LEARNING TO SEE
A school of needlefish parts to stream around me, and I find myself momentarily among the silver traces of a comet shower. I move to join them, but they accelerate and dissolve into open water, leaving me to stare at the luminous, molten mirror that is the underside of the ocean’s surface. Veronica taps my arm—a signal that says both look at that and be right back—as she slips from the roiled layer of silver and descends swiftly, like a being born underwater. Her skindiver’s fins form a single broad fluke, which propels her neoprene form sinuously toward the rocky bottom. Bright bubbles, escaping her snorkel, wobble urgently back to the air above. A thousand times I have seen her descend like this, yet still I find myself wondering if, this time, she might go too deep, or stay too long.
Here, mercifully, the seafloor is only twenty feet down—a depth at which the plunging chutes of sunlight are just converging to their vanishing point. As she approaches the rocks, Veronica twists, glides to a supine and weightless pause, and gazes up at the students who float beside me here at the surface. She seems to be pointing at something on the seafloor.
Allie, the student to my right, turns to look at me. Inside the partial shade of her dive mask, her eyes are hard to read: They look puzzled, a little concerned. She is probably just wondering why Veronica wants them to notice what appears to be a mud-brown lump of sea muck. Though it also seems possible that Allie has already perceived Veronica’s tendencies underwater—the strange private gravity that seems to draw her to depth—and she is now asking, in her gentle way, whether something should perhaps be done to bring Veronica back to the surface. I take several long breaths, saturating my blood with oxygen and preparing to dive, but just as I draw my last, deep dose of air, Veronica finally relents. She places her hand gently around the nondescript mound and pulls it from the rocks, holding it as one might hold a soft loaf of bread.
Arriving among us, Veronica holds out her hand, upon which rests her inert quarry. What was mud-colored below is now—in this bright, shallow water—more of a yellow ocher, and it is studded with pale tubercles that are almost the color of lemon drops. The skin, stretched taut over the knobby body, appears thin and mucosal, making the thing look terribly exposed, like a bodily organ drawn by the hand of a surgeon into the sudden brightness of the operating theater. The students—there are five of them here—draw in around Veronica’s palm, peering intently through their panes of tempered glass. They seem transfixed, certain that Veronica’s plunge must have been for something thrilling, and yet I know their patience can be short, especially this early in the trip, when everything around them feels new. And so, as the thing on Veronica’s palm waits us out, stolid as a piece of earth, I begin to worry that the students will soon lose interest, and miss what Veronica wants them to see.
Just when I think they may be eyeing one another through their personal portholes—wondering, perhaps, if it would be rude to resume their search for colorful fish—the lump trembles, inches forward along Veronica’s palm. Suddenly it is less vegetable than animal, and the students pull back apprehensively. But as the circle of masks starts to widen, Veronica’s free hand catches Allie by the wrist.
Veronica is wise, I think, to choose Allie, because there are others who might not be so trusting. Carefully, she opens Allie’s palm and holds it beside her own. As the knobby creature slides from one hand to the other, Allie’s eyes widen and she speaks into her snorkel—an incomprehensible but richly expressive string of syllables. For a moment, she seems frozen. But even in her astonishment, she looks to the other students. She takes the hand of the young man floating beside her, opens his palm, and holds it next to her own. The animal slides over obligingly, and as it does, Cameron explores the creature’s back with his other hand.
Cameron’s hands look muscular, well-worn, and they sometimes move in unusual ways: the fingers seem to explore independently, executing many minor adjustments, as if they were navigating the neck of a string instrument. These hands have learned to perceive more than other hands, because Cameron cannot see. He is blind. And as his fingers creep across the animal’s back, investigating, it becomes clear that they are following a pattern: the yellow warts, which at first seemed to be scattered more or less randomly, are in fact arranged—loosely, but nonetheless perceptibly—into two rows.
I have never noticed this rough regularity, but now that I see it, I suspect it might be meaningful: I suspect, in fact, that those two haphazard rows are clues to a deep connection—an invisible but very real thread that links the ugly animal on Cameron’s hand to far more beautiful creatures we’ve seen this morning. Just moments before her plunge, Veronica pointed us to a sun star, Heliaster kubiniji, a pink-and-green starfish in the unmistakable shape of a sunflower. And before that, we all hovered in admiration over the crown sea urchin, Centrostephanus coronatus, which is a sphere of long and slender spines, each one perfectly black but for the occasional sharp wave of blue light that races from tip to base. To describe these scattered pulses to Cameron, Allie said it looked “like an alien’s brain.”
After Heliaster kubiniji and Centrostephanus coronatus, even the name of the animal now sliding across Cameron’s hand rings a little prosaic. It is Isostichopus fuscus, the brown sea cucumber, and one would not readily assume that it has much in common with those other, much lovelier animals. Yet that is precisely what Cameron’s subtle touch has just revealed: those messy lines of tubercles, I now realize, are among the attributes that place the brown cucumber firmly in the broad alliance of animals known as phylum Echinodermata. And who else should number among the echinoderms but the sea stars and urchins. All of these creatures, from ugly I. fuscus to brilliant C. coronatus, are the descendants of a single ancient species: an ur-echinoderm that inhabited the ocean 520 million years ago. And because that ur-echinoderm, in its own time on earth, underwent several extraordinary modifications—we could even call them innovations—we now find mementos of those changes in every single one of the creature’s descendants. In fact, those vague rows of bumps just now detected by Cameron’s hands are but a faint reminder of the ur-echinoderm’s most fundamental innovation. But exactly what that innovation was, and how it later became a trace so obscure it took Cameron’s touch to disclose—these are questions I should raise later, when we’re back at the field station. Because right now, Veronica seems to have a plan of her own; she has just lifted her head from the water, letting her snorkel dangle by her face, and the rest of us now follow her lead.
“Cameron,” she says, “do you feel it attaching to your hand?”
“Yeah, totally,” he responds. Cameron grew up in a small town outside of Santa Barbara, California, and he talks like a surfer. “It’s got those wicked little suckers,” he continues, “just like the starfish.”
“Exactly,” Veronica says, clearly pleased with his suggestion. “Sea stars and cucumbers both have tube feet.”