The Life Aquatic

Studying the nautilus nearly cost biologist Peter Ward his life. Now he’s trying to save the ancient mollusk.

December 11, 2014

"The water in the New Caledonia reefs is crystal clear. Looking down, I saw a small human-like form impossibly far below me, a stick figure, motionless. I powered down past the 100-foot mark of a nearly vertical reef wall, seeing the still figure come ever clearer. I could feel my heart pounding, feel my fear. I willed the shape to move. As I passed the 200-foot mark, nitrogen in my brain smashed me with narcosis. When I reached Mike, he was resting in black coral, like a child held carefully in a mother’s arms. I saw that his regulator was not in his mouth and I pushed it back in, hoping he would breathe. It all seemed like a joke, but when I looked into his eyes, I saw the truth, I saw life, I knew that somewhere in his brain he was silently screaming in fear and terror, some parts of him not yet dead."

—From “Pirates, Killer Whales, and Cheap Jewelry: A Life in Science,” renowned biologist Peter Ward’s Nautilus essay on the tragedy that led him to abandon his research on the nautilus for years, and why now, near the end of his career, he’s trying to save the living fossil.

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