One night after all the TIGHARs had gone to bed, I was tiptoeing out to the stern when I stumbled over something – it was ROV’s tether, lying all coiled up alongside the cabin. It’s a huge long tether, because it has to carry all the wires and things that control where he goes and that bring photos and sonar images back up to Jesse.
“Watch the tether!” ROV grumbled.
“Sorry,” I said; “I didn’t see it, there in the dark.”
“Hah!” he said, and switched on one of the bright LED lights he uses to see and take pictures underwater. I would have been blinded if I’d had eyeballs, but luckily I don’t. Anyhow, there was the tether.
“So,” he said, “I was thinking of going for a dive. Want to come along?”
“Don’t you need Jesse?”
He laughed his buzzing, electronic laugh. “Naw, I let him think I need him, so he’ll keep me plugged in, but I can do whatever I want, all by myself. Come on!”
So I grabbed hold of him – unlike AUV, ROV is a little square guy – and he slipped over the side.
“I don’t know; how deep CAN you go?”
“300 meters. That’s about a thousand feet. Want to go?”
So down we plunged into the dark water, which got steadily darker as we sank. We were dropping right down along the face of the reef – it was like a huge cliff, and we were floating down its front. A shark swam up and looked me in the face, shook his head and swam away. We dropped down through a whole school of tuna, all slivery and flashing. We were pretty deep when a little skinny guy came swimming up with a big smile on his face.
“Hey, Sheel,” ROV said.
“Hey, Rovie,” Sheel squeeked. I’d never heard ROV called Rovie, but the name kind of fit him.
“We call him Sheel”, Rovie explained, “because he’s shaped like an eel but has a head like a shark. Nobody topside” (he meant on the surface) “had seen one until I ran into him down here.”
“Are you all alone, then, Sheel?” I asked, feeling kind of sorry for him.
“Oh no, there are lots of us, but mostly we live deeper down. I just come up here now and then to see the sights.”
“You have a family down there?”
“Sure, five wives and 4,280 chum. Want to visit? We have a really neat house.”
ROV shook himself. “Sorry,” he said, “but we’re as deep as I can go. Beyond this the pressure gets too great; I’d be smushed.”
“How about your bony friend?”
“Oh, he’d be OK, but he has no way to get down and up again.”
“No problem!” Sheel swam off into the darkness, but pretty soon he was back, and there was somebody really big with him. I mean REALLY big – as big as the Nai’a, or maybe bigger.
“This,” said Sheel, “is my friend Ginger. She’s a whale.”
“Ginger Whale,” I said, thinking I’d heard her name before. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Mister Skeleton.” She talked in a funny combination of deep hums and high-pitched squeaks, kind of musical.
“Actually, my name’s Gerald.”
“Well, I’m glad to know you, Gerald. So you want to see Sheel’s palace, huh?”
“Uh – yes, sure, I’d love to. But it’s awfully dark down there…..
“No problem!” buzzed Ginger and Sheel together. “Well just gather some phosphorescent plankton!” And they swam off together and came back with globs and globs of glowing plankton on their heads.
“Now,” Ginger boomed, “hop aboard.”
“I’ll see you topside,” said Rovie, and disappeared toward the surface.
I had to hang on tight to Ginger’s back – luckily it was all rough, like sandpaper, and there was a harpoon sticking out of it that I could use like a handle. She dove straight down.
“Nice of you to have this handhold,” I gasped, short of breath because she was going so fast.
“Not my choice. Stuck in me by some jerk from Japan. Claimed he was doing research. Research, my blubber! Anyway, I got away, and it stopped hurting after awhile. Ah, there’s Sheel’s place.”
The cliff-like face of the reef had begun to level out; the slope had gotten a lot more gentle, and there were lots of rocks and boulders lying around that had tumbled down the slope and come to rest on the bottom. But Ginger – following Sheel – was making for something different. It was a long, silver-gray thing shaped kind of like a big tube, with some clear windows on the end, all draped in seaweed. There was some kind of a flat extension off to one side, with something round on it. But all of a sudden there were hundreds of little sheels bursting out of the thing, swimming all around us, bubbling: “Daddy! Daddy!” Sheel called them his chum, and he tried to introduce us all, but there were really too many, so he got me to slide off Ginger’s back and come into his house. There was actually a door in the side that I could walk – well, swim – right through.
Inside, the place was lighted with plankton. Up behind the windows n the front there were seats kind of like the ones in the salon aboard Nai’a, and a lot of instruments kind of like on the bridge. I rubbed off the scum that coated one of them. There was a sign on it; it said “Altitude.”
Suddenly I realized.
“This is an airplane!” I said.
“What’s that?” Sheel asked.
“Uh… well… “ How could I explain flying in the air to somebody who’d never even seen the surface of the sea? “Uh… well, it’s a kind of a ship thing…. Uh, how long has it been here?”
“Oh forever, Sheel said,” but Ginger, hovering outside the window, shook her great head.
“No, not forever,” she said. “I remember, when I was just a calf, there was a big storm on the surface and your house came sliding down from up above. Just like those fishing boats and things that fall out of the surface from time to time.”
I was thinking as fast as my empty skull would allow. “And – uh, about how old are you, Ginger, in human years?”
“I don’t know, what’s a human year?”
I was trying to figure this out, when she went on.
“I know I’ve been on 75 migration cycles, if that helps.”
It did, because I know – I think Mom or Dad told me, or maybe it was you, Noah – that lots of whales migrate every year over great parts of the world. So if Ginger had made 75 migration cycles, she was about 75 years old, and if she’d been a calf when this airplane slid down the reef……
“This,” I said, “must be Amelia Earhart’s airplane!”
“It’s my house!” said Sheel, rather unhappily, and all his chum chimed in: “my house! My house!”
“Oh sure,” I said; “I’m sorry. It USED to be Miss Earhart’s airplane, but she doesn’t need it any more and it’s just great that it’s your house. Thanks so much for showing it to me.”
“Say, Gerald,” Ginger bubbled, “I’m about out of air here. You ready to surface?”
And in less time than it takes to tell it, Ginger was on the surface, next to the Naia’s dive platform, letting me off, and I was trying to figure out how to tell Jesse and John and Walt that the airplane they were looking for was just out of their reach. Actually, I was also thinking that maybe I wouldn’t tell them, because I didn’t want them or the other TIGHAR’s hooking onto Sheel’s home and dragging it to the surface. Sheel really likes that airplane, and so do all his chum. So I haven’t told anyone. Except you guys, of course.
Where Sheel Lives