authenic native Hawaiian voice. My hope is this book will inspire you to listen to authentic native Hawaiian voices and seek their wisdom: nānā i ke kumu (look to the source). Here are a few recommendations with more in the reference sections.
Questions for the Reader:
What events reinforced Sage’s beliefs in her Hawaiian culture?
What experiences developed her beliefs in Pantheism?
Where were the sacred spots where she had unusual experiences? Places where she felt guided or connected?
Can you spot the instances where ʻaumākua influence her decisions and behavior?
Why did Sage adopt Mālama ʻĀina?
Beckwith, Martha Warren. 1972. The Kumulipo A Hawaiian Creation Chant. University of Hawaii Press , 257 pp.
M. K., Haertig, E. W., C. A. Lee. 1972. Nānā I Ke Kumu (Look to the Source) volume I. Hui Hanai, 240 pp. Online copy.
Fermi’s Paradox addresses the Drake equation, one way to get an estimate of the number of space-faring, technologically advanced civilizations in the Universe today. Source: UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER
Fermi’s Paradox is great way to think about the possibility of life, in this case technologically advanced civilizations in the universe. Below is text from an early draft of SOT that was deleted from the book. This is a conversation the crew had in space on the way to Thalassa and is an introduction to the Paradox.
As she stared out into black space an amazing star field unfolded before her. Although the Milky Way dominated the sky she could still make out the constellations she had known as a child. Seeing the familiar asterisms of Orion and the Bailer of Makali‘I she suddenly felt nostalgic, remembering memories of her father in the cold void of space.
Georgia reached over and touched Sage’s shoulder. “You ok? You look depressed.”
She came back to the present, realizing her eyes were wet with tears at the memories of her father. “I’m fine.” She smiled, realizing that Georgia had a warm side she hadn’t noticed before.
It had been three weeks since their initial team meeting and their first detailed discussion about Thalassa. They had arrived at K-Geo station, boarded a Cutten solar shuttle, which was full of other passengers heading to various destinations, and were just a few hours away from docking at Cassini station. She sat with Byron, Georgia and Milo in a large communal dining space on the shuttle that looked back on Jupiter and its many moons which they had passed 12 days ago.
Sage had been staring at Procyon, thinking about her tutu’s vision and last words, when thoughts of her father took over. Milo walked in and Sage asked again about the Proteus mission and evidence of life on Thalassa, which prompted Byron to launch into a tirade about Fermi’s Paradox, which she had never heard of. Moshe was filming the discussion, to be used in a documentary about the mission.
“Enrico Fermi was a physicist, and a brilliant one at that.” Byron spoke with a passion and knowledge that showed he cared deeply about the subject and had an equally strong opinion. “The paradox arose from a conversation with other physicists where he simply asked the question, in the middle of lunch I might add, ‘Where is everybody?’”
Then Georgia interrupted, “In other words: if the galaxy is full of intelligent life why haven’t we seen or heard from them? Why aren’t they already on earth? I mean the universe is over 13.8 billion years old, they’ve had plenty of time!”
“Let me back up a bit so you can see the big picture.” interjected Byron. “There are three possibilities here. One, intelligent life doesn’t exist. Two, life exists but we haven’t communicated with them. And three, they are already on earth. I believe in the first explanation: we are alone in the universe.”
Moshe, who was listening while filming, agreed. “Yes, I believe that is true. We are God’s unique creations and the universe is here for us. Just us.”
Sage, as a biologist, was clearly getting worked up. “You guys are crazy. How can you say that given the billions and billions of stars, many of which have planets, some of which must have life? I agree it’s probably very rare but given all the possibilities there could still be tons of life out there.”
“But remember Sage,” Georgia added. “We’re not talking about life but intelligent life. About the possibility of civilizations advanced enough to travel through space or at least make noise that we can hear with our radio telescopes.”
Byron quickly interjected. “Yes, intelligent life but I don’t believe there is complex life, period. At least nothing beyond microbial life. Just think of all the terms in the Drake equation!”
“Come on Byron,” quipped Milo who had been passively listening. “Cut the math crap.
“Ok,” Byron replied. “It’s just that the earth and our solar system are more unique than most people know and life may have evolved here due to a very narrow range of possibilities.” Then Byron began to lecture on a topic he had clearly discussed before. “First, even though the universe is 13.8 billion years, our sun is only 4.6 billion years’ old and is about halfway through its life. In another 5 billion years, it will turn into a red giant and destroy earth. So, it took almost half of the sun’s life for us to emerge. That’s cutting it close if you ask me. And many stars, like Procyon for example, have much shorter lives that our sun, some only tens to hundreds of millions of years or perhaps several billion.”
Georgia disagreed “Sure, that’s true but even on earth there was unicellular life after only 300 million years, so it is possible. Moreover, aren’t you forgetting red dwarfs, the most common type of star in the galaxy? They live for over a trillion years and so would their planets!”
“That’s true,” replied Byron. “But they are so dim their habitable zones are very close to the star and planets that close are bombarded by radiation and quickly become tidally locked to their suns so they generally bake on one side and freeze on the other. Not conducive to life.” He said with a smug look.
Since no one rebutted that statement he continued. “Perhaps even more importantly, rocky planets like ours are rare, as are rocky planets that live for a long period of time in the habitable zone. Moreover, having a large neighbor like Jupiter appears to be important as the huge mass sucks up most of the life-destroying collisions with asteroids and comets. Another factor is our moon, which is large relative to the size of the earth. It also takes collisions on our behalf and creates tides which were likely important for the evolution of life.”
Sage shook her head at the bombardment of complex ideas present in the debate.
Byron concluded. “Then add on top of that earth’s plate tectonics, which recycles gases and regulates climate, our magnetic field, which protects us and our atmosphere from solar radiation, etc. What you end up with is a combination of so many uncommon factors that it makes life almost impossible to evolve, let alone intelligent life, anywhere else. No, I think we are quite alone and unbelievably rare and precious.” Moshe nodded and showed a rare smile.
“Well,” said Sage, grinning at Byron. “That’s quite a lecture, and obviously well thought out, but maybe we just haven’t looked in the right places or communicated in the right way.”
Milo added. “It’s possible but SETI is over 100 years old and has never received a signal. That’s pretty compelling evidence.”
Then Sage added, somewhat jokingly. “Maybe they are just happy where they are and don’t want to waste time on the ‘interstellar net’ or whatever. Just because they aren’t exactly like us doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “
“I actually agree, Sage,” replied Milo. “But if intelligent life exists we’re probably talking about more than one civilization here, perhaps thousands. Clearly at least one of them would want to travel or send signals and we would have heard them by now. It is puzzling.”
“I guess I don’t feel that we’re alone in the universe,” said Sage. “I know it isn’t science but Hawaiians believe the gods, their ancestors, came from the stars and colonized earth and left guardians to watch over us. The guardians were a bridge between the human and spiritual world. I’ve always looked at the stars and felt their presence. Our ancestors are out there, I know they are. They just have to be. So we can’t be alone.”
Byron was agitated “You’re right, that’s not science. It’s religion and faith and not based on evidence. Believe what you want but only science is truth.”
“No, it’s based on believing in something bigger than yourself.” said Moshe, coming to Sage’s defense. “Lack of physical evidence does not mean it doesn’t exist.”
Despite Moshe’s support, Sage was taken aback by Byron’s comment. Although she knew her comment was unscientific she didn’t like it thrown back in her face. Although she could feel her childhood faith in the Hawaiian gods waning, her tutu’s and father’s teachings had lodged the idea deeply in her psyche. More importantly, the recent string of events involving Procyon just seemed too coincidental to lack meaning. The star and her name and tutu’s funeral. Maybe it really was her destiny to travel to Procyon. Well, she was on her way and would just have to figure it out. She just had to have faith that she was doing the right thing. Although she agreed that science was likely the larger truth, the idea that she was heading towards the home of her ancestral gods helped her accept her mission more easily.
Georgia interrupted her thoughts. “I’m not sure about all that but we must also consider the vastness of space and the barrier that represents. We are all so isolated. Ok, so here’s one way to think about space. Everyone knows what an AU is, right?” But she saw the confused look on Sage’s face. “An AU, or Astronomical Unit” is a standard measure of distance in space. It’s the distance from the earth to the sun, about 93 million miles. We’ve been traveling for three weeks and we are getting close to Saturn, which is about 9.5 AU from the sun. Imagine extending that out a bit further, to the next planet, Uranus, which at 19 AU, still quite a ways from the sun. So, for scale take the size of our solar system out to Uranus as the size of a quarter. Based on this model our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is a football field way from that quarter, about 4.2 light years or 15,000 AU. That’s the closest star! Where we are going, Procyon, is 11.5 light years from us, or almost 3 football fields away from our quarter, our solar system, or 41,000 AU, about 4 trillion miles. Backing up some more, our galaxy alone is 100,00 light years across! The universe itself is much bigger, likely 46 billion light years across, so it’s big and incredibly spread out so it’s a huge barrier to interstellar travel. So even if there is advanced life we may never see it.” Georgia stopped, looking satisfied to have made her point.
Milo was listening intensely but spoke up at the mention of Procyon. “But you’re forgetting the worm portals, aren’t you? With the portal, it doesn’t matter how far apart things are although we are limited by mass and energy costs.”
“That’s true,” replied Georgia. “But it was pure luck that we discovered it. We would never have discovered the secrets to exotic matter without the supercollider explosion during the Higgs boson experiment. Without that accident, we’d be spending most of our lives traveling to and from close stars in cryo-sleep.”
But then she continued “Byron has made the point that life, particularly intelligent life, is probably non-existent due to the amazing string of events that must happen to develop the right conditions. I don’t entirely disagree. But I also believe that life is a force in itself. And just as physics and chemistry drives the physical evolution of the universe, so biology drives the evolution of life. And if we’ve learned anything it’s that life begets itself. Life is resilient and will find a way. Somehow, life will find a way. As the great Stephan Hawkins once said, ‘when there is life, there is hope.’”
Kami [Sage’s brother, deleted from the book], who had been standing nearby unnoticed listening to the conservation, spoke up. “I think they’re already here, you know like Chariots of the Gods and UFOs.” At which point everyone laughed, including Kaimi. “But my favorite idea” he added “Is that they are watching us, and we are living in their zoo, like those old movies ‘The Matrix’ or the ‘The Truman Show’.” Or maybe they even have a prime directive like on Star Trek: do not interfere with intelligent life!” Again, everyone laughed but it caused Sage to think about the old Hawaiian myths and origins of the gods and the time with her father.
An announcement interrupted their conversation: the shuttle was approaching Cassini station and it was time to prepare for docking. Milo quickly yelled over the rising noise levels “Anyhow, we’re about to find out for ourselves!” as everyone ran to their cabins to grab their personal gear and move to the off-loading dock.
As Sage reached her cabin to grab her stuff, she felt the fear in her stomach. This was it, she thought, I’m leaving home, the solar system and heading out into the unknown.