Sharon McNeill photography
Sharon McNeill photography
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Deep (Dis)Connections

Delian Divers, Calderas, Chthonic Clues


The part I understand is excellent, and so too is, I dare say, the part I do not understand; 

but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it. -Socrates

   This was Socrates response, when Euripides gave him a small work by the philosopher Heraclitus. “You will never find the limits of the human soul, even if you wander down every path, so deep is its logos,” said Heraclitus. 

   The need for a Delian diver plays into Heraclitus’s love of the paradox. The divers of Delos were uniquely skilled in diving to great depths for sponges and pearls. In the dark, murky deepness they are able to find the rarities, the truth. The island’s name, Delos is even associated with the concept of clarity, to  make visible. 

   Heraclitus wrote about transformation, self-examination, interconnectedness, the value of hidden meanings. The sun is always new and we never step into the same river twice. Water, and we, are always in transformation. Our soul’s divine order is of such great depth that it is limitless. 

   Our depth, connections and hidden clues illuminate how we adapt, how we rely on each other, and how the whole can be damaged by the loss of one.


Ziphius, The Deepest Divers

   The deepest diver in the deepest seas is the Cuvier beaked whale, Ziphius cavitorius. Swimming among sea canyons and mountains, in currents and eddies, Ziphius have been discovered to dive to depths of 9800’ and for as long as 138 minutes. 

   On land, beyond bouyancy, the weight of their own bodies will crush their organs, yet as they go deeper, they simply glide downwards, sinking rather than swimming, conserving oxygen to reach the great depths where they hunt and forage by echolocation for deepwater squid and octopus, benthic fish and crustaceans.. 

   As they descend, the bendable cartilage surrounding their ribcage is able to collapse under the increasing weight of the water. Their spongy lung tissue compresses, maintaining equilibrium between inward and outward pressure. As with all mammals, the whales’ muscles contain myoglobin, a protein that stores oxygen, concentrated 10 times more than in human muscles. And unlike human myoglobin it’s positively charged, preventing it from clumping and causing serious diseases. Ziphius, in a sense, carry their own oxygen tank.

   For more than 30 million years, after undergoing an evolutionary split between toothed and non-toothed filter-feeding species, whales have used echolocation. Toothed whales (including Ziphius) use a series of clicks, or click trains, which rely on large muscles and air pockets to reflect sounds, and a large fatty organ to modulate it.  

   Echolocation in whales is different from human-made sonar in that human-made sonar has many narrow locating beams and receivers. Echolocating animals, including bats, oilbirds, shrews and rats, have only one transmitter and two receivers––the ears.

   Though rarely seen by humans, the Cuvier beaked whale is found stranded more than any other species of beaked whale. Mass strandings of the whale have occurred during high-intensity military sonar and seismic exploration.  Recent studies suggest that perhaps the whales are diving to such depths, and then coming to the surface too quickly, to try and avoid the sonar. Decompression sickness occurs when mammals ascend too fast from ocean depths, with air bubbles causing chronic and acute tissue damage.

   Since 1950, when military sonar first appeared, groups of Ziphius have stranded themselves by the dozens in the Mediterranean Sea, the Bahamas, The Galapagos, the Canary Islands, North Carolina, New Zealand, and recently in Scotland and Ireland. In each of these cases, naval exercises involving sonar, sometimes only hours before the beachings, are suspected as the cause. Groups of beached whales traumatized by sonar have been found driven up onto the beaches, bleeding from the eyes and ears, to escape what marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle calls “a death from a thousand cuts”.

   The manmade sounds can be a thousand times more powerful than a jet engine, and a hundred times more intense than the level known to alter the whale’s behavior. 

   Stranded whales are a visible symptom of a problem that impacts much of ocean life, the ones that reach the shore to die are only the tip of the iceberg. Sonar, which even the navy estimates will significantly harm marine mammals millions of times in the next five years on the US coast alone, disrupts feeding, causes panic, shock, fleeing, fewer births, and other long-term health effects. Profound, permanent hearing trauma and loss has also been found in squid, dolphins and other deep sea fish.

   Marine biologists believe that oceans are large enough for navies and whales to share. Marine protected areas, MPAs, must be large enough for the species’ habitat. Dr. Earle, who has spent 7,000 hours below the water’s surface, is often referred to as Her Deepness in ocean circles. She calls for Hope Spots around the world to protect and restore ocean life. Ocean exploration, Earle says, is vital to protect what is 70% of the earth’s surface, 95% of it unmapped. “The total investment in ocean exploration is only one one-hundredth of the amount spent on space exploration,” said Earle.


Tree rings, shell rings and coral cores

   Some clues to our dilemmas are hidden in plain sight. When we look for an explanation of why our ecosystem is broken, we can look to nature’s patterns: tree rings, coral cores, shell rings.

   When biologists were investigating the disappearance of aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park, they bore tubes into the trees and removed the core. The tree rings showed them that there were no middle-aged  that the trees had stopped regenerating in the 1930s. At that time, all the park’s wolves had been killed for bounty. The missing wolves resulted in elk overgrazing the aspens and the subsequent loss of trees along with stream-side willow vegetation, and beaver and songbird habitat. 

   In Venezuela, Lake Guri is a 1600 square mile manmade lake created after building dams to provide electricity to millions. Once lush and full of life, the islands are now silent, barren, disharmonious. When scientists began to investigate, the looked at tortoise’s shell. The rings showed a baby boom 17 years before, when the waters rose. And the predators left. Now populations of reptiles, howler monkeys and ants have exploded. Overgrazing the islands.

   Discovery Bay in the Carribean has become a dead zone - “suffocating under a shaggy layer of algae”. Biologists drilled a tube into the reef with the idea that they would go from the 2 dimensional surface into a 3rd dimension of time, and capture over a millennium of layers. What they found was that the coral reef was healthy for a thousand years until the 1980s when again, the predators disappeared, due to overfishing. In the case of the coral reef, the small herbivores were also overfished, adding to more algae.

   Chemical analysis of a sample core taken from stony coral on the Kiribati archipelago in the Pacific Ocean suggests that the waxing and waning pattern of Pacific trade winds have affected worldwide temperatures. The recent slowdown of global atmospheric warming probably reflects increased heat in the ocean.

   The manganese studied in the coral show a strong relationship to early 20th century warming to weakened Pacific trade winds. What that means to us today is that, if the trade winds weaken (as they historically do every 20 to 30 years), decade’s worth of hoarded heat could be drawn out of the Pacific and into the atmosphere. This could trigger an unparalleled period of global rising temperatures.


Octopus Tale

   “May I share the story of the octopus with you, bee?” Her granddaughter was turned away, knees folded, head down. The smallest nod moved the grandmother to continue. “Once a female octopus mates and has fertilized her eggs, she will not ever eat again, or over the incubation time she may consume her own tentacle arm for sustenance. She will gather rocks and seal up all the entrances to the lair she creates. She will lay thousands of eggs, and spend many days hanging the eggs in strings from the ceiling of her lair. It will take an entire moon phase for her to lay her eggs and weave them into the strands of string. Over many more moons, she will care for them, clean and protect them and gently blow air upon them. Then, in one night, all the eggs will hatch, perfectly formed, even blowing ink, half the size of a grain of wheat. Their mother will blow hard on them to help her babes thrash around and break free of the eggs. Then they begin their long journey to the surface of the ocean, never to see their mother again. And mother octopus continues on a short road to the end of her life. At only half of her former weight, she will move the rocks away from her lair, crawl out and die, to become food for other sea creatures. That is her journey. You see, it must go on. Is nature ever wrong?”


Collateral Damage

   The wolf climbs to the edge of the mountain, head down, she paws the earth. A snowshoe hare forages for twigs and the occasional mountain snail, Oreohelix, hibernating beneath the surface after working the fungi of dead leaves, animal remains and decaying wood for months. The hare, alarmed by a new predator, huddles into its nest of dead leaves and needles beneath a fallen spruce. A raven circles the forest edge. 

   A light wind rustles the wolf’s coat and she lifts her nose to the sky, opening her mouth. The scent of human fills her senses. She had been collared by humans the year before, and tracked from the northern Rockies into the Grand Canyon, where she was the first wolf seen in 70 years. In less than a year she traveled more than 750 miles, ending at the southern end of the Tushar mountain range, near Beaver, Utah. Schoolchildren across the country followed the wolf’s route, naming her Echo in an online naming contest.

   The wolf’s eyes meet the human’s. Perhaps because her history of human contact didn’t result in harm, she stood her ground. The human shot her, later claiming he thought she was a coyote.

   Utah has the country’s largest predator control program, mainly aimed at the coyote. Officially to improve hunting of the mule deer, the “Mule Deer Protection Act” offers a $50 bounty for each coyote killed. Although wolves are federally protected as an Endangered Species,  the special interest group Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has received more than $800,000 in funding from the state to “delist” or turn the management of wolves to state control, which would usurp the federal government’s oversight of all gray wolves in the US, which are listed as an endangered species. 

   An investigation into the killing of a protected animal is ongoing, but under the highly-divisive McKittrick Policy, an act that prohibits prosecuting individuals who kill endangered wildlife unless it can be proved that they knew they were targeting a protected animal, the shooter will likely not go to trial over the killing.

   “All competent wildlife biologists already know that coyote hunting, including our state bounty program, is ineffective, and therefore a waste of money – and now we see that it is also a threat to other wildlife and to wolf recovery,”  said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. While environmental groups act to litigate the Department of Justice to stop the McKittrick Policy, sport hunting groups seem in no hurry to leave the wolves alone.


Mountain Mollusks

   Snails on the Wasatch Range, Oreohelix haydeni haydeni, are difficult to see, but they are right below the surface, breaking down mulching trees, leaves, dead animals. Hermaphrodites, they can self-reproduce. It is difficult to see them, except after they die the earth sends up their shells, now turned bone white. They are a candidate for protection from the EPA, due to loss of habitat from road building, and warming climate.

   How do snails balance the forests? What will happen if they disappear?



   Six miles under the surface, and 55 by 20 miles wide lies the first crust of the Yellowstone caldera. Beneath this shallower chamber is another deeper, magma reservoir 4.5 times larger, 30 miles deep This massive chamber sits above a plume that brings molten rock up from deep in the earth’s mantle, 1,800 miles to the earth’s core. 

   A caldera, as its Spanish name suggests, is a boiling cauldron formed when a volcanic mountain collapses in an eruption or a series of eruptions. In Yellowstone’s case, it’s a supervolcano, capable of spewing 240 cubic miles of ash, rock, dust. Of the almost 2 million super volcanoes around the world Yellowstone is by far the largest. While volcanos can kill plants and animals for many miles, supervolcanoes threaten entire species extinction by changing the climate of the planet.

   When, not if, scientists say, the Yellowstone caldera will erupt. But the when is the, well, 240 cubic mile question. Yellowstone has erupted only about once every 730,000 years, with the last explosion 640,000 years ago. Which would put us on track for the next catastrophe in about 100,000. Or sooner. Our abilities to predict events like supervolcanoes, while not non-existent, are really only able to offer early-warning systems. Data from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory could offers weeks or even months of warning that magma is moving up into the shallow crust. In an eruption, the pressurized gases explode from the magma and blow through the cooled magma crust, like a cork off a champagne bottle.

   With more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, like mudpots, hot springs and half of the world’s active geysers, Yellowstone has 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes each year in the park, most insignificant. But in 2010, a “swarm” of 2,300 quakes in a single month caused alarm in 2010, all about 10 miles northwest of Old Faithful. What’s more, geological data shows the size estimate of the magma reservoir is roughly the same is what it was when the supervolcano last erupted 640,000 years ago. After each eruption, geologists believe, the chamber is emptied and must refill again. The new chamber suggests that the shallow chamber can be replenished over and over again, with even greater eruptions.


Meanwhile, back in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory ...

   Geoengineers are looking at replicating volcanoes’ ability to decrease rising temperatures by dimming the sun. Seen as a quick fix in the event of extreme temperature increases, SRM or Solar Radiation Management concepts run from the benign idea of painting roofs white, to injecting particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space, thus reducing the amount of heat reaching the earth. 

   The geoclique, as they are called, is a small group of North American climate engineers that think spraying sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere could be our only hope if the earth warmed to potentially catastrophic levels. The sulfuric acid droplets stay in the atmosphere and within weeks circulate the entire planet. 

   What could go wrong?  

   What if temperatures keep climbing. People and animals are dropping dead from heat and crops are dying. We are running out of water. Global warming has become a world crisis.

   Policy makers decide we must use SRM.

   As it turns out, lots could go wrong. 

• Would governments around the world act with global fairness? 

• A permanent haze could appear over the earth, making clear blue skies and stargazing things of the past. 

• Once you started artificially suppressing all that warming, if you stopped the spraying, all the heat would hit the planet’s surface at once, with no time for gradual adaptation. 

• Different parts of the world would be affected differently, with Africa and parts of Asia hit hard by drought. 

• What’s more, geoengineering is certain to reduce incentives to pursue fossil fuel reductions.


   And, what if ...

   ... while this global cooling is happening, a supervolcano like Yellowstone erupted? Ash and pulverized rock will explode into the atmosphere for hundreds of miles, then drift back slowly to earth. Mountains of ash would collect in the areas around the eruption, thick enough to collapse roofs, to a few inches on the East Coast. The lingering sulfuric gases would mix with the earth’s water vapor to block sunlight resulting in a “volcanic winter”, decreasing the global temperature by up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

   Building collapses, electronics breakdowns, road and air transportation ceases, skin, eye and respiratory  problems, sever climate disruption for a year or more. Death, disease, chaos.

   Just in 2015, Chile’s Calbuco volcano has erupted three times since April 23 and scientists say even more aggressive eruptions could continue for months. Smoke, gas and ash spewed more than six miles into the air, collapsing roofs and spreading ash feet deep near the volcano. Dust will likely contaminate some water supplies, trigger respiratory illnesses and affect transportation, including canceling flights. Short-term health dangers include eye and skin infections.

   Meanwhile, a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck Nepal on April 25, killing 

more than 4,000 and horrifyingly, that number continues to climb. Although a natural disaster, the devastation is all the greater because it is in one of the highest urban densities in the world, with 1.5 million people living in the surrounding Kathmandu Valley. The earthquake’s effects are amplified by overpopulated, poor, overdeveloped and crumbling cities. A resulting avalanche has killed at least 20 of the 700 mountain climbers who were on Mount Everest at the time of the quake.



   When the sky fell it drifted around us in pieces, some clumps as big as your mittens, others like eyelashes, feather-light. “Look mama, the snow is silver,” you said. But of course, it didn’t get cold enough to snow until weeks later, after the sun stayed blocked and the sky was thick and gray. The pieces of sky that fell didn’t melt like snow, they remained, like pulverized bone. When the caldera erupted all the elements, fire, water, earth and air combusted, shrouding our greengold world to create this new one, cold and dark. 

   Why did we survive that year when so few others did? Even hundreds of miles away from the volcano, the ash was unrelenting. But three days after the eruption the winds blew steady to the east and south, away from us. I knew the mountain that rose above our home well, knew many of her secrets. I knew we needed to go up, not down to where the fallout had pooled into suffocating mountains of ash, as high as houses. We didn’t hesitate. We left quickly, before the other survivors became desperate. We took what we could carry — blankets, food, a pot, boots, a tarp, knives, tools. My seeds. Later, in your pack, I found you had snuck in a book. It was Peter Pan. 

   For two days we climbed higher and higher through the lunar landscape, until we found what was to be our home - the tiny hunter’s shack hidden among boulders and trees. Not too far, a weakened creek ran through a narrow cave. 

   It was the year we reconciled with reality and eventually found adventure in our daily survival. “Life goes on,” I said. “Life goes on, mama,” you repeated, reaching for my hand. Your little legs became so strong and fast, your scouting eyes so keen. You became the ground hunter, catching the squirrels, rabbits and chippies that had somehow burrowed through the thick walls of ash, just like we did. I caught whatever birds miraculously showed up in the sky. The bow, arrows, and spears I made were still too heavy for you, but I knew, given another year, you’d easily surpass my skills. Your little fingers could already make fire from the flat stones and dry twigs we gathered. 

    At night, with our blankets by the fire, those fingers traced words as you learned to read. My heart hurt with pride as you puzzled out the words, slow and sure, “All children, except one, grow up.”

   We found Asha that year, or did she find us? The gray wolfhound followed us warily for days, until we all surrendered to trust. When she finally came close enough, we discovered that underneath her thick gray fur she once had been white, pure white. Still, we named her for the the color she’d always remain. She wanted to protect you, just as much as I did. It’s what we lived for. “Hush, Asha,” you’d say when the looters were close, your eyes wide, alert to dangers a child shouldn’t know. As gentle as she was with us, we found she would fight, would kill, for you. Like me.

   That year, when I lost you, was a fever dream. Your little lungs, all those tiny organs, couldn’t handle the constant assault of the ash. What tools did I have now to save a life? Nothing made a difference. Not steam from the hot water, or broth to help your breathing, not blanket upon blanket, our last bits of dried fruit. Even prayer, although I hardly knew how. You didn’t linger. When you were gone I lived beneath a thick layer of sweat, burning hot and frozen cold, on the edge of insanity. There were many days, months even, that I wasn’t sure if my own child had ever even existed. I didn’t choose my survival. I didn’t choose to take one breath after the next, to eat the small creatures Asha laid beside me. I didn’t want to dig around those first tips of green or to crush the sharp leaves, the smell filling my mouth like a meal. But still, that year, the silver sage rose slowly up on the mountaintop, pushing through the ash, whether it wanted to or not.



Early twentieth-century warming linked to tropical Pacific wind strength, Nature magazine, 22 December 2014, Diane M. Thompson, Julia E. Cole, Glen T. Shen, Alexander W. Tudhope & Gerald A. Meehl,


Tomography from 26 years of seismicity revealing that the spatial extent of the Yellowstone crustal magma reservoir extends well beyond the Yellowstone caldera, Jamie Farrell,Tobias Diehl, AGU Publications, 9 May 2014


Conserving Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Alboran Sea (SW Mediterranean): Identification of high density areas to be avoided by intense man-made sound, A. Cañadas, , J.A. Vázquez, Biological Conservation, October 2014


First Long-Term Behavioral Records from Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (Ziphius cavirostris) Reveal Record-Breaking Dives, Gregory S. Schorr, Erin A. Falcone, David J. Moretti, Russel D. Andrews, PLOS OnePublished: March 26, 2014


When Yellowstone Explodes. Joel Achenbach, National Geographic, August 2009,


The Yellowstone Supervolcano goes Viral, George Black, The New Yorker,


War of the Whales, Horwitz, Joshua, Simon & Schuster, July 2014


Monitoring super-volcanoes: geophysical and geochemical signals at Yellowstone and other large caldera systems , Lowenstern, Smith, Hill

US Geological Survey, Volcano Hazards Team, MS 910, 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA
Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA

Grand Canyon Wolf That Made Epic Journey Shot Dead in Utah, Christopher Ketcham, National Geographic, News, February 12, 2015

Gray wolf travels more than 500 miles, then gets shot in Utah, Matt Pearce, LA Times, Dec. 29, 2014


Wolf Wars, Douglas Chadwick, National Geographic, March 2010


Demographic response of mule deer to experimental reduction of coyotes and mountain lions in southeastern Idaho;jsessionid=F1E6D56E348D95BEC3EB8210A749CC93.d02t01?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false


The Sly Coyote Becomes a Bounty Hunters’ Target in Utah, Melena Ryzic, NY Times, March 23, 2013, http://www.

Assessing the conservation status of  the land snail Oreohelix periphera wasatchensis, Weaver, K, Perez-Losada, M, Gurlnik, R, Nelson, A, Blatt, S, Crandall, K, Springer Science, June 2007


The Limits of the Soul: Heraclitus B45. Its text and interpretation, Betegh, Gabor,