An extract from Rob Magnuson Smith’s third novel Seaweed Rising, published by Sandstone Press in November 2023.
The divisions onboard the Farolita soon became explicit. The crew looked after ship maintenance, navigation, and the safety of the expedition. The passengers—an international consortium of seaweed executives—concerned themselves with flow charts, algae distribution surveys and financial forecasts. Manfred was the alien. A research case, a former suicide partially rehabilitated as rare species collector, a nobody no passengers wanted at their table for meals.
It had been over a week at sea, and the captain had not yet appeared. He stayed in his cabin under the prow, tucked away in the darkest chamber of the ship with his porthole facing north. Stories had circulated from previous journeys—how nobody had ever laid eyes on the man, even as they attested to his navigational skills, knowledge of pack ice, and uncanny anticipation of the worst vicissitudes of the Arctic Ocean.
In his quarters, it was said, were rare geological maps, nautical charts and personal logbooks from the early explorers. He had studied plate tectonics and considered himself an expert in the ways ocean basins had formed by the transference of heat. He also tracked so-called ‘Arctic vibrations’—a little understood phenomenon caused by ripples and fluctuations of ice sheets, possibly caused by regular twelve to fourteen-year cycles in climate and water temperature, roughly corresponding to the moon’s intersection with the Earth’s orbit around the sun.
Each night, the second mate Karl could be seen taking the captain his dinner, along with a freshly caught fish in a bucket. Karl was a tall, broad-shouldered German who had personally seen thousands swept out to sea in the 2004 tsunamis. While on holiday in Thailand, he’d climbed the nearest palm tree as the first wave approached. Though himself a captain and trained medic, he’d been helpless to intervene as family after family perished beneath his feet. On the Farolita he often paused as he walked the deck, and placed his hands on the railing as if to calm himself.
Everyone onboard tracked Karl’s nightly fish catch for presentation beneath the prow. The captain opened its stomach, sifted through its last meals. He made precise entries on what he found and mapped them against the lunar cycle. A whale could be in Norwegian waters one week and in Russian seas the next, only to surface off the coast of Canada a week later—and nobody, not even the most advanced marine biologists, knew why. The captain evidently had his own theories. He was rumoured to be steering the Farolita according to the stomach contents of these randomly caught fish.
Some onboard openly called this quackery. Yet nobody denied that the captain consistently reached the northernmost islands of Svalbard, often on the very day he’d predicted. He had reached the shores of uncharted islands using his so-called ‘vibrational techniques’, and a number of beaches and harbours had been named after him. For years he had attracted a shoal of ships in his periphery, like salmon following the feedings of a whale. The window for harvesting seaweeds in the Arctic had arrived, and multiple expeditions were out staking claims.
The Farolita’s captain, it was said, used each expedition to fund his own secret research. He kept supplementary logs of annual snowfall, bear trappers’ diaries and fur trading records going back to the eighteenth century. He was fascinated with how digestion worked during the last moments of life. On each expedition, he left one passenger behind, a pre-assigned volunteer for slow, solitary death. Scattered in various huts and caves were the remains of his former guinea pigs, each of whom later had their stomachs dissected for examination of their final meals.
The Farolita continued to the northernmost regions of Svalbard. It was a cold and empty landscape. While the others stayed in their cabins, Manfred stood up on deck keeping a lookout for seaweeds. Occasionally he heard moans from below. At dinner, it had been announced that the depth finder had registered 18,000 feet—a piece of data that troubled those with vertigo. Down at the bottom of the globe, the Antarctic was a continent surrounded by oceans—while up in the Arctic, the Farolita traversed an ocean surrounded by continents. Across the horizon, jagged mountains loomed over vast stretches of snow. These mountains had been shaped by the slashing ocean waves and competed with each other for their resemblance to daggers. The Farolita might have been crossing an inverted range of the Himalayas, where an aquatic avalanche could rise up and entomb them forever. They’d travelled further north than the heralded frost giants, the Icelandic sea kings who first navigated Svalbard and waited out the deadly headwinds by listening to singing Norns flying overhead in swans’ dresses.
Maybe it was being in motion above the waves, or the remoteness. Manfred had never felt calmer. He always knew he would be like seaweeds. He would both anticipate and respond to changes in his environment. What he most anticipated was a future with Nora. A job, a family. An allocation of happiness. Their relationship had grown because of their mutual love of seaweeds, and would last in spite of them.
While the lab techs were analysing rock samples from the UUV’s survey of the seabed, land was sighted. The captain had found an uncharted island on the outer edge of their allowable search area. Based on his fish dissections, this place offered a high possibility of seaweeds. It might even be like one of the guano islands of Ecuador—a concentrated source of nutrients from deep geological time, containing the richest possible fertilizer, just waiting to be scraped off and sold at enormous profit.
The passengers lined the railings as they neared the round, black rock. They studied the emerging shoreline through their binoculars. The weather cleared, and they saw that this island wasn’t black after all. It was brown above, and reddish green below. They dropped buckets in the water and collected straggling fronds, broken blades among the floating tangles of fish netting and driftwood.
Gradually the island defined itself further. It hovered at a promising confluence of fjords and ocean channels. It seemed to come floating toward them like an egg on an underwater nest. There was even a small beach. Through his binoculars Manfred spotted blades along the rocks that looked suspiciously like kelp.
One of the American passengers, a man who represented the funding body for the expedition, didn’t want to wait any longer. He requested a targeted shore landing immediately. It was low tide, and the timing optimal for sample collection.
The guides went first in the Zodiac. They brought the ship’s dog and scouted for traces of polar bears. A little later, they radioed back the all-clear.
Manfred boarded the Zodiac with the first landing party. In his Wellingtons, clutching his seaweed identification guide, wooden press and collection bucket, he huddled next to the others—the harvesting executives, the foot soldiers of dulse, the cousins of carrageenan and kelp. Their watery eyes tracked him with suspicion.
Karl sped off. They went slicing through floating chunks of broken ice. Suddenly, he cut the motor. They were only halfway to the island, but he let the boat drift in the freezing blue water. It was because of the Dabberlocks. The seaweeds surrounded them—thick bobbing browns, hastening toward the boat’s beams, as if steering precisely with their stipes and midribs. They seemed to wave up at them with their wrinkly blades.
Manfred didn’t like the look of them. They were climbers. He knew all too well that they could cling, grasp, take over in no time. He was glad that Karl took up the oars for the approach to the beach. Those Dabberlocks could jam a motor, foul an anchor, strand them without hesitation. Karl rowed safely through the worst of it, slowly and carefully breaking apart the tangled network of blades as if searching for faces from the tsunami.
Karl ran the Zodiac up onto the sand. The landing party went ashore and spread out. Manfred had already selected his survey area—three-hundred meters from the top of the shore to the sea. While the others took photos of specimens washed up on the beach, he waded straight into the icy shallows. He was after the ones still alive. He found harpoon weed, and a clutch of brown wireweed wakame hitchhiking on a few serrated wracks. Further up, he collected some sugar kelp.
Dark clouds gathered on the horizon. Manfred cut a few more specimens into his bucket and kept searching the shallows. A few translucent greens swayed in the water, still alive, anchored to the rocks. They were thinly branched, their filaments sparkling deep into his eyeballs. These greens were more than aware of their uniqueness. They occupied the most pristine tide pools on the planet.
The weather turned again. Fog and freezing rain rolled in, fast as thunder. The guides’ walkie-talkies crackled, and everyone in the landing party was ordered back into the Zodiac.
This time, Karl used the motor. They didn’t encounter any Dabberlocks. The water was suspiciously absent of any algae. As they neared the Farolita, Manfred noticed the heavy ship floated lower in the water. He suspected the most intrepid seaweeds had already climbed aboard.