The mythology of merman and mermaids have been quite prevalent in legends, so it’s hardly surprising that it also infiltrates modern day media. The likes of the films ‘Miranda’ (1948) and Madison in ‘Splash’ (1984) as a true mermaids siren looking for a breeding male stays pretty close to the traditional myth. The latter even has her tail change into legs out of water which adheres to the legends, although strictly speaking Madison is actually a shape-shifting silkie or selkie than a true mermaid, although it does explain how they procreate with humans.
Hybrid humans crossed with animals is quite common in mythology because you get the attributes of both. This jump in imagination and belief is only unusual in that there has never been anything like it in reality. If anything, it’s more a test of belief. With mermaids, it is thought that the likes of dugongs that popularised the mermaid belief. Looking at them, you would think mermaids would be pretty ugly and sailors drinking too much grog.
This didn’t stop water-breathers ending modern mythology like comicbooks. As Marvel Comics, right from their beginning in Marvel Comic # 1 (October, 1939), they also had their hybrid in Namor MacKenzie aka the Sub-Mariner, of royal blood to Atlantis. Unique to his own people and a virtual powerhouse equivalent to the Hulk in water, he was subjected to a secondary artificial mutation where he acquired ankle wings allowing him to fly at speed through the air, essentially mastering all the elements. In my youth, I wrote an article on how Marvel apply gravitons for both strength and flight that I really ought to revise and print here. Suffice to say, Namor’s wings are probably more for steering than levitation. Unlike DC Comics version, the true Atlanteans are blue-skinned making Namor and his cousin, Namorita, stand out like a sore thumbs.
Other than them, the Inhuman Triton, mutated by Terrigan mists, is a true amphibian, covered in scales and possesses gills and can’t live out of water for long. He wears a harness developed by Reed Richards that dispenses a water spray to keep his scales damp.
At National Periodicals/DC Comics they had both versions, true mermaids, Loris Lemaris, whom the Earth-One Superman dated for a while and the Atlanteans that Aquaman belongs to. Arthur Curry is actually a hybrid as his father was a true human and first appeared in ‘More Fun Comics # 73 (November 1941). Like at Marvel, they also prefer to make such hybrids of royal blood which no doubt saved them being treated as outcasts. That would suggest that the split in the sub-species hasn’t gotten too far removed although, as I will explain below, there would be a lot of physiological changes to live underwater without scuba gear. In recent years, Aquaman has appeared in cartoon and TV series.
Many years later, Dark Horse has the Mike Mignola creation Hell Boy and one of his colleagues Abraham ‘Abe’ Sapien is even more pronounced as a total water-breather, who has to wear a water mask on dry land.
Outside of them, SF has only very rarely played with the idea of mer-people. Probably the nearest are the silkies from AE Van Vogt’s ‘The Silkie’ (1969) as exemplified by Nat Cemp who has three body states: human, water-breather and space-farer and has to spend time in each.
Quite where ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’ (1954) relates to mankind is a little harder to say however, as with the above examples, can tolerate air for short periods.
When it comes to TV sourced creations, there aren’t that many examples. There is Doctor Raymond Aguila, as played by Burr DeBenning in Irwin Allen’s film ‘City Beneath The Sea’ (1971), biologically altered to be an amphibian, having no problems with the bends by switching between both environments. DeBenning’s dolphin swimming style was later used in ‘Man From Atlantis’ (1977-78) and had a guest appearance ‘The Death Scouts’, although swam normally underwater. The four 90 minute films are worth looking at than the thirteen episode series.
Let’s look at the star of the show himself, Mark Harris (actor Patrick Duffy) in a little more depth (sic). The second 90 minute film, ‘The Death Scouts’, where he meets two others similar to himself suggests that he isn’t human but an alien adapted to have something of a similar look to Homo sapiens as part of an invasion exploratory team, with him as a mediator between them and the humans. Although quite why they chose to pick a body for him and wipe his memory is a puzzle as you would want an ambassador to be favourable to your own people. The differences are significant though. Harris has gill-like tissue instead of lungs and can only breath out of water for a few hours before needing to submerge and isn’t a true amphibian but a water-breather. Although having webbed hands isn’t likely to enhance his speed, his physique provides strength and speed underwater faster than a dolphin. His irises expand to absorb more light underwater and presumably along with being happy at low depths with no problems with the bends. We are never given any real knowledge of his sonar capacities.
Anyway, bringing you up to speed on fictional variants, the real aim of this article is looking at how easy would it be to create an amphibious or true water-breather human starting out from a baseline human.
With so many different ways to go underwater, you are bound to ask why would you need a human equipped with gills and can live underwater? You would probably need more than one or it would be a lonely existence. As witnessed by our fascination with mermaids, the ability to swim underwater without scuba gear and the problems of the bends rising to the surface gives a couple good points. However, as shown below, you could only be one way and not amphibious. Considering how polluted the oceans are becoming, it might also enforce international co-operation in cleaning them up.
In the womb, a human foetus will go through a brief phase with gills, but these are external and would certainly not be practical if born that way simply because they would be damaged too easily. To be amphibious, one would have to both gills and lungs and one would have to have a complicated breathing system, more so to keep the gills aspect moist. In that respect, there are similarities to the problems of ‘Man From Atlantis’ where dehydration could be fatal.
So, let’s be less complicated and go for a human water-breather. If you think it’s just a matter of putting a gill implant in the neck to sieve oxygen out of the water, then this wouldn’t be practical. The units of dissolved oxygen per volume of water http://www.fondriest.com/environmental-measurements/parameters/water-quality/dissolved-oxygen/ are immense when you consider the size of a humanoid. To absorb sufficient diffused oxygen would mean you would be forever swimming which would mean resting and sleep would be a problem. You certainly wouldn’t want to swim below the level of marine plant life without holding your breath because there would be even less oxygen available. Ironically, this aquanaut would actually suffocate at such depths through lack of oxygen.
There is less dissolved oxygen in salt water than fresh water and, in either case, there is substantially less the warmer the water is. You might prefer a warmer water temperature to stop you losing body heat but the oxygen loss doesn’t really make up for it. You would also have to dive deeper as more pressure increases the oxygen level. It makes things a lot more complicated than just swimming around.
Gills with greater volume to pick out oxygen would then be essential. Having them neatly placed in the lung capacity on one hand sounds like a logical place but at the same time the worst place as well. Unlike normal breathing, where we can breathe shallow or deeply, for a water-breather of this type, he or she would have to exhale and inhale all the water each time. No wonder various versions are portrayed as being super-strong. They would need that just for regular respiration.
The real problem is water flow. From my perspective, it would make sense to have holes down the rib cage to let the water out and thus have a continual movement, providing the aquanaut keeps moving.
This does leave a problem with sleeping but a similar system to the cetaceans could be employed where half the brain sleeps at a time, leaving the body swimming to gather its needed diffused oxygen or at least stay in a fast moving stream of water.
Added to this there is an immense problem with being mammalian. Even if you don’t dive deep, the lower you descend the more you need to conserve heat because there is a real temperature drop. The cetacean family have a layer of protective blubber and although I doubt a humanoid would need something so thick, insulation would be a problem. This doesn’t mean that a form of diving suit couldn’t be worn for deep dives but why become an aquanaut when there are already a lot of other ways to negotiate underwater?
On top of this is how far can you see underwater? Even with eyes that can be adjusted to pick up as much light as possible, outside of you aren’t going to see much long distance. To use sonar organically, then parts of the brain would need stimulated to grow and that would mean an adjustment to the front of the skull as well ears to translate the sonar bleeps. In some respects, this might sound easier than I write because some blind people can interpret shapes by whistles as they walk so some sort of brain mechanism is already available. There is an ‘unfortunately’ in all of this. The ocean is hardly a quiet place https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsNWvc5e6lA and in some parts of the ocean, things could well be too noisy and you might only trust things close up.
Eating also creates its own problems. With humans, we have an epiglottis that covers the windpipe when we eat and the oesophagus when we breath so we don’t have cross-contamination. With the breathing technique suggested above, you could probably have an opportunity to bite and swallow but I doubt if you would be able to chew your food. That would mean you would need a decent set of biting teeth and a strong enough digestive system to digest a variety of marine food. As you’ll also be eating to feed a very hungry body, anything would be seen as a viable snack although I suspect you wouldn’t be a vegan as vegetable matter takes some time to digest. I’ll leave you to consider the problems of defecation and urination and the fact that you’ll be swimming in it.
The surgery or biological manipulation involved in doing such a transformation is already complicated enough. One could do some of this and allow an aquanaut a short time underwater sans scuba gear but it seems like a lot of effort to accomplish.
Logistically, it would probably make more sense to genetically engineer a chimera, possessing the qualities of a cetacean and a human but would it be practical to have a humanoid shape for other than coming ashore. Dolphins can swim up to 8.3mph underwater whereas a human, with or without scuba gear can’t compete. Even without and surfacing to get air, the humanoid body is really designed for land and isn’t particularly streamlined and two legs don’t have the same strength as a tail nor the ability to change direction as quickly. A pair of flaying arms doesn’t help very much neither. I haven’t even talked about ballast yet to stay down, although it the lung capacity is full of water, that might help although would need to vary to be practical at different depths.
Oxygen requirements differ somewhat for terrestrial humans but has some similarities. It takes some adjusting to higher altitudes where there is less oxygen to breath which is somewhat equivalent to real depth. To gather the necessary diffused oxygen would mean a lot more swimming and I doubt an aquanaut would be able to hold its breath for long. Deep sea free-dives without scuba gear tends to have said divers lungs shrink significantly and even they don’t stay down for longer than necessary. You wouldn’t want that situation with gills.
From all of the above, this process is not a simple matter and it would make more sense to create a species with human traits than the other way around.
OK, so that’s all the standard ways and problems. Time to get inventive and see what else can be done.
In many respects, there is enough oxygen in water, only its linked with hydrogen. Breaking that relationship isn’t difficult. It’s called hydrolysis and the yield is twice the oxygen to hydrogen, hence H2O. The real problem is what to do with the liberated gases. Oxygen to the much needed aquanaut but even underwater, letting that hydrogen loose could affect him or her, not to mention the ecology. Hydrogen would rise and depending on the quantity has the potential for being explosive on the surface.
However, there is potential for using it as a fuel to power up the aquanaut’s hydrolysis apparatus and up the amount of oxygen available and any other gadget he or she is carrying and as commented above, everything from keeping warm or even using a hydro-scooter to move underwater faster. Hydrogen is also a free radical is also chemically very active and can bond into various acids and salts. It would take some thought on various chemical combinations, mostly because of the need of storage and recycle, including any unused oxygen. It could also be used to absorb carbon dioxide into carbonic acid and then into other salts and also back into water rather than poison the aquanaut. As I said, there would have to be a lot more thought on the chemistry, as well as under deep water pressure, but such a device would surely be of more use. Also, underwater, buoyancy means other than bulk, weight isn’t a problem. The added bonus is that unlike a conventional scuba diver, the aquanaut using such a system can stay underwater for an indefinite period. Before you think such a means could be used in scuba diving, you must remember that conventional humans have a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen and proportionately less the deep they dive. An aquanaut does not have such a limitation so could take advantage of such a system.
Although an aquanaut is unlikely to swim underwater unaided like the ‘Man From Atlantis’, the provision with the right equipment reduces the need to make such a person a real super-human to survive.
Of course, one could always suggest using nanotechnology as a simpler way to do provide oxygen. After all, the oxygen could go directly into the blood stream and not necessitate needing gills or lungs. As pointed out above, you would still have to get rid of the hydrogen.
Nanotech is still very nascent and although once breakthroughs are made, things can develop rapidly, we are barely on that road yet. To think that we can solve all the problems of making an aquanaut that way is still like making a magic spell without knowing all the ingredients. Nice in theory but might not be practical when you have to take into account all of the other problems above.
This also brings us back full circle as to whether there are alien sentient water-breathers on other planets. Undoubtedly, yes. There’s enough planets for them to evolve. Our own cetaceans clearly demonstrate levels of intelligence and communication but equally they are unlikely to merge from the sea anytime soon. Our progress in technology developed from when we could control fire and conduct chemical experiments. You certainly wouldn’t want to play with the alkali metals like lithium, potassium and sodium in water because they react explosively with it. Such creatures would have to evolve to live on land, which they might not do if they have a balanced ecology. So the possibility of tentacled aliens also has a similar conclusion because to support the weight, they would need water to support the weight. We could have a situation like with David Brin’s ‘UpLift’ novel series where dolphins are supplied with equipment and brought to other worlds but it would be unlikely for them to do such a thing themselves. Whether you would want to place them in an alien ocean to examine the wildlife and habitat would bring its own dangers.
From an alien perspective, Earth would very much look like a water planet. We’ve seen that from our own probes looking back from Jupiter. We’ve seen other watery planets out there as well making it very hard to judge how much dry land they have, let alone whether evolution would have given them air-breathers. That might well be added to the list of why alien visitations might be low on any space-faring extra-terrestrial agenda.
It does seem like an awful lot of trouble to create a small tribe of aquanauts. More so from the practicability point of view. Outside of water-breathing and food resources, much of anything else they might need would still depend on the generosity of us land folk. In evolutionary terms, it might seem like a backward step. As an experiment to show we can change our form so much does show some possibilities but if you’re looking at the means to fly or even stay in space without a spacesuit, it would be easier to work towards those goals than this.
(c) GF Willmetts 2016
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