The Mediterranean, the blue sea par excellence, "the great sea" of the Hebrews, "the sea" of the Greeks, the "mare nostrum" of the Romans, bordered by orange trees, aloes, cacti, and sea pines; embalmed with the perfume of the myrtle, surrounded by rude mountains, saturated with pure and transparent air, but incessantly worked by underground fires, a perfect battlefield in which Neptune and Pluto still dispute the empire of the world!
It is upon these banks, and on these waters, says Michelet, that man is renewed in one of the most powerful climates of the globe. But, beautiful as it was, I could only take a rapid glance at the basin whose superficial area is two millions of square miles. Even Captain Nemo's knowledge was lost to me, for this enigmatical person did not appear once during our passage at full speed. I estimated the course which the Nautilus took under the waves of the sea at about six hundred leagues, and it was accomplished in forty-eight hours. Starting on the morning of February 16 from the shores of Greece, we had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar by sunrise on the eighteenth.
It was plain to me that this Mediterranean, inclosed in the midst of those countries which he wished to avoid, was distasteful to Captain Nemo. Those waves and those breezes brought back too many remembrances, if not too many regrets. Here he had no longer that independence and that liberty of gait which he had had when in the open seas, and his Nautilus felt itself cramped between the close shores of Africa and Europe.
Our speed was now twenty-five miles an hour. It may be well understood that Ned Land, to his great disgust, was obliged to renounce his intended flight. He could not launch the pinnace, going at the rate of twelve or thirteen yards every second. To quit the Nautilus under such conditions, would be as bad as jumping from a train going at full speed- an imprudent thing, to say the least of it. Besides, our vessel only mounted to the surface of the waves at night to renew its stock of air; it was steered entirely by the compass and the log.
I saw no more of the interior of this Mediterranean than a traveler by express train perceives of the landscape which flies before his eyes! that is to say, the distant horizon, and not the nearer objects which pass like a flash of lightning.
In the midst of the mass of waters brightly lit up by the electric light, glided some of those lampreys, more than a yard long, common to almost every climate. Some of the oxyrhynchi, a kind of ray five feet broad, with white belly and gray spotted back, spread out like a large shawl carried along by the current. Other rays passed so quickly that I could not see if they deserved the name of eagles which was given to them by the ancient Greeks, or the qualification of rats, toads, and bats, with which modern fishermen have loaded them. A few milander sharks, twelve feet long, and much feared by divers, struggled among them. Sea foxes eight feet long, endowed with wonderful fineness of scent, appeared like large blue shadows. Some dorades of the shark kind, some of which measured seven and a half feet, showed themselves in their dress of blue and silver, encircled by small bands which struck sharply against the somber tints of their fins, a fish consecrated to Venus, the eyes of which are incased in a socket of gold, a precious species, friend of all waters, fresh or salt, an inhabitant of rivers, lakes, and oceans, living in all climates, and bearing all temperatures; a race belonging to the geological era of the earth, and which has preserved all the beauty of its first days. Magnificent sturgeons, nine or ten yards long, creatures of great speed, striking the panes of glass with their strong tails, displayed their bluish backs with small brown spots; they resemble the sharks, but are not equal to them in. strength, and are to be met with in all seas.
But of all the diverse inhabitants of the Mediterranean, those I observed to the greatest advantage, when the Nautilus approached the surface, belonged to the sixty-third genus of bony fish. They were a kind of tunny, with bluish black backs, and silvery breast-plates, whose dorsal fins threw out sparkles of gold. They are said to follow in the wake of vessels whose refreshing shade they seek from the fire of a tropical sky, and they did not belie the saying, for they accompanied the Nautilus as they did in former times the vessel of La Perouse. For many a long hour they struggled to keep up with our vessel. I was never tired of admiring these creatures really built for speed- their small heads, their bodies lithe and cigar-shaped, which in some were more than three yards long, their pectoral fins and forked tail endowed with remarkable strength. They swam in a triangle, like certain flocks of birds, whose rapidity they equaled, and of which the ancients used to say that they understood geometry and strategy. But still they do not escape the pursuit of the Provencals, who esteem them as highly as the inhabitants of the Propontis and of Italy used to do; and these precious, but blind and foolhardy creatures, perish by millions in the nets of the Marseillaise.
With regard to the species of fish common to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the giddy speed of the Nautilus prevented me from observing them with any degree of accuracy.
As to marine mammals, I thought, in passing the entrance of the Adriatic, that I saw two or three cachalots, furnished with one dorsal fin, of the genus physetera, some dolphins of the genus globicephali, peculiar to the Mediterranean, the back part of the head being marked like a zebra with small lines; also, a dozen of seals, with white bellies and black hair, known by the name of monks, and which really have the air of a Dominican; they are about three yards in length.
As to zoophytes, for some instants I was able to admire a beautiful orange galeolaria, which had fastened itself to the port panel; it held on by a long filament, and was divided into an infinity of branches, terminated by the finest lace which could ever have been woven by the rivals of Arachne herself. Unfortunately, I could not take this admirable specimen; and doubtless no other Mediterranean zoophyte would have offered itself to my observation, if, on the night of the sixteenth, the Nautilus had not, singularly enough, slackened its speed, under the following circumstances.
We were then passing between Sicily and the coast of Tunis. In the narrow space between Cape Bon and the Straits of Messina, the bottom of the sea rose almost suddenly. There was a perfect bank, on which there was not more than nine fathoms of water, while on either side the depth was ninety fathoms.
The Nautilus had to maneuver very carefully so as not to strike against this submarine barrier.
I showed Conseil, on the map of the Mediterranean, the spot occupied by this reef.
"But if you please, Sir," observed Conseil, "it is like a real isthmus joining Europe to Africa."
"Yes, my boy, it forms a perfect bar to the Straits of Lybia, and the soundings of Smith have proved that in former times the continents between Cape Boco and Cape Furina were joined."
"I can well believe it," said Conseil.
"I will add," I continued, "that a similar barrier exists between Gibraltar and Ceuta, which in geological times formed the entire Mediterranean."
"What if some volcanic burst should one day raise these two barriers above the waves?"
"It is not probable, Conseil."
"Well, but allow me to finish, please, Sir; if this phenomenon should take place, it will be troublesome for M. Lesseps, who has taken so much pains to pierce the isthmus."
"I agree with you; but I repeat, Conseil, this phenomenon will never happen. The violence of subterranean force is ever diminishing. Volcanoes, so plentiful in the first days of the world, are being extinguished by degrees; the internal heat is weakened, the temperature of the lower strata of the globe is lowered by a perceptible quantity every century to the detriment of our globe, for its heat is its life."
"But the sun?"
"The sun is not sufficient, Conseil. Can it give heat to a dead body?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, my friend, this earth will one day be that cold corpse; it will become uninhabitable and uninhabited like the moon, which has long since lost all its vital heat."
"In how many centuries?"
"In some hundreds of thousands of years, my boy."
"Then," said Conseil, "we shall have time to finish our journey, that is, if Ned Land does not interfere with it."
And Conseil, reassured, returned to the study of the bank, which the Nautilus was skirting at a moderate speed.
There, beneath the rocky and volcanic bottom, lay outspread a living flora of sponges and reddish cydippes, which emitted a slight phosphorescent light, commonly known by the name of sea cucumbers; and walking comatulae more than a yard long, the purple of which completely colored the water around
The Nautilus having now passed the high bank on the Libyan Straits, returned to the deep waters and its accustomed speed.
From that time no more mollusks, no more articulates, no more zoophytes; barely a few large fish passing like shadows.
During the nights of February 16 and 17, we had entered the second Mediterranean basin, the greatest depth of which was 1,450 fathoms. The Nautilus, by the action of its screw, slid down the inclined planes, and buried itself in the lowest depths of the sea.
On February 18, about three o'clock in the morning, we were at the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar. There once existed two currents: an upper one, long since recognized, which conveys the waters of the ocean into the basin of the Mediterranean; and a lower countercurrent, which reasoning has now shown to exist. Indeed, the volume of water in the Mediterranean, incessantly added to by the waves of the Atlantic, and by rivers falling into it, would each year raise the level of this sea, for its evaporation is not sufficient to restore the equilibrium. As it is not so, we must necessarily admit the existence of an undercurrent, which empties into the basin of the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar, the surplus waters of the Mediterranean. A fact, indeed; and it was this countercurrent by which the Nautilus profited. It advanced rapidly by the narrow pass. For one instant I caught a glimpse of the beautiful ruins of the temple of Hercules, buried in the ground, according to Pliny, and with the low island which supports it; and a few minutes later we were floating on the Atlantic.