KaiStar55’s Exclusive Preview of the Ocean Memorial Museum: Humhumunukunukuapua’a, Tears, and Lessons Learned
2018, High School, Prose
“Welcome to the Ocean Memorial Museum! My name is Namaka, and I will be your tour guide today. I am required to warn you that some of the exhibits may contain graphic or emotionally difficult imagery. Would you like to see a censored version of the exhibits?”
Kai – online handle KaiStar55 – tightened the straps of the harness she was suspended in and took a few deep breaths. The crowds outside had been overwhelming; she was used to seeing her followers on a screen, not in real life. Of course, that was why she’d agreed, she reminded herself. Few other netstars had been willing to get involved, but controversy meant exposure.
“No, thanks,” she finally replied. She was being filmed, she knew. It wasn’t live, and she’d have time to edit it afterwards. Still, the chipper voice and bright smile came naturally.
“I will be monitoring your pulse and respiratory rate to ensure that distressing emotions are within an acceptable level; however, if at any point you feel overwhelmed, simply ask to be presented with a modified version of the exhibit. If you consent to this monitoring, say ‘yes.’”
“Yes,” she said. To her invisible audience, she added, “They’re making it sound like I’m gonna get PTSD. What they don’t know is that I slept through the entire Great Extinction unit in middle school. Wish me luck!” Then she winced. She kept forgetting it wasn’t a live feed.
The glowing white walls of the empty room dimmed and faded. She was floating in complete darkness, a dull rushing filling her ears. A faint, faint light revealed a billowing smokestack on the bottom of the ocean floor. “Impressive tech,” she whispered. “If the coalies, priders, and right-wingers shut the museum down, they should lease it to theaters.”
“What you see before you is a hydrothermal vent.” Namaka’s voice sounded as if she were right besides Kai. “These centers of heat and chemical energy, powered by the geothermal activities beneath the ocean crust, allow life to thrive in the most extreme conditions.” 1 And indeed, as she floated closer to the vent, she could see white, hanging mats of bacteria; lipstick-tube worms; small flocks of eyeless shrimp with glowing stripes on their backs.2 As she looked at each creature, its name and basic natural history popped up in her mind.
Namaka, meanwhile, was narrating. “One hypothesis suggests that life originated here, in the womb of hydrothermal vents.3 Though we’re separated by kilometers of ocean water, the deep ocean provided irreplaceable ecosystem services.1 Nutrient cycling, carbon fixation, the climate-stabilizing thermohaline circulation, and deep-sea fisheries are all examples of…”1
Kai, now drifting over an abyssal sea-floor plain, was tuning the AI out. She saw a blue glimmer and floated towards it. Before she could react, her vision was filled with a pair of bulging eyes and too many teeth that were much too long and much too sharp. She shrieked, and the viperfish vanished back in the dark. “I’m impressed,” she confessed, laughing from relief. “The graphics are great – better than my VR set! – and it’s really responsive.”
Kai spent a few more minutes admiring oarfish, acorn worms, and brittle stars.4 “But maybe not much to look at if you’re not that into creepy-crawlies. Yeah, they could use some more direction to their exhibit. It’s a little… I don’t want to say boring, but – huh…”
While she’d been speaking, a change had started to take place in her surroundings. The digital readout at the edge of her vision, which she’d mostly ignored, began to shift. PPM of CO2: 208, 210, 220, 250, 300, 600. Global average temperature: +0.5 ℉. +2 ℉. + 4 ℉. Dissolved oxygen concentration: -0.44%. pH: -0.135. Now the thermohaline circulation was shut down and Europe was entering a mini ice age; now the sea level was rising, and climate refugees were overwhelming the governments of third- and first-world countries alike.5,6
“The increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide was partly mitigated by the ocean’s absorption,” Namaka was saying. “However, this led to an increase in ocean acidification, and the trapping of heat by this greenhouse gas still led to significant increases in temperature. Warmer water holds less oxygen, as well, increasing anoxic zones on the ocean floor.”5
Kai was hardly listening. The constant fall of marine snow – remnants of organisms from surface ecosystems – began to thin.5 Her breath came faster, shallower. The tubeworms and mussels vanished.5 She was briefly enveloped in a pulsing group of jellyfish, and kicked desperately until she escaped into empty water – too-empty water.5 The fish she’d been watching had all but disappeared. Some, she knew, were simply migrating upwards to where there was more food and oxygen.5 But some would never be seen again.
The fluttering in her chest, the cramping in her stomach – was that the lack of oxygen? She was hanging in total darkness, as she had been at the start. Kai had learned about some of this in school, of course; the priders hadn’t been able to get the Great Extinction taken out of textbooks in her home state. Was this what they were trying to prevent? This panic, this guilt? Belatedly, she recalled that she hadn’t narrated any of what she’d seen. “Hey guys,” she whispered, “I’m still alive, don’t worry! I really hadn’t expected that to hit me as hard as it did, I guess. I didn’t –.” She took a deeper breath, seeing again the calligraphy of the octopus’s movements, the tropical exuberance of the hydrothermal vent gardens – “I didn’t think that I was getting so emotionally involved with a bunch of invertebrates, I guess.”
The darkness was beginning to dissolve. Her breath came easier as the water shifted from black, to midnight blue, to an aquamarine dawn. If there had been something unsettling about the deep waters, what surrounded her now was as familiar and known as the memory of a dream. She was swaying gently, cradled in a forest of kelp glowing amber in the sun’s rays. Kai brushed a strand of kelp out of her face, disturbing an inch-long snail with a brilliant coral center, and the grove of kelp was revealed to her in all its majesty.7 At least, that’s how she put it later for her followers; at that moment, she was speechless.
Bright orange and blue-speckled garibaldi fish flickered around the bases of the kelp grove.7 A sea lion glided past her, so close that she couldn’t resist putting out a hand and touching the silky fur; it looked at her with mournful, liquid eyes, then launched itself in pursuit of a silvery school of herring.7 Kai retreated deeper into the kelp when a leopard shark appeared, then yelped when she almost backed into a moray eel’s rock crevice.7
Namaka, apparently having noticed Kai’s lack of attention to the narration, had restricted herself to commenting on the delicate balance of the kelp ecosystem, and the aesthetic, tourism, and fishery benefits it provided to humans.
Kai knew she could simply ask Namaka to stop the numbers from ticking upwards. Instead, she gritted her teeth and gripped the harness’s straps until her knuckles turned white. She watched as the glorious kelp began to wilt, detach, and decompose; the remaining plants were mowed down by all-devouring purple urchins.8
She tried to kick one of the spiked monstrosities. It rolled for a meter, bumped up against the base of a kelp plant, then continued to feast. No more sea otters, sea lions, fish, grey whales – just empty water, barren rocks slimy with algae, and sea urchins.8
Her eyes were burning for some reason. She cleared her throat, tried to speak, cleared her throat again. “A glass of water?” Namaka’s voice sounded oddly cold and distant.
Kai nodded, and a glass appeared in her hand; she downed it, and the glass was withdrawn. “So,” she said, “I guess the right-wingers had a point in wanting to shut the museum down, because it definitely makes me feel… rotten. Um. Not that I’m blaming people whose ancestors were in the industry. I don’t want to get political, but the coalies are a little paranoid.
“Anyway. I just mean – my great-grandparents weren’t involved in the fossil-fuel industry, but they used them. Everyone did. I saw the videos from their road trips. They had a gas stove. Their houses – their vacation house and their normal one – were hooked up to a coal plant. Not that I feel guilty,” she added. “I shouldn’t. It wasn’t my fault. But it sucks to realize that it was your relatives’. People just like you. They let this happen, and you’re stuck trying to fix it.”
The scene was changing again. The light grew dimmer again, the water colder and deeper. “Wait,” Kai called out.
The transition paused.
“Yes?” Namaka asked.
“Is this – the last exhibit?”
“How many are left? What are they?”
“This is an exhibit on the polar ocean. The next is on mangrove forests. Then there is the Great Barrier Reef, the open ocean, an estuary, intertidal zones, and the coral reefs of Hawai’i.”
“Could you… skip to the Hawai’i one?”
Now the light grew brighter, the water warmer and shallower. Kai realized her grip on the harness straps hadn’t loosened, and she didn’t feel like changing it. “This is the moment of truth, guys,” she said, though her voice wasn’t chipper enough for it to come out right. “I’ll be seeing what my family saw when they first moved to Hawai’i. I guess it’s fitting that it’s the last exhibit, since the museum is on the Big Island…”
Her eyes were dazzled. Iridescent parrotfish; yellow-striped goatfish; a sleek, gray Trumpetfish; a tiny tri-colored cleaner wrasse.9 Looking up she saw a pod of spinner dolphins, whistling and calling to one another, herding a school of fish and darting in to snap at them.9 A monk seal with its calf nosed up against her, making her giggle.
A school of convict-striped moorish idols briefly obscured her vision.9 When they passed, the pride of her islands emerged from a crevice in a rock. A small dorsal fin, a black band going from its eyes to the back on a golden background, pale white on the bottom.9
“Humhumunukunukuapua’a,” she said, just to prove that she could.
Much too quickly, the numbers started to change again. Kai squeezed her eyes shut, until Namaka’s narration reminded her that she had a duty to watch and report back to her followers.
Once again, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased, the temperature rose until she started to sweat, the pH fell. The acidification caused seashells to dissolve before her eyes, like sugar cubes placed in water.10 As the water grew warmer, the corals began to reject their symbiotic algae, their rich browns and reds turning to bleached white.10 Small crabs, lacking the food that had supported them, abandoned the corals first; sharks, turtles, flatworms, fish, shrimp disappeared as the corals began to break down and the water grew turbid. 11
“June 19, 2083,” Namaka was saying, “the last monk seal dies off the coast of Kauai’i. Attempts to clone them from DNA stored at the University of Hawai’i have been unsuccessful to this date.”
Kai stared blankly at the wasteland of coral rubble and algae slime.11 It was getting blurrier. Why? She lifted a hand to her eyes and wasn’t surprised to feel dampness there.
The apocalyptic vision disappeared, and she was back in an empty white room with glowing walls. The harness was lowered to the floor, and Kai unbuckled herself. She had to lean against a wall to stop her legs from trembling.
She was startled when Namaka spoke again. “Please exit through the door to your left.” It wasn’t the one Kai had come through. She entered a dimly lit corridor. She tried to come up with something witty to say for her followers and couldn’t, and settled instead for looking at her feet.
Perhaps that was why she gasped when she finally looked up. For a minute she thought she’d entered another VR room. Then she realized she was looking through a floor-to-ceiling glass window, and that she was below the surface of the ocean.
Namaka was speaking again. “The Great Extinction was the tragedy of the 21st century, and it is our duty never to forget the damage that we wrought on the Earth – in the oceans and otherwise. However, the end of the century brought a bittersweet victory, too.
“The International Coalition Against Climate Change had not been able to stop droughts, floods, collapsing ecosystems, and sea-level rises.6 But this union of citizens and scientists across the globe did allow the creation of the New Climate Regime. This combination of carbon withdrawal and storage technologies, renewable power sources, and lifestyle changes by ordinary people like you allowed global warming to be halted and reversed. 12,13 Today, global temperatures match those of the pre-industrial earth.
“Though the so-called Great Extinction never reached the tipping point that would make it a true mass extinction, the genocidal impacts of our actions cannot be understated.14 Nevertheless, enough biodiversity was retained – in labs and in the wild – that ecosystems could begin reestablishing themselves, with our help. Please consider donating to the Ocean Memorial Museum to fund the research and public information campaigns that allow the restoration of habitats like the one you see before you. Thank you, and have a nice day.”
Kai was staring raptly through the glass. Coral reefs grown in laboratories half a world away. Fish that had never lived in Hawaii, but had survived the Great Extinction event, as colorful and varied as the ones she’d just seen. A spiny dogfish shark.
She turned to walk slowly up the stairs leading out of the exhibit. For the next week, she’d be editing the audio material she had from today, and any visual material the museum agreed to release. She probably should have stayed for all the exhibits. How long had it been since she’d last cried? A long time, certainly. How would she present it? She was worried she’d just scare people away. They were riled up enough already.
Those are the people who need this the most, Kai told herself, the ones that refuse to accept any burden of guilt. They need to feel what I felt.
She couldn’t scare them away. What had she felt? Guilt, sort of. Sadness. Loss. Grief? Yet that last exhibit softened the blow. We can’t undo it, only remake it.
She’d figure it out. She was a netstar, after all.
Smile, she told herself. Right before she opened the door to step into a screaming, cheering crowd, she turned around to glance back at the experimental ecosystem. A single humhumunukunukuapua’a flitted past where she’d been standing a moment ago.
- Thurber, A. R, et al. “Ecosystem Function and Services Provided by the Deep Sea.” Biogeosciences Discussions, vol. 10, no. 11, 2013, pp. 18193–18240., doi:10.5194/bgd-10-18193-2013.
- Pappas, Stephanie. “Deepest Hydrothermal Vents Teem With Strange Shrimp.” LiveScience, Purch, 10 Jan. 2012.
- Brazil, Rachel. “Hydrothermal Vents and the Origins of Life.” Chemistry World, Royal Society of Chemistry, 16 Apr. 2017.
- “The Deep Sea ~ Ocean biology, Marine life, Sea creatures, Marine conservation… ~MarineBio.org”. MarineBio Conservation Society. Web. Dr. Paul Yancey/MarineBio. Updated 29 December 2011.
- Sweetman, Andrew K, et al. “Major Impacts of Climate Change on Deep-Sea Benthic Ecosystems.” Elementa, University of California Press.
- “Climate Change and Disasters”, UNHCR, UNHCR.
- “Kelp Forests.” Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.
- Bland, Alastair. “As Oceans Warm, the World’s Kelp Forests Begin to Disappear.” Yale E360, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 20 Nov. 2017
- “Hawaii Fish & Marine Wildlife Information.” Boss Frog’s, Boss Frog’s Vacation Network
- Baker, Andrew C. “Climate Change and Coral Reef Bleaching: An Ecological Assessment of Long-Term Impacts, Recovery Trends and Future Outlook.” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, vol. 80, no. 4, 4 Sept. 2008, pp. 435–471., doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2008.09.003.
- Pandolfi, J. M. “ECOLOGY: Enhanced: Are U.S. Coral Reefs on the Slippery Slope to Slime?” Science, vol. 307, no. 5716, 18 Mar. 2005, pp. 1725–1726., doi:10.1126/science.1104258.
- “Global Warming Solutions: Reduce Emissions.” Union of Concerned Scientists, Union of Concerned Scientists
- “Carbon Capture and Storage: Our Work.” International Energy Agency, OECD/IEA
- Brannen, Peter. “Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 June 2017
Climate change scares me because it makes me feel helpless. After 18 years of seeing articles about tipping points, event horizons, and the rigidity of governmental and societal norms, it can be hard to believe that a single person can do anything to stop climate change. So it made sense for me to put Kai – the main character of my sci-fi story – in a situation where she'd be helpless: literally strapped into a harness, watching climate change destroy the oceans commemorated by the Ocean Memorial Museum, waiting for a predetermined outcome. That's what climate change makes me feel like when I'm at my worst. Some effects of climate change have already started to dramatically change the world as we know it, and it's too late to go back to the way it was before. What I do know, though, is that we still have the chance to make it better. Even in Kai's world, humanity managed to get it together enough to prevent a full-blown mass extinction from taking place. If I change myself – go vegetarian, start walking and biking instead of driving, buy solar panels – I might be able to start changing the people around me, too. At the end of the day, I can do what Kai did, and unstrap myself from the harness. I can go out there, and change people's minds. That way, the Ocean Memorial Museum will remain a thing of fiction.