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Deep-Sea Ecologist Rewatches seaQuest DSV: Episode 4, “Treasure of the Mind”

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When I was in graduate school, a team of underwater archaeologists confirmed the wreck of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. This set off a chain of events which culminated in two multi-million dollar lawsuits over rights to the wreck and the footage, the state asserting control of its maritime history, a race to preserve the site as massive storms encroached, and a research and recovery effort that brought together state and federal agencies, private firms, volunteer divers, and the North Carolina Maritime Museum, where many of the recovered pieces are now on display. Change a few details, add a team of indentured psychics, and throw in some stock footage from Jacques Cousteau’s Odyssey: Mediterranean—Cradle or Coffin, and the ongoing epic of Blackbeard’s flagship is essentially the same story as seaQuest DSV episode 4, “Treasure of the Mind.”

In “Treasure of the Mind,” the seaQuest crew locates and excavates the lost Library of Alexandria, which, inexplicably, is not only intact but dry on the inside. This discovery sets off a major diplomatic incident, as representatives from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nations lay claim to their respective countries’ ancient heritage. What follows is almost certainly the most magnanimous depiction of a Middle East summit ever filmed—with the 1993 Oslo Agreement still fresh, perhaps we can forgive the early 1990’s their optimism. It probably also helped that all the representatives from Arab states were British, for some reason.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot surrounding three “parapsychologists” from the UEO sent to monitor and inform the negotiations as well as track down the crew member aboard seaQuest leaking information about the Library. These psychics, forced into service, intentionally sabotage the negotiations in order to gain some control over their lives.

seaQuest DSV has a … complex relationship with consent. Bridger is tricked into serving as captain against his will. The UEO kidnaps a dolphin that has already been shown capable of intelligence and self-determination. The psychics are essentially indentured to the UEO, where their job is to invade people’s minds and figure out who at the negotiation and aboard the ship has ulterior motives. At one point, one of the psychics even admits that she was violating Bridger’s dreams, even though she knew she shouldn’t. I’d say that governance in the seaQuest universe is heavily influenced by the British Admiralty’s tradition of press ganging, but it’s not like our own 2016 is doing much better.

On to the underwater archaeology! Surprisingly, seaQuest does a pretty good job of demonstrating how the process works. Instead of spider robots, we use massive dredge ships to suck sand up from around an underwater site, slowly revealing the shipwreck or artifact beneath. Underwater sites aren’t as stable as sites on land. They have to be excavated quickly, but carefully. Once exposed, it’s a race to recover and preserve before the sea washes everything away. During the Queen Anne’s Revenge excavation, hurricanes occasionally blew through, burying the site. It didn’t help that the entire wreck was in an active shipping channel, within easy reach of bold recreational SCUBA divers.

Once they get inside the Library, however, any semblance of proper protocols is gone. We’ve got untrained crewmembers wandering through a millennia-old library in wet swim suits, handling ancient artifacts with bare hands. Where’s the protective gloves? Have you ever seen a professional handle a rare book? They always, always, always, wear those white cotton gloves to keep oils off the paper, but not in the Library of Alexandria. The seaQuest cowboys are just popping amphora and unfurling scrolls like they’re nothing.  I treated Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther #1 with more care than these folks do ancient Homeric scrolls, and that came out last week.

Beyond that, where’s the PPE (proper protective equipment, soon to be a recurring theme) for the crew? They’re in a demonstrably unstable structure, yet there’s not a hardhat or steel-toed boot in sight.

There’s a moment that just perfectly sums up the seaQuest crew’s approach to preserving the past. No, it’s not when Bridger just starts smashing ancient amphora during the negotiations to highlight his willingness to destroy the entire Library if they can’t reach an agreement. It’s when the first artifacts are brought aboard the seaQuest. After carefully packing them up, sealing them in waterproof cases, and swimming over to the sub, the two crewmen open the case to show off their find while they’re still in the water. What’s even the point of protecting the artifacts if you’re just going to open the case while floating in the water and pick them up while soaking wet?

Incidentally, underwater treasure hunting, though it can be done very well, can also occur with the exact same lack of care that the seaQuest crew displays, resulting in destroyed shipwrecks, lost artifacts, and, occasionally, murder.

In the end, peace is restored, the Library is saved (minus the artifacts destroyed by seaQuest’s captain), the psychics get some autonomy over their lives, they figure out who’s leaking information (though no one really seems to care), and Bob Ballard is back to tell us how the deep sea preserves ancient shipwrecks, like a big refrigerator. When DSV Alvin sank in 1968, she sat on the sea floor for a year before DSV Aluminaut (built, honestly, by Reynolds Metal Company to highlight the utility and durability of aluminum) could recover it. A sandwich inside the sub was ‘salty, but edible’ according to one, unidentified source.

In case you haven’t noticed, the deep sea is awesome.

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 or check out his maritime-y science fictions novels. Follow him on Twitter, where he’s happy to answer question about deep sea ecology and exploration.

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