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Deep-Sea Ecologist Rewatches and Evaluates seaQuest DSV: Episode 3, “The Devil’s Window”

seaquest title screen

A solid third of this episode involves Chief Brody and Joxar the Mighty dragging a large rubber dolphin through the underwater equivalent of a Jefferies tube, and it is magnificent.

In “The Devil’s Window” (episode 3 of seaQuest’s first season), the crew of seaQuest is tasked with delivering an advanced research station to a hydrothermal vent. Along the way, Darwin, a dolphin who can inexplicably transition from the 1-atmosphere environment of the submarine to the crushing depths of the deep mid-Atlantic and back without suffering from immediate decompression sickness (did you know marine mammals get the bends, just like SCUBA divers? They do), eats something from the vent and gets sick. It’s then a race against time and across the ocean to find a cure for Darwin, while an irate science team wonders if they’ll be able to salvage their research.

Minus the dolphin, this is actually exactly how it works. Crew health and safety comes first, and many a science mission has been put on hold so that a sick or injured person can be returned to safety. Incidentally, that’s one reason why researchers are encouraged to have their appendix removed before going on long, remote deployments: one less potential catastrophe.

The episode opens with a description of hydrothermal venting so good that I can’t think of another pop culture moment in the previous 25 years that’s done it better. That’s no doubt the effect of Bob Ballard, former United States Navy officer and professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, who continues to make a post credit cameo to talk about the ocean, Captain Planet-style, for the remainder of the season.

So after diving through a thermocline, which, for some reason, is a perilous maneuver for seaQuest—I’m really not sure why, as that’s not how thermoclines work—Darwin swims out, eats something from the vent, and falls ill. The scientist on board even jokes about not wanting to eat the animals around the vent. That’s good advice. Hydrothermal vents, in addition to being mildly radioactive, are loaded with heavy metals. Eating a vent critter probably won’t kill you, but you will certainly not enjoy the experience. Trust me on this one: I know.

Darwin is psychic. They made the damn dolphin psychic. He reaches out to Ted Raimi, whose character I’m sure has a name, but I haven’t caught it yet, and Raimi, Captain Bridger, and Darwin go on a journey through a series of tubes (not to be confused with the Internet). Both don what appears to be 50% of an old school Aqualung (seriously, where do those hoses go?). Raimi, for some reason, is wearing eyeglasses under his dive mask.

An aside: does no one else on this boat know how to swim? Is it really necessary for the Captain and communications officer to leave the bridge during a complex maneuver just to guide a dolphin to the infirmary? Isn’t that what ensigns are for?

With no medical help available, Bridger diverts seaQuest from its mission to rendezvous with a dolphin-loving pal who might know how to help. Unable to find a cure, three middle-aged men and a Wesley Crusher stand and sit around a tiki bar drinking root beer and talking about dying dolphins. They decide the only course of action is to return Darwin to his pod.

So, yeah, seaQuest apparently cruises across the entire Atlantic searching for Darwin’s pod by matching click patterns. And, somehow, they find it. Good for them. Darwin returns to his pod, is healed by some magic kelp, and then pops back over to the seaQuest to continue doing whatever a talking psychic dolphin does on a submarine. Dolphins-as-mystical-healers is a pretty long running trope. In the real world, at best, dolphin therapy can be a placebo, albeit an expensive one, for actual treatment. At worst … well, the worst is “dolphin assisted birth,” a phrase which should make anyone even marginally familiar with marine mammal behavior cringe.

There’s a few other science loose-ends to tie up in this episode. In the beginning, the crew is sampling tube worms from hydrothermal vents, but we later learn that they are cruising across the equatorial Atlantic. Giant deep-sea tube worms are only known from hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific. Vents in the equatorial Atlantic are covered in blind shrimp. Though, in seaQuest’s defense, we didn’t really know that in 1993. Vents were only discovered in 1977 and most of the ocean still is largely unexplored.

Finally, at one point, a scientist points out that some people still eat dolphin. That’s true now, and it’s likely to continue to be true in 2018. So, way to go on getting that one right, seaQuest. Yay?

Andrew Thaler is a deep-sea ecologist and conservation biologist who runs the marine science and conservation blog Southern Fried Science. You can support his various and sundry ocean outreach projects (like this one) on Patreon, check out his maritime-y science fictions novels, or just follow him on Twitter.

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