In 2009, after more than ten years in the making, James Cameron released his ground-breaking and visually spectacular epic Avatar. In it, the fictitious world of Pandora brings to life a world which is seemingly far beyond its viewers wildest dreams, a world of psychedelic colour, extraordinary creatures and gentle human-like inhabitants known as the Na’vi.
Post avatar depression
It is difficult to put in to words the frustration I felt at that time, when stories were circulating about the condition which was later coined “post avatar depression,” the state in which people had become depressed as they came to terms with the fact that Pandora was not real and they would never be a part of the Na’vi population.
It is no secret that Cameron is a deep sea enthusiast and indeed is one of the very few people to have travelled to the deepest part of the sea just a few years after the release of Avatar. (The deepest part of our ocean is called Challenger Deep and is -10,971m below sea level. Only 3 people have been there including Cameron.) Although this is an experience the vast majority of us will never be lucky enough to have, it does not take more than one episode of Blue Planet to see where Cameron took his inspiration for avatar from.
Life beneath the ocean
As a lifelong nature enthusiast, I consider myself to be something of a generalist in many ways. Nature can do no wrong in my eyes. I am in awe of trees and how they work in perfect symbiosis. With a sprawling network of fungus to grow stronger and communicate, they send nutrients to the weaker members of the family, warning each other of impending danger and even receiving words of wisdom from their “mother tree.” I am forever amazed by the ingenious tricks plants have evolved to coerce insects into pollinating them with shrewd mimicry which has been known to fool even the most eagle-eyed botanist. I am a hopeless romantic for the tales of courtship, loyalty and compassion in some animal groups and eternally entertained by the scandalous tales of deceit, adultery and infidelity in others.
However, despite my deep fascination with all life on land, it is in the life hidden away beneath the ocean waves on which I believe Mother Nature has truly set herself free to explore the wildest reaches of her imagination, the greatest extent of her extraordinary artistry and the full spectrum of colours on her palette.
Far beneath the surface of the waves lies the world in which it is now believed that all life began. For many years it was a world that was thought of as barren, untouchable and devoid of life. A general opinion that persisted for decades until of course, we explored deeper. It was not until 1977 when man first saw what really awaited us in this desolate world. The discovery was of towering chimneys of superheated water, erupting out of the earth’s crust thousands of feet below the surface, untouched by the sunlight. A world of perpetual darkness in which life not only survived but thrived. In this world, solar power was not a vital precursor for life as we had always believed. Our understanding of nature changed.
Life creates its energy
Down here, life creates its energy from the chemicals in the water in a process known as chemosynthesis. A process which has bought to life animals such as the scaly-foot snail who builds not only a shell but an entire suit of armour from metal and to the yeti crab who farms his own food by waving his claws in the toxic torrents, feeding the bacteria which grow on them for his own consumption.
In this world, as in Pandora, the creation of dazzling light displays is not only possible but the norm. An estimated 80% of marine creatures make their own light through a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence (watch this short film to be amazed by the world of bioluminescence). When the sun goes down, or the water becomes too deep for light to penetrate, the dark ocean is illuminated by twinkling flashes and bursts of bright blue light in a visual cacophony of chatter amongst the aliens of the deep.
In this world occurs one of the greatest yet least known migrations of the natural world. Every night when the sun sets a mass of plankton and sea creatures wriggle and flap their way to the surface to feed before descending into the safety of the depths as the sun rises. They move in such mass that when sonar readings first discovered the phenomenon it was mistaken for the sea floor, mystifying sonar operators with its daily vertical movement. This tiny world of plankton goes about its imperative daily business largely undetected, the unsung heroes of planet Earth, until a mere droplet of water is placed under a microscope, revealing a bustling metropolis the diversity of which can rival even the most pristine coral reef. From jellyfish with rainbow lights dancing across them to glistening globules of algae that wouldn’t look out of place in a photograph taken of a distant galaxy.
And to the shallow waters, where vividly fluorescing corals build vast reefs which pulsate with life designed to fill every niche. Here, a myriad of defence mechanisms has been adopted to ensure survival, from potent venoms to ingenious weaponry. Lurking in sandy burrows on the sea floor, the iridescent multicoloured mantis shrimp with eyes that can see ten times more colour than humans and claws that can punch through glass. Gliding undetected across the rocks, exotic sea slugs no larger than your thumbnail, flaunting all at once masterfully painted patterns and cryptic camouflage. Unassuming blobs known as sea squirts, appearing to the untrained eye as nothing more than a simple gelatinous mass, but known to the educated eye as one of our earliest ancestors and earliest examples of one of the greatest evolutionary advances we know, the spinal cord.
If you can bear to take your eyes off the mesmerising miniatures that colonise the reefs long enough to look around you, you might be lucky enough to see that these tropical warm waters also play host to the Goliath’s and the nomads of the ocean. Sea turtles stop off in for a once-over at the cleaning station, devoted Humpback whales travel thousands of miles to give birth to their precious calves in the safety of the reef, and sharks drop by to indulge in the rich buffet of food before continuing on their open ocean voyages
The kelp and mangrove forests, where blue meets green and a unique community of animals find shelter among the murky maze of tree roots or dart among the towering fronds of seaweed as they stretch towards the sun. A busy hum of pedestrian life bustles around this green city from shoals of silvery fish navigating the skyscrapers of kelp in perfect unison down to crowds of spiky sea urchins hungrily grazing their way through the nutrient-rich algae.
So why do I love the ocean?
I could go on. But it is this world, more than any other place on planet earth, which I believe validates one of my favourite quotes from Pablo Picasso; “Everything you can imagine is real.” In my humble opinion, not even the greatest science fiction writer or movie director can rival mother earth in her creativity and flair.
I do not like to believe that Cameron created the world of Pandora as a place that people yearn to be a part of. I like to believe he created it to remind us what we have right here on earth. I like to believe the Na’vi, with their intrinsic love and respect for their home planet, were created as a gentle nudge to remind us all of the connections we are missing out on as we get caught up in the rat race of life, or the opportunities we should be grabbing with both hands to preserve this world of unimaginable wonder we call home. I like to believe it was created to remind us to look up, or down, once in a while and realise that Pandora is not a place based on fiction and whimsical imagination, but one based on a very real place, a place that we are lucky enough to be a part of, if we only took the time to notice.