logo

In his book Wonderful Life,
the late, great paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that chance has had the
single greatest influence on the history of life. He wrote about a thought
experiment that he called “replaying life’s tape.” It was an illustration of
how unlikely it would be for the biota of Earth to re-evolve in the same
fashion that it has over the past almost four billion years. As I sat down to
write about the species that has been my lifelong preoccupation, the
longest-lived animal survivor known to science, Nautilus pompilius,
better known as the Chambered Nautilus, I began to replay my own tape and see
how a series of random, chance events have directed my own life and career.

For
25 years the overarching theme of my work as a paleobiologist has been a need
to know the identities of which species lived, and which died, in the great
mass extinctions, the five intervals in geological time, going back 540 million
years to the dawn of animal life, when a majority of species were killed off. I
have been able to tell a very plausible evolutionary story about how the
nautilus has survived over 500 million years by side-stepping the
dinosaur-killing asteroid and every other menace the earth and cosmos have
thrown it. It was not because it was especially adaptable, it was because it
had the incredible good fortune to prefer deep waters and a metabolism suited
to life in the slow lane.

But
there is one chance element that I never foresaw in my field notes.
Humans—present on Earth only because the dinosaurs died out—find the nautilus,
with its mother-of-pearl interior, and tiger-striped outer coloring, so
beautiful, and so suitable for jewelry, that they are managing to do what mass
extinctions never could: drive the nautilus to extinction. This avaricious
fascination with the nautilus set the stage for the darkest day in my life in
1984, when, in the Pacific islands, I found myself trying to bring back to life
the copiously bleeding body of my field assistant.

In
the past few years I have contributed to the breakthrough discovery that
ancient Nautilus pompilius is in fact many separate species, which has
overturned the widespread reference to it as a “living fossil.” Yet the human
toll on the nautilus may be the last discovery that I ever make about this
remarkable animal. Looking back at the myriad decisions, tests, detours, and
the rest of the messy contradiction and actions that we call life, I have to
marvel at the waves of chance that swept the nautilus and me into its rough
seas.

My scientific
journey, now professionally far nearer its end than its beginning, has been
more akin to a pinball descending through a field of random bumpers than some
ordained conclusion. And not just in the positions I won (and lost), or the
books and papers I wrote, or had rejected. The very topic of my research came
into my life by a combination of random events combining with a newly grown
tool (the brain and body of a young boy) capable of reacting to chance
influence and being transformed by it.

My
journey began with the 1954 Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—the
first movie I ever saw on a big screen, at the ripe old age of five. The star
of the show was the submarine, or rather Disney’s rendering of the storied
craft at the center of Jules Verne’s tale: a surprising shape of curves and
straight lines, an extended diamond of a ship exuding strength and speed,
difficult to remember in detail beyond an inchoate vision of grace. Much of the
movie took place underwater, a highly romanticized underwater at that. Growing
up next to Washington state’s Puget Sound, with its wonderful tide pools and
salmon, whales and seabirds, was itself an invitation to love science and
marine biology.

This
dual love of a shape and place—submarine and the ethereal underwater world it
owned—was soon augmented by an even more seductive shape. In 1956, on a trip to
Hawaii, I was suddenly confronted by the real thing: the chambered nautilus.
The shell shop was on a quiet corner, a block from the beach. I moved from
display to display, pleased by the cornucopia of shapes and exuberant colors
that the tropical mollusks possess. With its beguiling curves and chambers, the
whole proclaiming a mathematical embrace of function by form, I was hypnotized.
In this I know I am not alone. Many of my colleagues who study ancient
nautiloids and their cephalopod cousins, the beautiful and extinct group of
swimming animals known as ammonites, have confessed to falling under a similar
spell.

My
obsession was further stoked in 1958, when the world’s first nuclear submarine,
the USS Nautilus, made the first transit beneath the ice-covered North Pole. Soon
I was doodling the damned spiral with its regularly increasing chambers on
every school paper, and was probably certifiable. Nautilus, nautilus, nautilus.
What emerged was a merging of submarine and romance, a witchcraft induced by
three different nautilus submarines: one celluloid, one biological, and one
armed with torpedoes. My course was set. Here was a living submarine, wrapped
in mystery, inhabiting the Pacific in the hallowed places where my father had
fought a bloody war a decade earlier, a creature linked to dinosaurs and the
undersea. What better star to become attached to? All I had to do was get good
enough grades to get into college, not flunk out and get sent to Vietnam to be
killed or maimed, as so many who did wash out of organic chemistry class were,
get into grad school, and end up as a professor at a major research university.
Because any number of things could have easily ended my quest, it is quite apparent
that luck was my guardian angel. Sheer luck on the scale of winning a lottery.

Because
the nautilus lives in the sea, I needed to be water-wise and water-tested. I
had the great fortune to grow up on a lake. A 15-foot dive to its muddy bottom,
required in the games of sponge tag that the gang of boys in my neighborhood
endlessly played, taught me to respect rather than fear water. From early on I
was un-flummoxed by being in the dark, cold wet. At age 16, I built a scuba
tank out of an old fire extinguisher bottle, acquired a $15, used regulator and
an old hand-me-down (and piss-stinking) wet suit, and began diving in Puget
Sound after a single scuba lesson. I went on to teach and certify more than
1,000 people to dive, while putting myself through college as a commercial
salvage diver, which led me to one of my most fateful jobs: a diver for Sea
World, catching live killer whales.

In
1970 and 1971, I was part of the infamous Penn Cove (Washington) whale hunts.
At that time the Puget Sound region, or its salmon-fishing community, despised
the orca, which routinely ate half the salmon returning each year to spawn.
Trapping was applauded. We encircled pods of 30 to 40 whales with seine nets
thrown from fishing boats, and culled and captured with ropes the babies for
aquaria. My job was to be in the water with the whales and separate mothers
from their young. (I once found my leg down the throat of an enraged mother,
who spit me out). Rumor had it the going price for an orca was $50,000. I was
paid $50 a day.

But
another part of my job was to dive down into the seine nets at night, should
the whales try to break out. During those nights I learned more about fear than
I ever wanted to know—down 40 feet in low visibility, with a dive light in one
hand and a knife in the other to confront the poorly seen but certainly felt
struggles of a gigantic, multi-ton behemoth fighting for its life in a heavy
net, its massive tail thrashing through the blackness. We mostly succeeded in
cutting the whales loose from the nets. But not always. That brought about
shame, followed by rage, at myself, and at the greedy, voracious men who then,
as now, make money from the incarceration of these intelligent creatures.

Following
an expose
of the hunts by Seattle TV news reporter Don McGaffin in 1971, some of my
fellow divers and I testified to state authorities that our employers had been
covering up evidence of whales killed in the hunts. Our proof helped launch a
state and then federal law to prevent capturing whales in U.S. territorial
waters and giving them a life sentence in solitary confinement. It remains the
most important work of my life: helping stop the obscene captures.

Nautilus lives in the
sea. It also lives in the past. In college I pursued a course of study that
married marine biology with paleontology. I was admitted into graduate school
in geology (I earned my Ph.D. at McMaster University in Ontario) and conducted
studies that got me as close to the nautilus as academics could then go—the
study of fossils. I waited and watched and hoped that chance would provide me
entrée into my real dream, the chance to study the living nautilus in the wild.

My
lottery number came up in 1975. One spring day I happened to be on the
University of Washington campus, when I saw a poster announcing a scientific
talk to be given by a hero of mine, the great physicist-turned-marine biologist
Eric Denton, of the famous marine laboratory at Plymouth, England, about the
nautilus and buoyancy.

Since
the nautilus first came to the attention of European naturalists in the 1600s,
there was intense speculation on how it used its chambered shell to attain
weightlessness. For almost four centuries it was believed that when each new
chamber was formed, the animal secreted gas into it. It was the same principle,
or so it was thought, used by submarines: gas pumped into ballast tanks
generate buoyancy.

But
Denton, working in large buckets and tide pools on the tropical island of Lifou
in the mid 1960s, discovered that each new chamber, sequentially produced by a
growing nautilus, was filled with a saline bodily fluid, not gas like a
submarine. Through osmosis, carried out by a permeable siphuncle, which spirals
through the shell’s chambers, the nautilus pumps salt ions from the chamber
liquid, causing the “fresher” liquid to be secreted as urine. While gas,
circulating in the nautilus’ blood, diffuses back into the chamber, it has no
effect. It’s the liquid leaving the chamber that grants the nautilus its famous
weightlessness. Denton and his colleague John Gilpin Brown did show that the
name nautilus was appropriate for the animal and submarine in one sense: both
have the same design flaw—a finite depth at which both are crushed by too much
pressure. In the sea creature’s case, about 2,500 feet.

The
development of buoyant shells by the nautiloid was one of life’s great
evolutionary innovations. Some 500 million years ago, the time before fish, all
animal life lay on the ocean floor. Then along came an animal that could
“float” in the water. For the first time a mobile carnivore could descend on
its prey, with eyes and sensory apparatus that could look ahead but never up.
For the crustacean-like trilobites, the main prey of the first nautiloids, it
was slaughter.

The
nautiloids were probably the smartest creatures in the sea. When they evolved
from snail-like ancestors, more than 520 million years ago, they were
energetic, thanks to enormous gills and a new kind of blood pigment, the
copper-based haemocyanin (oxygenated nautilus blood is blue). With all that
oxygen coursing through their bodies, a new type of organ became possible: a
large and perhaps calculating brain, certainly the highest level of
intelligence seen in the animal world up to that point. Nautiluses also carried
a lethal weapon—parrot-like jaws with cutting edges capable of slicing through
arthropod exoskeletons. With brains and brawn, the nautiloids ruled the seas
for millions of years.

In
the audience at Denton’s talk was a University of Washington professor, Arthur
Martin, who had managed to acquire funds to travel to New Caledonia that summer
to study the nautilus in the fabled Aquarium de Noumea, the first aquarium to maintain living coral, and the first to
put the nautilus on exhibit. By chance I overheard Martin asking Denton for
advice on the Aquarium, where Denton had done pioneering work. With heart in
throat, I interrupted the pair and invited myself to accompany Martin to New
Caledonia as his assistant, volunteering to find the money to pay my way on the
three-month trip.

An
archipelago located 750 miles east of Australia, New Caledonia is the only
place on Earth where nautilus swim in water shallow enough for a scuba diver to
see them. On dark nights, I was able to follow them in their native habitat,
the first scientist to ever do so. With a tough, ex-military French buddy, I
spent many nights diving outside the vast reef that parallels the Great Barrier
Reef of Australia. Every night we would spend an hour stabbing through the
clear water with our dive lights, our probes reaching into the blackness,
illuminating the white shells of the ascending nautilus. We would follow them,
on moonlit nights with our lights off, as they swam right into the surf zones
of the shallowest parts of the outer barrier reef. Their forays into the
shallows was to find food—not live food, we learned, but fresh molts of
lobster. That was a surprise. The nautilus, it turns out, is an obligate
scavenger, and can find carrion from many miles away, thanks to an exquisite
olfactory system.

Our
research paid off in other ways too. I learned how the nautilus had lived
through the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact, 66 million years ago, when its
cephalopodan cousins, the beautiful and extinct group of swimming animals known
as ammonites, did not. The shallow-water ammonites, living in and feeding on
plankton, were either killed directly or starved to death in a charnel house
that the shallow ocean depths had suddenly become. Far below the carnage, at
about 1,000 feet, the nautiloids continued a life in the slow lane, rarely
feeding, floating through life without the actions and metabolic costs of
actively swimming organisms, such as squid and fish. They grow slowly but
unlike other cephalopods, do not die after breeding. Some living nautilus might
be a century old or older.

My
trip to New Caledonia utterly changed my life. It brought me research papers,
professorships, books, a marriage and a son. It would send me on quests first
to Europe and then into the Caucasus Mountains of Asia Minor to further
understand the cause of the event that removed ammonites from Earth, yet spared
the Nautilus. It sent me to South Africa to study an even more ancient
extinction, then Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Antarctica. It was
more adventure than ever imaginable by that 5-year-old boy in 1955, staring
wide-eyed at the giant squid being fought to a draw in the climactic scene in
Disney’s astonishing movie.

Chance, though, is
not just the purveyor of gifts. In 1984 I was on an expedition outside New
Caledonia’s barrier reef, formed to study the daily migrations of the nautilus.
I was accompanied by, among others, Mike Weekley, a 26-year-old marine
biologist, who had worked at the Waikiki Aquarium. Mike was a veteran of
nautilus research trips, seemingly fearless, and an expert diver.

On
our fifth day of research, we discovered thieves approaching one of our holding
cages, roped to a buoy, where ten nautiluses were being kept for future
experiments. Nearby, tied to the reef edge, a long piece of rope stretched down
to a deep cage, where we were performing a crucial experiment: What was the
maximum depth at which the nautilus could empty its chamber?

From
a mile away, we set off for the pirates, with our French captain loading his
rifle. But the thieves had a fast boat. We were still a half-mile away when we
saw them lift the buoy of the first cage. Had they discovered the other rope?
Mike and I quickly hit the water. Both the rope and deep cage were still there.
As I dove deeper to check the rope for wear, Mike’s job was to keep any
aggressive white-tip sharks off my back. After five minutes, I turned to motion
to Mike, who was supposed to be only a few feet behind me. But when I turned
there was no Mike. Only an almost imperceptible “hoot” from below me.

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.

I
pulled Mike from the place he had settled and headed up, trying to squeeze out
any air in his lungs before it would expand. It was for naught. The ascent
burst his lungs.

Two
hours later, in the emergency room of a New Caledonian hospital, Mike lay dead
on the tiled floor. His would-be rescuer, and possibly his killer, lay naked,
wetsuit cut away and copious amounts of blood being pumped out of his stomach.
I had involuntarily swallowed blood while doing mouth-to-mouth and heart
massage to Mike for what seemed like eternity on the dive boat. I never learned
why Mike sunk to the bottom. It is the nightmare of all divers, a sudden loss
of consciousness, or a sudden stoppage of the heart, possibilities even for a
young man.

I
spent the next year on crutches. My left hip, shoulder, and ankle had been
destroyed by nitrogen bubbles. In the decades that followed, the left side of
my skeleton has become increasingly made of titanium, ceramic, and rubber, as
doctors robotized me, joint by necrotic joint.

Tragedy changes a
person. The nautilus had made me a scientist. Yet that same animal caused the
death of a close friend. Was his death due to chance, or the human equivalent
of bad genes— and, if genes, Mike’s or mine? How could it be explained? I quit
studying the nautilus. In fact, I quit science altogether. In the pit of my
depression, fortune intervened in the person of Gould. From his perch at
Harvard, Gould had taken an abiding interest in all of us younger
paleontologists, but a particular interest in my research, which showed that
the ammonites disappeared suddenly after the cataclysmic asteroid, in contrast
to the prior view that they went extinct gradually. Gould encouraged me to keep
researching, beyond the ammonites. He helped me switch to the study of death
writ large.

With
Gould’s advice, I went deeper into the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event,
surely life’s worst day on Earth, when the world’s global forest burned to the
ground, absolute darkness from dust clouds encircled the earth for six months,
acid rain burned the shells off of calcareous plankton, and a monster tsunami
picked up all of the dinosaurs on the vast, Cretaceous coastal plains, drowned
them, and then hurled their carcasses against whatever high elevations finally
subsided the monster waves.

In
his novel The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that there were
more paleontologists in the USSR during the grimmest period of the Stalin
regime than any other kind of scientist. He told his readers why. Of all the
sciences, paleontology allows its practitioners to abandon a hideous present to
live in a more fascinating past. When I first read this, as a grad student, I
didn’t understand it. After Mike, I did. For more than 20 years I lived in the
deep past, writing books, trying to come to grips with Mike’s death.

My
quest ultimately circled back to the present. In 2010, scientists in the United
States government asked me to go back to the Pacific to study the nautilus, now
being killed off by indigenous fishermen trying to feed their families in the
southern Philippines.

During
my absence of 15 years, others, notably Bruce Saunders, of Bryn Mawr College;
Neil Landman, of the American Museum of Natural History; and Andy Dunstan, of
the University of Queensland, continued research into nautilus. They
discovered, through DNA analysis of the living nautilus, more species than the four
that were known during my decades in the Pacific. What had been called Nautilus
pompilius
in Indonesia, Palau, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, both sides of New
Guinea, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the long barren coast of Western
Australia, and most recently in Thailand, was found to consist of many distinct
species. The term “living fossil,” which suggested a species with a low
diversity, had to be overturned.

The
research added a new chapter to the story of the nautilus. It revealed that the
nautilus had dispersed longer distances than scientists had ever known, to
establish safe harbors, and had evolved into smaller sizes to capitalize on
scarce resources. Most of all, the new research showed that an ancient group
wasn’t flickering out but had radiated into magnificent new species.

In
2011 and 2012 I returned to my old study sites in the Pacific, and collected
DNA samples that helped confirm that Nautilus pompilius is many separate
species. But I also discovered that unlike in the deep past, perhaps only a few
thousand individuals make up each species. A few thousand individuals swimming
long distances to be caught in a baited trap, from which they are hauled to the
surface, killed and sold for $1 a shell. For buttons and cheap tourist jewelry.

It
is a horrid irony. Although the nautilus ruled the oceans for hundreds of
millions of years, Earth’s changing conditions dwindled the number of species,
about three million years ago, to less than a handful—or even a single species.
Then came the advent of the Ice Ages and a radical drop in global sea level and
temperatures, which, combined, created cool, highly oxygenated oceanic
conditions similar to those when hundreds of nautiloid species existed. The
nautilus was making a huge comeback in diversity, to the point where it may
have been poised to once again be a presence in every ocean, rather than its
current confinement to the western tropical Pacific.

But
as recently as 50 years ago, the comeback hit a roadblock: us. In the
Philippines and probably in Indonesia, the distant nautilus species are being
harvested to extinction. An even greater crime is occurring in Papua New Guinea
and Indonesia, the only two places where Allonautilus, a new genus defined by
Saunders and me, are found. Shells of Allonautilus can fetch more than $500.
While the shells of more common nautilus are far less expensive on eBay (a
large shell goes for about $40), the slaughter is severe. Between 2007 and
2010, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered that more
than half a million nautilus shells or artifacts were imported into the United
States alone. Fleets of nautilus boats now scour the coastlines of the South
China Sea.

The
life of the nautilus is providing its last lesson about chance events. But this
time it’s about bad luck. It’s bad luck that nautiluses use their olfactory
system rather than vision to find prey, because this trait makes them
ludicrously easy to catch. Worse luck comes from a trait over which they never
had control: they produce a shell with a visual power that humans covet—a
covetousness, I can never forget, that contributed to Mike’s death.

This
is not a death I can escape from, nor want to. Today I continue to travel to
the Pacific islands to compile data to raise awareness about just how rare the
nautilus has become. My work has been partly supported by two remarkable
fundraisers, Josiah Utsch, 12, and Ridgely Kelly, 11, of Maine, who launched a
Web site, Save the Nautilus,
after reading a New York Times article, “Loving the Chambered Nautilus to Death,” by science journalist William Broad. They
collect money, usually $1 at a time, from school kids, and so far have raised
over $10,000.

Not
a day goes by that I do not relish the luck of my own wonderful life. Nor does
a day go by that I do not rue the chances that cost a young man his life. I
helped stop the harvesting of killer whales when I was young, strong, and
immortal. Now I will finish my life trying to ensure that the longest living
animal known to science remains just that—living. Because this time if the
nautilus survives, it will not be from chance.


Peter Ward is a professor of Biology and Earth and Space
Sciences at the University of Washington. He is the author of
In Search of Nautilus and, most recently, The Flooded
Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps. He is beloved by his family,
students, and dog.