Whacky science

Salmon and Inland Fishing - Varanger.comI’ve just read Salmon fishing in the Yemen which should, I think, be compulsory reading for all scientific civil servants.  It was certainly compulsive reading, and very funny, with its descriptions of a whacky project to establish a North Atlantic salmon run in the Yemen desert, the inevitable political machinations that arose and the talk of big money.  Running through it all is a sad but funny story of a sterile relationship and a career obsessed woman for whom the glass ceiling is merely a skylight in her penthouse suite.  I charged through it in a couple of days and it set me thinking about strange projects I’ve been involved in over the years.

Suspend disbelief for a moment whilst I tell you that the Lost City of Atlantis lies just off the north coast of Ireland in Rathlin Sound.    I know this is true as I was asked to go looking for it in the early 1980s.  I was working as a marine biologist at the Ulster Museum at the time; we were carrying out a survey of the Northern Ireland coast and diving all the nooks and crannys we could find.  The Museum’s archaeology department was approached by a group from France, led by a woman psychic whose name now escapes me.  She claimed to have identified Rathlin Sound as the last resting place of Atlantis and had carried out some sort of survey there the previous year when they had glimpsed marble columns. 

Now, anyone who knows the north east corner of Ireland or even the southern tip of the Mull of Kintyre will appreciate that tides run past these headlands through the North Channel and into the Irish Sea at a great rate.  The water goes rip-roaring through the gap between Rathlin and Ballycastle at 7 or 8 knots and the seabed in consequence is covered with clean, mobile sand.  This was where she wanted us to go diving.  In those days we didn’t have GPS, AGDS, readily available side-scan sonar, drop down video or any of the other survey tools we take for granted these days.  This was going to be the proverbial needle in a haystack job.  But we did apparently have a pendant that swung over a map and, of course, visions.  So that was alright then.

You would think that an illustrious organisation like the Ulster Museum would dismiss a request like this out of hand but, if I remember correctly, she had some powerful people behind her and the backing of UNESCO.  Yes, really, UNESCO had given her money.  So we were persuaded to trail the boat up to Ballycastle early one Sunday morning and go find Atlantis.  I mean, what else would you do on a Sunday?

Dry suits on, boat in the water, kit assembled and we were ready to go.  But then – the psychic looked at me and said to the guys “Oo eez zis?” .  It was relatively normal in those days, as a woman in a dive team, to have people talk over me as though I didn’t exist.  Sigh.  “She’s one of the team” said my mates.  Note that I was still friends with them at this point.  “She cannot come.  We cannot ave a woman on ze boat.”  Apparently she wasn’t going out herself, as women and boats really don’t mix if you’re psychic.  Anyhow, the guys said “OK.  See you later” and off they went, leaving me standing on the quayside like an enraged banana. 

I didn’t care about Atlantis but I did care that my friends? colleagues?  dumped me without a murmur of protest.  It was weeks before I spoke to them again.  I still haven’t forgiven them.  Oh, and they didn’t ever find Atlantis in Rathlin Sound.  They should have asked me.  I could have told them  although I’m definitely not psychic.