2. THE OPEN SEA
In great contrast to the narrow, crowded, difficult conditions of the shore-haunt (littoral area) are the spacious, bountiful, and relatively easygoing conditions of the open sea (pelagic area), which means the well-lighted surface waters quite away from land. Many small organisms have their maximum abundance at about fifty fathoms, so that the word "surface" is to be taken generously. The light becomes very dim at 250 fathoms, and the open sea, as a zoological haunt, stops with the light. It is hardly necessary to say that the pelagic plants are more abundant near the surface, and that below a certain depth the population consists almost exclusively of animals. Not a few of the animals sink and rise in the water periodically; there are some that come near the surface by day, and others that come near the surface by night. Of great interest is the habit of the extremely delicate Ctenophores or "sea-gooseberries," which the splash of a wave would tear into shreds. Whenever there is any hint of a storm they sink beyond its reach, and the ocean's surface must have remained flat as a mirror for many hours before they can be lured upwards from the calm of their deep retreat.
The Floating Sea-meadows
To understand the vital economy of the open sea, we must recognise the incalculable abundance of minute unicellular plants, for they form the fundamental food-supply. Along with these must also be included numerous microscopic animals which have got possession of chlorophyll, or have entered into internal partnership with unicellular Algæ (symbiosis). These green or greenish plants and animals are the producers, using the energy of the sunlight to help them in building up carbon compounds out of air, water, and salts. The animals which feed on the producers, or on other animals, are the consumers. Between the two come those open-sea bacteria that convert nitrogenous material, e.g. from dead plants or animals that other bacteria have rotted, into forms, e.g. nitrates, which plants can re-utilise. The importance of these middlemen is great in keeping "the circulation of matter" agoing.
The "floating sea-meadows," as Sir John Murray called them, are always receiving contributions from inshore waters, where the conditions are favourable for the prolific multiplication of unicellular Algæ, and there is also a certain amount of non-living sea-dust always being swept out from the seaweed and sea-grass area.
Swimmers and Drifters
The animals of the open sea are conveniently divided into the active swimmers (Nekton) and the more passive drifters (Plankton). The swimmers include whales great and small, such birds as the storm petrel, the fish-eating turtles and sea-snakes, such fishes as mackerel and herring, the winged snails or sea-butterflies on which whalebone whales largely feed, some of the active cuttles or squids, various open-sea prawns and their relatives, some worms like the transparent arrow-worm, and such active Protozoa as Noctiluca, whose luminescence makes the waves sparkle in the short summer darkness. Very striking as an instance of the insurgence of life are the sea-skimmers (Halobatidæ), wingless insects related to the water-measurers in the ditch. They are found hundreds of miles from land, skimming on the surface of the open sea, and diving in stormy weather. They feed on floating dead animals.
The drifters or easygoing swimmers—for there is no hard and fast line—are represented, for instance, by the flinty-shelled Radiolarians and certain of the chalk-forming animals (Globigerinid Foraminifera); by jellyfishes, swimming-bells, and Portuguese men-of-war; by the comb-bearers or Ctenophores; by legions of minute Crustaceans; by strange animals called Salps, related to the sedentary sea-squirts; and by some sluggish fishes like globe-fishes, which often float idly on the surface.
Open-sea animals tend to be delicately built, with a specific gravity near that of the sea-water, with adaptations, such as projecting filaments, which help flotation, and with capacities of rising and sinking according to the surrounding conditions. Many of them are luminescent, and many of them are very inconspicuous in the water owing to their transparency or their bluish colour. In both cases the significance is obscure.
Hunger and Love
Hunger is often very much in evidence in the open sea, especially in areas where the Plankton is poor. For there is great diversity in this respect, most of the Mediterranean, for instance, having a scanty Plankton as compared with the North Sea. In the South Pacific, west of Patagonia, there is said to be an immense "sea desert" where there is little Plankton, and therefore little in the way of fishes. The success of fisheries in the North, e.g. on the Atlantic cod-banks, is due to the richness of the floating sea-meadows and the abundance of the smaller constituents of the animal Plankton.
Hunger is plain enough when the Baleen Whale rushes through the water with open jaws, engulfing in the huge cavern of its mouth, where the pendent whalebone plates form a huge sieve, incalculable millions of small fry.
But there is love as well as hunger in the open sea. The maternal care exhibited by the whale reaches a very high level, and the delicate shell of the female Paper Nautilus or Argonaut, in which the eggs and the young ones are sheltered, may well be described as "the most beautiful cradle in the world."
Besides the permanent inhabitants of the open sea, there are the larval stages of many shore-animals which are there only for a short time. For there is an interesting give and take between the shore-haunt and the open sea. From the shore come nutritive contributions and minute organisms which multiply quickly in the open waters. But not less important is the fact that the open waters afford a safe cradle or nursery for many a delicate larva, e.g. of crab and starfish, acorn-shell and sea-urchin, which could not survive for a day in the rough-and-tumble conditions of the shore and the shallow water. After undergoing radical changes and gaining strength, the young creatures return to the shore in various ways.